How is the relationship between games and films changing?
No mainstream news story about gaming is complete without a comparison, usually fatuous, between the revenues of the games industry and the movie industry. As a story isn't interesting without conflict, these comparisons usually emphasise games as a threat to cinema.
The reality is more complex. Consolidation of media groups, and the desire to spread lucrative IP across as many revenue fronts as possible, have fostered increasing collaboration and inter-reliance between the game and film industries.
Licensed games remain a lucrative merchandising avenue, while the capacity for increased graphical and audio fidelity to the source material have encouraged closer co-operation between film productions and the development of the game.
This inter-dependence is complex - both blockbuster movies and current generation games have huge budgets and long lead times that need to be justified, while a dodgy star likeness will both annoy the actor and damage a game's prospects. It's in everyone's interests to work closely together to sell as many games and cinema tickets as possible.
However, of late the collaboration has become even closer. Peter Jackson took an active creative involvement in Ubisoft's game of his King Kong remake, and has now taken a couple of steps further into the games industry with the formation of Wingnut Interactive.
The launch of the new company follows on from Jackson's involvement with the (currently stalled) Halo movie, and represents a collaboration between Jackson and Microsoft on future properties - including a Halo-related title and new IP.
Meanwhile, Midway's Chicago studio is working on John Woo's Stranglehold, a sequel to the director's classic HK action flick Hard Boiled. Not only is Woo credited as director of the game, but he's brought the star of the film, Chow Yun Fat, with him to reprise the role of lead character Tequila Yuen.
The role of a director in films is to be in creative charge of a production, taking charge of cast and crew to ensure everything from camera angles and performances to editing and effects come together to tell a story in an effective way.
Depending on their level of creative control, a movie director can either be a hired hand tasked with the job of bringing a studio project to screen within a previously established set of constraints, or the main author of a film who picks a story and tells it in the way they see fit.
In recent decades, increasing numbers of directors have seized more control over their work and raised their own profiles. This greater prominence means that increasingly audiences take as much of an interest in who is behind the camera as in front of it, with concerns raised when, say, a Bryan Singer is replaced by a Brett Ratner at the helm of a movie.
The contrast with the games industry, where behind the scenes figures rarely have a particularly high profile, and even the most well known developer hardly guarantees retail success, is jarring. So what can film directors bring to games, and what benefits do they gain from coming to an industry that is not exactly known for its creative freedoms?
The answer perhaps is one of profile and maturity. Cinema has a head start of over half a century over games, and it's only in recent decades that directors have become truly prominent.
The Molyneuxs and Miyamotos of the games industry may have a certain public profile, but are yet to become gossip column fodder in the way that Spielberg or Tarantino are. The games industry is still the youngest brother in the family of visual media, without the respectability or public prominence of cinema.
What does this mean for film directors coming into the video gaming arena? Well, for a start they're big fish entering a relatively small pond, and as such their presence creates ripples. Witness the slightly awestruck tone of Microsoft's statements regarding their collaboration with Jackson - it may be unclear yet exactly what his creative involvement in Wingnut Interactive products may be, but what is already clear is that as a world famous genius-in-residence Jackson will be calling the shots.
Will the games industry get much in return? While big name directors may bring credibility to a film in the eyes of cinemagoers, it is less certain whether that translates into games sales. Shorn of an actual film licence, will consumers really consider the involvement of a director as a major selling point?
The history of directors dabbling in other media is decidedly mixed, with cinematic success not necessarily crossing the divide. If TV audiences didn't warm to Spielberg's Amazing Stories or Lucas's Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, will gamers be interested in games from Jackson and Woo?
Arguably, success is dependent on what unique qualities a director brings to games, and how well they translate into a primarily interactive medium.
Early interviews emphasise Jackson's interest in videogames as a storytelling medium, as well as hinting that Wingnut Interactive's projects may not result in games in a conventional sense. These hints raise the ominous prospect that Wingnut Interactive's âgames' may be more along the lines of the âinteractive movies' that burgeoned with the introduction of CD-Rom and the potential for cramming each disc with hours of FMV.
It's a dispiriting possibility, but one which would be strangely appropriate. The strong sense of artistic control that film directors bring to their work could, in the context of a game, end up squeezing the player out of the equation. Time will tell whether Jackson's stories will leave much room for play.
Over in Woo's title, matters seem more promising for genuine interactivity, with the director's influence felt less in terms of story and more in aesthetics. While Jackson seems to want an audience for his stories, Stranglehold appears to be offering players the chance to be an active part of the kind of mayhem that Woo's films are notorious for, with attacks characterised by slow-motion and flocks of white doves.
If the involvement of movie directors in games is a risk with high costs and no guarantee of success, then it's at least a risk that the directors in question, previously tasked with bringing movies in on budget and to audience satisfaction, are familiar with.
If Jackson and Woo can bring to their respective games the kind of critical respectability and high revenues that their movies have created in the past, and do it without breaking banks or deadlines, then this could be the beginning of a beautiful new phase in the friendship between films and games.