By Sahil Patel
Maybe the most eye-opening way the gaming industry has embraced digital video is in the production and distribution of original programming based on popular game franchises.
The desire to expand video games to different forms of entertainment has been around for a while. On the big screen, studios have rolled out feature films for franchises such as “Tomb Raider,” “Mortal Kombat,” and “Silent Hill.” Some have been well-received, others not so much.
Digital video is relatively new to the party.
“I’m surprised that this sort of thing has not happened faster and with greater tenacity,” says Jeremy Azevedo, senior director of original programming at Machinima, which has been behind the premieres of several game-inspired series including “Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn,” “Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist,” and two seasons of “Mortal Kombat: Legacy.” “When you look at the value of these IPs, and you compare them to comic books — how many people read comic books and yet it’s the biggest business in cinema. Now we’re talking about a product like ‘Halo,’ which people spend countless hours on and are really engaged with. These games are what people are talking about and want to see represented in every form of media.”
“What has changed in terms of digital video,” adds Matt Cohen, director of business development at Machinima, “is that the lead times on film are extremely long; the development process is extremely onerous. With digital video, you can initiate a project and get it seen by fans of the franchise very quickly, and the audiences are already on these platforms, whether we’re talking about YouTube, Twitch, or Machinima.”
But why the move to scripted TV-like programming, which certainly demands a substantial investment?
“It’s really about engagement,” Cohen continues. “Especially for these larger franchises, you can only get them out once every two or three years.” An original series allows some of these major publishers to keep fans interested and invested in a franchise when there is no new game to play.
In this way, original programming can also function as a marketing vehicle — that’s what Microsoft did with “Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn.”
Leading up to the launch of “Halo 4,” the company wanted to provide an “on-ramp” to “ease hardcore players back into and introduce new people to the ‘Halo’ universe,” says Frank O’Connor, franchise development director for “Halo” at 343 Industries, a subsidiary of Microsoft that produced the series (which is also available as a feature film on Netflix).
Microsoft also wanted to present this in a format that was easy to access and digest. “So TV/film was a natural way to go.”
Once the decision was made to develop “Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn,” 343 went about it like a traditional Hollywood studio — finding the right creative talent to make the project a reality. The goal was two-fold — to promote the release of “Halo 4” while also ensuring that the series stood on its own as a piece of fiction.
“We’ve been through this so many times with ‘Halo — it’s a $4 billion franchise with a significant amount of consumer products beyond the games,” says O’Connor. “We have the same philosophy for all of our consumer products — from action figures to comic books to original programming — they should work as a standalone experience.”
Microsoft and 343’s decision to release “Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn” on a digital platform was about accessibility, says O’Connor. “We wanted people to enjoy the story and we also wanted people to buy the game. Putting a barrier to entry such as a specific air date, those can be valuable, but we wanted as many people to see it as possible,” he says. When sampling a show, digital also makes it possible for people to share episodes on social networks, driving more awareness and viewership to the program.
So the team struck a deal with Machinima, which has the audience that the producers wanted to reach, to distribute the series. Interestingly, the show was also available on the video game’s dashboard, exposing it to even more people. The result, a series that generated 55 million views in less than six months on YouTube alone.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that Xbox Entertainment Studios and 343 Industries are already working on two more projects tied to the “Halo” franchise — a TV series and another digital feature. Microsoft is also expected to announce more original projects tied to popular games during E3.
When asked what advice he would give to other gaming publishers looking to venture into television and film content, O’Connor said to first make sure that the property makes sense as a movie or TV show. (You would think this one is obvious, but then again, someone thought it was a good idea to greenlight a Battleship movie.)