A plethora of ordinary people with extraordinary powers? A shadowy organization tracking them down? A mentally disturbed villain? A world in need of saving? That’s the world of Heroes, NBC’s runaway TV hit and it sure sounds like the stuff of comic books, and of video games. For gaming – superheroes, villains, saving the world – it’s a perfect fit, but until yesterday, there was no game, at least for console based video gaming.
Thursday, French video game publisher Ubisoft announced it had secured a licensing deal with Universal Pictures Digital Platforms Group to bring Heroes to video gamers. The game will aim for a holiday 2008 release and the TV series writers will supervise and consult on the game designs and storyline.
As natural a fit as the comic book inspired Heroes storyline is for gaming, most independent publishers have been hesitant to seek television license deals, especially with relatively new programs. It’s a factor of risk tolerance: games can take as long as two years to develop and during that time a show could lose its audience, fail to catch on, or change its storyline in a way that undermines a game’s relevance. For gaming studios, it’s generally a safer bet to wait until a show is established, and insure it’s popular, before considering it for a gaming franchise (and even then, making sure a game remains timely when its television storyline is changing remains risky. A game based on the Sopranos was a noted failure.)
Building around known, established franchises also brings with it what could be called “loyalty risks” or “loyalty related execution risks.” At issue is the difficulty in meeting the high, sometimes unrealistic, expectations of passionately loyal fans. Star Wars fans, for example, or Trekkies too, are fiercely loyal to their beloved franchises. They welcome new efforts, new stories, new games but only if those games are well executed and true to their (the fans) vision of what is appropriate. A game that is too commercial, poorly executed or in anyway falls short of the fans zealous quality standard can be subject to harsh criticism and a poor market showing. Heroes is a young show but it has been a phenomenal success on television, drawing more than 14m viewers a week and many of its fans fit the same category. In building a Heroes game, Ubisoft will walk a fine line between creating a new experience and engaging those fans with an offering they’ll welcome as befitting the program they love.
Tim Kring, the creator of Heroes, believes Ubisoft will be able to achieve that, saying, "Time and again, Ubisoft has proven they can turn licensed properties into fantastic games."
Ubisoft has been more willing than most to take risks in working with Hollywood. The game publisher has actively pursued movie and television studio tie-in licensing where other game development companies have not; both in film and television. In addition to Heroes, which Ubisoft pursued for a year before yesterdays announcement, Ubisoft is also in development on a game built around ABC’s Lost franchise and games built around CBS’ CSI Crime Scene series (which are scheduled for fall release). From the feature film world, Ubisoft previously worked with Universal on King Kong. They also have recently signed deals to build games for James Cameron’s new film Avatar (announced Tuesday) and Paramount’s upcoming movie Beowulf (which has an A list cast and is scheduled for November release.)
Ubisoft was the 4th ranked independent publisher in the world (excluding Japan) and the 5th largest independent game publisher in the U.S (according to May NPD sales data). The company has offices is more than 22 countries with more than 3,900 employees. They’re all betting Hollywood partnerships will help them get even bigger.