Don’t make video games out of movies

Before we start I do know all about Golden Eye, the exception that proves the rule. This was made by Rare at the height of their pomp yet ironically  by a very inexperienced team there. It sold over 8 million copies back in 1997 and is considered a seminal game in the development of video gaming as a media. But one success in 30 years of trying does not make video games spun off from films a good idea.

Compare and contrast Golden Eye with Avatar from Ubisoft, this has turned out to be a very damp squib which is very rare from Ubisoft, who are perhaps the best performing publisher in this generation of game consoles. Yet it is based on what is already one of the highest grossing films of all time. And they did everything right. But still they would have done better commercially if they had used their resources to produce a game from one of their existing properties.

So why do games made from films do so badly?

  • Films, like the books they are so often derived from, are sequential media. One frame follows the next in an unbroken sequence from beginning to end. This sequence is used to tell a story, usually in the time proven three act structure. Games however are non sequential and often don’t tell a story. Instead the best games allow the player enormous latitude to do what they want, when they want. The most non linear games are called sandbox games, Elite being one of the all time classics and Grand Theft Auto being a massively successful current franchise.
  • The film industry sees video games purely as just another form of merchandise for the film and another income stream. Their priority is getting people into movie theatres and getting them to buy DVDs. They may pay lip service to video games but the reality is that their concern is secondary at best. In fact the film company should be paying the game publisher to make the game, not vice versa as it is now. The game is valuable marketing for the film.
  • Films are not interactive, you sit down and get comfortable and then the film is imposed on you, you have no influence whatsoever over events. Video games are the exact opposite, they are very highly interactive, the player directly influences events on screen. So one is a passive media, the other is an active media. Also films are totally lacking of the fundamental mechanism of games where the player is rewarded for their success.
  • Perceptions. Because of its history, star structure and ubiquitous marketing the film industry is perceived as being bigger and more important than the video game industry. It isn’t. The biggest grossing first week of an entertainment property was a game, Modern Warfare 2, the second biggest was also a game, Grand Theft Auto IV. The biggest games now do half a billion dollars in their first week. And Modern Warfare 2 has already gone on to gross over a billion dollars, something that only 5 films have ever managed to do. World of Warcraft has outgrossed every film in history.
  • Huge difference in development timetables and philosophy. A film spends a long time in pre and post production. Actually shooting the footage is immensely expensive for every day, so is compressed into as short a timeframe as possible. Mainstream console games contain vastly more human labour than films do. A large and highly skilled team will spend two years or more working long hours to generate the content. There is (wrongly) very little pre or post production. So when a film and a game work together for a simultaneous release there are massive problems. Tellingly the Golden Eye game was release two years after the film.

So there we have it, games and films need completely different creativity and content, they are like oil and water. And it works both ways. Films made from games are pretty rubbish too.


  1. I wonder if Modern Warfare 2 would have grossed as much if it was sold at the same price as cinema tickets? I think it was Ars Technica had a good article this morning pointing out that price difference.

    I never played Golden Eye, but when people start talking about movie conversions I think of The Untouchables on the C64. When the film came out I was too young to watch it but the game is a great mix of different game types, and received rave reviews in it’s day.

    Still haven’t watched the whole movie yet. I don’t think it’ll live up to my expectations after enjoying the game so much!

  2. “Instead the best games allow the player enormous latitude to do what they want, when they want.”

    Bit a sweeping statement?

    Goldeneye wasn’t an open game. Tetris wasn’t an open game. Sonic (on the megadrive) wasn’t an open game. Are these not some of the best games?

    Just because some linear games are written or executed badly doesn’t mean the entire genre is bad.

  3. Goldeneye wasn’t strictly linear. It had unlockable bonus cheats and a customisable 007 setting, both of which would be impossible in a film.
    Sonic isn’t linear, gameplay depends on how many gold rings you pick up, likewise shields and invincibility. So it plays differently on each go.
    Tetris is strictly linear, but then it is just a simple puzzle.

    Interactivity itself makes a game non linear in that what happens next depends on player input. In a book the words are in the same sequence no matter how many times you read it, likewise a film has the same sequence of frames. But a game is different on every play. Even Tetris.

    My point here is the fundamental difference between films and games.

  4. “But one success in 30 years of trying…”

    I seem to recall Ocean produced a lot of successful film-licensed games in the 1980s and 90s (Batman, Robocop, etc.), and Acclaim/Probe practically had a production line of such games (T2, Alien3, Judge Dredd, Terminator, Stargate) on the 16-bit consoles.

