Hollywood in Games 2.0: They're Baaaaack Edition

It's been a while since my last game related post. Every time I sat down to write something it felt like groundhog day. Another developer shut down, take a look at these. Governor Schwarzennegger is trying to get the Supreme Court to review his video game bill even though his movies are worse than the game he is trying to block, look here. It just felt like I had written all the way through the news cycle and I would just be re writing myself in a new flavor. Then I saw this article in the LA Times http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-ct-games-moguls1-2009jun01,0,4429125,full.story around E3 and it led me to like it was 1993 all over again:

THE HOT TICKET two weeks ago was to Francis Ford Coppola's hacienda in Napa. Fred Fuchs, head of Coppola's American Zoetrope, pulled 50 people to the 1,600 -acre estate for a weekend summit on multimedia, complete with five meals and a tour of the vineyard.

After Saturday morning intros, the afternoon was taken up with demos from companies like Virgin Games and Spectrum HoloByte.

"We're interested in getting into this in a big way," Fuchs said. "We met a lot of fantastic people."

The future isn't in licensing and adapting feature films, it's creating new characters and stories for the interactive marketplace. That's what we're interested in. The time has come." — Variety, May 13, 1993.

I remember when this ran the first time ("I've actually used it a lot more too"). It was shortly after the launch of The Journeyman Project, the first photo realistic CD ROM game and a few months before Myst. The handful of people involved in building the games were able to create photo realistic cg on home computers and stitch it together into an interactive story. The increased memory capacity and graphic capabilities open the door for story to carry enhanced significance in games. Since stories are what Hollywood does, I was sure entry into the game business was going to put my clients out of business. Especially when I saw things like Strauss Zelnick leaving Fox to run Crystal Dynamics, a game publisher, and Time Warner, Fox and Viacom all launching game divisions. I called Michel Kripalani, founder of Presto Studios, creator of Journeyman, and asked how he was going to survive. He told me not to worry, they didn't know what they were doing. He was right. Presto outlasted all of them.

Fast forward to 2009 and we are enjoying the same flurry of announcements. Once again the financial model and significant advance in technology are getting Hollywood excited. Paramount and Universal announced re entry into the business, Warner is well into a re launch of interactive and Fox is making rumblings suggesting a move beyond simple licensing. The parallels do not end there. While it is not Francis Ford Coppola this time, new announcements are being made by Gore Verbinski, Jerry Bruckheimer and Legendary Pictures, among others, regarding their involvement in development and production. My suggestion of a parallel is not to say these efforts are doomed to failure. Quite the contrary. I am hoping lessons learned from the past, advances in technology and a new breed of Hollywoody take the industry to new heights.

Part of the failure last time was attributable to their conviction to ignore everything we were doing as an industry. They jammed Hollywood budgets and sensibility into the traditional game business. I've been told Time Warner Interactive spent over two million dollars on their mildly intriguing puzzler, Endorfun , an amount which probably would have covered the aggregate budgets of the top 10 games which included classics like Twisted Metal, Earthworm Jim and Full Throttle – an noticeably not 9: The Last Resort, produced by Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Interactive and starring Jim Belushi.

But they were not alone. Game publishers were just as much to blame. Virgin reached for the brass ring with Toonstruck, starring Christopher Lloyd, and I don’t even want to mention the equity and salary numbers circulating about Activision’s payments to Bruce Willis on Armageddon. Until this console generation, games were limited to single hooks and there was just not much room for story. The original GTA, released just after this wave was an isometric driving and car stealing kind of thing. The GTA we know today would have been at least four games at the time. Even Halo would have been a shooter and a driver in separate games. Storage and hardware advances not only allowed, but called for consolidation of genres. Publishers soon realized the stories were time consuming, expensive and the public just didn’t care. They were right, but the “public” was included enough consumers to generate a profit on PS2 budgets. It doesn't anymore. Moreover, we don't have the "we can't do that" excuse anymore.

