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Weekly Musings #2 - Why Do Movie-License Games Usually Suck?
Author: Michael Ahlf
Date: June 19th 2004
Page: 3
This, too, is a part of the industry in general - be it on console, or on PC. Games are rushed out the door to meet deadline, whether they're ready or not. A rarity is for a game that has already gone gold, to be held back for its release date; more often, they're pushed up to meet an artificial time of high buying. It can be to meet the Christmas buying season, or it can be to get out before a competing title, or it can be to match the release date of an associated movie, but there's one simple truism in the matter:

Rushed games are bad games.

On the PC, rushed games can still survive; if they're good games in their own right, AND if they have enough good points to overcome the bugs, and if bug patches come out in a timely fashion, then releasing a buggy product isn't a killer problem. The folks over at id Software have, in fact, made something of a science out of this; those who remember the releases of Quake 2 and Quake 3, remember too that they took nearly a year each to go from "shipped beta" status to "done" with the publication of point-release, official patches. In the meantime, gamers played them anyways. Why? Because the tools for mods were present, and easy to use, and because they had already reached a critical mass of players such that finding a game was easy.

Alternatively, games that are never patched - or patched badly - tend to do horribly. Trespasser would be a perfect example of this; even though the game had horrid mip-mapping routines that could have been fixed, and even though it had coding problems that made it way too slow, the product was abandoned to rot after release rather than being improved. Granted, this was because it lacked multiplayer and many other features that had originally been promised, but one still wonders what might have been, if the developers had had the time and resources to finish the game up properly and fix some of the many bugs in it.

On the Console, on the other hand, a buggy game is a problem. Why? Because there's no way to patch a console game. The Xbox could theoretically do it, if the games were to leave behind something in the hard drive - but, inevitably, just like with PC titles, accidental deletion of the game or a reinstall would mean that taking the console would have to have online capabilities. As online-service adoption hasn't reached critical mass for consoles (as opposed to PCs, where just about every gaming PC at least has dialup access), this is not yet an option.

Regardless, we know that games that are rushed - either by artificial deadlines, or by loss of staff due to death or walkout, or due to other factors - tend to have problems. Without proper bug testing and game testing, the game just doesn't turn out right.

So what is it about movie-license games that makes this so much more likely? It's actually just in the nature of the industry - the movie industry, that is. From inception to launch of a movie can be a time period of 3-5 years; in that time, a script has to be written, props/sets have to be constructed, CG constructs are built, costumes made, scenes shot, editing done, and then the movie launches. And even with all that, sometimes movies are delayed, as happened to the third Harry Potter movie when Richard Harris passed away and the role of Albus Dumbledore had to be recast.

Now look at the state of the video game industry - the development time on games just keeps getting longer and longer. In the early 1980s, it wasn't uncommon for a single programmer to churn out 2, 3, or even more video games per year. Even in the late 1980s, games could be done relatively quickly; all four Super Mario Bros. titles in the Super Nintendo Super Mario All-Stars cartridge, for instance, were originally released one after the other in a four-year period starting in 1985. During that same time frame, Nintendo also pumped out tons of other titles such as Metroid and Kid Icarus.

As time went on, however, the time to produce a new game got longer and longer as the programming challenges and details required became more and more complex. The SNES allowed bigger cartridges, larger sprites, and more colors (not to mention the Mode7 effects), but these all took time to program for. PC games acquired 3D graphics capability, but that requires building the 3D models and 3D levels, and skinning them appropriately. As years went on, even as the development cycle lengthened, other things were cut to compensate - Deus Ex: Invisible War, for instance, has 1/4 the expected playtime that its predecessor Deus Ex did.

When the development window hit approximately 2.5 years - that is to say, about 1995 when the Playstation came out - is approximately when this became a serious problem for movie-license video games that were expected to match the release date of their associated movie. Why? Because at 2.5 years prior to release, there may still not be a clear vision of the movie, and certainly there's not anything approaching a rough cut from which the programmers can work. The presence of an existing engine such as the Unreal engine, properly used, can save some time - but as the years have gone on and development times have exceeded four years, that innovation still isn't necessarily enough.

Does this mean that it can't be done? Of course not. The recent releases of Van Helsing, and of The Chronicles of Riddick, both show that - with enough advance notice - a movie can have a simultaneous release with a video game, while still allowing the video game ample time that the problems caused by deadline rush don't manifest themselves. The upcoming Spider-Man 2, by the same token, looks to have had ample preparation time. Still, it is all too common for movie-license games to be stuck trying to match a deadline that causes them to ship in a less than finished state.

The other problem that simultaneous-release games have - not exclusive to simul-release games, but a lot more likely - is that they tend to be pigeonholed into being interactive versions of the movie.

Weekly Musings 2: Why Do Movie-License Games Usually Suck?

Added:  Sunday, June 20, 2004
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf

Page: 3/5

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