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New 'Kong' monkeys with game industry

Peter Jackson's "King Kong" is latest to leverage advantages of releasing movie in conjunction with an associated game. Video: Kong vs. T-Rex Images: A beast of a game

When Peter Jackson's new film "King Kong" opens nationally on Wednesday, fans of the original 1933 movie won't be the only ones with an advance sense of the story line.

Thousands of people have been playing the "King Kong" video game since late last month. And while the game and the film by the hit-making "Lord of the Rings" director didn't come out on the same date, the releases were close enough to be seen in the two industries as a tandem launch.

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Video: Kong vs. T-Rex
Ubisoft's "King Kong" is helping build hype for the Peter Jackson movie. Get a look at the game play here.

Kong is the latest example of an evolving trend in Hollywood that many see as the future of filmed fiction. With some Hollywood films like "King Kong" costing as much as $200 million or more to make, the film business is desperate for ways to recoup some of those expenses. And it is turning increasingly to its video game licensees as a way to do so.

That makes sense, given that the video game business itself now earns more in sales each year than does Hollywood. And while there are no guarantees that a licensed game will make a difference, movie studios see cooperating with the Ubisofts and Electronic Arts of the world as an attractive bet.

Beyond the potential financial advantages, the tandem releases are eroding boundaries between where stories begin and end.

"When you have a total viewpoint of a franchise and of a narrative and a universe, having a movie and a game is a really unique opportunity for people to explore a particular piece of fiction in a multitude of directions," said Jason Hall, senior vice president at Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.

To date, there have been several prominent coordinated film and movie releases, including multiple "Harry Potter" and "The Matrix" titles. And there's no doubt that putting out a movie like "King Kong" and an associated video game around the same time offers irresistible cross-marketing possibilities. After all, having the film on everyone's lips gives unparalleled name recognition to the game. And vice versa.

"When doing a movie-based game, you want to get the maximum buzz when the movie is released," said Xavier Poix, producer of Ubisoft's "King Kong" game. "So the decision was made very early that we needed to be there at the moment when the movie (came) out."

Yet there is no guarantee tandem releases will help the bottom lines of the films and games.

King Kong

"It's still viewed (in Hollywood) as supplemental revenue," said Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis at The NPD Group, "because it's dependent to a large part on the box office appeal of the film. So if you have a disappointing film, it's going to impact the sales of the game. If the studio doesn't do its job in promoting the movie, or if it isn't received well...then it's not an independent variable where they can count on this much revenue from the license."

But to the production teams, which often work closely together, the appeal of simultaneously creating a movie and related game goes far beyond pure marketing. Whereas film-based games used to be little more than marketing vehicles for movies, that dynamic is changing. Now, games like "King Kong" and the latest entries in "The Matrix" series can actually provide extensions to the films' narratives.

Jackson, of course, has a history of creating films that are developed closely alongside associated video games. In the case of both "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King," the games hit shelves less than two months prior to the movies.

When it came to his film about the world's best-known gorilla, "Peter Jackson said he wanted the game to be a sister or brother to the movie," Poix said. "He wanted it to be an extension of the movie he had created." Further, while Jackson was consumed with making "King Kong" the film, he made a point of staying involved in the production of the game about the ferocious but misunderstood primate.

"Of course, Peter Jackson was very busy with his movie," said Poix, "but he took a lot of time to help us with our game. We went to New Zealand (where Jackson's production company is) five times. We showed him what we had and we got his feedback."

Cooperation between teams can go much further than mere feedback from the director, though, and can give game producers big advantages over the process of creating games from scratch.

A significant head start
For example, the game developers benefit from being able to use assets--characters, environments, behaviors, creatures and the like--from the films. Further, while the idea is to make a game that goes well beyond the story of an associated film, having the basic elements of a film as a starting point represents a significant head start.

"When starting a video game, you of course have to have some idea of game play, but you also need to design a world," Poix said. "You need a universe. When getting a movie license world, you already have these."

By all accounts, the cooperation between the two productions paid off for Poix and his team. Most reviews of the "King Kong" game have been positive, and it was by far the best-seller at Microsoft's Xbox 360 November launch party in California's Mojave desert.

Yet according to Hall, creating high-quality movie-based games that launch in tandem with their associated film can be difficult.

"When a movie is officially green-lit and set into production, the amount of time (until release) is shorter than what it takes to create a AAA video game," Hall said. "So you get this chicken-and-egg thing where you don't want to develop a game unless you're sure you have a movie. People end up cramming the production of the video game and that creates a qualitative degradation."

That leaves video game production companies with unappealing choices, said Hall: Wait to launch until movies come out on DVD or accept the likelihood of turning out a flawed game.

But because the video game industry is now turning to next-generation consoles and higher game prices, Hall said he expects the two industries to find a way to make the process work.

"I don't know anybody who's going to pay $60 for a next-generation product that's not of good quality," he said. "The (game) industry is figuring out how to get ahead of a film so they can come out (the same time) as the film."

That's exactly what the producers of the "King Kong" game did, said Poix, who added that his team had been working on the game for more than six months before they ever saw a film script.

Of course, as a remake, "King Kong" gave the video game producers some obvious creative advantages.

"When we began the game, we had studied the 1933 movie," Poix said.

Meanwhile, Jackson's significant involvement in the creation of the "King Kong" game was surprisingly common for a director, said Hall.

He explained that the Wachowski brothers--makers of the Matrix films--went so far as to write story lines into Atari's "The Matrix: Path of Neo" that intentionally extended the larger Matrix story. That's something film and game audiences should expect more of.

"If you like a movie and you want more of that, video games are offering a real way to explore more of that fiction you liked so much," Hall said. "I think that's something to pay attention to, as we have growing audiences that span multiple mediums."