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How Hollywood production values increased next-gen James Bond games success

28-Aug-2004 • Gaming

The Hollywood Reporter have published a special feature this week on how Hollywood production values have aided the success of the next-gen James Bond games:

When Electronic Arts' next James Bond video game adventure is released in mid-November, there'll be no sign of Pierce Brosnan. But Judi Dench will reprise her role as "M" and Christopher Lee will revive the part he played in 1974's "The Man With The Golden Gun," that of the villainous Francisco Scaramanga.

No Pierce Brosnan? Who then will play Bond? No one, actually. Still, thanks to Dench and Lee, "GoldenEye: Rogue Agent" -- a first-person shooter sequel to the hugely successful 1997 hit "GoldenEye 007" -- is one of a host of video games that is shaking and stirring up the gaming space with their A-list Hollywood talent roster.

The games are being produced more than ever like low- and not-so-low-budget films, with popular movie and TV stars lending their voices and images. The goal, according to several game producers, is to recreate the experience of the licensed vehicle. It's also to get some buzz going and to differentiate the game from the other titles on store shelves.

"Competition has reached a level where it's not enough to have a game with licensed characters," says David Cole, president of San Diego, Calif.-based DFC Intelligence. "To distinguish your game from the others, you need to go to the next level and actually bring in the talent themselves. For example, with "Enter The Matrix," the game designers worked real closely with the moviemakers from day one. That gave a lot of visibility to the game."

Technology has also enabled the inclusion of recognizable stars. In earlier times, publishers licensed characters who showed up on screen as blocky sprites that didn't look much like the real-life actors at all. Today, the graphics quality of PC and console games allows talent to appear much like they do on screen, whether TV or silver.

Regardless why there is a surge in A-list talent in games, the underlying result, industry observers fear, will be to further inflate production budgets that have been steadily climbing with no pinnacle in sight.

"This could really get out of hand if publishers and developers aren't careful," says DFC's Cole.

And publishers realize that. At Electronic Arts, the executive producer of "GoldenEye: Rogue Agent," Patrick Gilmore, says "Of course bringing in A-list talent increases the budget. But, to produce a game, you need to budget for voice talent anyway. And if a higher-priced person can do a better job, we'll go for that person - if the budget allows."

While no publisher would estimate on the record how much it costs to bring in top talent, it's generally felt that it can increase a game's budget by 2% to 5%, or an increase of from $50,000 to $500,000.

"Our major cost on any game is associated with the talent that creates that game whether it's the talent under our roof or the voice talent," Gilmore observes. "Like a film, you have above-the-line talent and below-the-line talent. You make a great game by assembling the very best people together to make it. As a percentage of the overall budget, how much would that represent? It's hard for me to even guess since it varies so much from one person to the next."

DFC's Cole notes that Hollywood is much more eager these days to work with the games industry than ever before. "In the past, the studios would say, 'Here, we'll sell you this license. No go do with it what you may.' But now they're saying, 'Yeah, we'll get involved.' There used to be a stigma attached to working on a videogame; now both the stars and the movie companies think it's the cool thing to do."

That's one reason why Sammy Studios was able to get Michael Chiklis to recreate his TV role as Vic Mackey, the anger management-challenged cop, in its forthcoming third-person action game "The Shield," which will be released for Xbox and PlayStation 2 in the spring. In the game, players will be able to control Mackey, employing some of the tactics he uses on the show, including intimidating suspects, employing brute force, accepting and offering bribes, and planting incriminating evidence.

Likewise, Atari can get Patrick Stewart and Michael Clarke Duncan to lend their voices to its upcoming action-adventure game, "Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone," which will come out this fall for PlayStation 2. Midway, too, was able to sign David Duchovny and Powers Boothe for its action-thriller "Area 51" - scheduled for first-half 2005 release for Xbox and PlayStation 2 -- and Michael Madsen and Ron Perlman for its crime drama "NARC." - planned for early 2005 release for Xbox and PlayStation 2.

Producers like to say that bringing in outside talent guarantees the authenticity of the game, which is why they often shell out for production assistance as well. Sammy Studios, for example, hired "The Shield" writer and co-producer Scott Rosenbaum to assist with the look and feel of the game.

"I can't stress enough how important that authenticity is to us," says Bryan Chu, product manager of "The Shield" game. "So many licenses go wrong when they deviate from what makes the license valuable."

EA, too, has gone beyond the acting talent by signing on Ken Adams - the man behind the look of the Bond movies - as its production designer and Kym Barrett - who did the costume design for "The Matrix" film trilogy - as the costume designer for "GoldenEye: Rogue Agent." The publisher describes the creative team for the game as including over 120 artists, game designers, and engineers, some of whom are veterans of such films as "Shrek," "Titanic," "Star Wars: Episode II Attack Of The Clones," and "X-Men 2."

This convergence of Hollywood and video game talent is just the beginning, according to the game publishers who see the trend producing a real return on investment.

" 'The Shield' will be the very first entertainment license we've produced," says Tami Hathaway, the director of licensing for two-year-old Sammy Studios. "But we intend to use A-list talent in our games as often as we possibly can whenever it's appropriate. It definitely makes it a more authentic experience if you actually have the actors' voices and likenesses. And it adds to the perceived quality of the game."

"Yes, it's authenticity ... and the quality of the performance," says EA's Gilmore. "Casting a game is just like casting a movie or a TV show. Christopher Lee, for example, is a wonderful actor who really understands the character of Scaramanga and is able to bring a lot of nuance and subtlety to his voice performance. So that is absolutely worth it to us to have him on board."

Gilmore predicts that the next generation of console hardware - the Xbox 2, GameCube 2, and PlayStation 3 - will demand an even higher level of sophistication in terms of the graphics, music, and performance in a game.

"This is no longer a world of bleeps and bloops or pre-rendered, hand-animated graphics," he explains. "As the platforms are capable of delivering more and more sophisticated graphics and sound, we'll be looking for more and more sophisticated levels of performance and character animation to go with that. And that's all about completing and enriching the gameplay experience and making it more whole."

But, warns DFC's Cole, publishers ought to be careful about picking and choosing the games that deserve A-list treatment.

"If you look at the original 'GoldenEye 007,' I believe that sold well over $200 million. And so, with such a high sales potential, its probably worth it to EA to spend the money to add that extra polish to the sequel. But they're setting the bar pretty high and these budgets could get out of hand if publishers aren't extra careful."

The problem, Cole adds, is that there's no scientific formula for determining what effect, if any, Hollywood talent has on sales.

"It's a tough thing for producers to prove," he says, "but I'm sure they'll keep a close eye on the successes and failures. If there are some big success stories with talent in them, others will jump on board. But if you start to see B-level games in which developers have spent a lot of money on A-level talent, that's when you'll see everyone start to back off."

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.

Thanks to `Cubby` for the alert.

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