Putting PlayStation on the silver screen

Efforts to adapt games to TV and film have generally been poorly received -- but the cultural and business climate we're in may be perfect for Sony's new venture

Sony recently made two announcements with the potential to seriously shape the company's future. The first, which has earned a hell of a lot of headlines, is that it's going to work with Microsoft on cloud services -- a very sensible move given how high the stakes in cloud infrastructure are getting, and a further confirmation of the dramatic turn Microsoft's approach to the gaming space is taking.

The second announcement earned rather less attention, but could nonetheless end up being a defining turn on the road to Sony's future. That announcement concerned a new unit that will handle film and TV productions based on PlayStation game properties: PlayStation Productions.

On the surface, that's nothing new -- game companies have been setting up little divisions aimed at hawking their IP to Hollywood for decades, after all. Success, both creative and commercial, has been extremely limited, but plenty of companies are still pushing this angle. Nintendo is getting behind cross-media adaptations of many of its properties, for example, and several publishers are doing likewise for their top franchises.

"It's essentially the Marvel Studios model, and Sony makes no bones about that being its inspiration"

Sony has a pretty impressive stable of IP, but that's not what makes PlayStation Productions interesting. What makes it interesting, and potentially game-changing if things go well, is that Sony plans to actually handle production of its own projects. It is launching an actual studio, not just an office to farm out IP.

That's essentially the Marvel Studios model, and Sony makes no bones about that being its inspiration. Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige was one of the people PlayStation Productions' Asad Qizilbash spoke to in order to get an understanding of the industry, which speaks to the ambitions of the new unit. Of course, Sony's PlayStation library is a collection of diverse IPs, not a (sort-of) coherent universe, so the plan won't be to do anything remotely like the MCU. But the way Marvel handled developing and producing its own properties, keeping a grip on their creative direction even while working with some of the media industry's giants, looks like a blueprint PlayStation could certainly do worse than follow.

Much attention will no doubt be paid to the movie side of things, but I suspect that the real opportunity for Sony lies in television. As competition around Netflix heats up, with a round of multi-billion-dollar mergers starting to consolidate content around a handful of players who will all vie for the streaming service throne, the appetite among those companies for original content is going to be absolutely enormous. Netflix alone is spending a fortune annually on original TV content -- including a series based on CD Projekt's The Witcher, due to air later this year -- while Disney is dropping a no-doubt eye-watering amount of money on creating Marvel and Star Wars content for its upcoming streaming service, and Amazon is grabbing many high-profile licenses for Prime Video.

"Detective Pikachu's commercial success opens a lot of doors for other creators and other IPs"

In this climate, a production studio which has full access to the PlayStation IP library and the ability to draw on the experience and know-how of Sony Pictures ought to be worth its weight in gold. It doesn't hurt that this escalation of the competition between streaming services is coming at a point in media history where 'geeky' properties -- fantasy, superhero, science-fiction and so on -- are more mainstream than ever before, making that PlayStation library all the more appealing to would-be buyers.

The timing is pretty much ideal, then, which really just leaves the question mark over whether Sony's new division will actually be able to do justice to its properties on the small (or big) screen. This is an inevitable question, because so few video game adaptations have actually worked well in the past -- not least because, bluntly, most video game adaptations have been pretty bashful and embarrassed about actually being video game adaptations.

It is not difficult to imagine how many PlayStation IPs could work in TV and film, with Uncharted perhaps the most obvious example

It is not difficult to imagine how many PlayStation IPs could work in TV and film, with Uncharted perhaps the most obvious example

There has been a consistent underlying assumption that a movie or TV show based on a game needs to appeal to an audience beyond gamers, an audience of people who will need to have everything explained from scratch and will actually be turned off by too much "game stuff" surviving the adaptation. All too often the consequence has been a movie that doesn't appeal to either side; there's not enough of the things people loved in the source material to excite the existing audience, but also nothing to really draw in the supposed wider audience.

"The library of PlayStation IP is now unquestionably one of the most valuable things it owns"

Reading between the lines of post-mortem type interviews and conversations with people who have worked on these adaptations, a big part of the problem has always been the need for these adaptations to appeal not just to their target audience (whom the creators know are perfectly savvy in the shorthand and culture of videogames), but to the much, much older and far less game-aware studio bosses and executives who get to sign off on final decisions.

On this front, there are some encouraging signs. PlayStation Productions' own launch announcement made the right noises about wanting to use its IP in ways that existing game consumers would enjoy. More importantly, though, I suspect everyone involved in adapting game IP for other media must have been watching the success of Detective Pikachu very closely over the past few weeks. If you'd told me a while ago that the first game IP to be really successfully translated into a movie would be Pokémon, I'd have assumed you'd lost your marbles. But by simply assuming from the very outset that the audience has some familiarity with and enthusiasm for the Pokemon franchise, Detective Pikachu ends up being able to spin together a film that's head and shoulders above most other game adaptations.

Detective Pikachu's commercial success, in spite of (or perhaps because of) avoiding any kind of half-apologetic explanation of what's going on for the uninitiated, opens a lot of doors for other creators and other IPs. It should serve as a reminder that there are multiple generations of potential cinema-goers and TV-watchers out there for whom gaming franchises are intimately familiar.

