15 September 2009

Exposition - The Price of Interaction

Shortly after tackling the subject of game-to-film adaptations, I began to ponder something. If you were to compare my collection of films and videogames you'd find them approximately equal in number. And yet, if you were to calculate the difference in their initial retail value, you would probably find the games weighing in at least two, more likely even three times the cost of the films. Now I'll admit that my knowledge of the finance and production side of the film industry is very limited, and more so for game development, but even so, I cannot reconcile myself with the notion that this should be the case. As we shall see, none of the vague inferences that can be treated with a degree of certainty offer any compelling evidence in defence of such a pronounced discrepancy. To my mind it is simply a matter of evaluating the issue according to three simple points of comparison.


If we use my personal library as an example, we've established that the ratio of games to films is fairly balanced, while the initial retail value of the former is probably close to three times that of the latter, based on the fact that the price of a premium game title is generally three times that of your standard two-disc DVD at their time of release. If we were to add up the budgets invested in each title and then compare the two forms of media, however, I have no doubt that the discrepancy would be reversed, perhaps to the same order of magnitude, or even more, in favour of film. Whether it is due to a genuine lack of availability, or simply the product of lesser consumer interest, information regarding the size of a typical game budget is far less accessible than that of film, which is often the subject of widespread promotional use. Allowing for the inevitable exceptions, however, I find it difficult to imagine that the typical game budget would be on par with the sixty-five million dollar figure generally attributed to the average Hollywood production, let alone in excess of it. This is not even taking into account the matter of mammoth, blockbuster-aspiring budgets which inevitably become must-haves for your average movie enthusiast. Glancing over my own collection, the likes of Bram Stoker's Dracula, Kingdom of Heaven, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy would have to come fairly close to balancing out my entire game library entirely on their own, as far as representing investment value is concerned. Adding further weight to this argument is the fact that the price of a typical two-disc DVD release fluctuates very little, despite the actual film budget, and quite often in adverse proportion to it. When you consider the initial cinema release, the point becomes still more pronounced, for it costs no more to see the latest big-budget extravaganza than it does to attend a small independent feature. Insofar as investment value is concerned then, there seems no reason why games should cost any more than your average DVD, let alone nearly triple the amount.


Comparing raw budget data is all well and good, but it's only fair to point out that the development of interactive media is very different from that of film, and thus incurs some unique expenses. One of the most frequently cited by game developers is the cost of development kits. With the industry dominated by three key players – Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo – the purportedly steep cost of the proprietary software required to make games for their respective consoles is largely unavoidable. In addition to this is the necessity of licensing and tailoring existing game engines to suit each specific project, or else incurring the additional time required to make your own from scratch. Then there is the fact that development time is often a good third to a half longer than that of your typical film, if not several times more. All of this must be taken into consideration, and yet, when we really do so, these differences amount to very little. Yes, game development involves a number of costs and considerations peculiar to itself, but then so does film. The time from pre-production to final release may be longer, but even the largest game developments involve far smaller crews than your typical film production. The cost of proprietary software may be an unavoidable expense, but this has its equivalent in the film industry too, including everything from the physical film and camera equipment, to proprietary editing software and the necessity of distributing through private cinema companies. The cost of subsequent distribution can be dismissed outright, as both games and film use exactly the same media, be it DVD, Blu-ray, or digital. Indeed, the game industry is generally able to avoid some of the more significant dents in a typical film budget, such as the cost of first-billing actors, the necessity of location fees, and the astronomical price of insurance at every level of filming. As such, the extent to which the game industry bewails its tenuous profitability on the basis of its unique expenses is a little hard to swallow.


