The growth of blockbuster videogames

Feature Seb Patrick 9 Oct 2012 - 19:22

As development bills spiral ever upwards, do videogames like Medal of Honor: Warfighter now challenge Hollywood’s extravagant costs?

Although precise figures are difficult to pin down, and a lot of the ‘evidence’ seems to be anecdotal, a claim that’s been made for some time now is that the videogame industry is actually larger, in terms of gross profits than the movie industry. Certainly, in the UK, figures do exist to show that in 2011, games market sales totalled £1.92bn, just edging ahead of retail video at £1.8bn, although, of course, this doesn’t take into account the £1bn taken at the cinematic box office in the same period.

Any way you spin it, however, and whether or not you pull out figures to suggest it’s actually winning or not, it’s clear that the games industry is a genuine, credible challenger to movies when it comes to the battle for our hard-earned cash. There are doubtless many reasons for this (not least the relative per-unit costs meaning that a games title can sell a third of the number of copies as a DVD or Blu-ray and still gross the same figure), but chief among them is clearly the fact that, over the last decade, games have sought to draw in some of that action-movie-fan market by taking Hollywood on at its own game.

Although it would have seemed inconceivable barely a decade or so ago, top games are now made with budgets that could easily pay for a decent theatrical blockbuster. Admittedly, the excesses of Hollywood’s most extravagant productions (like Spider-Man 3’s reputed $260m cost) have yet to be scratched, but the $100m production budget of Grand Theft Auto 4, generally accepted in the industry, based on available figures, as the most expensive game ever produced, would put many of its movie contemporaries to shame.

With this budget, first and foremost, comes the ability to portray graphics that reach the pinnacle of what current consoles and PCs can achieve, and possibly, what they may be able to achieve for some years to come, with many arguing that 3D gaming has now hit a visual plateau. It’s therefore now considered the norm for games in the mainstream market to look, not to mention sound, huge, expansive and cinematic. Nothing is small, and nothing looks cheap.

The upcoming EA first-person-shooter, Medal of Honor: Warfighter, is the latest in a series of games that have actively sought to push the graphics envelope, and in doing so, bring gamers closer to an interactive cinematic experience. While sci-fi orientated blockbusters are often criticised for extensive use of CGI sequences, lending them an unrealistic look that gets compared unfavourably to computer games, by the same token, many games that take on a ‘real world’ setting can, particularly at the speed of action they provide, appear indistinguishable from live-action film.

Not that present-day graphics are perfect, particularly with regards to close-up character rendering, things like speech syncing are still way off presenting a vision that could be confused with reality (although a special nod should go to Rockstar’s L.A. Noire). But, when it comes to scale of spectacle, and the expansive worlds that games are able to drop players into, you have to look at the very top level of effects-heavy cinema, an Avatar, say, to find films that can match up. Huge, sprawling environments can be created by games developers, and then destroyed spectacularly by players. By the nature of the way games are developed, particularly the use of existing SDKs and engines (in Warfighter’s case, the next-generation-proof Frostbite 2 engine), this can be achieved in far more economical fashion than the budget-sapping effect that CGI tends to have on films, and this, of course, means there can be far more of it.

Visuals aren’t the only indicator of decent production values, of course. And in a far cry from the days where the plot of a game consisted of a couple of lines in an instruction manual telling you the bad guy’s name, top-level blockbuster games are as famed for their immersive plots and even character development. Games such as Heavy Rain, Mass Effect and Deus Ex: Human Revolution actively seek to involve the player in driving the direction of a narrative and shaping a personality, rather than simply playing through something pre-scripted, and this is a level of interactivity that movies cannot, and never will be able to, offer.

When it comes to real-world games, meanwhile, the increased production values mean a greater emphasis can be placed on authenticity. Warfighter takes this trend further than most, hiring actual U.S. Tier 1 SOCOM Operators to consult in the writing process (“while deployed overseas”, according to EA). This is the latest step for a series that marked its arrival back in 1999 with the original Medal of Honor on PS1, with a direct movie linkup, courtesy of Steven Spielberg’s contribution to the plot development. Warfighter is also the latest big-budget game to take the Hollywood-esque step of hiring a major band for soundtrack duties, in this case, Linkin Park.

Of course, videogames should never try to be just like films, nor exactly like any other medium. Games have distinct characteristics that make for a unique entertainment experience, and you only have to look at the wretched interactive movie boom of the early ‘90s to see the problems inherent in trying to do little more than replicate a film in game form. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the games industry is learning more and more from its movie counterpart when it comes to producing, not to mention marketing, blockbuster games with high production values. So long as the better elements of big-budget cinema (stunning visuals, deep and involving plots) and not the weaker (a sense of hollow style over substance, an often-destructive disregard for financial prudence) are the influence, the relationship can only continue to be beneficial.

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