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Opinion: Why Gamers Need To Open Up To Hollywood
Opinion: Why Gamers Need To Open Up To Hollywood
April 3, 2008 | By Justin Marks

April 3, 2008 | By Justin Marks
More: Console/PC

[In this new opinion piece, Justin Marks, the film and game writer who penned the currently filming Street Fighter: Legend of Chun-Li movie, as well as drafts of Voltron and He-Man films, steps up to discuss the relationship between games and movies - referencing films from his own to Halo.]

I remember when the new Street Fighter movie was first announced. The internet went ballistic. And not necessarily in a good way.

On the very same day that someone was green-lighting a reboot of a franchise already believed to bear the mark of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Peter Jackson announced that his adaptation of Halo, a daring game series, was being dropped by the major Hollywood studios. Boy, these guys just can't get it right. They dump Halo and give us another Street Fighter movie. Unbelievable.

Well, to quickly answer this criticism in biased terms, Street Fighter isn't your ordinary game adaptation. It's a gritty, realistic character piece (if I don't say so myself) that just happens to use characters taken from a video game. All hype aside, it's going to be a very different game-to-movie adaptation and I urge everyone to go see it when it comes out next year.

Between Movies And Games

But I don't want to talk about Street Fighter right now. It's worth discussing because I genuinely believe the producers on that film got it right, but maybe in another column. For now I want to address a much larger issue that faces the gaming community... how to deal with this perception that Hollywood is pissing all over our favorite properties.

The relationship between games and movies is a tough one. I've seen it firsthand. As a lifelong gamer who was fortunate enough to find a corner in the screenwriting community, I've often straddled both sides of this fence.

For starters, and I hate to say this, but the fanboys used to be right. There was a time when the movie business just didn't get video games. No one had yet grown up on them. Filmmakers saw games as inane and often shallow experiences that didn't deserve serious treatment.

Thinking back to the Double Dragon or Super Mario Bros. (shudder) films, it's not hard to see what the problem was. The users of these games were pre-adolescent children (or teenagers who acted like them), so why should we make a serious movie for them?

But things have gotten better over the years. A lot better. Contrary to the message-board-driven fantasy that "Hollywood is screwing up my childhood," this mystical "Hollywood" is actually a real place, filled with executives and creative people who are now young enough to have grown up during the Golden Age of Nintendo.

I know this because I work with these people every day and play with them on Xbox Live every night. I call it the Nerd Hollywood. They're genuinely smart people. And they genuinely want to make good movies.

Holding Back On Hollywood

For an analogy, think about the state of comic book movies a little more than ten years ago. Before the film Blade came out, nobody believed that comic books could be taken seriously. Now we have franchises like X-Men and Batman Begins. That's because the people making those movies grew up on comics and knew they should be considered an adult medium. The new generation had taken over.

And that's what's ready to happen in the world of game-to-film adaptations. I'm not saying you should expect "Mario Begins" in theaters anytime soon, but the time is upon us for some hot and heavy game movies.

And yet here's the rub. The gaming world isn't holding up its end of the bargain. Fans (and publishers, to some extent) are still resisting Hollywood with territorial reluctance, thinking that if they give away a game's rights to a studio, Hollywood will inevitably "piss all over our childhood."

Part of this is because there's been a past pattern. That's fair. But it's also because the game community fundamentally believes filmmakers just don't understand why games are so great, and if they would only directly and literally translate a game to film, it would succeed beyond all expectations.

Frankly, in the case of most games, this is just not true. We all need to take a long look in the mirror and realize that there are very few mainstream game franchises that could stand next to the best comics of the 1980's, or the best movies ever. And yes, Shadow of the Colossus and Portal are hands-down better than most anything out there, but no one is playing those games. What is the mainstream audience playing? Halo 3.

So let's talk about Halo.

The Halo Effect

First of all, I love the Halo franchise. Master Chief's action figure is sitting on my desk right now as I type. For any doubters out there, simply click here. Halo is the gold standard for our community. Ethereal, epic, with great setpieces and some wonderful aesthetics. We should all be so lucky as to make a game as good as that.

