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Held on Wednesday, January 4, 2006 at the Las Vegas Convention Center , "Game Power - Entertainment as Franchise - Crossover into Music, TV, Cable, Movie, Mobile, Advertainment & Custom Branded Experience" was one of several game industry-related discussions in the Digital Hollywood-held "Game Power" series of panel discussions that preceded the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show.
As the title suggests, the panel discussed the crossover of established franchises into different mediums, and the importance of maintaining the integrity of an IP in the hands of someone who may not necessarily be its original creator.
2006's Gaming Resolutions
Moderator Matthew Ringel, president of Games Media Properties, opened the discussion by asking the other participants to discuss both their predictions and resolutions for the year 2006.
"This is the year of community," said Louis Castle, Westwood co-founder and current vice president of creative development at Electronic Arts Los Angeles, "and of further strengthening the entertainment console in the home." Castle said that getting people together to play games is powerful, citing the not only the online community aspects of Xbox Live and World of Warcraft, but the living room community aspect of a game like Guitar Heroes.
MTV's David Cohn predicts that 2006 will see disagreements among press and analysts. "Every week, you'll see an article that says video games are the new rock and roll, and another article saying that videogames have already peaked," he said.
Stormfront Studios president and CEO Don Daglow, an industry veteran since the days of the Intellivision, says that we're on the cusp of a continuous five-year cycle. "The games industry is like being on the San Francisco bay," he said. "The tide comes in and out in five year cycles." As an example, the Xbox 360 shortages, said the 25-year CES veteran, closely mirror the shortages during the PlayStation 2's launch.
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Game Franchise Risks?
Moving on to the subject of franchises, Castle, on the subject of franchise risk, was frank. "We have to ask ourselves, 'Does this property increase risks?'" he said. "We pass on properties all the time. Not because they're not great, but because the risk is just too large." Moving on from this, Daglow touched on the point of emotional response to a franchise. "You look at shelves of movies, and you see a movie that you've seen before, and you react to it," he said. Consumers are emotionally invested in characters, he said, and mishandling a character can be disastrous on all levels. "You can make a player hate a character they loved," he said.
"The durability of a franchise is great," countered Microsoft's GM of franchise development for Xbox Kevin Browne. "Look how many crappy series it took to finally kill Star Trek." "I think 2006 is the year that the major media studios are getting it right," retorted THQ's vice president of licensing Germaine Gioia, in regards to a studio's relationship with a developer. "Game makers are different than film studios. Game studios are no longer a protected little boy."
Daglow made the point that media companies have a lot to contribute to the development of a good game. "What the media companies understand is story and character, and the emotional impact they'll have with an audience," he said. "We have an opportunity to get players more emotionally involved." "They're two different crafts," he said, of game development and film production. "We need each other."
Castle agrees. "I can assure you that no one at EA believes they are a film director," he said. He also argued that the key may not necessarily be in successfully transitioning a property to games, but in creating a property that works in multiple ways. "If we can work early developing a property that works in all the mediums – books, film, and games – we have a much better chance of succeeding."
Treating Game Licenses With Respect
"When you have a powerful franchise to work with," warned Daglow, "what some forget to do is question whether or not most of what you're doing in-game is actually fun." This is in reference to balancing the integrity of a character with the interactivity that makes a game a game.
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Castle, who has worked on more than a few licensed games in his career, including Monopoly, Blade Runner and The Lion King, had this to offer: "I can tell you that there was a deep respect for the emotional investment of a player in all of my successful licensed games," he said, giving the example of The Lion King, in which players re-enacted lead character Simba's journey into adulthood.
"I think licensed games in the past were done for kids. I think what we're doing today is making sophisticated licensed properties for hardcore gamers," said THQ's Gioia, who has been credited on licensed games such as Power Rangers: Time Force, Rugrats: I Gotta Go Party, The Polar Express and the Britney Spears console dancing game, Britney's Dance Beat.
Rounding things out on this relatively eclectic panel discussion, Castle addressed the question of what the term "hardcore gamer" describes. "When we talk to other groups, 'hardcore gamer' comes up a lot," he said. "We're not talking about do or die people who play games all the time anymore. As the market grows, the userbase becomes more sophisticated, and our games become deeper."
This desire for deeper storytelling with the use of a franchise was the general consensus among the entire panel. And as many would argue, the key to successful narrative – at least with an established franchise – lies in participation with studios outside of the game development arena. At the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show, convergence was a hot topic, whether it be in the form of a GPS system that can play games and show movies, the ability to watch TV on your PSP, or a single game being compatible among several devices. Could the key to successful IP handling lie in the convergence of the entire entertainment media spectrum? As some on this panel might argue, 2006 will be the year we find out.