The potential for game IP to break out beyond the controller is a longstanding topic within the industry, of course, but it's never looked more commercially attractive. It's not just film and TV, either; Nintendo's collaboration with Universal Studios to build a theme park in Osaka is the most high-profile of the moves to push gaming IP into real-world spaces, but there are also a number of interesting developments aimed at creating VR entertainment destinations based on major gaming properties. It's easy to dismiss that end of the industry as small potatoes, and no doubt it will start out that way, but ultimately there's really serious money to be made, as anyone who's compared the revenue from Disney's parks business unit to its movies will quickly have realised.

If Sony can really make a success out of PlayStation Productions, this is a potentially transformative business venture for the company -- the library of PlayStation IP is now unquestionably one of the most valuable things it owns. That stable of IP is pretty wide-ranging and could potentially work for a variety of approaches, from kids TV through to Netflix / HBO style TV blockbusters or theatrical movies. In a landscape littered with the corpses of high-profile failures -- from projects that made it off the ground but sucked to those that just died on the launchpad (looking at Halo, here, not to mention Sony's own previous movie efforts) -- PlayStation Productions could finally be the mix of market climate and company focus that makes game-licensed media properly work.

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Latest comments (5)

Richard Browne Head of External Projects, Digital Extremes2 years ago
It’s not really rocket science, its all about finding the right talent and letting them run with it. Creatively someone has to make sure the producer or showrunner “gets it” after that stay away. The biggest failing of games in films and films in games is when one side thinks they know how the otherside works. They are very different mediums and require very different talent.
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Alex Barnfield Lead Engineer, 17-BIT2 years ago
@Richard Browne: I feel like this is the accepted wisdom, and also that it's the mistake which has been the downfall of almost every video game movie. The rare examples of games which stick close to their source material (or at the very least the tone and aesthetic) such as Tomb Raider, Pokemon, Prince of Persia and Resident Evil are the ones which enjoyed financial success. Maybe one day a film will come which makes a truly outstanding film in its own right by ignoring the original medium and just putting a few key words into a blender, but that film hasn't been released yet. That is usually just the hubris of those in the film industry wishing it so.

There was a recent book, Lights, Camera, Game-Over about video game adaptations which included an article on the Wing Commander movie; the only adaptation of a franchise I remember looking forward to and that should have been the easiest one since Wing Commander was arguably the only success story from the age of FMV.
The producer talked at length about how he would never work with creators of an ip from another medium again, and defended all the decisions he made to move away from the source material because it's a different medium. A lovely quote from it was from the films lead:
"Guys like that are why it was so easy to walk away from the movie business... if they had allowed him to put what was in his brain to the screen it would have been a very special sci-fi movie. And instead it's just not. It fails on a lot of levels. I'm not crapping on anyone outside of the producer who screwed over Chris"

There are no benefits to using an existing IP if you're going to throw the baby out with bathwater. A movie which feels like a video game isn't always a bad thing, and fans will either be your biggest champions or be the voice that drives people away from the cinema. They will accept some pretty average movies; but they won't accept something which has no relation to the IP.
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Richard Browne Head of External Projects, Digital Extremes2 years ago
Well that’s all about “getting it”. I know and love Chris, he was in no way qualified to direct that movie. They had a first time writer who wrote a bad script, a first time director, a producer who had only ever done schlock and a low budget. I mean it was rooted in failure. Like Uwe Boll movies these sorts of productions are never going to work and are set up to fail because of the same fundamentals. When Tomb Raider was set up Keith Boesky ensured there were quality people attached and a production budget to make it feasible. Ubisoft took a similar path with Prince of Persia. Wasn’t the greatest film but the basis of it was sound.
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Alex Barnfield Lead Engineer, 17-BIT2 years ago
No one involved, except the producer, denied their failures. I highlighted that example as the producer was unapologetic in his conscious decision to ignore the source material as it was a different medium with different requirements. Only a fool would argue that the right budget or talent was behind that production - however I would, based on all the successes and failures of adaptations say that was counter-intuitively not what made it loss maker; all of the movies mentioned had rotten tomatoes between 37% and 19%. For better or worse creating a good movie isn't the key to success with video game adaptations.

It just had to keep the fans happy, which it didn't, and that's a common thread of all the biggest failures. It was a particularly shocking example as the same director had already created for the same franchise what were essentially two movies which did please the fans.

The best example for me would be the Resident Evil franchise; in particular Resident Evil Apocalypse which was arguably as bad as Wing Commander; terrible critic scores, an appalling script, incompetently made, the Nemesis was just this laughable rubber suit - but it has a shockingly high audience score, 60% and made more money than the first movie. Why? Because even more so than the original it was recognizable as the franchise they'd come to see.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 2 years ago
I have a really hard time figuring out what is the lesser experience. Watching the worst movie based on a video game, or playing the worst game based on a movie, or consuming the Ouroboros that is Street Fighter The Movie The Game both at the same time; on a Tuesday.

The reality for decades has been, that movies are licensed to make cheap throw away games that cost nothing and are sold to rubes based on brand recognition. Vice versa, Uwe Boll realized a lot of video rental stores survived on PS1 games, licensed them because he knew he would make his money back getting rental places to outfit their stores with IPs they recognized from renting out games. Turns out both approaches work.

Meanwhile, an 8h game is considered short and the big cinematic games pack at least 20h to 80h of content and more locations, characters and plot threads than a 2h movie can fit. The Assassin's Creed movie cost $125 million, which is more than the latest season of Game of Thrones. What will it be? Building the brand in a format which can contain the content of the game, or wasting money on a billion Dollar box-office gamble?
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