Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

2 May, 2006

Changing the medium
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 7:21 PM

Great works of art occur in all media. Works that capture the imagination and inspire us. The Lord of the Rings (LotR) is the classic example for novels, a rich story full of interesting characters and strong continuity.

Yet, sometimes these works don’t move from one medium to another very gracefully. LotR didn’t translate into movie format very well until very recently. The differences between movies and novels were rather larger, and difficult to overcome. The business side of things made things even more difficult: Few studios wanted to do more than one movie for the whole series. Conventional wisdom was that audiences didn’t have the attention span to sit for a multi-hour epic movie. Yet, it took someone well-versed in the original work and knowledgeable in the new medium to really make the transition.

Of course, there are innumerable counterexamples to this: times when a classic work has not made the transition from one media to another. Perhaps the most notable examples are the works that try to go from movies to computer games and vice-versa.

What can we learn about trying to take our work from one media to another?

Perhaps the first thing to do is ask why we want to move our work from one media to another. If you have a hit computer game, what’s the motivation to bring it to another media?

A recent post on Lost Garden linked to a discussion about Nintendo’s success with Pokemon. Part of that success, in both Japan and the U.S., was to get the brand in as many media as possible. In Japan, that meant getting the game into a popular manga magazine, a TV show, and a line of toys. In the U.S. that meant making cultural changes to the TV show and games, while learning from the experiences they had in Japan.

Because the brand was everywhere, it reinforced the popularity. Kids that read the comics or watched the TV show wanted more, so they bought the game. As the game grew in popularity, it likely became easier to build partnerships to spread the brand. Nothing makes something popular quite like popularity, as they say. :)

So, now we know why: it makes a ton of money. So, let’s look at the how. Let’s start with the obvious part: how do you do it wrong? We can pick any number of bad game movies (or movie games) as our example.

Let’s start with a game movie: DOOM. Now, the movie itself wasn’t too bad, but it didn’t quite capture the feeling of the game. How many people do you think left that movie wanting to know more about the game? How many fans of the game do you think were disappointed with the movie? So, the movie really didn’t capture the essence of the game, and it neither brought new people to the brand nor satisfied people that were interested in the game. So, while it may have made a reasonable amount of money, it really didn’t help the DOOM brand like all the Pokemon examples above did.

One of the problems is that you have to eliminate the biggest strength of the game medium to put it into movie format: interactivity. The DOOM games didn’t have great story, deep characters, or any of that other fluff because you got to control the action. In fact, Carmack has said numerous times that he does not believe traditional story has a place in computer games, so the quality of the games rely almost entirely on the interactivity (or “action”, as some mights say). Removing that interactivity leaves you with a flat story. Trying to introduce elements not found in the original to spice up the story, such as a team of Marines, deeper characters, dialog, strange door technology, etc., will move the result further from the original game. This is why the DOOM movie didn’t really make the transition very well.

This isn’t to say that a transition between different media is impossible. Consider the LotR example above. The strength of text is that you can go on with wonderful descriptions and interesting tangents. You can take hours to read a book and not care, usually because you can divide the task up between multiple sessions. Movies don’t have that strength, so you have to turn luscious descriptions into beautiful costuming and scenery, and streamline the story (sorry, Tom Bombadil). You can still capture what made the books great into movies, even if you can’t be 100% true. As I said above, you have to be very familiar with the source, and an adept with the new media you are translating the work to. But retaining the strengths of the old media (the long, detailed descriptions in the book) and focusing on the strengths of the new media (presenting the fighting and wars as long action scenes) will result in a superior product.

When considering the reverse, movie games, things get even tricker. How can you take a linear story and put interactivity into it? Again, most people try to take out the interesting part of games, the interactivity, and put the player through highly structured story with little room for deviation. Or, you let the player do things that were impossible in the movie, and run the risk of making the story too far removed from the original source. You also have the problem of restricted window of opportunity. By the time the details for the movie are worked out enough for licensing, you have very little time to finish a game. This means that the game either has to be rushed to be launched near the time of the movie, or you miss that window of opportunity and risk selling less copies as people become less interested in the movie. I think one easy way to avoid this would be to time the game to release about the same time as the DVD, perhaps even look into some bundling deals.

