In less than a decade, Marvel went from licensing out their characters to one of the most formidable Hollywood movie studios.
Could the upcoming Warcraft movie send Blizzard in the same direction?
Preceding my re-watch of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (the write-up of which received a very positive response – my sincerest thanks!) was a slog of trailers that would have crumpled my geeky mind to dust ten years ago. Back-to-back previews for Captain America: Civil War,
The heavily cheesy and somewhat substance-lacking footage didn’t do much to ‘wow’ the audience. Nor did the interview-heavy promo video for the flick that followed immediately after. There were two images that did leave a profound impact on me though: seeing director Duncan Jones talking on camera so cheerfully (in light of the recent passing of his father, David Bowie), and gazing at the Blizzard logo, so bold and blue on the big screen. At the moment, any opinion space that can be spared for Warcraft is spent debating whether this highest of fantasy films can disenchant the spell that stops video game movies from actually being enjoyable. Personally, I think there’s a pretty convincing case to be made that one great success for Blizzard in the cinema could signal the start of a whole new paradigm for Hollywood.
If any intellectual property could captivate an audience of moviegoers for a protracted, obsessive and unhealthily long period of time, it would be Warcraft. Every soulless movie studio has tried to rewrite the strategy guide for amassing the asses perched in cinema seats, but in terms of shaping video game movies to better resemble their thumb-twiddling counterparts, none can truly claim success. The continued struggle of traditional film companies to mine the potential box office gold of these films suggests that actual game developers should just give it a go themselves. Especially when the company in question has the ultimate crafting resource at its disposal: millions of subscription hours spent daily on re-jigging raid plans and endlessly grinding for gear.
The potential success Blizzard might have as a debut film producer lies beyond the fact that their premier product, World of Warcraft, is unabashedly the highest grossing game of all time. It's hard to deny that any title from the California developer thus far been less than ‘pretty good’, but more astounding is just how forward-thinking they’ve been with each new endeavour. Take for instance Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. More than a simple online card-game spinoff, the game’s monthly $20million revenue is partly owed to the way Blizzard fostered its popularity in the larger gaming community, with mad methods such as:
- Carving its own little niche into the competitive gaming scene (par for the course after Starcraft and Warcraft II secured the company’s place in e-sports history).
- Releasing each expansion/adventure in a staggered fashion so as to arguably maximise their viewership-hype on Twitch.
- Making waves with a recent card culling announcement, suggesting they’ve even found a winning business solution to keep the game going, as promised, for the next two decades.
Point is, despite how unassuming they may seem in public, Blizzard are capable of bouncing back from every setback with publicity and financial success twicefold to their losses. Examples? Reclaiming the MOBA market with Heroes of the Storm. Challenging the First Person Shooter juggernaut with the upcoming Overwatch. Continuing to pioneer Always-on DRM regardless of how controversial the practice proved with Diablo III. It's all well and good that a video game maker makes good video games, but how well will they make the same clever turns when it comes to film?
Part of the problem with video games as a lucrative intellectual property is their relatively young age. It just doesn’t give them that instant ring in the public ear that many named superheroes command. Sure, you can find plenty of Marvel films that were inspired by best-selling comic books arcs, but whether it’s the price of an individual ticket or a multi-million dollar rights contract, people are paying for the comic book character name first and foremost. Warcraft, conversely, may have a fairly famous title, but the majority of punters won’t be pining to see cinematic incarnations of Azeroth, Durotan or the Murlocs (I will be, and if you knew what a murloc was you would too…).
Video game movies to date, apart from failing to impress critically, have hardly made a monetary case for their own lucrative future. The most financially successful is the mindless Resident Evil adaptations. These were profitable, but haven’t convinced their hapless creator Capcom to pursue similar strategies to follow-on their adaptations of Street Fighter or Pheonix Wright: Ace Attorney. These catastrophes of commercial cinema come down to several factors:
- An astonishing absence of truly accomplished directors.
- Few recognisable elements that actually helped sell the cartridge and CD copies in the first place.
- Most oddly, very few films being made out of the video games best known to millennials and mature audiences.
The latter has the hilarious exception of the Super Mario Bros. movie from 1993; a box office bob-omb that forever scared Nintendo away from leaving the house and licensing out another of their franchises.
This brings us to the topic of logos that started this discussion. Rather than begin proudly with the round Nintendo icon, the Super Mario Bros. film rather lamely opens its curtains to reveal its production company Light Motive - while the familiar Mario theme tune plays awkwardly in the background. These few seconds probably bear the closest resemblance to the original platformer, and yet they symbolically represent the original creator’s lack of involvement and care in the movie version. By lending their shiny and spiky lettering to the Warcraft movie, Blizzard already took the first step of taking responsibility for whatever ends up on screen. Given their purported faith in Duncan Jones directorial vision, this could lead to the first Tim Burton equivalent of a video game adaptation. Furthermore, with purported plans to give away all the World of Warcraft expansions to cinemagoers, we start to see a bigger picture of how Blizzard could pull off a Marvel-scale takeover of the box-office.
Blizzard’s brand name and cross-promotional strategy gives them an edge. Aside from having a shared universe series of games in Warcraft ala Marvel, each of their titles bear similar core aesthetics. When a new instalment looms on the horizon, gamers are often treated to exclusive content for other Blizzard hallmarks. Overwatch even stuck a Hearthstone cameo into its Disney-rivaling cinematic trailer. Let us not forget also that the Emmy award winning South Park episode lampooning World of Warcraft succeeded precisely because Blizzard were on hand to unlock the potential enjoyment of the spoof, rather than just blindly hand over the keys. The involvement Blizzard have in their imminent Warcraft movie-starter pack has been kept quite hushed, but given the textbook examples of how to achieve cross-platform success, it’s clear that there’s more planned here than just another fantasy flop.
Speaking of, with Nintendo having shot down every emerging rumour that they’re developing a live-action Legend of Zelda series for Netflix, the only rivals to Blizzard on the movie-game front are, oddly enough, themselves…sort of. Aside from Sony’s attempt to resurrect the dying zombie genre with a Last of Us adaptation, the biggest news in movie-game tie-ins was announced last November by Activision | Blizzard (the parent publishing company of Blizzard Entertainment) to create a series of ‘cinematic universes’ based on their best-selling titles under the banner of ‘Activision Blizzard Studios’. The production frontrunner is unsurprisingly Call of Duty. I would feel very foolish to doubt division head Nick van Dyk (who was chiefly involved in acquiring Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm during his tenure at Disney), but with the lack of core branding, characters to establish or names beloved to hardcore and casual gamers alike, this aggro approach to building a movie-game empire, instead of their subsidiary’s calculated, control method, seems spearheaded for a very fast game over.
Next Time: A lifetime of character building: Exploring the canon of David Bowie
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