Master Chief has been trying to make it to the big screen for a few years now. I've read the scripts. Some of them aren't bad. But Hollywood, even Nerd Hollywood, has failed to green-light this film. And it's not like they're throwing a bunch of hacks at it. We're talking about Peter Jackson. He's no slouch. If they won't make Halo with Peter Jackson producing, clearly Hollywood is just out of touch with what the world wants, right?

Think of how great a Halo movie would be if they made it exactly like the game was (which is part of the deal Bungie has fought for). Imagine showing up to the theater on Friday night to see the first showing. Fade in. Outer space. A giant star cruiser sails into frame, dropping from it a flying convoy that descends into an alien planet's outer atmosphere.

We touch down in a foreign world and the door slams open. Badass space marines jump out, pulse rifles locked, cocked, and ready to rock. They engage in some funny banter, then march into a futuristic complex built by a community that's since disappeared. After a few suspenseful minutes of "what the hell happened here?", the creatures start appearing. Nasty aliens, who don't take no for an answer, begin to tear the space marines apart. A wild gunfight ensues.

Sounds like a pretty cool movie, right?

That's because it already was a movie. I just described the opening hour of James Cameron's Aliens.

Ready for some heresy? As great a game as Halo is, and as much as it deserves to be a true benchmark for this industry's success, when you take away the awesome gameplay and reduce it to character and story, we've really seen it before.

Don't start screaming on the message boards yet. Take a long, hard look, because this is true of a lot of popular games out there. On a story level, they often take place in familiar worlds and lack the character work (read: compelling enough to make a movie star want to be in the movie) that would elevate them above the level of a good genre film.

What Would Jackson Do?

Peter Jackson probably has a bold vision for Halo, but he's going to have to do some bold-re-envisioning to make it work. The standards that make a good game (complex sci-fi world, silent hero, more emphasis on repetitive action) are not the same standards that make a good movie. Neither standard is inherently better or worse --- they're just different.

That means a film adaptation can't just be a carbon copy of its source material. It has to be inspired, sometimes with new ideas. To inject these new ideas, the filmmakers risk pissing off fans who want the movie to be exactly what the game was. And thus begins message board backlash. Hence the catch-22.

Why does the movie have to reach more than just the gamer audience? Because movies cost an awful lot of money to make. Halo alone would cost roughly $200 million. To gain its gross back, you'd have to generate about half a billion dollars' worth of revenue. Halo 3, the game, made $170 million in 24 hours.

Break that down and it comes to roughly 2.8 million rabid fans lining up to buy it. Multiply 2.8 million fans by the average cost of a movie ticket, 10 dollars, and you have an opening weekend of $28 million.

Let's even be generous and say half those guys brought a date. $40 million opening weekend. Spend $200 million dollars on that and you're looking at one of the biggest flops since Ishtar. People lose jobs. Game over.

If Halo were to be a success --- and Peter Jackson's a smart guy, he knows this --- it's got to be more than a genre film. It's got to appeal to a much bigger audience than just us hardcore gamers. Girls have got to see it. Our parents have got to see it. They've got to see it twice. And take the whole family.

The Way Out

So how do we solve this problem?

We've got to look at adaptations as what they are... an opportunity to adjust the source material to suit it to a new medium. A chance to take a great game and make it into a great movie. That means as a game community, we've got to be open to new ideas being applied to properties that we consider perfect as-is. And as a film community, we've got to be willing to take more risks. To believe that a game should be considered art, and that a movie should honor that.

A new generation of filmmakers is emerging, and this generation takes the medium seriously enough to realize all game adaptations don't deserve to be treated like Alone In The Dark. But it takes time. And patience. And maybe the corpses of a few experiments gone wrong.

So as a young filmmaker speaking to the very gamer population that birthed him, I say - please hold on. The best is yet to come, and we all need to be patient because the right formula isn't as obvious as we would like to think.

