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Then S%#t Goes Boom! Movies vs Video Games [Designing Gamer]

A lot of F and N readers are from film and literary nerdship, so here comes a little helping of cross-cultural columnizing.

Games and Movies have shared a sort of awfully awkward sisterhood since the early eighties. We could talk about their first public spat when the ET movie became a classic and…the ET game famously infamously found its way into a landfill somewhere in the desert, because so many units of it were un-bought, returned, and generally avoided.

Deep in the desert is...a mysterious landfill of ET Atari games.

Games and movies made a lukewarm truce when James Bond’s Goldeneye became a hit, and hence the poster child for why to make a movie-based game, “we really should make a game for Comic Book Movie 19, remember Goldeneye? It was good.” Or we could talk about all those Uwe Boll Movies…
But we aren’t doing that today. Today we’re gonna over-simplify a really complicated thing. The question that most film people ask me:  What’s the difference between making a movie and making a game?
You know I hate when people ask that.

How do games get greenlit? The super duper simplified version.

Just like the pictures, there are lots of types of games that all have different money paths. There’s a term in the industry called a AAA (“Triple A”, like the roadside towing thing) game. I’ve seen game designers debate this over hot pockets in the studio kitchen for hours on end, so let’s keep it simple; it’s the game version of a blockbuster. It’s a big budget game. Things go boom. Pretty vistas. Lots of other things that costs millions of dollars. These type of games are usually rained down from biz/marketing of a publisher. I said usually. (Please game friends, don’t email me about Valve.)  Publishers are the gods of this world.  If your company has a relationship with the publisher, they pay your studio to make the game that they want to sell.

If you have clout, like you fell into a management role on one of the few AAA games that happened into a good schedule and the powers that be didn’t request something ridiculous at the last minute, then you can call your buddies at the publisher. You know, the one or two you went drinking with at E3. And you suggest things. And, you have lots of luck if you say things like, “It’s like Halo mixed with Grand Theft Auto, but with some social networking.”

On a side note:  People with money love the word “social” right now. Watch, right now I’ll get a game deal: “It’s a game, but you basically log on to Facebook to get social, and then you socially log on to twitter, which links you back to Facebook. Oh and one more thing…social.” Hold on a sec, a publisher is calling.

Ok, back now.

On the other extreme are the equivalent of indie films. One or two people with a dream and a couple laptops.

Pocket God is a huge iPhone hit made by a small team.

But greenlighting in this case is sitting down one day, doing a gut check, and getting ready to go down a very rough road of cost and emotional drama. Most people don’t finish the game, or don’t polish it well. We are about 75% done with my own indy creation, Zig Zag Zombie, and I can definitely tell you that the polish thing is a huge part of the work on even a small iPhone game.

How’s it different to work on a game?

A lot of people compare the game industry to the Studio System days of Hollywood.

In a movie, even a really big one, there’s a core creative team that figures out the screenplay, the budget, etc, while no one else is really employed yet. In games, most of the people are salaried employees of a studio (think studio system Hollywood). If a studio doesn’t have overlapping contracts, there’s a lot of waste involved there, and people get laid off. But that’s a whole different article.

The big elephant in the room is this next point. Movies are generally an art with an established method. Even Avatar is still a movie. It has a story, it has the principles of photography, it has dialogue.
Games are two things. A video game is the content (story, design, etc.), and it’s a freaking piece of software. And that’s where it gets farther into the undiscovered country than the time Spock and Kirk went to that weird planet where that old guy was pretending to be God and then tried to kill them.

The most simple analogy is that, making a video game requires two big sets of knowledge. One set is what first comes to mind;  what makes it fun, what happens in the game, the story and the graphics. The other set is software development. The second one is often overlooked.  Imagine that, you have a screenplay for a movie. You want to make the movie. But while you are filming the movie, you are also designing and constructing the camera!  And you can’t design the camera beforehand because time is tight! That is pretty close to the reality of making a video game.

The following is recklessly opinionated, so proceed slowly:

All that being said is why old games generally don’t stay super fun decades later. Because the software aspect of the industry has left them behind. We all get teary eyed when we think of our old favorites. But go plug in your NES and play one of those games now, and you’ll probably get bored pretty fast. Movies, though are still movies. Avatar is a fancy version of the same techniques that directors have used for years. So you can go watch a movie from 20 years ago, like the Godfather, and it’s still better than Avatar.


Most people have the misconception that making a game is the design and look of the experience. But good games are much more than that. Even a ho hum idea executed to perfection can make a good game, but a great idea with even slight interface flaws can turn a 90% game into a 50% reviewed C-level game.

We all have our own theories, and one of my favorites is that one of the most vital aspects of making a game, and also one of the least glamorous, is preventing frustration. Do the buttons do what you expect them to do? When you control the character, do you feel like he does what you’re telling him to? People don’t mind hard games. Think Ninja Gaiden. This is a very hard game that is very well executed and it controls as expected. When you lose, you feel like it’s your fault, not that you were robbed. And that’s the key.

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image credit: Sascha Grant

image credit: John McNab

image credit: seanbonner