March 18, 2012 12:47 AM | John Polson
[Written by Eric Caoili on Gamasutra.] Movie tie-in games tend to have a poor reputation with gamers, as they've been discouraged by past purchases promising an interactive version of their favorite films but delivering slipshod experiences lacking the excitement of the source material.
Indie developer Adam "Atomic" Saltsman, best known for creating one-button mobile/online hit Canabalt, hopes to avoid the pitfalls other movie-based titles have fallen into with his iOS game for Suzanne Collins' young adult novel series The Hunger Games and Lionsgate's upcoming film adaptation.
Like Funtactix's social game based on the same popular franchise, Saltsman's The Hunger Games: Girl on Fire will launch alongside the movie next week, and is part of a strategy by Lionsgate to release Hunger Games tie-ins on emerging platforms like Facebook and iOS instead of on traditional consoles.
Rather than a big-budget 3D game that follows the film's storyline, Girl on Fire is a tight action experience that features Treasure-inspired, 16-bit-style graphics, and focuses on events leading up to the Hunger Games -- an annual event in which children are forced by their government to hunt each other down until only one remains alive.
Why tie-in games are almost always awful
Beyond budgeting and development time constraints, there's another reason why most tie-in games have failed to have the impact of their source material, says Saltsman. It's the same thing that separates tie-ins from licensed games.
"Tie-in games have almost always been awful," he says. "That is, games that are specifically paired with a specific film, in concrete ways, tend to suffer horribly. Licensed games, however, fare quite a bit better. At least once a year we are treated to a great licensed game that is sort of peripherally related to a film, even though it is not technically related."
He points to Sunsoft's Batman for the NES (as well as Batman: Arkham Asylum, released not long after The Dark Knight) as one of those great licensed games that didn't rigidly follow its movie inspiration: "It came out the same year as Tim Burton's original film, and they shared some cutscene artwork, but it felt a lot more like a licensed game to me."
Saltsman notes, "There was crazy stuff in that game that was certainly not in the film (dudes with jetpacks?), but those were additions made with the gameplay in mind. I like this sentence from [its Wikipedia page]: 'It was received well despite changes from the movie it's based upon.'"
"I do not think tie-in games have evolved, but I wish they would," he adds. "Arguably the best official Star Wars game ever made is the one where everyone is Lego. When game makers are free to interpret things in a way that plays well as a game, obviously the results are way more appealing.
"These games that blur the line between 'tie-in' and 'licensed' seem to be the richest game experiences in this space."
Advantages of a "teaser game"
Saltsman argues that the limitations of mobile and teaser games can lead to better ideas: "I think the constraints of the platform encourage innovative games in a way that the relative power of consoles and PCs don't. How do you put Avatar on an iPhone? You don't!"
"This is a sort of classic design problem - how do you take a really specific inspiration from one medium and transmute that into some new, foreign form factor in a way that fully realizes its potential without straying too far?" asks the indie developer.
His solution is to make a teaser game that's limited in scope, and taking place outside of the film's events: "Aside from just meshing better with a kind of small game development process, the big advantage of making a teaser game has to do with what I would call the leftover space in a tie-in game."
Like Saltsman's Canabalt, Girl on Fire has the novels and movie's heroine Katniss running as if in a sidescroller, but the game is focused on the character's bow-and-arrow hunting trips in the forest -- before she brings her archery skills to the actual Hunger Games.
"If a tie-in game does follow the events of the film, then either you already know what will happen, or the game is spoiling the film's story," he says. "Those options both suck. So, a tie-in game that doesn't suck, I think it follows naturally, and can't follow the events of the film."
"That doesn't always leave a lot of space to explore. I think teaser games are a perfect way to explore those little slices of leftover space -- the valid material that exists in between the tie-in game and the licensed game."
Similar to how film studios bring together key figures from all over the industry to work on a project, Saltsman has assembled an all-star cast of indie game notables to help him work on Girl on Fire: Mark Johns and Kevin Coulton of Doomlaser fame (Hot Throttle, Space Barnacle) are helping design and program the title, and Paul Veer (Super Crate Box) is serving as the lead artist and animator.
On the audio side, Daniel Baranowsky (Canabalt, Super Meat Boy) is composing an original soundtrack, while Ozone Sound & Music (Max and Al's Heavy-Duty) is working on the sound effects. Kert Gartner (Winnitron), who created some outstanding promotional videos for Super Crate Box and Aquaria on iPad, will also release a launch trailer for Girl on Fire.
"Our schedule was tight enough that we had to rough most of the design out on paper and then just lock in and make the thing," says Saltsman. "A one- or two- person studio isn't going to manage that, but bringing on a whole other studio seemed like overkill. I already knew who I wanted to work with anyways, so why not see if they wanted to come along for the ride?
"A good team can do anything. When you connect with the right people, it's one of these 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts' situations. Your ability to create things is amplified in a way that is almost intoxicating. At the same time, of course, communication problems or other issues can have the same magnified effect, it's kind of a two-way street."
Saltsman believes that film companies approaching indie developers for their tie-in games is something we'll see a lot more in the future, thanks to how indie game making has evolved in recent years: "I think the key is the same thing that has been the driver of this whole indie renaissance for the last few years, which is digital distribution."
"As soon as small teams can reach a wide audience, these kinds of opportunities or responsibilities emerge pretty naturally," he adds.