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Why are movie games so bad?

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E.T., the game that started this mess.

It's not that often that you can definitively point to the beginning of a trend. But when it comes to really bad video games based on movies, there's a pretty clear starting point.

It was 1982, and Atari was hoping to capitalize on the monster success of Steven Spielberg's "E.T." It gave the game's developers less than six months to create the title -- and the rush-job showed. Wise players bypassed it and Atari ended up burying thousands -- if not millions -- of unsold copies in a New Mexico landfill while ushering in what would become known as the great video game crash of 1983.

Nearly 30 years later, things really haven't changed that much.

To be fair, a handful of good movie-based games have popped up over the years. Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64 remains a fan favorite 14 years after its release, while a game based on Vin Diesel flick The Chronicles of Riddick wowed players with its gritty gameplay. But in large part, games that come out in conjunction with major motion pictures...well, to put it mildly, suck.

Check out the Worst Movie Video Games Ever

The reasons for that vary from title to title, but more often than not it comes down to a matter of timing. It takes years to create a great game -- or even just a good one. But despite the lesson that should have been learned from the E.T. debacle, game makers often aren't given a sufficient development window when their publisher lands a movie license.

"I work on very expensive movies, [so] I'm pretty intimately involved with the process," says David Hayter, writer of the first "X-Men" movie and better known to gamers as the voice of Metal Gear's hero, Solid Snake. "What happens is, nobody wants to pull the trigger [on a big-budget movie] because once you do it becomes a freight train rolling, there is no way to stop it. ... If you want to do a proper video game adaptation, well that really takes a good two years, if you're going to do a good one. And [game developers] don't have that kind of time, because they don't know the movie's going."

Put another way: Studios generally insist the game sticks pretty close to the film, but when scripts aren't finalized until about a year before release, that doesn't give developers a lot of time to put together a winning game.

So little to no time to prepare a game explains the quality levels of a lot of adaptations, but what about titles that game makers can see coming a mile away? For example, last year's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1: The Video Game earned a miserable 38 Metacritic ranking. And that property snuck up on no one.

Ultimately, in those cases, it comes down to the budgets publishers set for the games.

"Most companies look at the [total] cost [of making the game] as being the sum of any license fee they pay plus development costs," says analyst Michael Pachter of Wedbush Morgan Securities. "If you do a Harry Potter game and you think you're going to do $100 million in revenue, then typically, you'd plan to spend about $20 million. But if the licensing fee for that is $12-15 million, they only spend $8 million actually making the game."

Another part of the problem is the differences in the way the game and film worlds work. Even in the most bombastic summer blockbuster, there's at least a modicum of effort paid to the story. "Transformers 3," which no one would argue was a film filled with nuance, saw the script rewritten several times before actual filming began. And, ultimately, the humor and character helped offset the prodigious amounts of action. A little.

With movie-based games, though, story is secondary, if it's considered at all. Studios largely regard movie games as simply another part of the merchandising efforts, not standalone works of art. And while some publishers might try to lure Hollywood writers to adapt their films to games, they offer considerably less money for something that often turns out to be a lot more work.

Finally, it's a matter of talent. Not to take anything away from the people who create these titles, but when a publisher wins the rights to a movie (even a big one), they don't often put their top people in charge of the project. History is littered with terrible movie games made by developers who, to put it nicely, just couldn't deliver. Case in point: LJN Toys, a toy/game maker who, in the mid-80's, was used by game publisher Acclaim to get around Nintendo's strict quality control. The result was a number of movie bombs for the NES, including disasters like Back to the Future, Jaws, and Friday the 13th.

The good news? Some publishers are beginning to understand the importance of treating movie games with a little more respect. Two recent Disney games based on hit Pixar films Toy Story 3 and Cars 2, for instance, have scored well with reviewers thanks to a close working relationship between the filmmakers and the game developers at Avalanche Software.

"We worked together on everything, the cutscenes, all of the animation, every single little detail," Jay Ward, Pixar's franchise manager for Cars, told Gamasutra. "Obviously in a game you kind of have to go beyond the scope of the movie... they had to take some creative license, and we helped to keep it in the right realm of the world of Cars while keeping it exciting for players."

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