As seasonal markers go, it's as certain as the first pitch of the baseball season and skyjacked gasoline prices: When temperatures soar, the brainless blockbusters descend on the multiplex. And, in increasing numbers, on our game consoles. Summer 2007 is littered with a bumper crop of games based on mega-flicks — no fewer than 10 titles, including A-listers like Spider-Man 3, Transformers, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Having played almost all of them, I can attest that they're almost universally mediocre affairs, a mishmash of movie scenes, questionable design decisions, and occasional, agonizing flashes of what could have been. And that's a summer bummer, in more ways than one. Movie-based games aren't just an opportunity for gamers to experience, in an interactive way, the mega-licenses they've known and loved for years. They also represent the gaming industry's best chance to reach out to the same casual gaming public. Shouldn't movie-game publishers be putting a better foot forward?
The answer is yes — and no. There are a host of reasons why movie-based games are so often maddening affairs.
A great game — say, Marvel Ultimate Alliance — can take up to four years to develop. A summer movie blockbuster takes about two years less. Given that the movie and the game are developed in parallel, it's easy to see how, even with a sizable budget, these games can become rush jobs, riddled with sacrifices and shortcuts. The graphics may look amazing, as they do in Transformers, but the game ends up pathetically short and shallow. Executives don't seem to care if there's no time to fix the wonky combat camera (see Spidey 3) or crunch all the bugs (see the Xbox 360 version of Ratatouille). There's a target audience to capture! Get moving!
From the get-go, developers of movie games face a critical design decision: regurgitate the plot or go off-script. Choosing the former is basically a fast-track to hell. Gamers may say they want to "experience" the movie, but what they really want is the highlight reel — the chance to belt Voldemort with a bolt of lightning and lay the smackdown on Venom. The latter option offers a world of possibilities ... yet usually we get only the most pedestrian gameplay imaginable.
To the serious gamers who've suffered through everything from Raiders of the Lost Ark on the Atari 2600 to the creative nadir of last year's execrable X3, these sorts of things are the reason why the words "movie game" rank right up there with "red circle of death" and "pony simulator" in the pantheon of gaming ghastliness. The sad truth, O hardcore hordes, is that movie games aren't really being designed for you; they're being designed for your Uncle Franklin — the guy who owns a PlayStation 2 but rarely plays it.
SALES, SALES, SALES
As just about any business guru will tell you, success depends entirely on how you define it. But if we define it in terms of dollars alone, then movie-based games are far more successful than the critical pastings they routinely take from the serious gaming press would suggest.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End moved a whopping 40,000 copies in its first week alone — that's the game, not the movie. Apparently, the pull of stepping into Jack Sparrow's stinky pirate boots for a few hours is enough to overcome the game's tediousness: brainless button-mashing as you cut down pirate after pirate. Yo ho ho.
If a mediocre, quickly-designed game can cash in on its license and pull in more dollars than wonderfully nuanced games like Overlord and The Darkness, can you blame developers and publishers for pushing popcorn games? The answer again is yes — and no. Both movie and game producers have been yakking for years about breaking down the walls between them to better capitalize on the clearly profitable possibilities. So far, it's not happening. Let's hope they find a better way soon. Or we're all in for more long summers to come.