Wireframe

The changing face of movie tie-in video games

By Dan Cooper. Posted

Avengers: Endgame crashed into cinemas in 2019, and quickly became the highest-grossing theatrical release of all time. It was everywhere, yet the officially licensed tie-in video game, synonymous for decades with blockbuster movies, was nowhere to be seen.

Sure, there was a brief appearance in Fortnite, but even the LEGO series of games, for so long a movie tie-in stalwart, hasn’t yet made a game based on Endgame.

For some time now, this trend has been growing, so are we richer or poorer for the disappearance of the movie tie-in? To find out, we spoke to the developers who worked on memorable movie tie-ins, some of which are still celebrated today. This is what we found.

Auspicious Beginnings

Developer Howard Scott Warshaw was present at the point in history when movies and games first crossed over. As a programmer for Atari in the early 1980s, Warshaw created a trio of games, comprising Yars’ Revenge, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, that encompassed both the meteoric success and swift downfall of Atari and its 2600 console.

As a pioneer, Warshaw enjoyed an unfettered development cycle on Raiders, and recalls that the film’s director Steven Spielberg couldn’t have been more helpful. “That Raiders was a licensed game really didn’t impact the development at all,” he says. “With the singular exception that every once in a while, Spielberg would come by and we’d get to hang out, and I’d show him some of the game.”

Raiders was a critical and commercial success, and incorporated some innovative ideas, such as its use of one controller for player movement and the other for interacting with the inventory. Spielberg, a keen gamer himself, was a fan of the adaptation. “He really liked it, and that got me E.T.,” remembers Warshaw.

E.T. was designed in about a month, foreshadowing the tight development cycle of some later tie-in games.

The development of E.T., by contrast, was infamously rushed. Warshaw had just finished a ten-month development cycle on Raiders, and was then given the task of programming E.T. in just one month to get the game out for Christmas – a pressure further intensified by the enormous $22 million licensing fee paid by Atari.

Still, if that licensing price tag added to the pressure, it was insignificant compared to the expectations Warshaw placed on himself. “E.T. wasn’t a barrel of laughs, that’s for sure,” he recalls. “There was tremendous pressure, but it wasn’t about the licence – that didn’t really mean anything. What I cared about was that I wanted to deliver a quality product, and I wanted to do it in record time. That made everything else totally disappear.”

The 2600 adaptation of E.T. was, of course, commonly cited as one of the factors behind the 1983 North American video game crash. For Warshaw, the game was a case of short-sighted thinking from those handling the intellectual property. “It was an early time in movie licensing,” he says. “I think they thought to themselves, ‘Here’s a way we can make millions of extra dollars’. I don’t think they were worried about defending the integrity of their property.”

Wide blue Ocean

In the UK, meanwhile, the home computer market was thriving, and licensed movie games were a key component in that success. Ocean Software, based in Manchester, had found a foothold in the industry in part thanks to shrewd licensing deals – in particular, movie licences.

Their first breakthrough came in 1987 with a tie-in game based on Platoon, director Oliver Stone’s acclaimed film about the Vietnam War. No other publisher but Ocean saw the potential in converting such adult-themed content into a computer game aimed at kids – but when it succeeded, Ocean suddenly found itself regularly receiving scripts from Hollywood.

The ability to seal licensing deals during a film’s pre-production gave Ocean the space to release a tie-in game at the same time as the movie’s cinema or home release – a potentially lucrative marketing opportunity. This happened with RoboCop, a side-scrolling shooter released around the same time as the movie’s home video, at Christmas in 1988.

Ocean was also canny with its handling of the RoboCop rights: after buying them from Orion Pictures, Ocean then sublet the licence to Japanese studio Data East, which turned it into an arcade game. Ocean then exercised its option to convert that game over to home computers in the West. It sold in record numbers, and the ZX Spectrum version topped the charts for a year.

Raiders of the Lost Ark on the Atari 2600 used an innovative two-controller configuration.

Programmer Peter Johnson worked on the Atari ST and Amiga version of the game. Working on the project from home, he was given some useful pieces of reference material: the Data East arcade game supplied by Ocean, built into a handy portable suitcase, alongside a finished build of the Spectrum version.

One asset Johnson didn’t have access to, though, was the film itself, since it hadn’t yet emerged on home video. “The movie wasn’t available,” Johnson tells us. “I’d seen it in the cinema, but the game release was timed to coincide with the film’s VHS release…”

For years, Ocean played out a similarly astute strategy with licensed titles; games based on such films as Batman: The Movie and The Untouchables were hits, while its adaptation of RoboCop 3 came out ahead of the delayed film, which deftly avoided association with its subsequent critical mauling.

Ocean’s success with movie licences, and the potential profits, brought the practice into sharp relief for the rest of the industry. Over the next decade, tie-in games became synonymous with movie merchandising. But with publishers eager to streamline development costs after shelling out for huge licences, and with development cycles shrinking to meet film release schedules, the quality of the games dipped in the mid-nineties.

Ocean got their 3D tie-in game of RoboCop 3 out first when the film was delayed.