And hey, I may be biased, but I think the new Street Fighter movie is the right start. Maybe in a future column we can talk about other qualities I believe would make for a good game-to-film adaptation. For now, just consider me a self-promotional jerk.

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Sterling Reames
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Forget about Halo, I'm still waiting for them to get Resident Evil right. I don't know how they can screw up a story as beautiful as Resident Evil's. The game feels more like a movie than the movies themselves. Pretty sad.

Leo Gura
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The problem with movie tie-ins and game tie-ins is motivation. Businessmen see a chance to exploit a beloved brand, and then force creative folks to do the hard lifting, ultimately dooming them to produce crap. Intrinsic motivation is the key for a creative project's success. The problem is no one stops to ask "Do we really need a Halo movie?", because the answer is "No!"

With Halo 3 particularly, there's just no good story there. You might as well be starting from scratch. Halo's success lies purely in its insanely addictive combat mechanics. Take that out of the equation -- which is exactly what you're doing in making a Halo movie -- and you've got an empty husk only good for attracting, and subsequently disappointing, loyal fans. I'm not saying it's guaranteed to disappoint, but reason says it will.

A cool as a Halo movie sounds, and BECAUSE I love Halo, I'm glad they scrapped a film that would likely have followed in the footsteps of Doom.

Javier Arevalo
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You don't need to do an Aliens rip off when you write Halo The Movie. The Covenant in Halo are never portrayed as mindless, animal-like man-eating aliens, but rather as a fairly sophisticated society, socially and technologically, more akin to Klingons than Aliens.

Another example of why I seriously dislike your logic: Aliens was inspired among other things by Starship Troopers the book. Then the movie Starship Troopers comes out, and while the common grounds are very clear and both would fit your "halo movie treatment", the movies are both excellent and extremely different. It's what people with talent do.

Kyle Leary
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The combination of Hollywood and the gaming industry would only serve to homogenize gaming (not that games aren't heading that direction anyways) the same way that they have homogenized movies... Think about it, you get one or two good movies in a year, the rest are just recycled garbage ideas designed for one purpose, money. The problem doesn't like in hollywood itself but in the people that handle all the money, who aren't willing to take a chance on a new idea because the tried and true will gain them bigger profits.

When the power shifts back to the creative people, and it will. With home computers getting more powerful and making it easy to DIY I think the movie and games industries will see the same kind of revolution that the music industry is going through right now.

My money's on that the Halo movie (and Street Fighter for that matter) will see the same kind of poor story construction and thoughtless plot that the resident evil series has suffered from. The games tell the story, we don't need a movie to tell it again.

Alexander Watters
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I have to agree with Javier Arevalo. There's absolutely no reason whatsoever that Halo would require "re-envisioning" to avoid being an "Aliens rip-off". Whilst The Flood are rather Aliens-esque, they're not the real focus of Halo (rather, the Covenant are), and indeed, I suspect you could make a perfectly good, fan-pleasing and mass-appealling Halo movie without even mentioning the flood. Certainly the highly organised and theocratic Covenant (whose motives are fairly clear) could not be compared with the insect-like titular creatures of Aliens. Indeed, the leaked portions of various treatments of Halo specifically indicate in all cases rather non-Aliens-like films. It seems to me the main bar to Halo film is not being too like Aliens, but rather the fact that it's central character is intentionally designed to be personality-free. Any personality created for Master Chief will be at odds with the ones gamers have created for themselves. Perhaps a Half-Life film would have similar issues (especially as casting for Gordon Freeman would likely spin towards "funny nerd" in a probably inappropriate way). As noted by the author of the article, the massive minimum budget is likely to be a considerable issue, too, though the childish multiplication of of people who bought the game on the first day as indicating low potential success is sad "message board argument" logic which really rather insults the reader, frankly.

I also have questions about how one gets a "gritty character piece" out of Street Fighter that can be meaningfully associated with Street Fighter, particularly with Kristina Kruek playing Chun Li, but that's a whole other debate.

