Don’t Bet Your Cybersavings on Video Game Spin-Offs

By Bob Schwabach

IN 1938, Johan Huizinga, the Dutch medieval historian, published a speculative essay called ”Homo Ludens” — literally, ”game playing man.”

In it, Huizinga examined the generally unquestioned labeling of our species as ”Homo sapiens” — ”intelligent man.” Several alternative labels have been put forth by anthropologists and historians: ”man the tool maker,” ”man the builder” and so on. But none of those he had read before quite captured our essential quality, Huizinga maintained. What really distinguishes man from other species, he concluded, is that we spend so much time playing games. And so he characterized our species as ”Homo ludens” — man the game player. We do seem to enjoy it.

How much time does it take to earn our daily bread? And what do we do with the rest of the time? I recall talking to an anthropologist at the Field Museum in Chicago many years ago, and he estimated that early man spent no more than three or four hours a day satisfying his basic requirements. Judging by the people I’ve worked with, it’s about the same today. Even lions hunt but a few hours, and not every day. What is to be done with the rest of the time? Lions sleep and scratch; we play games. These days we play a lot of video games.

The video game industry has been on the threshold of seizing dominance in entertainment for several years. Ultimately it will. It’s inevitable: we play games. For the last couple of years, sales of movie tickets and video games have been in a virtual dead heat (no pun intended). Only books are holding their own, and that’s because most books are nonfiction and not published for entertainment. Looked at from the entertainment aspect: about two decades ago, at the height of the craze, revenues from the Pac-Man game roughly equaled book sales from all United States publishers. The handwriting was on the wall, but it was in the form of zeroes and ones, and some people couldn’t read it.

In the 20 years I have been writing about computers and software, I have read numerous articles and editorials predicting the imminent demise of video games. At one point in the early days of personal computing, when games accounted for an overwhelming majority of all software sales, the denunciation rose to a roar. There were critical editorials and articles in all the best places. A fad, they concluded. Continuing strength in game sales has proved to be an irksome reality, and subsequent critical commentary has declined.

Hollywood is moving to the position of ”if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” This strategy will fail, and movies will move on into obscurity, a future entertainment category subsidized by taxes and private charity and viewed by a select audience, much like opera and ballet today. They, too, once dominated the entertainment world. There is a fundamental difference between movies and video games: the games are interactive, movies are passive. I don’t see any way out of this. There have been several efforts to produce interactive movies, and they have failed miserably. No joystick, no joy. A movie is not a game.

Still, they keep trying; don’t go quietly into that good night and all that. Or as Satchel Paige put it: ”Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” 


In an effort to change the reality that a movie is not a game, on June 15 the hit computer game Tomb Raider will appear as a movie, also called ”Tomb Raider.” This will be followed on July 11 by the game-based ”Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” which in turn will be followed by ”Resident Evil,” with more to come.

Best of luck to everyone concerned. So far, only one of the previous six movies based on computer games has ever made a profit. That was ”Mortal Kombat,” in 1995, which rode the kung fu craze to $70 million in box office receipts and $37 million in video rentals. The production cost was about $20 million, leaving a very respectable profit, even by Hollywood accounting practices.

What is it that prompts movie companies to make films with a track record of one success in six tries? We could say it’s stupidity, but it’s really the hope of selling tickets. In fact, the numbers must have started dancing through some heads from the first moment: Let’s see . . . there were 17 million copies of ”Tomb Raider” sold. All the buyers were young guys. If everybody who bought a copy goes to the movie, that’ll be 17 million tickets. If they take a date, that’ll be 34 million tickets. If they invite a buddy . . . And so on into the daydream world. Before you know it, you’ve calculated the biggest box office hit of all time and you haven’t even finished lunch. What an easy business.


Some movies are made from original scripts, but most are made from other movies, old and new, and then from books and plays. Movies have been made from as little as song titles or paintings, and some of them were even successful. And of course movies have been made from comic books. So why not video games? 


