Category Archives: Analysis

Engines or Assets

A strange thought occurred to me a few days ago – is it feasible to license gameworlds?  Probably one of the most time-consuming and expensive parts of games creation is the extensive art design, asset building and debugging of virtual worlds.  This is particularly true of 3D games, but is also a factor in 2D games.  What if there were companies whose sole output is original area/world designs for use with other people’s game ideas? 

Rockstar could license Liberty City, for example, to third-party developers, why don’t they do it?
The most obvious benefit would be ease of development for smaller companies and lower costs.  While certain engines come with Software Development Kits and pre-built assets, there is still a great deal of work to do putting all of that together.  If a company could use a pre-built city or area, they would be free to concentrate on what makes their game unique.  It would be possible for game companies to produce AAA looking titles without the same cost. 
Its not all about the little guy, larger asset creation companies could re-coup development costs by licensing their worlds.  Movies, TV shows and the Music industry have been doing something similar for years.  Movies are sold again on DVD and Blu-ray, TV Shows are syndicated in different territories across the world and can be co-funded by several companies and music is licensed effectively on radio, TV, film and in games.  While individual games can be licensed for use in TV and Films, usually as a minor plot point or backdrop item, and companies are keen to license game engines, I don’t think that world assets have ever been exploited in this way.  If you could sign up several companies to co-fund a world for all of your games, or agree to use the assets you’re developing before starting work, then you could increase your budget and produce more impressive assets as a result.
Maybe there is a niche market for specialist asset houses, like movie prop companies, that focus solely on creating and maintaining interesting and unique worlds for licensing?  A talented bunch of artists could create worlds unlike any we’ve seen, free from the constraints of writer and game designer pressure.
There are a few small issues with this naive utopic vision.
Game companies are fiercely protective of their intellectual property, so are unlikely to license AAA content.  If the licensed content was used to create a superior game this would be doubly embarrassing.  The most likely source for game words would seem to be third parties.  The problem with this is that it is very niche.  If you develop a hi-fidelity city, like Detroit in Deus Ex Human Revolution, the cost would be in the millions, to make it cost-effective it would need to be licensed many times, or else the producer wouldn’t make any money.  How many games developers are looking for, and able to afford the licensing costs of, a futuristic cyberpunk city?  The cost of the license would be less than the cost of development, but you wouldn’t own the assets.
Unless game companies agree on a defacto standard for modelling, physics engines, game engines and sound design then there will always be different choices for each: 3DS Max or Lightwave, Source or Unreal, Havok or Euphoria?  Dependent on the engine there are going to be limitations to what types of games are more naturally inclined to each.  The problem is that the game company doesn’t get to choose what systems are used; they have to go with whatever the asset creator used.  This is great if you’re making a FPS in New York and someone already made an Unreal version of the city, but if you’re making an isometric crime simulator, it could be less than useful.
If you don’t own the world, then you can’t change it.  If your game is set in London and you want to move the location of Big Ben to be slightly closer to St Paul’s Cathedral, because it would take too long to get between the areas otherwise, well, tough, you’re stuck with what you’ve got.  There are ways around this, but depending on the design choices you’ve made in the game, an obvious cut to a different location might be jarring and take the player out of the game.
Game companies don’t generally use shared assets internally.  What I mean by this is that if a company, like Take-Two Interactive, has a Baseball Bat model for their Baseball games, developed by Visual Concepts, they don’t use that baseball bat model in GTA4, developed by Rockstar North.  I realise that Take-two is a publisher, not a game developer, but if they can’t get their in-house teams working from a shared asset pool to reduce costs, then I think its a stretch for companies in competition to work from a shared asset pool.
While digital assets don’t degrade, they don’t age very well either.  When graphics capabilities increase, the relative worth of the assets decreases as it becomes obvious the models don’t look as real as they could, and it becomes less and less desirable to use outdated content.  You can update the content, but that means updating all of it, otherwise you’re left with mismatched items that have the potential to be seen side by side.
If these could be overcome you’ve still got a few more esoteric problems to contend with.
Everything would look like Unreal Tournament or GTA4.  If you think that all games look alike now, with brown-grey space marines running around brown-grey war-torn environments, then its going to be even worse when you realise that you’ve just run down the same corridor for the millionth time in two completely separate games.  A related issue is that if the Gears of War assets were used to create another run and gun cover shooter what would be the point?  If game companies can see that certain games are selling well and that you can buy the assets of the games off the shelf, you can be sure that they’ll attempt to cash in on the craze and produce an identical game.
There are other things we could potentially lose if people have a lower-cost option, as some of the best games have been defined by their limitations.  If you take away the need to create interesting low-cost graphics, you are less likely to get games like Darwinia or Space Giraffe that had to creatively overcome the lack of budget with interesting gameplay and graphics.

