The games industry's legacy of low quality products based on film properties is at an end, according to Bithell Games founder Mike Bithell.
Speaking at the Yorkshire Games Festival last week, the prominent indie developer said that his experience working with Lionsgate on John Wick Hex revealed a surprising level of mutual respect and trust -- key aspects of any successful collaboration, but aspects that have historically been absent in the creation of licensed games.
"Being a cheap to produce game is often a big part of that," Bithell said, in response to an audience question about why games based on film properties have such a poor reputation. "If you look at bad licensed games historically, they were usually made in nine months -- I've worked on a nine-month licensed game, and it's not fun.
"It all comes down to that lack of respect. You're being asked to make something bad"
"It all comes down to that lack of respect. You're being asked to make something bad. And everyone knows it's bad upfront, by the way -- nobody was going into those quick, fast, cheap games thinking it's going to redefine the genre."
From the perspective of the film industry, Bithell said, licensed games have long been viewed as "essentially a lunchbox" -- and game developers were granted no more access to the key creative talent on a film than a company manufacturing a piece of plastic merchandise.
"Historically, with licensed games, you're not really in the room where it happens," he added. "You're not with the people who make the film... You're kept at arm's length."
When the deal that led to John Wick Hex came together -- between Bithell Games, Good Shepherd Entertainment, and the rights holder, Lionsgate -- Bithell and his team assumed that they would encounter that same resistance to effective collaboration. However, it was apparent even in the earliest meetings that Lionsgate was interested in making something distinctive, rather than simply chasing the most dollars or the biggest possible margin.
"They didn't want to keep us at arm's length," Bithell said. "They actually welcomed us into the process. I'm not mentioning that because I got to hang out with the best martial artists in the world -- although I did, it was great, and they kicked my ass -- it was just a surprising part of the process."
Bithell regaled the audience at the Yorkshire Games Festival of his experiences working with John Wick's martial arts team, its choreographers and writers, and even key actors like Ian McShane and Lance Reddick. This degree of trust was essential to making John Wick Hex "not a lunchbox," as Bithell put it, and he believes that this positive experience was more than just an outlier -- it was indicative of a broader shift in the way film companies now see the games industry.
"They didn't want to keep us at arm's length. They actually welcomed us into the process"
"What's interesting in the last few years is the people in the suits, in the expensive boardrooms, are nerds now," Bithell continued. "They're gamers, and that's really cool.
"My first meeting at Lionsgate, before they let me speak to the really important people, I got to speak to some of the people I would be working with directly on a day-to-day basis. The first thing they said to me was, 'We want to be making Goldeneye.' And it's like, 'Okay, that's a high bar, we're probably not gonna hit that.'
"But the objective is now to make good games, because these are people that care about good games. I use the lunchbox thing a lot, but it's true -- there is a respect now for games, and an understanding of how big games are."
That respect, however, has to travel in both directions. At the start of his talk, Bithell recounted in detail a situation he alluded to in an interview with GamesIndustry.biz last year -- one that illustrates how the historical lack of trust and understanding between film companies and game developers has always been mutual.
Around three months into the development of John Wick Hex, Bithell was showing an early build of the concept to Lionsgate's executives -- including the company's head of production, Jason Constantine. After watching a demonstration of a turn-based strategy interpretation of John Wick, Constantine had a fairly big question:
"The objective is now to make good games, because these are people that care about good games"
"Why does John Wick keep waiting while people shoot at him? Isn't the whole thing about John Wick that he's always moving and doing interesting stuff?"
Bithell initially resisted the question, chalking up the confusion to a lack of understanding within Hollywood of game genres. He even loaded up YouTube clips to illustrate what turn-based strategy games looked like, missing the wood in his mad dash for the trees. It was somewhere during a clip of Mario vs Rabbids that he realised that things weren't going well.
"I was losing the room very, very quickly, and looking pretty stupid," he recalled. "And Jason, after five minutes of me doing this -- I think to save me more than anything -- said, 'Mike, you're the director, we're working with you because we trust you. If you say that John Wick should stand on the spot while people shoot at him, I'm happy to drop this.'
"He was genuinely okay with us going down that road -- and that's amazingly supportive -- but he had pointed out a massive problem with our game. We then shifted the entire thing into what it is now -- a real-time strategy, turn-based hybrid, and all the better for it.
"The reason I tell that story is it really established the kind of relationship we had, and the process John Wick was made under -- a lot of respect, and us having the humility as a team to listen to that information as we were given it."
It hardly needs to be said that Lionsgate's open-minded approach was not a typical feature of licensed game development ten years ago, but Bithell asserted that it will be increasingly common in the future. At the start of the first day of the Yorkshire Games Festival, the mobile publisher King gave a talk in which it revealed that 247 million people play its games each month. John Wick Hex doesn't have that many players, Bithell said, but film companies are now acutely aware that games are increasingly played at that scale.
"The knowledge that there is that amount of people playing games, and there is that amount of money involved in the business, does mean that people take us more seriously now," he said. "That level of respect is coming up, and with that respect comes bigger budgets, more time, and reaching out to developers who are going to make cool stuff."