Turning Summer Movies Into Games: Dos and Don'tsS

The video game industry has longed enjoyed riding on the coattails of Hollywood, turning summer blockbuster films into what should be easily profitable video game adaptations. But things don't always turn out as planned.

One famously disastrous movie-to-video game adaptation was Atari's hastily developed E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial based on the 1982 summer hit. Thrown together in less than two months, the game was unusually expensive to license at the time, but entrusted to essentially one man—programmer and designer Howard Scott Warshaw. E.T. was also an unqualified flop, selling less than half of its production run of 4 million copies.

On the other hand, there's GoldenEye 007, an atypical film to video game adaptation. Not only was the film a success, but the Nintendo 64 first-person shooter was met with critical acclaim and racked up 8 million units in sales. (True, GoldenEye wasn't a summer film, but it turned out to be a hell of a summer game.)

The video game industry has learned some lessons from the epic failure that was Atari's rapid-fire cash-in attempt with E.T., but it hasn't made the business immune from suffering the fall out of a cinematic bomb. So here are some helpful dos and don'ts, just in case you're hard at work on next summer's potential blockbusters.

Release Day And Date Or Die
"The financial risk of making a movie-based game is no different than making a game based on original IP," says Keith Boesky of Boesky & Company. His firm represents game developers, like Liquid Entertainment and Spark Unlimited, as well as holders of intellectual property, such as the Robert Ludlum estate and author Clive Barker. "The biggest threat is the scheduling."

Align your game with a film and you'll spend less on advertising, but the same on development costs, says Boesky.

"You lose something like 50% of your sales if you don't hit day and date; it's really substantial," says Matt Wolf of D20, a production company that creates and adapts intellectual property for video games.

"What makes it difficult for these movie games, is [they] don't have bargaining power," Wolf says. Instead of delaying movie-based games to ensure the quality is on par, developers will often be forced to cut features, keep a film's deleted set pieces in the game, or, worse, ship an E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and pray you can coast on the license. A bad Transformers: The Video Game or Iron Man will still sell to a Walmart shopper with blockbuster on the brain.

But if your game does manage to ship alongside the film, pray that the box office is good. Even though Starbreeze Studios' The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay was critically well received and shipped on time, the movie it was pegged to barely earned back its budget. Sales of the Xbox game were good enough to warrant a budget re-release, but sales of the PC version—which shipped months later—were far less impressive.

Don't Be Brash
One of the more recent industry catastrophes was that of Brash Entertainment, a publisher founded on the concept of releasing licensed games based on movie properties. It released three titles based on Alvin & the Chipmunks, Jumper, and Space Chimps before fizzling out. Some of the publisher's still-in-development projects for properties such as Saw and Night At The Museum have gone on to find new homes, while other aborted games have left Brash's smaller developers reeling.

Brash put all of its eggs in the same basket, a financially risky move for a handful of reasons.

"Profit margins are razor thin as the movie studios take a large cut and development costs always seem to extend over budget as the games release date is static and must coincide with the movie release," says Jesse Divnich, Director of Analyst Services at EEDAR. "Since the release date cannot be adjusted, any delays in production must be offset through overtime or additional man hours thrown on to the project."

Spread The Love
If you're going to release a video game based on a big Hollywood production, put it on as many platforms as possible. With maybe one exception.

"Movie based games tend to produce a lot of volume because they are made available on every platform," Divnich notes. "A game like Transformers was released on every major platform and even though no single platform will produce sales above 1 million units, combined they could produce sales well above 3 million."

"For this generation, your average movie branded game based on a summer blockbuster could bring in anywhere from 2 million to 4 million units or $90 to $160 million," Divnich estimates. Impressive numbers, but still down from the previous generation, when movie based games sometimes topped 6 million units. EA's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for example, moved some 10 million copies across its eight platforms.

The platforms that might not yet be worth developing movie games for are the digital ones—PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade and WiiWare.

"I don't know that it's a totally viable model for making money. If you look at some of the stats for PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade, they just don't seem to be making money," says Matt Wolf. "From a business standpoint, I don't know that downloadable games are totally viable yet... but my caveat is that it's still early."

Wolf may be right, but we don't have sales figures for two prominent summer movies turned digital download, Watchmen: The End Is Nigh and Star Trek: D-A-C, to test that claim.

If All Else Fails, Direct Your Way To DVD
The summertime release list for video games isn't typically as stuffed as the fall and holiday release list, meaning potentially less competition. So if you can release in the summer time, day and date with the theatrical release, do it. Failing that, wait for the DVD, as EA did with the video game release of Superman Returns and Warner Bros. is doing with the second episode of Watchmen: The End Is Nigh.

While risky, most of the spending in the U.S. happens during the fourth quarter of the year, a product of the video game industry following a "toy-based" model, according to Wolf, not a media-based model.

Last year, U.S. consumers spent $4.2 billion on video game software during the months of November and December, according to the NPD Group. The tally from June and July of 2008 was just $1.46 million. Some of that bigger slice could be yours.

Divnich sees one benefit from late year game releases based on films.

"Another benefit movie based games received, especially for summer blockbusters, is the holiday lift through the movies DVD sales," he points out. "Additional marketing of the DVD release and retail bundles that include a discount for purchasing the DVD and game help bump up sales exponentially compared to non-branded summer video games."

Optional: Make A Good Game
It's not required, but, please, make the game good. Some of us have to review this stuff.