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There are plenty of games with such sophisticated stories that it would be a crime not use them in their movie counterparts. Case in point: Silent Hill 2. Thought provoking, complex, emotional; and yet if I had to hazard a guess as to what the actual movie Silent Hill 2 will be about, I'd say that it will probably be nothing like that, and I think it's a shame.

It seems that filmmakers who make games "inspired" by video games do little more than take the trademarked names of the game's characters and plot elements and apply a generic story we've seen in every action movie since 1982. What's even worse is when we take a game with little to no actual premise (a la Street Fighter) and use its characters as a canvas for painting our own "good" story that has nothing to do with the game itself. Sorry, but that to me sounds like a shameless means to simply generate a bit more cash out of the project because "now Street Fighter fans will go to see it, too".

Either video game movies need to be true to their source material, set in the same already established universe (see: Advent Children), or just not even made at all. What's the point if it isn't true to the IP? Why did Spirits Within have to have the words "Final Fantasy" in the title? If the only reason is to make an easy buck, then perhaps there's a reason all these fanboys are so pissed off.

Alun Rees
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I entirely disagree with the opinion that was stated. To create an adequate adaptation from one media to another, you do not need to change in-universe continuity of the source you are using, but rather to adapt storytelling.

One classic example: Star Wars. Many early Star Wars game (Think NES here) were - to put it lightly - less than stellar games. They followed the storyline of one or another movie directly, or tried to as much as possible.

Then you have somewhat later games like X-Wing, Tie Fighter, Dark Forces and it's series. Why do these games rock? They take the continuity (The universe) the series takes place in and craft a new story within it. They do not contradict the source material, they do not change the continuity: They use it respectfully and masterfully. The result is an incredible game that is undeniably Star Wars.

I agree, if you copied Halo's gameplay minute by minute into a movie, it would be terrible. No one wants to watch a guy in green bash aliens repeatedly for 2 hours. However, the universe and continuity lends itself to the telling of countless other stories, related to the game's main story to varying degrees, which could well be very good movies.

That is and has always been the mistake when adapting material from one media to another. There is a mistaken belief that in-universe material MUST be changed to fit the new media, and that these changes must be significant. The fact is that in most cases, you just need to let go of the specific story told, and come up with another, related or unrelated one, in the same universe.

Star Wars has been doing this across countless medias for some time now, and been fairly successful in all of them. It is a proven and successful format. No one plays Knights of the Old Republic and comes out feeling cheated, believing they have perverted Star Wars, or just slapped Star Wars in front of another game to make it sell better. It is a story built in and for the universe it takes place in, and that is why Star Wars fans and RPG fans alike loved it.

Some franchises donít lend themselves too well to this. You canít very well write a Mario movie that will not involve the titular character and all his expected actions and stories to a large degree Ė it just canít happen. In these cases, realize you probably donít want to work with that franchise in the first place and move on.

Aaron Casillas
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There are several issues with Hollywood getting into games, I like most game designers, gamers and game developers love a great movie or a great book. No problem there. The real issue is medium translation and IP identity crisis.

I will just take a snapshot of the core issues plaguing this relationship. Well first it's Hollywood, it's a mysterious culture to us developers. Hollywood is an esoteric- nepotistic- group of people, I would be so bold as to say that the majority of developers once tried to get into Hollywood at some point in there career but were snubbed or found it mysteriously arcane. I mean what rituals do I have to do in order to get in? It is not until now, when Video Games, that once not to long ago "low art" is making and surpassing Movies both in revenue and in new content that Hollywood types are trying to get into the game, no pun intended. Case in point, how many more remakes of old movies do we have to see? Is Hollywood bereft of creatives? I'd say yes, because we're all making games and this is not the game industries fault at all.

This last point is also a warning to Game Developers, not to let their studios be run by non-creatives, a studio head should always be the main inventor. I would go as far as to say that person should have at least been in the what we like to call "Trenches" as an engineer, artist, level designers or game designer.

