Cross-Media IPs: How Business Should View Games

The business world seems to have a youthful crush on video games these days.  Which is certainly justified.  Nintendo is the quintessential example of the Blue Ocean Strategy, having moved into a space unoccupied by any competitors, mopping up with its brilliant play - supply still can't meet demand over a year later.  In the past weeks, "Grand Theft Auto" had the largest opening weekend of any media, ever.  However, much like young love, the business world is more infatuated with the idea of a relationship, than with actually getting to know the object of its crush.

Almost a year ago, a quote in a press release encouraged me to write a post titled "Pop Goes the World," questioning if gaming was approaching "bubble" status.  It was a quote from Nicholas Longano, at that time president of newly founded Brash Entertainment, a publisher focused on movie to game adaptations.  This week brought news of his departure from the company, whose two offerings so far have been critically panned -- one of them sold only sixteen thousand copies.

This does not surprise me.  I want to make clear that I have no desire to bash Brash.  After writing my previous post, I'd met Brash CEO Mitch Davis, who seemed to be an all-around great guy with a genuine desire to make good games based on movie IPs.  And considering the company's relationship with Legendary Pictures, it's quite likely they will be the publisher for Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are" (should a game be in the works).  So I really, genuinely hope they get things on track.  But again, I am not surprised at events so far.

The core issue is a misunderstanding of video games by the business world.  They look at games as toys. And if you throw enough marketing at the toy, it can be a pile of plastic junk, and it will still be fought over at Christmas time.  This extends to electronic toys, like cell phones, where form factor and image have a higher influence on popularity than features, and even to game systems.  

Xbox is doing poorly in Japan mostly because of an image problem, despite having almost the same (larger actually) library of games as the PS3, while the Wii cleans up without a particularly strong software lineup thanks in a large part to brilliant marketing.  But that's where the model stops.  Video games themselves should not be seen as toys.  They should be seen by the business world as a form of art, most similar to movies, but a separate entity from any other form.

With art, marketing is an essential piece of the puzzle, but without the art itself having quality, all the marketing in the world won't make a gem out of a flop.  And as a separate form of art, video games are not easily interchangeable with movies.  Quite often, great books translate to film poorly because much of the "art" in a book consists of writing internalized conflict, which just does not translate to the screen.  Mediocre books with a decent concept can do brilliantly.  And so far, almost all movie-to-game adaptations have been tragic, but the current title holder of best adaptation was from a bad movie: "Chronicles of Riddick."

This is particularly an issue as interest peaks for adaptations in the reverse direction.  The president of Capcom recently said the company was in discussions with studios to make movies based on its game IPs.  I'm very, very skeptical of these sorts of deals.  Comic book movies are all the rage these days, but for a very good reason.  The first "Batman" caused a small craze when it first came out because it was a very good movie, due largely to the fact that it was a Tim Burton film.  The craze ended after the fourth "Batman," which bombed terribly, and no studio wanted to touch a comic book property.  Until Bryan Singer, a great director who had made "The Usual Suspects," directed "X-Men," and focused less on playing to an existing fanbase, and more on finding the concepts in the comic book that were accessible to any audience member.  And suddenly comic IPs were gold. 

So with these new game adaptations, I sense motivations are more "if we make a movie based on this game, all the people that played the game will want to see it," instead of "this game has really intriguing elements, with which I think we could make a great movie."  The latter is a sound investment, the former is a stinkhole.

Key takeaway: video games are art, not toys.

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