The concept of games based on movies as we know it is coming to an end. Smartphone apps and intelligently designed productions about famous characters (like Batman: Arkham City) are displacing the market for cobbled-together blockbuster tie-ins on the consoles. Of course, few will become weepy when they hear that news. After 30 years of terrible commercial cash-ins, gamers are ready to move on.
From the beginning, movie-licensed titles established a reputation for being shoddily produced. The 1982 release E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600 is one of the earliest and most extreme examples of how the film-to-game process works. Atari, the game’s developer and publisher, finished negotiating for the movie’s rights in the summer of 1982 and left a single employee, designer Howard Scott Shaw, in charge of adapting E.T. in only five weeks to hit the holiday release window. The result is one of the most famously terrible experiences of all time.
“Movie licenses have faded in popularity,” Wedbush Securities research analyst Michael Pachter told GamesBeat in an email interview. “Poor quality hurt some licenses a lot.”
Meanwhile, Temple Run: Brave, a mash-up of the popular Temple Run game and the Disney Pixar movie Brave, has hit the number one spot on the iTunes App Store in 49 countries after going from concept to release in 100 days. Angry Birds Rio (a version of the phenomenon that ties in with the 20th Century Fox animated film Rio) has over 50 million downloads on the Google Play store, and Fruit Ninja: Puss in Boots has a 4-star rating with over 1,000 user reviews.
“The starting point is not: We have a movie; we must license a game. The starting point is: What are some really awesome apps on the App Store that we love and some great developers that we love?” Disney Mobile senior vice president and general manager Bart Decrem said in an interview with GamesBeat. “We’re a little less opportunistic.”
Being open to opportunity, however, is how Temple Run: Brave came to be. “We were actually not planning on doing an iPhone game for Brave,” Decrem said. “I had been talking to Keith Shepherd and Natalia Luckyanova [of Temple Run developer Imangi Studios]. I just love them. They’re great.” That conversation led to Imangi requesting to do something with Temple Run and Brave. “We said OK [to that idea] — let’s find out if we can do it and get it out in time for the movie.”
At that point, it was 100 days to the release of the film. This was discouraging to Shepherd and Luckyanova, the husband-and-wife pair who comprises most of Imangi Studios and who didn’t have the bandwidth to turnaround a new game in such a short time. Disney, ever resourceful, contracted Behaviour Interactive, the same studio that produced the console game, to develop the mobile app.
Brave: The Video Game for consoles has a middle-of-the-road rating of 70 on Metacritic. Temple Run: Brave’s 3.5 stars from user reviews in the App Store would also translate to a 70 in Metacritic math. The difference is that Temple Run: Brave is going for $.99 and the console Brave is priced at $39.99 on Amazon right now. For a fraction of the time and money it took to produce Brave: The Video Game, Disney released an app that consumers are responding to.
“On the App Store, what’s great is that we’re getting our games in front of millions of people,” Decrem said. “It really builds mindshare for the movie and the brand.”
A $.99 purchase on the consumer side can be easily forgiven if the product isn’t of the highest quality. It’s harder to meet a $40-level of expectation.
“The studio makes more money if the game supports the movie, and bad games don’t help,” Pachter said. “A crappy product hurts the underlying movie franchise.” Not that Brave: The Video Game is crappy, but it could be considered forgettable and next to a cheap app, it looks like a silly investment.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Brave: The Video Game — or any equivalent movie-licensed game — is an inherently poor business proposal. “Consumers respond well to good games, and console games usually sell more units and generate a lot more overall revenue than apps,” Pachter said. The trouble is that the negotiated deal between the movie studios and game publishers inhibits success.
“The licensor expects 10-20% of [the game’s] revenue, and publishers cut quality to keep profits higher,” Pachter continued. “As a result, most licensed games sell poorly, and everyone loses.”
Console games have a greater potential for profits than an iPhone app, but licensed console games have more strings attached. How do publishers solve this conundrum? It’s a riddle that developer Rocksteady solved when it created Batman: Arkham Asylum.
This Batman game wasn’t made to promote a film release. Rocksteady planned it from the beginning as a stand alone experience. Rather than adapt someone else’s idea for the character, Rocksteady was given a chance to do something all of their own.
“The future of licensed properties is movie-character games without a film tie-in, like Batman: Arkham City,” Pachter said. While Pachter may be wrong in calling Batman a “movie character,” I think his prediction is a safe bet.
Other publishers and developers are taking notice but failing to learn the real lessons from the recent Batman games. Activision’s The Amazing Spider-Man has many elements plucked from Batman: Arkham City, but the publisher timed its release to coincide with the new film’s theatrical debut. It’s a decent game because it follows the path blazed by the caped crusader, but Peter Parker’s game suffers from a lack of polish. Rocksteady was afforded the time to make exactly what they wanted to.
All aspects of traditional gaming should prepare for disruption. The Amazing Spider-Man and Brave: The Video Game are OK experiences, and that may have been fine a few years ago. It won’t be enough in this constantly changing landscape of inexpensive smartphone apps and truly inspired game-of-the-year contenders based on beloved characters.
Movie games aren’t going to disappear tomorrow. It’s a slow extinction by evolution. Developers and publishers have finally taken the time to figure out a more effective way to benefit from a relationship with a film or a character, and the ancient mold that Atari used with E.T. (and that has continued up to this day with Brave: The Video Game) will continue to look absurd compared to its more evolved counterparts.