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Why don’t movie tie-ins work?

Submitted by on Thursday, 22 April 20102 Comments

It’s common knowledge that movie tie-ins come under much more scrutiny and criticism than any other type of game. Most would argue (perhaps justifiably) that this is thoroughly deserved, and that they can never replace such blockbuster titles as Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and God of War III. On this front I would have to agree, but why exactly is this the case?

The most common complaints of many recent movie tie-in games include lacklustre visuals, shoddy voice work, unresponsive controls, a poor story, and worst of all, repetitive and boring gameplay. Clearly, the main reason for this frequent sub-par quality of movie tie-ins is the strict deadline, which in most cases cannot be changed.

God of War III is definitely NOT a movie tie-in

If an original IP is not finished in time, then it can be delayed. This may annoy gamers in the short term, but it means it will be a more polished game when it eventually surfaces. This was seen with Batman: Arkham Asylum, which was delayed for two months before releasing in August 2009 to critical and commercial acclaim. However, for movie tie-ins, this choice simply isn’t available.

The majority of tie-in games come out a few weeks before their respective movie, in order to catch gamers when they are most excited for the film. Occasionally, developers will get lucky and the film will be delayed. This was seen with the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince being postponed from November 2008 until July 2009, giving EA eight additional months to develop the game; although it should be noted that this sort of event is almost unprecedented.

A further issue which plagues this type of game is the sheer amount of platforms they are normally released on. This is obviously so they can reach the widest audience possible, and therefore make more money for the developer and production company. However, this subsequently has a very negative effect on the overall quality of the game.

A huge amount of movie tie-ins are released on eight (yes, that’s eight!) or more consoles and other platforms, which is far too many for most developers to handle, particularly with the aforementioned deadline. This means that their time is spent too thinly across all ports, meaning they cannot take full advantage of each console. Another option is to have different developers working on different consoles, although this is often just as problematic because, again, it frequently leads to inferior ports.

Harry Potter and the Awkward Animation

Take the above example of the sixth Harry Potter game. EA Bright Light Studio handled all platforms, and the result was that their time could not be evenly spent on all formats. Whilst the computer and console versions received mostly average to good reviews, the handheld versions were almost unanimously panned by critics, which is a trend seen in many movie tie-ins.

The amount of work developers have to put into a movie tie-in is also exacerbated by the fact that they usually go to less established developers, who may lack the experience needed to make a triple-A game. After all, the high-fliers are all busy working on their own original IPs, and so do not want to waste their time on a movie tie-in, which most people will play a lot whilst they are excited about the film, but then likely never touch again.

Another possibility is that a movie tie-in will go to a small team within a larger developer, which often results in a similar low quality. For example, Ubisoft Montreal is one of the largest developers in the world, and make fantastic titles such as Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia. However, they are also responsible for tie-in games like Lost: Via Domus and James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game, both of which received, at best, mediocre reviews from critics and consumers alike.

I didn’t play Avatar in 3D, because I’m not one of the four people in the world who has a 3D-capable TV

One reason for this could be that when a developer works on their own IP, they have overall control of everything, from story and characters, to music and sound. However, when working on a movie tie-in, developers will have to relinquish a lot of this control to the filmmakers, who probably do not know what makes a good game.

Indeed, a common criticism of movie tie-ins is the characters in the game not being voiced by the actors who portrayed them in the film, which can seriously diminish the game’s atmosphere. This obviously isn’t that much of an issue if decent sound-alikes are used, but more often than not, they’re terrible. The production company has clearly endorsed the game, and so not providing the developer with the actors’ voices is frankly inexcusable.

This may be why many movie tie-ins shun the main storyline of a movie, and create a prequel or sub-plot of the film instead, seen in James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game. This is normally a sensible decision, as the plot of a film may not lend itself to a game particularly well anyway. However, this is a double edged sword, because fans of the film will want to do exactly what they saw in said film, so this can be a lose-lose situation for the developer.

Terminator Salvation – No, just no

It seems to me that movie tie-in games are either simply bad (e.g. Terminator Salvation), distinctly average (Wanted: Weapons of Fate), or very occasionally, and surprisingly, good (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), but, in my opinion, none of them have ever transcended into the realms of true greatness.

Many would point to Spiderman 2 on the PS2 as being the best movie tie-in ever made, but at the time of its release even this game failed to garner unanimous praise from critics and consumers. Despite the nostalgia many people feel for this game, it surely cannot genuinely compete with the biggest blockbuster games of the last couple of generations.

Is Spiderman 2 the pinnacle of movie tie-in games?

Due to the strict deadline to meet, fans’ expectations to not disappoint, and a potentially ridiculous amount of ports to deal with, this probably isn’t going to happen any time soon, but just for once, I’d love to be able to read a review that describes a movie tie-in game as being good, without then adding, ‘… for a movie tie-in’.

At least we can take comfort in the fact that games based on movies are normally a lot better than movies based on games, right?