Titles such as Probe Software’s Batman Forever and Capcom’s Street Fighter: The Movie (essentially a game adapted from a movie based on its own arcade hit) lowered the bar significantly.

WayForward Technologies developer Austin Ivansmith – who’s no stranger to working on tie-in games – can sympathise. “When I go back and watch a speedrun of Batman Forever on the Super Nintendo, it’s easy to say the movie components don’t make any sense,” he says.

“But having done a number of licensed movies, I’m watching it thinking, ‘OK, I can see what the developers tried here; they don’t know what Robin’s costume actually looks like, and probably haven’t been provided with pictures of his costume, so they have to move forward with the design from the original TV show.’”

By the late nineties, Howard Scott Warshaw had long since left Atari, and regarded the games industry with frustration. “I wasn’t happy about it. I understood it. With a degree in economics, I really had a sense of the industry. Every new medium matures. Finances drive all of this. The investment in creating products always increases, and so the amount of risk investors will tolerate decreases: you stop seeing innovation.”

A Licence to Thrill

There were still developers that wanted to make inventive games from movie licences in the nineties, however. Enter GoldenEye 007 on the Nintendo 64: Rare’s genre-defining shooter was so successful that it even challenged the original movie in terms of sheer profitability.

GoldenEye 007’s success was, according to game director Martin Hollis, down to a talented, hard-working team of developers, as well as their publishers, Nintendo, and Bond rights holders EON Productions, who were generous with both the licence and access to the film’s assets.

“Nintendo gave us a broad scope – they gave us a document detailing everything we could use, and it was pretty much every single thing in the Bond universe,” Hollis tells us. “Quite a bit later, I think they realised that… they’d gone too far!”

EON was similarly generous. “We’d seen some footage, we’d been around the sets, we’d seen the model-making and the gadgets, so because of that high-level access, we were less likely to be surprised,” Hollis says. “Seeing the film had very little impact on the game – it was more just a case of confirming prejudices.”

GoldenEye’s multiplayer was added late in development – and proved to be era-defining.

The film appeared in cinemas in November 1995, yet the game suffered multiple delays, and eventually launched in August 1997. “There was pressure,” Hollis says of the period. “It wasn’t relentless. It was reasonable, studied pressure. We missed one Christmas, and Howard Lincoln [then-chairman of Nintendo of America] wrote me a fax explaining how important it was to meet the interests of buyers and schedules. My attitude was it simply wasn’t ready.”

Hollis also credits Rare for shielding the team from the might of their publisher, Nintendo. “Nobody at Rare ever told me it came close to being cancelled, but I have a suspicion that Nintendo stopped paying money to Rare. There was some kind of arrangement, and they were so concerned, they stopped the flow of money. But this was never communicated to me.”

Being freed from a schedule based around the GoldenEye movie’s release meant the team were able to iterate. One result of this was the game’s popular multiplayer mode, which didn’t appear until late in the development cycle. But despite the success of GoldenEye 007, Hollis had little interest in making another movie adaptation.

“I love films, so it would seem like an obvious thing for me to have a career developing games based on them.” he says. “In somebody else’s universe, you have less freedom. If you’re going to do a faithful job, and I think you have to show respect and honour, you mustn’t abuse the source material. When you do that, you’re inevitably tied down in a thousand ways, and your creativity can’t run riot.”

A Knockout Success

Like RoboCop, GoldenEye 007 gave the industry a reminder of how lucrative a licensed game could be. Peter Johnson, by this point the studio head of Newcastle-based Rage Games, elected to direct resources in this direction.

“Rage were coming to realise the value of a licence, and how it gave you a huge leg-up when marketing a game,” says Johnson, whose studio acquired the rights to make games based on the Rocky films. “It was something my game designer, Mark Sample, had wanted to do for years. He’d almost designed the game in his head before we’d even got the licence.”

Rage’s 2002 Rocky made creative use of its licence, since it told playable back stories for several of the movies’ key characters. Rage was clever with the parameters of its licensing deal too, since it allowed them to use clips from the original films as cutscenes.

Getting to take on the hulking Drago in 2002’s Rocky was the perfect amalgamation of a gamer and film fanatic’s dream.

Remembers Johnson: “We were allowed to use the film clips if it was promoting the film itself – which is why there’s a DVD advert at the end of one sequence of clips, and I think there was a double pack where you could get the film with the game.”

As the 2000s progressed, movie tie-ins became increasingly popular, and occupied a bigger share of the market than even in the days of Ocean Software. Ultimately, though, it was a growing trend in Hollywood that inadvertently sparked the decline of the tie-in game.

As the film industry became increasingly enamoured with the multibillion-dollar opportunities afforded by franchise-driven titles such as Harry Potter and Transformers, film studios not only became increasingly protective of their properties, but continual cinematic instalments meant even shorter development cycles for game designers.

More Than Meets the Eye

For Andrew Burrows, developer at UK studio Warthog Games, working on the tie-in for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone gave him his first taste of the complications that could accompany working in somebody else’s universe.

