The art of avoiding disappointment

The fast-buck business of licensing popular comic book-movie crossovers to video game developers has left a sour taste in this reporter's mouth…

The birth of the modern-day video game occurred in 1977 with the release of Space Wars, but what we know as "comics" today began with the Egyptian Book of Death in around 1600 BC.
Rather like the videogame medium, comics have since evolved into something almost indistinguishable from their original incarnations.

Having once been used for illustrating governmental records of genocide and death, comics are now the medium of choice to tell thousands of unique stories every month.

They have metamorphosed from an artistic form of bureaucracy to the home of escapism.

And from recording the lives of the Pharaohs, to documenting the exploits of the X-Men.
And the reasons for the longevity of the medium?

Unlike movies or video games, comics have never been dependent on electricity or modern technology – or indeed, anything much beyond having something to draw and write with.

They are novellas for those who can’t be bothered to read. They are sex without the foreplay.

The throwaway, dime for a day’s entertainment nature of early titles such as Yellow Kid may no longer exist in today’s $2 and upwards, once-a-month, advert-riddled titles.

But the exuberance and individuality of many comic book labels' creators, and the thriving e-comic scene, is the closest parallel to the apparently halcyon days of videogame creators like David and Richard Darling, who worked from their bedrooms through the 1980s to reap untold riches a decade later.

Ideally the instantaneous nature of comics, and their typically larger than life, action-filled storylines and themes would be the reasons behind the proliferation of comic book-to-video game translations.

But in reality it’s a far more telling reason that is to blame for the often-roughshod products that come to fruition.

Licensing. And, now more than ever: movie licensing.

Following a fairly lengthy period of absence from cinema screens and store shelves, both the comic book film genre and all subsequent tie-ins were recently revitalised by the release of the X Men movie in 2000.

Add to that the astonishingly successful Spiderman movie in 2002

The film conversion of Peter Parker aka Spiderman's rise to superherodom ripped apart the record books by taking a mind-blowing $114.8m in its three opening days, beating back the seemingly unstoppable Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone ($90.3m) last May.

As such, comics and their celluloid translations are now very much in vogue – but for all the wrong reasons. Namely money.

Money has lead to a proliferation of comic book-videogame and movie license tie-ins, where speed not quality is of the essence.
Spiderman: The Movie, X2: Wolverine’s Revenge, and Hulk: The Movie have all been released on: Gamecube, PS2, Xbox and Game Boy Advance - all developed in a flash without regard for their decades of success and richness of their characters' histories throughout the generations.

It is far from being a trend exclusive to the comic book game genre.

The videogames of the Harry Potter books - Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets - were released on more platforms than any other game in recent history.

The game: Harry Potter - The Philosopher's Stone, was the fastest-selling computer game of 2001, with over 300,000 copies sold in its five weeks.

"Of course, at the root of everything in the games industry there's money," says the lead designer of a major US games development house who wished to remain anonymous.

"It's fair to say we partly chose to develop our last comic book license for two main reasons," he said.

"Firstly, the enormous potential of this genre, which is still fantastically rich and deep 70 years after [the un-named title] was first published. And secondly, money."

Just as idioms of our modern society have developed out of such facets of pop culture as television and film, so some of the more famous and long-running comic book characters have become equally culturally prominent.

The popularity of spin-off games from comic books owes greatly to this fact, the games designer explains.

According to him, there is little difference in developing a game based on a comic than developing a game based on a film, going someway towards explaining why noteworthy titles featuring comic book characters are few and far between, despite enjoying popularity in their original format.

Spiderman: The Movie is without doubt the best offering within the conversion tie-in bunch, and it represents the pinnacle of the genre.

Despite an otherwise sub-standard bunch, licensing games from comics has the potential to work very well if the success of EA’s Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is a sign of what is to come.

Above all else The Two Towers it is a pure videogame translation of a particular film, rather than a generic game with characters from the film pasted within it.

And that's exactly how it should be - developers should take note and look more closely at what is being translated.

The implication of racing ahead with eyes solely on dollars at the development stage means true lovers of the genre are left disappointed by missed opportunities to bring their heroes to life.