Why most Video Games for Movies are bad

I was just reading about District 9 and why the director, Neil Blomkamp was concerned about making a video game.  Here’s the link:  http://www.digitalspy.com/gaming/news/a195643/blomkamp-unsure-about-district-9-game.html

The reason most Movie based Video Games are bad is because many game publishers believe they can be. Much as Uwe Boll was widely hated for making horrible (and they were horrible) movies about successful video games, most publishers commit the exact same offence.

Uwe Boll had a system, take a successful video game property, hopefully with a million-plus fan base, and make a movie as cheap as possible.  The reason this all went so bad is that Uwe didn’t care about the property or the fans of the titles.  Digging into the core promise of any title is hard, as is understanding the fan base and what appeals to them about the property.  Additionally, quality doesn’t appear on schedules, quality comes from creators who put something of themselves into what they do.  Uwe wanted to shoot a movie, get it to the theater, have the fans of the game show up and pay.  After that, he was just waiting to collect the paycheque and move on to the next thing.  The less money Uwe spends up front, the faster he gets to profit.  Luckily, the movie industry seems to have recently figured out that a good movie is a better investment.  Long-term you build a franchise that keeps the fans coming back.

The Game industry hasn’t got there yet.  Video game publishers are short-term focused businesses first and foremost, and they know the equation just as well as Uwe.  Since video game Directors lack the visibility of movie Directors, most people associate quality games with Publishers, not teams and individuals.  The truth is Modern Warfare 2 quality has little to do with Activision, other than providing patient capital, and a lot more to do with the Team behind it.  Jason West knows what the fans of the series want and he’s willing to work hard to make it happen.  Jason cares about delivering a great experience and it shows.  EA’s upcoming game Mass Effect 2 is going to be a great game, why?  EA very little to do with it.  You dig into Mass Effect 2 and you find a Director who loves what he is making in Casey Hudson.  You look around Casey and you see a team of very skilled individuals and they care about what they are building, they think about what the players are going to experience and what the promise of the title is.  The sad truth is, these people are pretty rare in the industry.  They have great skills, but little ego.  They put the player ahead of their own interests and the payoff is a great game.  They have a vision of what the final game can be and they are able to communicate that vision to the team.  After that it is all about constant communication, iteration, tuning of the Vision and trusting the skills of the people working on the title.

I’m not positive, but I’ll bet most movie video game deals get set up by business people at the movie studio and the publisher.  These guys don’t think about the quality of the team that will be working on the title, just like Uwe, they are thinking about time to market, cash invested and what percentage of the movie fan base will grab the title.  In many cases, if the publisher has a great Director and team they are working on the publishers own intellectual property anyway, so they pull together who they can, give them a ship date, a budget and a kick in the butt to get moving.  Now, I’ve never shot a movie, but I have Directed a video game, http://nwn.bioware.com/about/awards.html , so, I’m not sure if this is as true with movies, but with games, when you finish a hard push into the middle of production and you can finally see the whole project, you can finally see what you’ve got, warts and all.  This is the time when great games don’t look great at all.  In fact, they mostly look broken.  This is the most challenging time of development and it takes guts and vision to see the other side of the valley.  This is where a great Director and a great team really shine.  This is also when most publishers start clamping down hard trying to control costs and pull in the ship date.  Games are a commercial venture,as are movies, so this has to happen to some extent otherwise people would polish forever and never ship (see my other post on Window of Opportunity).  But this is where great games happen.

In my career I was lucky enough to work on a number of Dungeons and Dragons titles.  As a D&D fan I understood the core promise of D&D and I did everything in my power to realize the promise of the system.

If Mr. Blomkamp wants a great video game to fit with District 9 he should start by digging into the credits or some great games and looking for someone who he can collaborate with.  The next part of the equation would be some patient, creative capital.  By this I mean investors who would be willing to make the right call for the long term and create a great game, understanding this will likely mean a longer development cycle and higher costs.  The capital could come from a publisher or it could come from some other source.  If you add up the money from the last two Modern Warfare games, you get an idea of the potential of the space.  The third part of the equation is the team.  Teams are damn hard to build, good teams can take years to gel properly.  The team needs to be pulled together by the Director and it will take time, so again the need for patient capital and vision.  The rest is just execution, marketing and distribution.

My $0.02

-Trent

Office meetings

It is important to keep a few regularly scheduled meetings. I try to meet with these two at least a few times per week.
Meet Mr. 125 lb Muay Thai bag and Mr. Speedbag. We hold short, but intense sessions where a lot of points are sorted out.

Window of Opportunity

I recently read an article about Duke Nukem Forever (you can find the article here http://www.psychologyofgames.com/2009/12/30/duke-nukem-forever-escalating-commitment-and-chewing-bubblegum/).  It started me thinking about the window of opportunity for video game titles.  Every title is a mash of content, technology and design ideas.  At any given time there are a number of really talented teams all working in similar spaces, each with strengths and weaknesses.  The perceived challenge is to try and beat the other guys to market with a great title which outstrips the features currently on the market.  Sadly, new games are getting released all the time.  I’ve lost count how many times I’ve heard “But, XXX just came out and it had YYYY amazing feature, we need to have that.”  I’ve seen teams lose months, sometimes even years chasing features.  If you are closing in towards a shippable title and you know what the title is, what the key promise of the title is (what you expect of the experience) and what the fans are looking forward you should be able to look other games in the face and say,  nice work fellows, XXX is great, but that isn’t a core requirement for what we are doing.

In my career I spent a lot of time ranting against the “feature shotgun”, which is lumping a ton of features, all of average quality, into a title, to try and make it appeal to the broadest group possible.  To me, the “feature shotgun” leads to clumsy gameplay and an unfocused title.  Instead, figure out what matters most about your title and carry that to a high level of polish and I think you have a better game.

Reading the Duke story brought back way too many memories of runaway features.  Know your game, know what matters and when you have a fun game, ship it.  If you don’t, all your effort never existed.

-Trent