Today, filmgoers can catch Vin Diesel slicing open all manner of CGI creatures in Riddick, the third entry in the actor's action/sci-fi franchise. It's a role Diesel is well suited for: He looks like he was cloned from '80s action leads and has a granite-low voice that can purr over the loudest NOS engine.
What you might not know about Vin Diesel is that he also happens to be a massive Dungeons & Dragons nerd — so much that one of his tattoos in xXx read "Melkor," the name of the mage that he role-plays. Gaming is a lifelong passion of Diesel's, so it's no great surprise that his production company, One Race Films, eventually branched out to create Tigon Games. What type of games do they make?
They make Vin Diesel: The Video Game.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (2004) and The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena (2009) are games that delve deeper into the backstory for Riddick, a character who first debuted in cinemas with 2000's Pitch Black. Butcher Bay is a prequel that explains how Riddick got his trademark eyes — a pivotal moment for his character that was relegated to a throwaway line in the original film. The game boasted a voice cast that included several recognizable actors — Cole Hauser, Ron Perlman, Michael Rooker, and Diesel himself. And Butcher Bay had an additional edge on top of the valuable story context that it added to the film series: It was actually a good game.
The history of movie tie-in games can be traced directly to Hollywood studios and their never-ending quest to make more money off of a property’s license. An Atari game based on a property like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was assumed, in 1982, to be a surefire way to make easy money. Quoting unnamed "analysts," The New York Times came to that very conclusion: "Atari's license for the home version of MCA's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’' is the most recent example of what some analysts say will be an increasingly profitable source of games."
That didn't happen. E.T. went on to be one of the largest belly-flops in gaming history, almost singlehandedly crushing an industry in its infancy. It was buggy and rushed into stores after a hurried development schedule. Backlash from annoyed parents and demands for refunds saw Atari try anything to quiet consumers down — including, most infamously, burying three million unsold copies of the game in a concrete coffin outside of Alamogordo, N.M.
The biggest problem for movie tie-in games is the length of the development cycle. Your average AAA game takes about four years to develop. But for movie-linked games, the development schedule is almost always accelerated to ensure that a game is released in time to ride the publicity wave of a film. For video game developers, less time means less of everything: Features, length, and overall polish go out the window so the game can land on store shelves in time.
With that in mind, it's easy to see why a good game based on a movie is a bit of a diamond in the rough. But they do exist. X-Men Origins: Wolverine — Uncaged Edition (2009) was a blast, letting players rip and tear through people (and robots and mystical beings and Wendigos) in a way that was far more satisfying than the actual film. Spider-Man 2: The Game (2004) kicked off a long string of games featuring the Marvel web-slinger in an open world sandbox, allowing players to swing anywhere and everywhere around New York City. Most famously, 1997's Nintendo 64 classic Goldeneye 007 redefined first-person shooters for the non-PC community (and spawned a generation of gamers that cursed at anyone who played as Oddjob).
Unfortunately, games like Butcher Bay and Goldeneye remain the exception to the rule. For every Goldeneye, there are nine other Bond games that try desperately to recapture the spark. In the wake of so many failures, developers finally just remade Golden 007 as Goldeneye 007:Reloaded, replacing Pierce Brosnan with Daniel Craig — and it still failed to reach anywhere near the heights of the original. And a good film doesn't necessarily mean a good game: Despite the sky-high popularity of the film franchise, the Iron Man trilogy of tie-in games were so progressively terrible that they culminated in a generic iOS "endless runner" game made just two months before Iron Man 3 hit theaters.
As easy as it is to be cynical about them, tie-in games have a strong core concept: They want to give passive filmgoers the chance to experience what it's like to actually be the character. Firefox — the 1982 Clint Eastwood film about fighting Russians with a mind-controlled fighter jet — was Atari's second (and last) attempt to make a LaserDisc-based arcade game. As they designed the stand-up cabinet, developers described going through "through miles of film — about 20 to 30 hours worth." Their bold claim: "Firefox [the game] is to other video games what Michael Jackson’s Thriller is to other rock videos. More importantly, it is complete interactive video: the Firefox player is catapulted into the starring role of a hit motion picture." Unfortunately, it was also obscenely expensive to make — which meant the process was never repeated again.
But there's a valuable lesson for video game developers in Firefox, and in The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. A tie-in game really is a potential goldmine, but it needs to do more than ride the coattails of a film — it needs to be a part of it, in both conception and execution.