So, enough about what doesn’t work: how can you get this to work successfully? Well, the Pokemon case study above shows some lessons we can learn. Pokemon translated to other media well because the central element, the gameplay, translated well to other media. The collection mechanism worked well when trying to sell other objects which required consuming and collecting: trading card games, stuffed animals, etc. Even the nature of the game, where each individual “monster” has it’s own stats, worked well for the comic book format: you just have small comics that focus on the stats for individual monsters. This shows off the setting well and plays to the strengths of the new medium. Now, I’m willing to bet that this wasn’t necessarily planned by Nintendo, but they were willing to take advantage of a happy coincidence. However, designers these days can take advantage of this knowledge when it comes time to translate their works from one media to another.

So, here’s the lesson: the best way to translate to a new media is to keep the strengths of the old media and take advantage of the strengths of the new media as you translate from one to the other.

It seems so simple. But, why do so many projects fail? Obviously there’s a failure in one part or another: either the strengths of the old medium are ignored, or the strengths of the new medium aren’t used effectively. In the case of the DOOM movie, the strengths of the old medium were ignored; besides a disorientating “first person” camera view and the “BFG”, there was very little from the game in the movie. I think that perhaps DOOM wasn’t the best option to bring to the screen if the goal was to help extend the brand. (Honestly, it was just an attempt to cash in on a franchise name.) Sometimes it’s hard for the creator or fans of the work in the original medium to really describe the strengths. Sometimes it’s hard for someone familiar with the new target medium to understand what made the original so compelling.

Also, sometimes it’s not easy to translate a work from one medium to another: sometimes it just won’t fit. Of course, it’s hard to say what will and will not fit; people said LotR could never be made into a movie, but an intrepid and persistent director along with the right amount of technology proved that wrong. “Never say never,” indeed.

Is there any deeper secret? Is it really as simple as I’ve said? Is it really so difficult to understand?

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  1. A very good read – thanks for putting this out there. Makes me think a lot about the games that have been made into movies – and why they did or didn’t work.

    How do you think Resident Evil worked out? There was a plot to work with, and the movie definitely benefited from the fact that RE is ‘horror’ in gaming – so the translation was easy (both strive to make the audience uncomfortable).

    Tomb Raider surprised me – I haven’t seen it, but there were two already… which speaks well enough for them.

    Final Fantasy on the other hand… had nothing to do with the game, and wasn’t enough on it’s own as a movie for normals.

    I wonder if this could be explored more to identify games that would make good movies based on criteria – that way we dno’t get any more Mario Brothers…

    Comment by Grimwell — 2 May, 2006 @ 9:19 PM

  2. I also found it interesting how Pokemon grew organically at first. It was a title that few people has much faith in. Only after initial sales patterns were observed did Nintendo start investing heavily in the game’s promotion. Also, the US strategy, though mildly different in the details, was based heavily on the success in Japan. To me this demonstrates those rare traits that are so often lost when looking at strategy: Organizational learning and response time.

    As you say Pokemon promotion was expensive. How many companies out there would have the cajones to build a television show around a moderately successful product. How many companies would instead be happy to sit on their successful franchise for years before letting it trickle into other territories or media. It is worth noting that at the time, this type of cross promotion with video games was quite unique. Someone had to step out on a limb to make these decisions. Without the proper culture and organizational structure, it would have never happpend.

    Success comes as much from the grass roots culture of an organization as it does from stregic technique and understanding.

    take care,

    Comment by Danc — 3 May, 2006 @ 8:12 AM

  3. I found very insightful your description of what makes a successful media crossing. The new media object should not rely on people interested in it because they were interested in the old, but instead also stand on its own and cause people to become interested in the original. “The LOTR movies were good – hey, there’s also a book out about them!” is the surest sign of success.

    Comment by Brask Mumei — 4 May, 2006 @ 6:39 PM

  4. Friday Design Challenge: Change of media

    In a previous blog entry I talked about changing the medium: taking a work from one media to another. (
    So, here’s this week’s challenge: take a work from another media and create a pitch to turn it into a game. F…

    Trackback by Psychochild's Blog — 18 May, 2006 @ 11:21 PM

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