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The Real Data Behind Movies Becoming Games

April 5, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In a report originally published on the INA Global website, University Sorbonne Nouvelle senior lecturer and author Alexis Blanchet breaks down the statistics of video game film adaptations, analyzing what films get turned into games and why -- over the course of the entire game industry from 1979 to 2010.]

Among the many links connecting the cinema industry with the video games industry, the adaptation process comes to mind immediately. This is also the most prolific, both from video game to film and vice versa, although there is some bias in the process: while the six Star Wars films gave rise to more than 120 video game titles, the most widely-used video game series in the cinema, Resident Evil, has so far only given rise to four films shot in live action, and one in CGI.

The number of films re-worked as video games is consequently much greater than the number of adaptations of video games for the cinema: several thousand game titles on the one hand, compared with only 60 or so feature films on the other.

In order to get a better feel for the true scale of the adaptation process, we have been working since 2005 on setting up a database listing all films that have been re-worked as video games.

This annually-updated count has made it possible to quantify the films involved in the adaptation process and provide proper insight into the considerable quantity of items that can be produced by two entertainment industries contributing to what is known as mass culture.

The adaptation business reveals a degree of regularity in duration and a definite profusion in the quantity of items involved: from 1975 to 2010, 547 films shown in movie theaters gave rise to around 2,000 games.

The practice of adaptation has grown over the last 35 years to become a major category in video game production today, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the total number of video games published.

A Few Methodological Features

The figures we have collected and analyzed come from a systematic study of about 15,000 video game titles published from 1975 to 2010 on more than 40 game platforms selected for their popularity in Western and Japanese markets.

In deciding on the platforms, we used focused on equipment that is specifically dedicated to games, or that is available in practice for playing games, like microcomputers. We did not use browser games. These are freely accessible, often based on a very simplistic game pattern, and are brought out to accompany the release of a film, only briefly available while the films are showing. Our intention in setting up this corpus was to stick to the commercial video games, the items appearing on retail websites.

The case of mobile telephones is more problematic. At the time we began this census-taking exercise, telephones were only just starting to be used as a game platform. The success of the Apple iPhone and the downloading of video games onto smartphones since 2007 should mean that we reconsider such platforms. However, the proliferation of titles developed on mobile telephones, their speed of circulation and the way they operate, make identifying and quantifying them very complicated.

Nonetheless, an overview of the few films adapted for mobile phone use confirms that they are primarily carried on platforms dedicated to video games: the mobile phone is consequently a platform ancillary to the game consoles in the very broad market coverage strategy used by the publishers.

On the other hand, by ruling out mobile telephony, we wipe out an entire continent of filmmakers, the Indian producers. Since the middle of the 2000s, the number of adaptations of Bollywood films for the mobile telephone has been constantly on the rise: from a count of three in 2005 to 60 just three years later, the meeting between a popular cinema industry, which has for years been trying to rejuvenate its audience, and the video game, which in India has been developing exponentially, has proved particularly fruitful.

Defining "Adaptation"

We shall define "adaptation" as follows: the adaptation of films into video games is an editorial and commercial process organized on a coordinated basis between the rights-holder of a film or series of films shown in movie theaters and a video games publisher. The adaptations display the film source the varying degrees, which is used as a significant commercial argument.

To categorize a video game as a film adaptation means seeking out the clues that suggest that a game is directly connected to a film source. We thus sought to examine the eponymous features when a film passes on its title to its adaptation, the copyright and legal details shown on the packaging, notices and title screens which confirm obvious and/or claimed derivations (e.g. characters, settings, images, original soundtracks) from a film for use in a game.

About 15 significant indicators were used for each entry to set up the database, so as to determine the types of relationships, sometimes quite complex, between films and video games, and highlight the trends involved in the process of producing a video game. This mechanism, which we are continuing to develop, allows us to identify editorial strategies and investigate the traceability of items entered into the base by determining with varying degrees of difficulty the origin, linkages, lineage and so on.

The Practice of Adaptation

Developing and publishing a video game adaptation of a film is part of the operating approach for derivative products established by Hollywood since 1970. This practice means cashing in on the heavy promotional budgets allocated to promoting entertainment films and exploiting the popularity of a saga like James Bond or Star Wars; this editorial choice strongly dictated by commercial pressures ensures a degree of visibility for the games displayed at sales outlets.

This strategy applies particularly to what is known in Hollywood as the movie tie-in game, that is, the game adapted from a film of the same name and marketed simultaneously with the release of the film in movie theaters. This simultaneous timing is a direct outcome of Hollywood's merchandising policies and multimedia development, which turns films into a loss leader for profits to be made on the production of other items. As a result, more than 90 percent of films adapted, the vast majority from Hollywood, give rise to adaptations simultaneously.

Number of films adapted simultaneously as video games per year (1979-2010)

The first arcade video game inspired by a film dates to 1975: at the end of the summer of that year, surfing on the phenomenal success of Jaws in the movie theaters since the month of June, Atari put out the arcade machine Shark Jaws. Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, is said to have tried to legally acquire the operating rights of the film from Universal but was refused. Starting in 1979 with the adaptation of the Star Trek movie by Robert Wise, every year, there was at least one film adapted as a video game.

The term "simultaneous" is used when less than 18 months separates the release of a film and its appearance as a video game: during this period, simultaneous adaptation benefits fully from the only-in-theaters status of the film. Since the 1990s, and more particularly, the release of Jurassic Park in 1993, the time lapse between the release of the film and the release of its adaptation has shortened considerably, to the point where market availability has been reversed: today, the marketing of the adaptation precedes the release of the film.

Analyzing the number of simultaneous adaptations published per year brings out three distinct phases of activity: from 1975 to 1983, between one and four films per year gave rise to a simultaneous adaptation; from 1984 to 2001, the publication of simultaneous adaptations concerned on average a dozen films per year; and finally, since 2002, the average has exceeded 22 films per year.

This continuous increase in the use of simultaneous adaptations bears out the interest of film producers in this type of commercial and creative synergy with video games and their commitment to it. A few production peaks -- in 1984, 1994 and 2006 -- also reveal a lack of responsiveness of the film sector compared with the video game business.

Whereas in 1984, the video game business was deeply affected by its first crisis of any size, the number of films simultaneously adapted as games was increased by a factor of three with respect to previous years, and many adaptations were turned out by video game publishing subsidiaries of the Hollywood majors (Fox Video Games Inc. and Atari Warner).

In 1994 and 2006, two years corresponding to cyclical crises in the sector due both to the arrival of new hardware and consumer expectations, the number of films adapted also exploded. The peak in 2006 corresponded to a significant increase in the number of films released that year: 601 films, compared with less than 490 on average over the last seven years.

While we are witnessing an increase in the number of films adapted per year, it can also be seen that proportionally speaking, there is stagnation in editorial offering of this type of video game: from the early 1980s to the 2000s, adaptations represent a constant 10 percent of the editorial offering of a game platform.

Comparison of the number of adaptations to the total number of titles published on platforms (We indicate in brackets the period during which the count was made.)

The adaptations flourish on the most popular platforms on the Western market (in chronological order: Atari, Amstrad CPC, HES, Sega Master System, Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, PlayStation).

They are, however, totally absent on the platforms destined exclusively for the Japanese market, e.g. WonderSwan or Neo Geo Pocket, which in some cases have not been officially distributed in the West. Lastly, the portable consoles, often much appreciated by children, are the platforms most widely open to adaptations: film adaptations accordingly represent from 16 percent to 27 percent of the game libraries for Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance.

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