“That was the first time I got to design [a tie-in game], and then dealing with the [film] studio putting their foot down and pushing back,” Burrows says. “I know some people could get frustrated, but for me, those restrictions just offered another opportunity to go back and look at how it should work.”

With film studios becoming increasingly protective of their properties, Burrows also encountered the difficulties of pitching for movie licences – studios were often secretive about their projects due to fears of scripts leaking onto the internet.

This proved to be particularly challenging when Warthog began early work on a game based on the 2002 Vin Diesel action movie, xXx. “We made a concept for xXx,” says Burrows. “You get a brief script and then you’re reading books trying to find out who this character is. We’d heard there was a plane in [the film], so our whole concept was about trying to stop a plane from being hijacked. The game didn’t get picked up.”

There was no such plane sequence in the final movie – an illustration of the difficulties developers faced when pitching to tight-lipped film studios. It was all a far cry from the 1980s, when Ocean Software were sent entire scripts to consider.

Traveller’s Tales Transformers was ambitious, offering two campaigns, depending on your predilection for good or evil alien robots.

It was while working at Traveller’s Tales, however, that Burrows would find himself steeped in movie tie-ins. There, he worked on LEGO Star Wars, the 2005 tie-in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and led the design of 2007’s Transformers: The Game. Things had changed since the Atari days, however, and the likes of Steven Spielberg – who executive-produced the Transformers movie – were no longer interested in the design process.

In fact, quite the reverse. Recalls Burrows: “Michael Bay [the film’s director] was deeply suspicious of video game companies, and wouldn’t actually share any of the robot designs. And we didn’t know what the plot was. We were quite a way into development before we even started getting assets.”

To complicate matters further, the studio was working against the clock. “We got Transformers just over a year before the film came out,” remembers Burrows. Nevertheless, Traveller’s Tales was renowned for making games to tight deadlines, which is why it became the go-to studio for movie adaptations.

Transformers shipped on time, and also launched for a then-new generation of consoles that had been announced mid-development – no small feat, considering the compressed development schedule. “We could get it on the shelves before the movie came out, so you don’t lose a ton of marketing and momentum,” says Burrows. “It really helped sales, and it’s a testament to all the people involved, because we worked crunch on those games.”

Things had changed, however. Secretive productions, movie studios protective of their IP, harsh development cycles, and the emergence of a highly critical internet fandom (“The community can be pretty ruthless in their feedback,” says Burrows) meant the movie tie-in game became unsustainable in its established form.

Quality would eventually suffer – the Harry Potter titles came under fire from critics – and so film studios, publishers, and developers had to figure out how to change their approach.

A Way Forward?

This brings us to WayForward Technologies, a studio that has successfully pioneered a new approach over the past decade. Austin Ivansmith, director of WayForward’s well-reviewed Thor: God of Thunder and The Mummy Demastered, has perfected a less direct approach to movie tie-ins.

They’re based around a property’s story, but less beholden to the whims of the film studio that owns them. Says Ivansmith: “Working with Marvel [on Thor] was awesome – they gave us visual assets early. We couldn’t contradict the movie… but we [tapped into] a few other worlds from the comics, and created some characters to build on the lore.”

Expanding beyond the world of the film was a freeing step, and gave the developers back some creative license. Similarly, publishers began to consider methods of easing the development cycle for developers. “Sega – who were publishing the game using six different developers for six separate platforms – put on a series of PR events, bringing someone from each of the developers,” Ivansmith recalls.

Sega encouraged the numerous studios developing different versions of Thor to share assets, in the hope of easing workflow.

“Sega shared pre-approved assets, and a lot of the concepts for the trolls and for the boss from the Asgard level came from the studio which did the Xbox version of the game. It really helped us define our look early on.”

When adapting Universal’s The Mummy, the first film in a planned Dark Universe series, WayForward used the same indirect approach, choosing to make the game’s protagonist a faceless soldier in the ranks of the monster-hunting organisation, Prodigium, rather than Tom Cruise, the movie’s hero.

Says Ivansmith: “As there was a series of movies planned, it just made sense. It gave us the opportunity in the case of sequels, such as Bride of Frankenstein or The Invisible Man, to tie all of the games together with a single squadron with a unified playstyle across all the games. Tom Cruise is a big star performing most of the action in The Mummy, but in Bride of Frankenstein, Angelina Jolie’s character may not be doing all that running and jumping.”

The developers elected not to use Tom Cruise on The Mummy Demastered, figuring that a faceless Prodigium soldier could reappear in sequels and spin-offs, even if Cruise didn’t.

Studios such as Universal and Marvel have been quick to adopt this approach. Ivansmith notes how film studio support in general has been positive in this era of licensing games, even if it means missing the potentially lucrative double whammy of a simultaneous game and film release. “Universal liked our game so much, they wanted to decouple it from the movie release and give us the development time we needed, so it could be as good as it needed to be.”

The licensed movie game, then, hasn’t gone away – it’s simply evolved, as rights holders have recognised the folly of pushing poor products onto the market on the strength of a movie title. That might mean we don’t see blockbuster tie-ins on the scale of Avengers: Endgame as frequently as we used to, but maybe that’s just the price we pay for better-quality licensed games.

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