The winter movie season means both big films, and the inevitable movie games based on those films. There was a point in time when gamers could simply assume just about any movie tie-in game was terrible, and many still are. Sierra's upcoming Eragon game for the PS2, Xbox, PC, and Xbox 360 looks like it's going to be one of those exceptions to the rule. Eragon is an action-adventure game in the vein of StormFront Studios' The Two Towers action title, but with deeper gameplay, sharper graphics, and pick-up co-op play in the vein of the Lego Star Wars games. The title's been in development for well over two years, essentially from the moment that production on the movie began.
WorthPlaying: Did you consult with the author of the Eragon novel, Christopher Paolini?
Melchior: The bulk of involvement came from the movie production crew and executives at Fox. We have a relationship with Chris through Fox but he's had exposure to the game throughout development. He's been pleasant in helping us get correct spellings and pronunciations.
Ramage: I think too, the access we had from Fox with people involved with the movie helped us match their vision of the movie at a time when we were ahead of them in production. We've been involved with the license for two years, so being involved that early you get ahead, and then you have to say matched with the movie. Being able to meet with the director and creative producer and get their insights first-hand allowed StormFront to actually go off and build assets for the game, that, when we finally met up with the movie again, you look at what we got out of conversations, and we were really dead-on for meeting Fox's vision. So there wasn't a lot of rework to meet the movie vision.
Melchior: The trust they had in StormFront really let us go off for periods of time and develop our own vision.
WorthPlaying: Are we going to see any elements cut from the Eragon films in the games? For instance, things like the Xbox 360-exclusive levels based on the novel. Were the monsters in those levels cut movie designs?
Melchior: With the game, we were able to make a vision of Eragon that stuck closer to the book. So movies are ever-changing, but we could take shots outside of the linear movie script to pay homage to the book fans, to make sure people who knew the universe were really seeing that in the game.
Ramage: With a literary work of this nature, your fanbase is extremely hardcore. They're the life of the franchise in one sense. Being able to show them things in the game they'd recognize from the book, that's a bonus. It lets us appeal to fans of the book, especially with the 360. There we added a couple of levels that are directly from the book universe, and an enemy that's directly from the book universe. Fans will be happy with what they're
We were able to do some delineation from the PC and PS2/XBox, so we could draw on the environments from the book, in effort to make sure fans of the fiction get a nice picture of the book universe.
WorthPlaying: What are you doing with the Eragon license on portable systems? The games are pretty obviously not the same as the PC/console version....
Ramage: The cool thing with the handhelds is that they were developed by Amaze Entertainment, a very reputable license-based handheld developer. They were one of the first PSP license developers, and their GBA and DS technology has been evolving for years. It seemed a very solid choice to compliment what we were doing with StormFront on the console side. We wanted to create three unique experiences that are different from the console and PC versions. The PSP will be a dragon flight simulator told from Zafira's perspective. Then you unlock an arena mode where you fight against other dragons, and that will support the multiplayer gameplay by expanding the license with dragon fights. The DS is an action RPG game that uses the second screen to cast spells, as well as communicate with Zafira. The GBA is a traditional turn-based RPG. With the freedom to play in the universe that Christopher Paolini created, it let us go beyond the movie and create all of these unique games, and introduce fans of the movie to elements of the book by having environments that come straight from the book. In the GBA version, you can use characters from the books that you don't get to use in any other games. The movie is sort of the base for the game, but because we're allowed to expand, we can expose fans of the book and movie to things from the fiction.
WorthPlaying: Is it safe to say the goal of the Eragon games is to immerse people in the story's universe, more so than just adapt the movie into a game?
Ramage: The movie was our jumping-off point. Our first goal was to bring the movie to life in the games, but the freedom of using the fiction as well to go beyond the movie and reach into the book for content. I think the vision at the time happened when the book was huge, before the movie. So that was always in the back of our mind, to treat the book as the starting point of the entire franchise. So we always wanted to bring in elements of the book fiction whenever possible.
WorthPlaying: You've stressed Sierra's past successes with licenses in this interview. Do you think Sierra is a company particularly suited to making licensed games?
Melchior: I would think that Sierra [formerly Vivendi-Universal] treats licenses better than any other company, and it's about respect. We respect the book universe, and it is bigger than any one media. But also, you take Riddick or Simpsons or Scarface. We show absolute respect for Tony Montana. With Riddick, we were better than the movie because we respected what the character could do. With Simpsons, we respected what the creators of those characters wanted. Especially in the last 3-4 years with new management, we're not interested in just taking a license and making a 1995 product out of it. Everyone lives in and breathes those universes 24/7, and we show that respect.
WorthPlaying: Does this attitude affect what sort of licenses Sierra goes after?
Melchior: It comes down to passion, yeah. Every game has to have a champion, and we could apply it to any game I just mentioned.
Ramage: I think we are pretty discerning. When we get exposed to properties, for new movies or library material.
Melchior: For Eragon, for instance, we had no interest in placing the console gameplay in the portable versions. We wanted to tailor each game to the best genre for that particular handheld, and then the consoles had the action game you needed to follow the movie. In the future license games we announce, you'll see this approach.
Ramage: Even with Riddick, although the movie didn't do that well, I think we used that approach. As John mentioned, a lot of changes have happened at Vivendi that have been extremely positive when it comes to getting license product. It's a rigorous review process regarding whether we want to pursue certain movie licenses, and we have good relationships with all studios that help us.
Melchior: We had visibility to all iterations of the script, the story, the actors on set, the concept art. Visibility on both sides was back and forth all the way through.
WorthPlaying: Could you see Sierra becoming a company that relied on producing license games?
Melchior: I don't think we'll ever rely on licensed IPs entirely. Sierra has no interest in painting by numbers when it comes to doing license games. We have some amazing creative people and Sierra understands the value of some of the original IPs we have coming down the pike. As long as people are passionate about it, we can take the ideas and run with it. I don't think we'll ever be fully dependent on it. We're just better at it than everyone else in the new regime.
Ramage: It's interesting because licensed products often get maligned by fans and gaming media, and to one extent I understand that. But at the same time, the cool thing about licensed product is that if the movie or television show creates this universe that just completely fascinates people, there's no harm in wanting to experience that universe. It's no different than comic books of popular movies or Star Trek novels. I think games play into that, too, and I don't think it's a bad thing to have a license game. You have bad movies and bad license games, sure, but I think it goes back to the respect factor. Our goal is to extend the experience beyond the screen so the player gets to immerse themselves in the universe they saw on TV.
Melchior: We tested gameplay by showing it to people who didn't know that it was a license product to see how they'd react. I think there's two classes of license content: pain-by-numbers and people who are actually creating games. It kills the industry of licensed products when people just say "pages 1-90, follow this, use the engine from this other licensed title". I think taking a deep breath and diving into the universe and finding out what's playable about it is the future. That's what we're doing.
Ramage: That dovetails into StormFront and that's how they treat the license as well. They used the same engine as The Two Towers, but they evolved it. It would've been so easy for them to say, "Oh, we did Lord of the Rings, let's just dress it up a little and do that again." But they weren't interested in doing that at all.
Melchior: For me, the cool thing about licensed products and the evolution of games in the future, is that people understand what they don't want. It's exciting for us to hear license holders say, "Here's the universe, go play." That's the future.
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