I was confident we are headed for a wall again. Silly Hollywood, don’t you guys ever learn? But since I started writing this post a few weeks ago, I reconsidered an fundamental belief. I always argued games were not bigger than film, we just cheat when we talk about the numbers. We sell fewer units at 5 times the price. Well, I thought about it and did the math, and we really don’t charge more. Anyone who has recently taken a family to the movies knows, you can’t get through the experience for less than the USD 60 cost of a game. If you don’t take the kids and you add up baby sitter, gas, popcorn, etc, you are looking at more. I started thinking about and realized, Paramount and Michael Bay just got twenty million people to leave their homes, pay 50 to 100 USD and walk away with nothing more than an experience. We, on the other hand, will do cartwheels if we get 2 million people to spend 60 USD over the life of a game. What are they doing that we are not and how can we grab some of it?

The film business approach to launching a franchise is not exactly rocket science. They make the product and then they make sure everyone on the planet knows the product is out. Sure there is increased focus on a target demographic, but it doesn’t come at the expense of a network television ad, or talk show appearance. The point is, unlike the game business they don’t expect the audience to find it and tell their friends.

Let's take a quick look at the product part. We don’t make products 40 million people will really care about. People like Raph Koster explain it better, but I just want to hit on it for a second. When compared to film, games just are not accessible to masses. Admittedly, film has had 100 years to develop the language it shares with the audience. As I’ve heard Ed del Castillo say a hundred times, game makers completely ignore the common language of story telling and ask the audience to learn a new language. When was the last time you went to a film with a 45 minute tutorial level? In case this is not enough of a barrier, we put a foreign object in their hands and expect them to play the kind of pretend they did when they were a kid –“Ok, the joystick is a gun, now it’s a steering wheel, now it’s a fishing rod, yeah, the buttons do different things on every level and sometimes you move the whole thing, but not always” - figure out how to establish a connection to pixels on screen, and move it through an unfamiliar environment. It is kind of liking going to a movie theater and being handed a blue book so you can do a bit of non-Euclidian geometry to see a bit of story. If your answer is wrong, you have to go back to the beginning of the film. Oh yeah, and once you the story plays, it is in Esparanto with Klingon subtitles. The rabid Klingon speaking fans will love it and tell all their friends, but how many of them out there.

Accessibility can be addressed through technology, but so far, we largely ignored it. Rather than incorporating more intuitive controls or compelling characters, most games use technological advances for better graphics and explosions. Like the transition from VCRs to TiVos, the Wii mote showed us how audiences expand when technology becomes transparent. Nintendo took the first step by replacing he foreign thing with a remote control pointer -door open – but with the significant exception of Wii Sports, no one took the second step and made intuitive games – the room is still dark. Should we be surprised the tie ratio sucks and the only mass games people are playing are Wii Sports and Wii Fit? There is hope with looming introductions of Sony’s motion controller and Microsoft’s Natal, but the hope must be met with supporting software.

I am confident game designers will use their experience to create compelling designs for the new controllers. I am not so confident about the story side. A game hook is great for a few hours, but how long is a cover button going to hold on to the mainstream if they don’t care about the guy ducking or where he is going? We even see this in the core. The games with the most longevity, Halo, Gears of War and Call of Duty, are kept alive through multiplayer, which is really just a fancy way of saying people make up new stories for each other. I am not going all Wii Fit only on you, but I am also saying deep combos on a fungible burly guy who swears while he blows shit up is not going to hold a consumers attention. Broken down analytically, those games are really not a lot different than playing GI Joes in your backyard. Rather than a tool, game hooks developed into a crutch to get the core gamer to stick with the game. If we want to get the other ninety percent of the Dark Knight audience to buy a game, we need to tell them a story. They’ve been doing it successfully in Hollywood for years.

