Sony Seeks Gaming Edge for New Film
By MICHAEL THURESSON
In Hollywood’s latest attempt to tie movie promotions with video games, Sony Pictures is letting game developers graft characters from its upcoming action-horror movie “Underworld” onto an existing PC game.
The new version, called “Underworld: Bloodline,” was released earlier this month as a customized version of the original “Half-Life” game, which has sold 3 million copies.
The plan is to generate a cult following among video game hobbyists that leads to a box office hit when the film is released on Sept. 19.
“They want to generate word of mouth and it works because ‘Half-Life’ has the environment that lends itself very smoothly to the motion picture,” said Nick Crincoli, a technology and entertainment lawyer with Morrison & Foerster who is not involved with the project.
Sony declined to comment, citing its policy against commenting on movies before their release.
The cross-marketing of movies and video games typically starts with the feature’s release, not the game’s. Success at the box office has been used as a springboard for console-based video games such as Atari Inc.’s “Enter the Matrix,” which has spent several weeks atop the top-selling video game charts this summer.
“Half-Life,” originally made by a company called Valve Software, is one of the industry’s most successful “mods” games that are built collaboratively by independent programmers making continual updates.
Hollywood has so far only dabbled with mods. Interscope Records used one to promote two musicians under its label, for example.
How it works
Users who own the “Half-Life” game can go to Sony Picture’s web site to download the “Underworld: Bloodline” mod for free.
To design “Underworld,” Sony hired Big Spaceship, a New York-based video game development company, which in turn hired six outside contractors each located in a different country to program the mod.
“Underworld” is based on an ongoing war between vampires and werewolves. In the game the player chooses to be on one side and fight using unique weapons and abilities. Because “Half-Life” and “Underworld” share similar shadowy, fantastical backdrops, the pairing is natural, video game developers said.
Mods are typically downloaded from the Internet onto a PC that has the original mod game saved on its hard drive. They can make a game more interesting by adding new elements, like levels or characters. Mod programmers are often amateurs looking for exposure and the opportunity to be hired by a game company.
Video game companies expect mods to become popular as new versions of video game consoles, such as Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox, become more like computers and come with built-in memory and Internet connections.
To date, the “Underworld” mod has gotten good reviews for its boldness and quality. But letting game enthusiasts strongly influence the pre-release hype surrounding a film is a risk. Gaming hobbyists who play mods are typically averse to Hollywood marketing ploys and would be quick to spread the word if the “Underworld” game were disappointing.
Such an effect would be disastrous for Sony, which has been stung by several box office disappointments over the past year. “If this had been a lousy component, you would have heard negative press from the gamers and the buzz is vicious,” Crincoli said. “This mod is actually good.”
Another risk involves control. Several years ago, 20th Century Fox came across a video game developer who had illegally made a mod based on the studio’s science fiction movie “Aliens.” It ordered the developer to shut down the game immediately, said John Baldrica, a video game development instructor at UCLA Extension.
Baldrica said that the studio’s long-time opposition to mods has led video game hobbyists to coin the term “getting Foxed,” referring to Hollywood’s strict enforcement of copyright law on mod developers.
While not all types of movies lend themselves well to video games, the mod concept has some financial selling points. Since the mod is built upon an existing game, it can be completed in a short time span.
“It only took these guys two months to build it and will give the movie a longer shelf life,” said Baldrica.