Captain’s Log: Exploring the Movie Tie-in Video Game


by Jonathan Pilley (@omnicomic)

Remember way back in the day when it seemed that every major film release was accompanied by a video game release? Jurassic Park? Hunt for Red October? Even Obscure Film X? It was a good bet that every time Hollywood released a film, the studios had already been working closely with a video game publisher on a video game tie-in. The game often put you in the shoes of the film’s main protagonist, as you proceeded through a storyline remarkably similar (aka the same) as the film’s plot, even facing off against the same final villain.

These days, that doesn’t happen nearly as much. With the reported three-year development of the Star Trek tie-in game, you have to wonder if it’s starting to make a comeback. Paramount is promising that the game won’t be a “throwaway piece of merchandise.” They’re trying to buck the historical trend of video games tied in to movies not really being that great. And why wouldn’t they? The video game industry these days is booming, dwarfing years past and cementing its status as a mainstream pop culture conduit. Everyone wants a piece of the action and if the movie tie-in video games are making a triumphant return, there are a few things developers and studios should keep in mind.

One of the biggest reasons for the movie tie-in video game (MTIVG) was advertising. Studios didn’t have Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or any of the other social media websites who have sharing icons emblazoned across the internet. Because of that, the studios were forced to look for other avenues of spreading the word of their movie and the MTIVG was a great way to do so. Typically, the game was released on or around the same day as the movie, which meant that gamers were getting a parallel experience on both fronts.

This parallel experience essentially doubled their exposure to the property and gave them something else to talk about. The point is though, that they were still talking about the movie itself in some capacity. The valuable word of mouth advertising really helped studios get their film’s name out there even further. It’s something taken for granted today, considering someone on Twitter with legions of followers could tweet “jump” and you would feel a slight disturbance as everyone jumped in front of their computers.

MTIVGs need a social media component, which will further amplify the studio message. If a studio partners with a publisher to develop a game and the game is social media equipped, then people will see the movie, talk about the game and spread the word about the property overall. Both Hollywood and video game publishers have demonstrated that once they find a property that’s lucrative, they’ll keep hammering away at it. If you need examples, think of both The Hangover “trilogy” and how many Assassin’s Creed games there are. People talk about things that are successful and if the film is a hit and people buy the game, the property gets a little more longevity.

The above relies on one very crucial concept: that the game is actually good. While it seemed like just about every movie had a MTIVG, not many of them were really worth playing. Most of them all seemed to be simple cash grabs that are barely passable as games. Does anyone remember Last Action Hero? Space Jam? Austin Powers Pinball? Back to the Future? Ghosbusters? Street Fighter: The Movie? That last game was an absolute travesty.


In most (if not all) of the above cases, the MTIVG was simply viewed as an extension of marketing. The game was given little funding, a compressed timeframe and little ability to deviate creatively. Publishers have proven they’re quite good at making AAA titles that shine. Bioshock Infinite recently came out and is a testament to storytelling and gameplay, the combination of both making a true treat to play. That’s something that needs to be translated into MTIVGs as well. In the case of the aforementioned horrible games, more often than not, film studios would view the game as something of a side project and not really give it full attention.

They would sign some sort of licensing deal with a publisher, have them develop the game with some loose affiliation with the film script and likely rubber-stamp the final product. One of the more recent games that come to mind is Sega’s Iron Man. The game wasn’t bad per se, but it wasn’t exactly great either. Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie was another one, where the game actually played out verbatim with the movie’s plot (and so rather horribly).

In both cases, the game felt just like a MTIVG and nothing else. It didn’t really have a life of its own and–if you’d seen the movie–you would know exactly what was planned next. There were no surprises and if the gameplay wasn’t there, neither was the gamer. Gamers are typically a forgiving bunch when it comes to certain aspects, but there are some things that just won’t be tolerated regardless. If a MTIVG was associated with a bad movie and the game was just a bad game, it hurts the movie more than it helps it. That is to say, the MTIVG still has to stand on its own merits as a game if it wants to gain any traction amongst gamers.

Very few MTIVGs have been good. That’s not to say that they can’t be, but since they’re often mirror images of the film itself, there really isn’t much room for creative expression on the part of the publisher. They’re often tasked with recreating the movie as a game, sucking any life from the game as a game. It’s more often the case that the movie is great, but the game is just awful. If film studios want to start going the MTIVG route again, they’d best make sure that the publisher has some creative leeway to do their own thing with the property (to an extent) and that social media is leveraged.

The upcoming Star Trek game does look promising and here’s hoping it comes through as a MTIVG. It’s got a lot of history to buck and everyone was pleased by the film Star Trek. Into Darkness looks equally as promising and the fact that Paramount is adding in so many resources into the game makes it seem as if they’re serious about making it work. Here’s hoping that the new Star Trek MTIVG boldly goes where no MTIVG goes before.

Now video games being turned into movies? That’s a whole different story.

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