So, I think we’ve established it’s an interesting idea that’s not going anywhere, anytime soon, right?

EDIT: I spoke to soon, after a little digging: Battlefield 3 shares technology with EA Sports titles

Adaptable – Why Video Game Adaptations Fail

I love adaptations, let me say that straight away. Even the bad ones, for me, reveal something about the original work that I may have missed or at the very least you see big, shiny robots fight other big, shiny robots. Despite my love, there have been no video game to film adaptations that could be described as great. Why do other adaptations work? Comics have been particularly fertile ground recently, but books, plays and even poems have been turned into successful and interesting films. Why not video games? Games themselves are more cinematic than ever so you’d think its easy to make a good movie based on a video game, right?

The Problem of Interpretation

The Joel Schumacher Batman films were not true sequels to the Tim Burton Batman Films or adaptations of the contemporary comics, they were trying to emulate the anarchic, over-the-top pantomime of the 60’s television show.1 Their failure to meet the canon established by Burton or Miller and the increasingly grim and gritty comic writers that followed in their wake, was part of the reason the first film was not critically well received and why they were ignored when Batman was re-booted to great success in 2005.

Once you release a movie, comic, book or any other work, you don’t get to make a statement explaining why you made the choices you made or to justify the tone and content of your work. Or if you do, its something that the watcher needs to search for or actively pursue; if you’re lucky a viewer might read your blog or listen to the DVD commentary, but this is normally too little or too late to change the initial feeling that has embedded itself in the viewer. This is, of course, true for every type of movie, comic, etc, but is especially damaging for adaptations as they are usually emotive subjects that have preconceived notions already attached.

Fans of Lord of the Rings range from those that have read the books to those that have read all the books, written fanfiction and attend conventions honouring Tom Bombadil. Each person will have a different notion of what’s important in the work, how people look, what they sound like and how they feel about certain passages. Changing those passages, even if the changes make sense to you, will make people angry and lead to them disliking the entire adaptation because they can’t get over that one bad scene. My brother hates the moment in The Return of the King when Sam abandons Frodo, because it doesn’t happen in the book, and no amount of hand-waving about the power of the ring is going to persuade him that that moment is true because his Sam didn’t abandon Frodo.

You could avoid the problem by removing as much of the story element as possible and building a film around a generic premise. Stripped down to the bare essentials the Super Mario Bros game is about two plumber brothers who rescue a Princess from King Koopa. The film, despite its flaws, remains true to this. But, because no-one playing the games had ever experienced what occured in the film the gamers cried foul and the film failed spectacularly to reach their core audience. After the initial flurry of excitement for a film adaptation had died down it died a quiet death at the box office.

The Problem of Multiplicity

If you think its difficult to adapt a single story into a coherent movie imagine the problems inherent in adapting an experience that also allows for each playthrough to be a different experience. Games have been dabbling with multiple endings for a while now, but this is only a symptom of a greater freedom that gaming allows.

Take Baldur’s Gate 2. You create a character who you call Naroth, he’s an elf ranger who also happens to be a child of Bhaal, the god of murder. He interacts with a huge number of NPC’s, some of whom join his party, become friends and even lovers, and a story is crafted from the dialogue and action choices the player makes. At some point he defeats Irenicus, excellently portrayed by David Warner, and the game ends. At the same time, someone else plays the same game, except she creates a human mage called Melody, who happens to be a child of Bhaal, the god of murder. She meets some of the same NPC’s and a different set join her for the adventure, and a story is crafted from the dialogue and action choices the player makes. Eventually she defeats Irenicus and the game ends. Both have played the same game, but neither would agree on the story, except in broad terms. Other players would certainly have different views so that there is no way that you could agree on a canon version of events. Even if you did dictate what was canon, you could hardly enforce it.2

While this is a bigger problem for role-playing games in particular it is still an issue for any game which has diverging gameplay. Take any beat-em-up as an example, players choose different characters dependent on their own pecadillos and each offers a different story. This is probably why Tekken never makes sense to me, as I’m a Hwoarang fan. It doesn’t matter when you’re playing a game, but usually a film crystallises all of the possible diverging narratives into a single story. Am I suggesting that Rashomon would be a good model for the next Tekken Film? It would certainly be interesting to watch and it worked for Jet Li’s martial arts epic Hero.