When you consider that the average film runs for about two hours, being able to play a game for up to ten to fifteen hours for only three times the price suddenly seems more reasonable. The way that games are marketed demonstrates that the industry is aware of the power of this suggestion, and the hope that, while games are not cheap, the consumer nevertheless feels they are getting good value. When you apply even a little critical though to this principle, however, it is immediately exposed as a fraud. In order to illustrate my point I would like to turn your attention to the image below. There we see three forms of media dealing with the same license: a film, a television series, and a game all based on the popular Terminator franchise. Despite widespread criticism of the game for its short length, someone intending to buy the upcoming Terminator: Salvation DVD might still justify the full retail price of the game with the assurance that they are getting at least two-and-a-half times the duration of the film out of it, meaning that they cost roughly the same to experience per hour. First of all, this ignores the obvious fact that most people do not buy a DVD when they only intend to watch a film once. Secondly, how do we apply this measure of value to the television series, which extends to roughly twice the length of the game, and five times the length of the film? Surely if the measure of value is duration, then longer films should be more expensive, or else priced according to the number of times someone is likely to watch it. The principle is even less convincing when it comes to games, for there is no consistent ratio between the amount of effort and expenditure that is invested in a title and the amount of time it is likely to be played by the consumer. If this were true, the cost of something as simple as Tetris, with no real limit to the experience, should be more expensive than the Terminator: Salvation game. For that matter, how could one compare a sandbox game, where you are simply presented with a set of tools and then allowed to entertain yourself, to another where meticulous effort has gone into crafting a story of more limited duration?

For an outsider, with little real knowledge of the game industry, it is difficult to pinpoint where the profit from the exorbitant cost of games is going. However, with Sony openly admitting to the fact that it incurs a loss with every Playstation 3 console it produces, and Microsoft able to absorb the cost of an endemic failure rate in its Xbox 360, it is certain that the profit margins carved out of software sales must be playing a significant role in keeping their operations viable. The seemingly endless cycle of acquisition, merging, and disbanding of game development studios, despite the continued profits of large publishing companies is also conspicuous, even where specific titles have performed admirably on the market. And while the developers may deserve our sympathy for having much of the risk and little of the reward for each project passed squarely onto them, it is the consumer who ultimately pays. Indeed, the only point of difference that appears to have any real merit in the price discrepancy between games and film is the size of the market. Though they are cheaper to make, games simply don't have the same market share as the lucrative film industry, so in order to derive similar margins, the price is set universally high. In effect, people who buy games are paying a subsidy to the industry on behalf of all those who don't, which has the subsequent affect of discouraging new consumers. Still, if everyone woke up tomorrow a certified gamer would anyone seriously expect the price of games to fall accordingly? There is simply no incentive to lower prices when so many are prepared to pay.

1 September 2009

Screen/Play - Pastiche & Production

In the first part of this examination we looked at the fundamental difference between the film and videogame mediums in terms of how they impart narrative. To reiterate briefly, while the more developed videogame storylines certainly emulate the narrative model generally adopted in film, the interactive dimension necessarily relegates this to secondary status. The focus is thus a system of progression rather than development. To use an analogy, the film experience might be thought of as a snowball rolling down a hillside: the further it progresses, the more substance it accumulates, leaving the audience free to observe the subtleties of this growth because it is self-propelling. Videogames, on the other hand, are more akin to pushing a snowball against the same incline; while it still accumulates more material as it progresses, our attention is split between the act of observing and the act of propelling things forward. As such, the inherent difficulty in translating one medium to the other arises through the need to compress an experience characterised by two separate, but parallel activities into another that involves only one. Indeed, the quintessential videogame experience is characterised just as much by the incremental mechanics of the gameplay as it is by the overarching storyline, while the two rarely have any definite basis in the other.

So the dissemination of narrative is one of the areas in which the mediums of film and videogames are fundamentally dissimilar. This is an important step, but there is much more to the issue of game-to-film adaptation than simply observing their differences. After all, there are similar discrepancies between film and literature, and yet some of the most widely acclaimed films drew their origins from the written word. Clearly there are other mitigating factors involved – ones that only arise during the process of translation itself – and it is these we shall be examining in this second instalment.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery

The tradition of paying homage to those whom you hold in a position of great respect is one as old as history itself. In the creative fields – such as literature, theatre, and art – this natural tendency has often been enshrined in various cultures as a rite of passage, even verging onto a sacred act. Think of H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Conan Doyle, or Charles Baudelaire, and the debt each freely admitted to the works of Edgar Alan Poe. Think of Dante, Shakespeare, or Milton, and the extent to which each looked to Ovid for inspiration. Think of H.R. Giger, Salvador Dali, or de Chirico, and ponder how their various styles could have evolved without the likes of Hieronymus Bosch as their predecessor. And while the act of emulation has to be more delicately considered in this age of copyright and the legal ramifications of intellectual theft, there is still a healthy acknowledgement of one's influences in the various media. For better or worse, the practice of paying homage has simply become more subtle.

