Universal's 'Wanted' going mobile


Come June 27, Universal Pictures anticipates having a huge blockbuster on its hands with "Wanted" a fantasy-action-thriller with a megastar cast that includes Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman and Terence Stamp. Is that the sort of thing that can be successfully shoehorned onto a 2-inch-by-2-inch cell phone screen? Perhaps yes, perhaps no, but mobile game developer I-Play sure intends to try.

While there will be other versions of the game for various platforms, only the mobile version will be released "practically day-and-date with the movie." No specific date has been determined, however, because just two weeks ago the movie's opening was pushed back three months from March 28.

"Our goal is to release the game as close to the movie as possible to take advantage of all the great marketing that's happening around the film to help build awareness of the title across all platforms, not just mobile," explains Jeremy Laws, senior VP at Universal Digital Platforms Group.

The delay can only be a boon to the game designers at I-Play, giving them additional time to meet their goal of capturing the look and feel of Universal's big-screen release on a small-screen cell phone. It's a trick the U.K.-based developer has attempted multiple times before, having created four separate mobile games from Universal's 2001 actioner "The Fast and the Furious," and single adaptations of Warner Bros.' "Goodfellas" and 20th Century Fox's TV hit "24."

"We try to make the game follow the film script as much as we can but, obviously, we can't duplicate what can be done on larger platforms like the Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 3," notes Ben Klages, "but we can capture the essence of what makes the movie so exciting. I think 'digital snack' is the current buzzword." Klages is the producer of the "Wanted" game at I-Play.

Fortunately for Klages and his team, the movie shoot started in May, the same month game development began. That enabled Klages to work closely with Universal; to have access to preproduction material, scripts, and stills; and to receive input from director Timur Bekmambetov.

"We started out with a game design document that I-Play created and we reviewed," recalls Universal's Laws. "We gave them some feedback and then we moved on to looking at renderings of the game and then the actual gameplay levels. And so there was a lot of back and forth between I-Play and Universal. In this case, there was no style guide to give them, so we had to work closely with them to make certain the game had the same look and feel as the movie, not Mark Millar's graphic novel on which it was based which was considerably different. Nick Dale on my team was the one who signed off on everything, not the film's director who was off filming in Eastern Europe. It was Nick's job to make certain that if there were any major changes in the movie -- like the elimination of a major character -- that it was reflected in the game. Fortunately, that didn't happen with this particular project."

The film is about an apathetic nobody who is transformed into an unparalleled enforcer of justice. It's a complex tale involving secret societies and vengeance, but David Gosen believes I-Play has successfully turned it into what he calls "a one-thumb game."

Gosen, who is CEO and president of I-Play, says he's philosophically opposed to mobile games that only contortionists can play. "Just because you have a license that is a high-profile movie with a complex plot doesn't mean you can't make a game that is intuitive and easy to play," he explains. "The fact that it's taken us a huge amount of technical knowledge and expertise internally to create 'Wanted' should be almost irrelevant to the gamer."

What is more important, says Gosen, is that when gamers go to the "deck" of their cell phones to choose a game to play, they recognize this game because it has the same name as the blockbuster movie hit at local theatres.

Indeed, that is the key ingredient in how Gosen chooses licensed projects.

"We look at movies very carefully because you have to make sure you're backing a winner," he says. "Because the length of time that an unsuccessful movie stays at the boxoffice isn't very long and you need a lot of momentum behind your mobile games to drive it to success. In the case of 'Wanted,' we studied the story, the marketing plan, and the cast, and came to the conclusion that this will potentially be Universal's biggest blockbuster movie this coming year. It was hard to resist."

And yet, despite the all-star cast in the film, none of the players lent their voices or images to I-Play's mobile game as they often do on the more robust console versions of games based on movie licenses.

"Typically licensed mobile games don't include the actors because, well, on a 2-in. by 2-in. screen, it would be kind of wasted," says I-Play's Klages, who explains that a compact mobile game frequently features simpler production values "even though we have some really talented people on our team who know how to squeeze every bit they can out of the platform." He chose not to discuss the game's production budget.

"An action game like 'Wanted' may take longer to create than, say, a 'match three' puzzle game, but not significantly so," he says. It took his core team of nine developers approximately 3-1/2 months to develop the game -- just about the same amount of time as the movie shoot -- but then another five months to convert and port the game so it can be played on the 800-plus varieties of cell phones currently on the market." That, he says, is currently the biggest hurdle for makers of mobile games.

Despite the challenges, Universal's Laws sees licensed mobile games as the wave of the future, even though video game critics have been urging makers to develop new and original IP.

"Many of the top-tier mobile publishers -- even the ones who had sworn off licensed IP -- are coming back to it because they've learned that if the gamer doesn't recognize the IP on the cell phone deck, they don't buy it. You need a name and it certainly helps if that name has millions of dollars worth of marketing behind it. That's why they're coming to the movie and TV studios for licenses," he says.

"In my opinion, licensing is here to stay," Laws adds. "I mean, if a gamer has a choice between some unbranded racing game or a 'The Fast and the Furious' racing game, which one are they going to buy? Is there any doubt?"

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman is the former editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He has covered the games industry for more than a dozen years. His columns for The Hollywood Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.