Hollywood and Games: Max Payne, Where's My Game Edition
A little while back I wrote about the failure to release a Batman game with the film. I argued there was sufficient time to make the game, and it was really surprising someone would not be riding the film's wave. Since then, rumors emerged of a game in development but missing the date, and SCi announced their Arkham Asylum game based on the comic books. This was a missed opportunity to exploit public knowledge of a license. Some game publisher, somewhere, lost out on free marketing. But what about Max Payne? The game supporting the movie based on a game? Sure, it's tough to come up with a good game from a film. The studio and actors have approvals. The scenes get added and cut, and players are split between playing the movie and playing an entirely new story line. But Max Payne started life as a game. What gives?
I don't have any unique insight into this deal and any information I have is available to you as well through Google. I am just a simple guy looking at this deal from the outside and wondering why there is a lot of money left on the table and a missed opportunity to introduce the game to a wider audience.
Fox can't be blamed. They couldn't make the game if they wanted to. Because the game pre existed the film deal, Fox did not acquire interactive rights to the film, but they were not the only company accepting left overs. Take Two purchased its right to the IP, subject to the pre existing film deal. The rights to make the film were optioned in August of 2001 by Collision Entertainment, one month after the release of the game. The game was published under Take Two's "Gathering" label five months before Kelly Sumner, then CEO of Take Two, proudly announced the acquisition of the underlying IP rights to the game. Take Two paid USD 10 million plus a bunch of stock, to gain the underlying rights to the IP they helped to create. Take Two's right to publish was derived from Gathering, which was founded on the principle of creator ownership. 3D Realms owned the rights to Max Payne, even after Gathering's sale to Take Two. This put 3D Realms in the unique position of being able to sell film rights to the game, and then the game rights.
It was not the only time Sumner was involved in a big number transaction that looked better at the time than in hindsight. He seems to have a knack for being on the wrong side of a deal. His sale of Take Two's interest in Bungie to Microsoft included the right to publish Halo, and as CEO of Red Octane he sold Guitar Hero to Activision for what turned out to be less than 10% of the title's revenue in the next 18 months. It is kind of the reverse of how value is usually measured. All seemed like good deals at the time, but wow. As a guy who passed on the opportunity to buy and publish GTA 3, I understand things look different in real time, but WOW. Sumner obviously thought Max Payne was going to be another strong IP for the company. A new pillar to stand next to GTA. Hence, his placement of the title under the Rocskstar banner, rather than 2k after Gathering was folded. Unfortunately, the sequel did not perform as well as first installment, even with Rockstar's name on the box. More significantly, when he acquired the rights there was a significant brand risk looming over the title. Someone else was holding movie rights, and if they made the movie, it might be bad.
Take Two is the rights holder to the IP underlying the film, but rights holders don't make an awful lot of money. If they are a first dollar gross participant in the film, they stand to make some money, but nothing compared to what the would stand to make with the release of a game. The studio views the release as the primary implementation of the IP. This is a good thing for a game publishers because it means the studio is investing a lot of money in what the game company sees as a 120 minute commercial for the game. Like most commercials, the film will reach more people than the game. If the film is bad, or underperforms, it will reflect poorly on the game, and through no fault of the publisher, the value of the IP will be diminished.
So where are we today? There is no game for the film released under a deal predating all of the existing management of the compay. I don't know when the film was greenlit, but the announcement of Mark Wahlberg's involvement was not made until November 8, 2007, about 11 months before the release of the film. If Take Two were waiting for a greenlight, there was nowhere near enough time to make a decent game. It looks like they chose quality over timing, and based on the recently "leaked" rumors, they are building the best game they can, regardless of the film's release date. Maybe . . . If I were the the owner of game rights for a film based on my five year old game, I would take a step back. Investing in building a game when the higher profile movie could diminish the value of my efforts doesn't sound so good. I'd rather put my time and effort into things I control completely. If the studio breathes new life into my once popular IP, the studio will certainly want to make a sequel film. What a great time to release a game. If I get started on it now, it will probably be ready for the sequel. If the film tanks, I can turn my effort into a new IP. But hey, that's just me.