A simple stage production, with 9,000 extras
When it comes to the introduction of any new medium, the practice of borrowing from those which are already well established is not only inevitable, but a necessary stage in the evolution of new ideas, procedures, and future conventions. Indeed, one need only reflect upon the productions of the great studio era in order to appreciate the influence exerted by theatre conventions during the early evolution of film. From Cecil B. DeMille and the early epics, through to Howard Hawks and the great blockbusters of the fifties, everything from script and editing technique to the actors and their exaggerated performing style bear the marks of theatrical convention. When technology gives rise to any new medium, it is only to be expected that the initial forays into that expanded horizon are going to be tentative, and usually have one hand firmly on what is both familiar and known to be successful. It wasn't until the rise of naturalistic filming techniques from the seventies onward that film truly grew into a medium that stood apart from theatre, and fully embraced its unique advantages.

While it does not absolve developers of the burden of pursuing originality, it is nevertheless crucial to remember that the videogame medium is still in a nascent phase. Just as the early film industry looked to the stage for inspiration, augmenting its proven strengths with the unique potential of film to capture the grand spectacles of nature and whole armies of extras, so videogames have looked to the film industry in turn, augmenting those proven strengths with its own unique potential. In fact, to a great extent the current game industry remains fundamentally reliant on its film counterpart, not only as a source of inspiration, but more intrinsically as a system of landmarks in an effort to reach an existing market. Laying aside the hybrid phenomenon of movie-game tie-ins, it must be said that individual games tend to be marketed as much to film audiences as they are to existing gamers. The allure of being able to enter your favourite movie and interact with its various elements is a demand which the game industry has become expert in catering to.

Gun - A scenic tour of every Western cliché
The relatively small genre of videogame Westerns is a perfect example. With only a handful of titles currently using this setting Рmost notably Outlaws, Red Dead Revolver, Gun, and the Call of Juarez series Рit already seems that the prevailing approach is simply to pack in as many clich̩s from the vast catalogue of film Westerns as the premise can reasonably contain. There is nothing wrong with this, as the interactive aspect of the gameplay itself offers sufficient novelty for the experience to seem fresh. Where it would become an issue, however, is if the decision were made to take one of these titles and adapt it back into a film. The good old run-and-gun Western may be a relative newcomer on the unspoilt videogame prairie, but in the twenty-five odd years since the release of Pale Rider, the wagon-train of the film industry has moved on to new horizons. Recent films, such as The Assassination of Jesse James, Appaloosa, and the television series Deadwood mark a new trend in the Western film genre, with a strong focus on the psychology of those who lived in that time and place. The videogame industry, on the other hand, is still well-and-truly entrenched in the world of swaggering gunfighters, great train robberies, and ruthless gold-mining tycoons. And while it may be great fun to play out the iconic moments of the old Western films, one would have to question the validity of adapting these staples back into their original medium.

For those who want to experience the events of Alien
Often it isn't so much a matter of whether something that works for a game will work on film or not, but whether something that works for a game has already been done on film. Take the recent Dead Space, for example, which has been almost unanimously well-received. Even in the first interviews the development team were unabashed about their desire to create an experience that emulated the best elements of films such as Alien, The Thing, and Event Horizon. Perfectly respectable choices when it comes to shaping the course of an homage, and ones for whom there is already an attentive and discerning following, and thus a market. With the first stirrings of a film adaptation beginning to circulate, however, one cannot help but wonder what the point would be. A videogame that synthesises aspects of Alien, The Thing, and Event Horizon is commendable, but when it comes to film why not simply watch the originals? What wisdom is there in turning the films which inspired and aided in gaining your success into full-blown competitors? There is nothing wrong with games being derivative, but as long as they continue to be so we have to question whether there is a legitimate place for film adaptations, let alone a prerogative.