Games come with big numbers. Eidos, the British company that produced Tomb Raider, boasts that Tomb Raider is the most successful computer game in history. Though I asked a couple of company representatives, no numbers were forthcoming. The 17 million number for Tomb Raider came from Square-Soft, the maker of Final Fantasy, which says Eidos is living in a, well, fantasy. The most successful computer game in history, Square-Soft says, is its own Final Fantasy, which has sold 30 million copies.

Just how big a video game can be can be seen with a look at the scorecard. At an average price of $35 a game, the sales for the nine adventures of Final Fantasy come to more than $1 billion. Version 10 is about to come out and will add more sales. Tomb Raider, even if the lower number is true, works out to well over a half-billion.

A billion dollars is the kind of number that gets attention. At least it gets attention in the front office where the bankers meet. Though a movie ticket admittedly costs less than a video game, no movie has ever come close to a billion dollars in box office sales, and only ”Titanic” has topped a half-billion dollars. Of course, if you look at movie series — and after all, the games are a series — the four episodes of ”Star Wars” have taken in $1.5 billion.

The production cost on ”Tomb Raider” is said to be about $80 million. In addition, it stars Angelina Jolie, the hot item of the moment. If puffed lips, high breasts and lots of attitude can sell tickets to men — and there’s no reason to believe they can’t — she will make it or break it. In fact, she does look a bit like the exaggerated cartoon figure of Lara Croft, which made Tomb Raider, the game, a big hit among guys. I’ve heard that sex sells and — who knows? — it might be true. 


The presence of stars has not made previous video game movies into hits. ”Super Mario Brothers,” using characters originally created for the Donkey Kong arcade game, starred Bob Hoskins and Dennis Hopper but bombed. The film, which cost $50 million, barely managed $21 million at the box office. ”Mortal Kombat” starred Christopher Lambert of ”Immortal” fame, but it was the chop-sockey action that was the attraction, not Lambert. ”Street Fighter,” hot off the video game shelves and into theaters in 1994, starred Jean-Claude Van Damme and Raul Julia but had miserable receipts. Of course, none of those guys had Angelina Jolie’s talents.

As for ”Final Fantasy,” Sony Pictures and Square Productions say the budget is more than $100 million. I think that’s a fantasy, given that there are no locations, no sets and no acting costs other than voice- 
overs, but I’m not privy to the books.

”Final Fantasy” is animation, which puts it under the gun. No animated film, except those aimed at young children, has ever scored big money. This one will put that record to the test. The animation is so realistic that for the first moment you don’t realize it’s animation. A kind of quirky motion, however, soon clues you in, and hints of its heritage in Japanese cartoons.

Certainly the film has the most realistic animation to date. And famous actors — Donald Sutherland, James Woods and Alec Baldwin — are the lead voices. I can’t help thinking how much better the movie would have been if they had also done the acting. There is a widespread belief that we are nearing a stage in the development of computer-generated figures and motion where live actors will become superfluous. ”Final Fantasy” is close to that level now, and viewing the 17-minute preview convinces me that live actors have nothing to worry about. They can not only do it better; if it really cost more than $100 million to put this film together, they can do it cheaper. 


Ultimately, the success or failure of films based on video games has had little or nothing to do with actors or production costs and everything to do with timing and story.

In that view, ”Tomb Raider” could be a winner. It’s Indiana Jones with breasts. ”Final Fantasy” looks less certain, unless it finds a cult audience. The story is based on the kind of nebulous New Age science in which the world is controlled by spirits and supernatural forces. It’s best appreciated by those who have had a frontal lobotomy. The story has no relation to the ”Final Fantasy” video game, by the way.

In fact, this story split has been common to almost all video games that were turned into movies. The movie that hewed closest to the original story and action of the game was ”Mortal Kombat,” and perhaps it is no accident that it is the most successful to date. Video games don’t have much of a story, of course, but then again they don’t need it: you play them. Homo Ludens.


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