The next big issue I have with Hollywood has nothing to do with Hollywood but rather how Game Publishers cater to them as being the experts automatically. For example, how many designers out there have "written" their own materials for their block buster games and how many of those designers actually got a "writers credit?" I know designers that can run circles around most "Hollywood Writers." But are we in the Writer's Guild? Shoot how do you get in there anyways? I've done a few voice overs, but what the heck is a voucher? (I could write whole other article on how Game/Level designers are the real directors in games, but I'll save the fury for another time).

Or how many game design documents are created that would make Gary Gygax and Tom Moldvay blush but are completely not readable by the Hollywood intelligencia. Instead we have to spend our production time dumbing down or creating duplicate documents, one for our team and one for the executives. I mean isn't it time for these people to read a game design and imagine what the game is going to be about? An easy way to practice is to pick up any paper and dice book, open it up and imagine the game by reading the rules and matrices.

Last but not least, both mediums are completely SPATIALLY different and I'm talking about level design and the game-matic experience (I purposely removed the word "cine"). This Spatial/Time difference or the understanding of Space/Time has to be the biggest hurdle that Hollywood has to learn. I'd say for the majority of Hollywood types they are on where near primitive comprehension when it comes to even coming close to understanding Spatial/Time Responsibility in a game. If your going to make a movie in a game you need to understand this, if your going to make a game into a movie, "forget about it!"

I can not count the number of times I have read Hollywood written treatments/scripts or in game dialog that are completely impossible to become game ready in their current form. As one example of many, spatially they expect the player to be in a certain "locked" position in a certain locked "time." This goes against the core of what a game is about. Or they expect no matter where the player is located for X situation to occur with the player looking Y direction. It is completely ludicrous and costs the production of the game to skyrocket or some poor level designers hair to fall out. Why because these are scripted sequences and not based on what I would say a Game System or Mechanic, two dynamics that Movies currently do not have or perhaps will never have. But are the most important piece of information that Hollywood types need to understand.

Game Systems and Mechanics are the quintessential ingredients when forming a game's Meta, Core and Micro Compulsion Loops. Again movies do not have these and neither do the scripts treatments from movie to games or vice versa. That means the very soul of a game is gone in translation.

The second Spatial issue that Hollywoodians need to understand is Production time when making a game is not the same to Production time in a Movie. Here's an example, I take my Film camera and point it at a mountain, wallah, I have a movie about a mountain. In a game nothing, absolutely nothing exists, even if you have licensed software, someone has to make the mountain from scratch, point the camera and capture. This could be 1 hour, 1 day or perhaps even 1 year to get this point. Remember this is only a simple example, there are many.

Most importantly, Film Studios need to comprehend that their IP/Film/Flick does not, I want to reiterate does not translate into a game automatically. In fact, the majority of Film to Game has to go through a transformation in order to occur. This means creating gameplay compulsion loops; just following the Movie storyline is just not sufficient for gamers and is a complete recipe for disaster. We actually don't want to play the movie, because the heroes are defined, rather we would love to play in the Film's Universe.

In the final analysis, there are two strong recommendations I have for Hollywood, 1) Figure out your IP as a game first before approaching a developer. Having a team slave through machinations between Hollywood and the Publisher is costly in more than one vector, 2) It is not Game Developers that have to open up to Hollywood, it is Hollywood that has to open up to Game Developers and that means opening up to becoming more educated.

Derek Burris
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I think we could compare how Hollywood translates books into movies, with how they translate games. This is probably only part of the equation, but one thing games and books can do is create this vast universe in which the end user is exploring/experiencing things in. So why in gods name would you try to cram a game people have already played into a movie? Of course people aren't going to like it, you took something they liked, simplified it dramatically, and made it 2 hours long. It took them X hours to explore and conquer the game universe why not take the knowledge that the consumer already has about this universe, and expand on it. Like stated above, create new events, characters, etc. The possibilities are endless. You could even go as far as *gasp* Hollywood and games working together! Putting hints into a game that leave the player going, man I wish they would have elaborated on that some more then a movie comes along and fills in the gaps. They could even possibly start some new areas of interest for the consumer. What about in the concept stage, they could flesh out what information the game would have, and what the movie/s would contain.