The Problem of Focus

Even given these two problems, surely a movie adaptation of Bioshock would be great? It has a strong story, it’s heavily scripted and you’ve got a fully realised world that has a strong visual identity to work with. In essence there is very little you have to make up to bring Rapture to the screen. I still think there is an issue which will cause the Bioshock film to disappoint, even if it looks and feels like the game.

The movie adaptation of Watchmen uses the comic as a panel for shot reference and is true to the source material in almost every respect, with the obvious exception of the ending. It’s been hailed as the most successful of the adaptations of Alan Moore’s work to the big screen because of this. However, it is still inferior to the original. I don’t say this because I think that comics are a better form of art than movies, there are plenty of comic book adaptations of films that prove that point for me, but there are certain things that a comic book can do that films cannot. Issue 5 ‘Fearful Symmetry’ is constructed in such a way that the layout and colouring of each page is mirrored, the first page with the last page, second with second to last and so on, culminating in a mirrored splash page at the centre of the issue. Even if the film wished to emulate this in the film, which they don’t attempt, it wouldn’t work as you can’t compare frames of film while sitting in the cinema, it has a relentless pace of 24 frames per second that doesn’t allow for reflection. The film tries to be faithful to the subject matter but because it doesn’t have the same capabilities of the comics medium it ends up being a good-looking copy of the action of the comic without much of the depth of the original.

Bioshock is interesting because it gives you the illusion of control. The moment that Andrew Ryan reveals that you are not in control could not be re-created in a movie. it is true that it could be re-created in a practical sense, but the viewer of the movie would not have the same sensation as the player of the game, how could he? In the game you are the protagonist, you’ve just been told that everything that you have done has been at the behest of a criminally insane monster, you are responsible for the deaths of potentially hundreds of people in a plane crash and you are nothing more than a tool. In a film the protagonist will be told that everything he has done has been at the behest of a criminally insane monster, he is responsible for the deaths of potentially hundreds of people in a plane crash and that he is nothing more than a tool. In the game you are the centre of attention, in the film you are a passive observer. Depending on the quality of the actor, script and direction it is possible that this scene will be marrow-chillingly effective, but it can’t possibly recreate the same emotional resonance.

The Only Neat Thing To Do

One option, and what Irrational Games is doing with Bioshock Infinite, is ignore the story from the first game completely. It is not possible to recreate the story and resonance of a game in a satisfying way for the screen. What you can do is take the themes, setting and concepts and use as much or as little as you like to make a great story. Going back to Batman, the core ideas that Christopher Nolan took from the Batman mythos were few and stripped down to the bare essentials: there is a extremely rich man with revenge issues who dresses up as a bat and fights crime. Names are kept, but the characters like Alfred or The Joker are changed enough to make the story work or make the film better. What they’ve done is ignore the story elements almost completely and are concentrating on the strongest elements of character, those which a large majority of people ascribe to Batman, and little else. No-one would’ve cared if Bane was a bumbling idiot or a super-genius in Batman & Robin if the movie was good.

Some video game adaptations have already attempted to sidestep the ‘game’ story. The Resident Evil series of films takes parts of the story from the games and has created an alternate universe where similar things happen but everything revolves around Milla Jovovich’s character, Alice. Now, by no stretch of the imagination are these films great, but they are the best of the current crop of game adaptations.3 Even in this case though, Alice is a player substitute, but because the games don’t have an Alice character, its less noticeable that she is having the fun that players normally have when running around Raccoon City shooting zombies.

The danger is, the more you remove, the more the first problem raises it’s head. As a film-maker, you have to make a choice. Do you want the film to be faithful or be good? I would argue that a game adaptation can’t be both. I would love to be proved wrong.

1 Whether they succeeded in that endeavour is debatable.
2 Which means the failure of the D&D movie is even harder to bear. The most interesting things about D&D are the various campaign settings and to make up a new, inconsistent, wafer-thin and frankly boring version of Forgotten Realms in the week it seemed the scriptwriters had to write the film when you already have a Forgotten Realms type setting called Forgotten Realms with twenty years of development, backstory, history and character on the shelf is head-scratchingly dumb.
3 The Resident Evil games are essentially adaptations of zombie movies so perhaps it’s easier to do it in reverse.