The good news about the new entrants is they played games long enough to know they can’t make them. This comes across in the Verbinski sidebar interview, but also in the staffing of the new entities. Rather than getting the guy who did web shit, mobile, or plays a lot of games, the companies are staffing themselves with pedigreed game builders. It sounds kind of obvious, but it is not what happened the first time around {brain surgeon cite]. At the same time, game technology advanced to a point where there really is something they can do. Sure, facial motion capture still has not gotten to the point where characters can convey emotion – thank Polar Express and Beowulf for teaching us that in film before it got to games – but there is a ton of stuff we can learn about story development, blocking, on screen composition, camera placement and even dialogue. Give us a character we care about and have him or her do something we understand. I wrote a lot more about the role of writers, here.

You may think this is an unfair characterization and obscures reality in light of multimillion selling games, but multi million is not mass. Talk to me when we hit Daredevil numbers, not even Dark Knight. Sure we have a loyal audience, but so do the single camera black and white shaky camera one legged pregnant lesbian with cancer films. Our budgets must be commensurate with our appeal. Twenty million people went to see Transformers 2 over the first five days of its release, and tens of millions more will see the film over its life. Seventy thousand people went to see Whatever It Takes, the new Woody Allen film starring Larry David. Both will generate profit, but their budgets were dramatically different. We can and should keep making games for the core gamer, but we must also be children of reality and accept the limitations of the audience size. Hit games are selling in the three to five million unit range and top selling games are selling in the 12 to 15 million unit range, these are pretty consistent numbers. We can continue to fight to be the few titles selling in this range, or we can do something to push more titles into this range and a handful into the rarified air. Wouldn’t it be great if we kept making these, but also doubled or tripled the sales volume of the breakouts? We can get a long way down the road just by doing a better job of telling people what it is we do. This is where marketing comes in.

I've addressed marketing before, and this post actually stands on it's own, but I didn't want to make you look somewhere else, and there are some new thoughts.

Games are luxury goods but we pretend our consumers can’t live without them. We are the most expensive piece of media consumed by a family. We expect them to research them in game magazines and find them on store shelves. No one really needs one and when the economy gets tight, consumers cut back on their entertainment spending. We are priced near the top of the category, but we compete head to head for consumer time and dollars with film, television, amusement parks, music and a ton of other stuff, but you would never know it from our marketing. With the significant exception of Actard, we just don’t tell people our product is on the shelf and when someone tells us how to do it, we don’t care. Robin Kaminsky stood up at in front of industry leaders and told us in painstaking detail, how and why they were successful with the launch of Call of Duty Modern Warfare. She displayed their research results as well as the plan. She also talked about what didn’t work. In case enough people didn’t see it, she let the DICE folks post it online. Then, to make sure everyone noticed, they implemented the strategy to launch Guitar Hero: World Tour and outsold Rock Band by a wide margin. But even Actard fails to apply its strategy across the board. While Actard, is spending coop with Wal-Mart to tag network television spots, the rest of the business is fighting the cold war in Gamestop to get one more standee or games displayed behind the counter.

Greg Furman, the founder and head of the Luxury Council says:

[Consumers are] More value driven. Meaning they have to better understand the equation of price and value. More interested in experience. More interested in telling a story about what constitutes the best of the best or a great or unique experience.

The statement can easily explain why Monsters and Aliens was one of the best performing films of the year, was also one of the worst performing games. The Wal-Mart/Target/Best Buy buyer understood what they were getting for the 60 USD expenditure for the family to go to they film, but with Actard saving their marketing mojo for their company owned titles, consumers did not know what was in the game box. Most of my peers in the business will passionately argue the richness of a game experience, the immersion, the focus required, the addictive nature and the imprinting of brands in the game, but no one hears about it when the game is sitting, locked behind glass in a cabinet at the back of Wal-Mart. Even if I look at a comparably priced box containing season 1 of Bewitched, I know what it is. Consumers are forced to investigate on their own and convince themselves the experience is worth their dollars. Coming home from lunch today I saw this billboard. If you were not enough of a gamer to read this blog, would you know what it is. I am a gamer and I barely know what it is. Put Megan Fox on a billboard and I know what I am getting for USD 10.
Put this on a billboard and unless I am a Tekken fan, I don’t even know how to get it or whether I want it. If I am a Tekken fan, you could have sent me an email and it would have been cheaper.