    Successful film-licensed games have been far less frequent in the years since GoldenEye 007, it’s true, but there have still been Chronicles of Riddick, The Godfather, and Ubisoft’s King Kong game.

    Unless you’re defining “success” as the game making *more* money than the film’s takings. (Which I think only GoldenEye has ever achieved.)

    The issue of linearity seems to be a bit of a red herring – the main stumbling block with film licensed games is the unworkable schedule to get a game out at the same time as the film (which you touch on with GoldenEye).

  5. I think my main gripe with the movie-game industry is that the games are such a slam-dunk with easy money attached that they provide little gaming innovation. Successful games that aren’t attached to movie franchises rely on technical or game-play innovations, rather than the existing fans of an adoring genre. Halo took a fresh approach to health with it’s shielding concept and made vehicles a pivotal part of an FPS. Half-Life used AI far better than previously.

    Whereas most movie games are: grab an engine that’s pretty reasonable, port in the storyline by reskinning the various mobs, then add few jumping puzzles (even when it’s not at all related to the movie) because we all know that’s what a video game is all about, right? Right?

    So that’s why video-game movies are generally rubbish.

  6. It’s true Ocean back in the days made lots of movie adaptations, but they were generally not that good. Maybe not crap, but not good games either.

    But, in the early 80s, there was a US company called Datasoft, which made a few movie conversions and each of them were great. I recall at least 4 action/platform games (Conan, Bruce Lee, Zorro, The Goonies) and one graphic adventure game (The Dallas Quest). Each of these games received very good reviews, and are remembered fondly by all people who have played it.

  7. I think the main issue with games made out of films (and vice versa) is that the people that make them don’t really do so with any real passion for the source material, simply seeing the media on which their version is based as a launch pad of free marketing.

    There are numerous great games based on films that people have already mentioned, and I’d like to add the Super Star Wars trilogy on the SNES to the list, all of which would have been great games even if they’d have had the license removed.

    Saying that the Avatar game hasn’t been a success simply because it’s based on a film is pure nonsense. The game hasn’t been a success simply because it isn’t very good. The same can be said for movies that are based on games – Hitman and Max Payne aren’t rubbish films because they’re based on games. If you stripped the IP away and tried to sell them as films in their own right they would still be rubbish.

  8. All very true, Bruce. I actually read another article that interviewed someone working on a movie game (Iron Man I think?) And he said that in some cases the game gets even less time than the movie!

    And let’s not forget another time when they weren’t trying to release a movie game in time for a movie, but for Christmas in about 3 weeks… jogging anyone’s memory?

  9. Surely better to make original IP games that make you feel like you’re in a movie. The original Mass Effect did this brilliantly.

  10. Anyone remember Ecks Vs Sever on the GBA? It came out so far ahead of the film, some movie reviewers thought the movie was based on the game, instead of the other way around. It was also excellent, which certainly isn’t true of the appalling film.

    What happened to the green Ferrari you had on your front page earlier?

  11. As has been mentioned, games seem to be simply another medium for marketing of the main money-spinner – which, at this point (from the point of view of the people making the decisions, anyway), seems to be the films.

    But to comment on your point about linearity, even the sandbox games (GTA in particular here) technically are broadly linear, at least on a macro level…there is always a series of set cutscenes, some or all of which play in a certain order (e.g. mission A leads to Mission B), interconnected by a random nonlinear series of events.

  12. tomb raider.

    okay , i’ve said it , i’ll get my coat and leave now


  13. Robin is right.

    How much research did you do on this topic before you worte this out, Bruce? There are plenty of movie based games out there that did extremely well.

    Westwood Studio’s Blade Runner was a top seller. In fact it actually did better in the first week than the Blade Runner movie did in it’s opening week.

    Goldeneye may be the exception….to somebody who doesn’t know much about video games.

    You can erase this now, Bruce. Like you do with other posts that slam dunk anything you say wth such elementary ease.

  14. Off topic I know, but wasn’t Famke Jansen (Xenia Onatop in Goldeneye, the girl on the top right hand corner of the Goldeneye picture, top of the page) the best Bond girl ever? She was both extremely beautiful and very sexy (the two can be very seperate things).

  15. The 2005 King Kong movie game was incredible.

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