When fate hands you a lemon, make lemonade

There are three crucial ingredients necessary to follow this advice: the first is obviously the lemon itself; the second is sugar or some other form of sweetener, the third is the knowledge required to process and combine these ingredients. The same is also true of videogame adaptations, with the source material very often akin to a lemon, the amount of finance helping to make it more palatable, and the calibre of the creative team determining whether the venture is a success or a bitter failure. Because, when it really comes down to it, regardless of whether we might wish for the game industry to mature beyond its big guns and bigger breasts mentality, the responsibility for bad game adaptations rests squarely on the film industry side. For all but the biggest players in the videogame industry, the level of finance required to embark upon a feature film project is nothing but a pipe dream, and so far even those who do have the resources have shown enough good sense to stick with what they know. This may change in the future, with Blizzard long rumoured to have been considering the prospect of backing its own Warcraft franchise on the big screen, but for now the clear and present danger comes from the ranks of film investors who greedily eye-off the last sales figures whenever they happen to peer over the fence into videogame territory and sniff an established market. The same is true of any adaptation, whether it be from literature, television, or graphic novel. success is presumed to breed success, disregarding the fact that translating each different medium poses unique challenges.

Warcraft - Just a matter of time
In theory, there is no reason why any game-to-film adaptation cannot be a success, both critically and financially. More often than not, however, there is some critical mistake made in the simple lemon-sugar-knowledge recipe, with varying results. The bizarre Super Mario Bros. film, for example, can only be described as an instance of attempting to make lemonade from an aubergine. No amount of money or creativity could have made that recipe palatable, becoming an abject lesson in matching the subject matter with a suitable medium. The animated series based on the same license shows the modest success that even the most outlandish game premise can attain, provided that it plays to the strengths inherent in the source material. Far more common, however, we see perfectly good lemons go to waste, lacking either the sugar or know-how – often both – to make the most out of them. The prospect of a Legacy of Kain film directed by Uwe Boll is just one of many instances where a horrible injustice looms on the horizon. A Legacy of Kain television series with a creative force like that of The Tudors behind it, however, is another prospect entirely.

Of course, the chances of a Legacy of Kain project garnering the budget and creative input required to truly do it justice is virtually nil. Indeed, we have yet to see any of the top-tier directors helm a project based on a videogame license, with Christophe Gans currently standing tallest after going out on a limb with the Silent Hill adaptation. Setting a respectable, but by no means enthralling standard we also have the workhorse of the genre, Paul W. S. Anderson, who proved that much can be done with a modest budget and a little flair with the passable Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil films. At the other end of the spectrum we find the likes of Uwe Boll, whose only remarkable quality is the unbelievable tenacity he shows in being able to secure one woeful project after another. The problem, it would seem, is that the film industry has slipped into a vicious cycle of diminishing returns when it comes to game adaptations. Once a given project fails to gain the critical and financial success it may have promised, the next is given access to still-fewer resources, making it even less likely to instill a positive reception. As each subsequent project inevitably fails to buck the trend, it is interpreted not as a reflection on the level of investment and talent involved, but as confirmation that game properties are inherently unsuitable for adaptation, and on the cycle goes.

A welcome addition
With such a stigma now attached to the very notion of game-based films, it is not surprising that the better directors and investors in the film industry are unwilling to risk either their reputation or money on such ventures. And yet this is not a universal truth. The prolific Japanese anime industry, for instance, has a respectable catalogue of game adaptations, often featuring some of the foremost directors, studios, and other creative talents. Insofar as the west is concerned, however, it is unlikely that the trend will change until a film of the same calibre as Sin City, 300, or The Dark Knight turns the prevailing attitude on its head, as each of those did for the comic-based film. The only question is, how many respectable game properties will go to waste on poor productions before this polar shift occurs?