Studios promote the hell out of a movie to tell the world it is coming out and show you why you will like it. If a film is not tracking well and it looks like it will not open well, they market it even more. Nine out of ten people on the street can tell you the names of this summer’s blockbuster film releases as well as the the lead actor. How many can tell you Prototype or Red Faction were released last month – or even what they are. We can argue studios spend more money on marketing because more people attend the films, but maybe more people attend the films because they spend more money on marketing. What would happen if more people knew about games? Moreover, the studios don’t just spend dollars. They get a ton of marketing for free.

The Actor/Writer

Let’s dispel another core publisher belief. “’A’ list actors and writers have no value in games.” Most people agree good voice actors make a game better, but few will tell you it is worth paying the premium to put “A” list talent in a game. They are right. Brad Pitt will not make your game better or any more fun to play, and it will certainly not move units of a bad game. But, his presence will let a ton more people know the game is on the shelf than any other game has done to date. He will do nothing for you on the production side, but a hell of a lot in marketing.

When I was at ICM I placed one of the most successful film writers in history on a game with a major publisher. His fee was a fraction of what he received for writing the first draft of a script and was less than the publishers’ annual window washing bill for one building. The game was a success and the writer loved the experience, but he was not invited back for the sequel. When I spoke with the publisher, they told me:

“we are trying to quantify his contribution”
“But he did interviews with Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, Entertainment Tonight”
“I know”
“You guys never got that coverage before. It’s worth millions”
“It is, but it doesn’t come from my budget, so I don’t care.”

Studios cast actors who they believe the consumers want to see on screen as well as in the media. Actors do press junkets, talk shows and media to promote their films. Consumers know the film is in theaters because they saw the lead actor on talk shows read about them on blogs and heard it on the radio. Their friends are sending pictures on facebook and booking tickets together. None of these outlets will interview Will Wright at the launch of The Sims, Alex Rigopoulos at the launch of Rock Band or whoever it is that is in charge of Call of Duty, but dress Sasha Barron Cohen in a body suit with a knit floppy pecker, and Bruno is instantly promoted to tens of millions of people around the world. Once the consumer goes to the store because they saw Brad Pitt on TV, they will look in the glass case, see has face, and know a lot more about the game with his face on the cover than Prototype. I know we are used to promoting features to consumers, but we are not selling games in ziplock bags anymore. Features description are great in Gamestop where consumers who are going to a store to buy a game can pick up the game and read the box. Box covers are good to people who walk through Wal-Mart and Best Buy and are choosing between a game and a DVD. It is all about the box art. Publishers agree it is great promotion, because the money for the talent comes out of the production budget and is really only valuable for marketing, it does not get spent.

Finally, we have to think about price. Films got larger as downstream revenue windows developed. Games go larger because technology advanced. Films do not have to get all their dollars at a single release. Games do. There is a strong argument for lowing the price to increase sales volume, but frankly, you’ve read an awful lot to get to this point, and I’m kind of tired, so I’ll save it for another post.


Raph Koster said…
I was surprised to see myself mentioned here! I don't tend to think of the biz folks as listening to me... ;)

Another big difference is downstream revenue, including licensing. Hollywood has that down to a science -- a somewhat dirty one -- and they can keep not just a property, but a single film or show earning for decades. We in games just don't have that, though there are some hopeful signs starting to develop.
Scopique said…
Fantastic and eye opening. Thanks for this!
Pascal said…
Like always w/ Keith, an extremely sharp vision of the Hollywood & games biz, keep writing
Cheers from France - Pascal

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