The slow death of movie tie-ins, their move to mobile and the gamification of cinema

If you have a passing interest in blockbuster cinema and/or comic-books (or perhaps just beards) then there’s a strong chance you’ll be seeing Thor 2: The Dark World over the coming fortnight. You won’t, however, be able to hammer-throw your way down the bustling high-street to drop hard-earned cash on a movie tie-in videogame. And that is a very good thing.

The death of the movie tie-in has been a slow burn that’s seen a mostly abhorrent trickle of blink-and-miss boxed titles muddying the names of everything from Marvel’s Iron Man to JJ Abrams’ Star Trek over the past ten years, each with seemingly diminished returns and lower Metacritic rankings than the last. It’s not difficult to figure out why such titles don’t make the grade: they’re part of a marketing plan rather than a more wholesome creative vision, designed to coincide with the tidal wave of excitement for a given franchise rather than succeed on their own merits. I can only imagine the lofty ideas that are cruelly abandoned, the pre-production time (if there is any) that is soon sucked into crunch time.

It became clear as far back as Super Star Wars that the less synchronous a movie or comic-related game is with any big budget film release in cinemas, the better the chance the game will turn out at least memorable (Konami’s punchy 90s Batman Returns take on Streets Of Rage and Rebellion’s first Aliens Versus Predator come to mind) if not immortal (Rare’s GoldenEye 007 and Starbreeze’s Butcher Bay might flesh out this category) and preferably not landfill (Atari’s ET).

The Arkham series reinforced the point that a passionate, competent developer plus creative freedom and license with the… licence, can equate to wonderful things, even if there is a concurrent filmic take operating in the mainstream culture. If Arkham sent a shockwave through the current-gen movie tie-in gang of hoodlums and hucksters, then it didn’t wipe them out entirely. They just regrouped on mobile devices where their lesser charms might go unnoticed – or often un-reviewed – and their ability to make money from a brand name might prosper under models like free-to-play.

Games like Riddick: The Merc Files, therefore, are the reincarnations of the movie tie-ins of old, and the lack of friction offered by mobile platforms – you leave the cinema, you tap a few screens and you’ve got your vicarious fix, your virtual extension of the franchise, in the palm of your hand for cheaper than a bag of chips – might even put such titles in a stronger position than ever before.

The movie tie-in has become far closer, quite literally in geographic terms, to the films themselves, then; sitting there in our pockets on app stores waiting for those impulse buys as the credits roll. But that’s not where the story ends. There’s a new phase of the interactive movie tie-in coming for us all. If you’re like me, you wince whenever the corner of your eye is captured and reeled in by someone texting or tweeting during a movie in the cinema. If you’re a braver man than me, you might even wander over and shout a bit. And if you’re currently carrying out community service for destroying someone’s mobile phone during the movie’s twist-ending, then allow me to play devil’s advocate and introduce you to the Second Screen Live Experience. It’s a concept being pushed and pioneered by Disney, with titles like The Little Mermaid and The Nightmare Before Christmas getting the Second Screen Live rerelease treatment, and it’s both a sign of the times and – for me – a sign of the end times.

The idea is for viewers to take tablet and smart devices into the cinema with them and interact with on-screen activities at fixed points during the film. If this were a marketing meeting I’d tell you it’s “gamifying” the film. And as much as I dislike the idea, I can’t help thinking it’s an undeniable part of the future. I can easily envisage a dystopia of on-screen live tweets, the sanctioning of screen capturing and selfies at specified points in a movie (a cunning way to force people from their couches into the struggling multiplex arena), and if/when Google Glass penetrates mainstream society, the ‘gamified’ film is only going to be a more enticing prospect to publishers and publicists.

Call me old-fashioned, but when the lightweight movie tie-in went away for a while there, I was quite content with the prospect of waiting years to see my dream partnerships of game developer and franchise come to fruition rather than have the reputations of both potentially tainted by a rushed, botched or lightweight tie-in. In my mind Project Aces were going to be making the next Superman game. Kojima Productions was handling an adaptation of the original Die Hard or an original James Bond game. Crytek had Predator… Well, I can dream.

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