Tied Up With Spiderweb To a Blockbuster Movie

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, May 13, 2007

In my experience, New Yorkers are a quiet sort. They rarely say anything, and they don't seem to mind if you punch them, or shoot spider webbing, right in the face. Conveniently, there's never any traffic, though there is this weird quirk that just about everybody drives the same few types of car. If you need to get across town, just catch a ride by standing on somebody's windshield. Nobody will bat an eye.

That's big-city life in Spider-Man 3, a new video game published by Activision for all the major game consoles. The movie is already a blockbuster, and the game may be on track to be a hit, as well. At game rental site Gamefly, the various versions of the new title occupied four of the top 10 slots for the week.

Movie tie-ins represent crucial business for the video game industry because when consumers like a movie, they also tend to pick up the game. Movie-inspired games go back to the early days of the video game industry, such as Atari's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.

That 1980s game was a flop. But games have come a long way since then. Activision's two previous Spider-Man games, which have sold more than 16 million units, rank among the five best-selling movie tie-in games of all time, according to research firm NPD Funworld.

Conversely, great games that lack box-office synergy often fail, no matter how good the reviews are. Last week, an executive at a game company wrote an essay, posted on Newsweek writer N'Gai Croal's game blog, about what makes a game a hit. The appeal of a game's concept and the timing of its release are the most important criteria, wrote Steve Allison, chief marketing officer at Midway. "Execution is only the third most important factor in a game's success," he wrote. "Yes, third."

A lot of the time, spinoff games seem to be thrown together without much care or effort. Two of the most panned PlayStation games out now are based on the TV shows "The Shield" and "The Sopranos." (Speaking of TV-inspired games, one based on "Lost" is on the way.)

Activision's Spider-Man games have been the darn-good exceptions to the rule, though the new one feels like a dud and has drawn some negative reviews.

The first one, developed by the same group that made the original Tony Hawk skateboard titles, introduced a new kind of thrill to gamers. There had been more than a dozen Spider-Man games before developer Neversoft, now owned by Activision, took a swing at it. But none had ever come as close to nailing the thrill of what jumping and flying through the rooftops of Manhattan might be like.

Game sequels have a better track record than movie sequels: The former might use much of the same "game engine" software, with a few fixes and tweaks. But the new Spider-Man was built from scratch to take advantage of the new game consoles -- and response in the gamer community to the superhero's new adventure has not been friendly.

Last week, the video-game-oriented Web comic Penny Arcade gave its pithy assessment of the game in a joke help manual titled "What to Do if You Have Purchased Spider-Man 3: A Practical Guide." The only tip: "Don't panic. Simply lie down, and wait to die."

Reviewers at two game sites have written that the frustrating elements of playing Spider-Man 3 made them want to throw their game controllers through their TV screens. Many note that the game feels like an unfinished product that was rushed out the door as if to meet, say, a movie-opening date.

I was a fan of the first two games and played the new one for about six or seven hours total on each of the new consoles last week. My TV screen is intact -- but, boy, are there some problems in this game. For game developers, it's sometimes a bumpy ride when it comes to figuring out how to design great games from scratch for a new console like the PlayStation 3. This seems like one of those bumps.

The latest Spidey game features a version of Manhattan that is more than twice the size of the one in the last game, but there's a lot of empty-feeling space. But the most annoying feature is the game's camera angles, which can make players more than a little dizzy as Spidey navigates the skyscrapers of New York City.

As the game industry has matured, its savvy at re-creating the experience you seek in a movie theater has grown. It's fun to watch Tobey Maguire squirt webbing from his wrists and swing through the city in the movies, but it's more fun to control Spider-Man and hear the same actors' voices and encounter the same villains from the movies.

For guy gamers who used to run around playing at superheroes in the back yard, it's an easy sell, and the marketing isn't too shabby, either: Go see the film at the Uptown Theater, and you'll get treated to a commercial for the new game before the movie begins.

In the movie, Peter Parker's girlfriend loses her role in a Broadway musical the same day she gets some negative reviews. Such influence, the Daily Bugle's theater critic! As a newspaper guy, that's a power fantasy I can get into, right up there with the superhero thing.

But it's just a fantasy. The new Spider-Man movie got the worst reviews of the three films, and when it opened last week, the movie broke box-office records.

In the longer term, some of the negative buzz might slow the game's final sales, but it's too soon to tell. Activision wouldn't say how many units of Spider-Man 3 it expects to sell. Based on strong sales of hits like Guitar Hero 2 and Call of Duty 3, the company expects to report record earnings that nearly double what it took in for the corresponding period last year.

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