Of course not all of them are going to be fricken awesome, but I think with the talented people in both Hollywood and Game Design, they should be able to figure out a way to make the two complement each other, rather than rehash their cross media brother. I think as time goes, it can only get better. As long as they take some time to think things through, the next 5 years is going to be pretty awesome. Just my 2 cents.

Josh Gravolin
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I think Hollywood needs more consistancy in producing something worthwhile with big-name game IPs before theyll earn my, or our, trust.

There have been a few movies that have been better adaptations than I expected them to be. But to put it bluntly the most recent big game adaptation, and thus what figures most strongly in my reaction, is the Doom movie.

I wont completely write-off game adaptations, but Ill be approaching them with caution until they demonstrate more maturity.

Daniel Hettrick
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Wow. I cannot recall ever disagreeing so completely with an article. The author really does not get it.

Let's look at that comparison of Halo to Aliens. The only similarity that Master Chief has to Ellen Ripley, Hicks, Hudson, Apone, et al. is that they fire rifles and utilize spacecraft. This is akin to comparing Ben-Hur to Seabiscuit because they each had horses and some kind of race track.

Master Chief is a mythical figure. Taken from his family at a young age, the Master Chief was trained and augmented to become an imposing physical embodiment of honor, duty, and fighting spirit. He is closer to a cross between Robocop and King Leonidas than Ripley or any other character in Aliens.

Ripley was a tortured soul who in the second movie was seeking to kill her personal demons and avenge the loss of her young daughter who had lived a full life and died of old age while Ripley was trapped in cryosleep between the first and second movies.

Ripley epitomized motherhood - fearless and primal. Master Chief epitomized a soldier - service and sacrifice. The author seems to fancy himself as a keen judge of character development, yet so clearly misunderstands two of the greatest heroes in modern fiction.

The shameless plugs for the Street Fighter movie were also beyond irritating. Raul Julia - AVENGE US!

Brandon Van Every
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How about (1) budgeting a lot less than $200 million for a game to film adaptation, or (2) waiting for the game designers to come up with something that appeals to more than just gaming geeks? We could be waiting awhile for the latter, but just as surely as Star Wars, we'll know it when we see it.

Aaron Casillas
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The other thing the author misses out is that movies to games like Star Wars are completly different than the majority of Film to game endeavors....why? Because a) Start Wars was released seperate from any of the games b)the Star Wars Universe had enough information before any of the games were made.

Nowadays the expectation from Film Studios is to ship the movie and the game at the same time. This has led to disastrous results for everyone for many reasons. The foremost being the people making the movie most of the times don't know what the movie is going to be about, don't have the logistical time to interface with the game team, or see it as a second product. The game team then struggles to make a game with little or no information....which will lead straight to getting a 2 out of 100 score.

Noah Falstein
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I've been at the convergence of games and Hollywood for a long time, notably as one of the first handful of employees at LucasArts (actually Lucasfilm Games at that point) 3DO, and Dreamworks Interactive. I've worked with dozens of film writers, directors, producers, etc. And I think that the whole situation is a bit like Charlie Brown kicking the football - the games industry is more than a little mistrusting when there have been so many disappointments. At least it's been a few years since I've heard any Hollywood people entering the games industry with an announcement to the effect of, "Since I understand entertainment better than any of these computer nerds, we'll finally open up this medium to the mass market". I do agree that things are getting considerably better, and there have always been Hollywood folks who are gamers and "get it" - notably Steven Spielberg for example, or my friend and colleague Hal Barwood. But often game developers have been held in barely veiled disdain, or misunderstood by people whose chief exposure to games comes from watching their kids play them. So I expect the building of mutual trust to take a while to mature.