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Interview: WBIE's Martin Tremblay On Cultivating Franchises From Licenses

Looking into the maturing space of movie tie-ins and licensed games, Gamasutra talks with Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment boss Martin Tremblay about pulling iconic IP like Batman into the top tier of games franchises.
[Looking into the maturing space of movie tie-ins and licensed games, Gamasutra business editor Colin Cambpell talks with Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment boss Martin Tremblay about pulling iconic IP like Batman into the top tier of games franchises.] For most of the game industry's history, games spun from movies have offered poor quality entertainment and decent sales. Sometimes they have been spectacularly weak games, and sometimes they have sold ridiculously well. But, as Warner Bros. Interactive boss Martin Tremblay says, "That doesn't work any more." How much of this dismal track record is down to moral turpitude on the part of the games publishers, and how much can be pinned on systemic difficulties in contracting between the makers of movies and the makers of games? It's well known that movies take less time to make than games, and that movie makers have been particularly bad at sharing crucial information with games companies. Tremblay recalls, "I've been there myself, with other publishers, getting licenses, working with [movie] studios where you get 14 months to do a game and you're so little exposed to everything they do on the movie side. It's very difficult to make something that is amazing for the consumer." And yet it's also known that game publishers can be venal and greedy. They were making crappy licensed games long before development schedules stretched beyond a year. Here's the difference with Warner. The IP the games division produces is its own IP. Games are no longer something to be licensed out to the highest bidder, but intellectual properties to be nurtured. And, for evidence of this shift we have the Batman franchise, which has won plaudits and healthy sales via Batman: Arkham Asylum and the highly promising Batman: Arkham City. Tremblay asks, "Who would have thought that a superhero game can be rated at 92 percent?" He adds, "This not a license for us. This is a franchise. This is us. It's the same thing as the key franchises for other publishers and we are taking care of them the same way." Not that Warner is now immune to laying an egg with its franchises, any more than Activision or EA. IGN just rated The Green Lantern game as "OK", and it ought to be noted that the same site pretty much hates the movie. Producers of entertainment are allowed to produce bad entertainment, as long as they also produce excellence. And no-one can honestly accuse of Warner of failing to produce great games. It has implemented a policy of building studios around its key franchises, like Lord of he Rings (Turbine), Mortal Kombat (NetherRealms) and Batman (Rocksteady). In April, the company pulled off the feat of being number one publisher in the U.S., boosted by the success of Mortal Kombat. Nowadays, the game/movie tie-in is generally a more sophisticated proposition than in years gone by. Tremblay says, "What we do right now is recognize that the movie has its own story. There might also be a game with a parallel story over and above what the movie is offering. The game exists by itself. It has to be strong by itself enough to be interesting for gamers because they want something different than the movie-goer. If you treat them the same way, as in the past, it doesn't work." With LOTR and Batman the company is taking its franchises in individualistic directions, moving away from the marketing gravy train of a blockbuster theatrical arrival. But no company of Warner Bros.' nature is going to entirely ignore the opportunities offered by getting on board with a major marketing event. "Next year we'll have some big news about movies that we have been working on for two years. We are breaking the perceptions of what a movie-based game is, we're doing something very different." Tremblay is trying to succeed where so many have failed, by making a non-games company create value and share equal to dedicated games publishers. The reliance on management from the games industry is essential as is the investment in owned development studios. Movie companies have often made the mistake of believing that the games industry was ever-striving to be more like them. This isn't a mistake Tremblay wants to make, but he must also work within the confines of Warner Bros. structure, and make use of the positive benefits such a company bestows. One such is a tent-pole strategy - also chosen by Activision, incidentally - of betting big on products that look like winners, and ignoring those that seem marginal. "The movie strategy is not about releasing 30 movies a year. It's about six tent poles a year with maybe a few other smaller ones. This is what we do. We choose and pick four or five big games and we go big with development budget, technology innovation, and an approach that asks, 'how can we surprise consumers with this?' We asked, 'How can we make Batman cool again? What can we do with the ninth Mortal Kombat that is different, exciting and appealing?'" But after years of abuse from the movie industry's licensing mandarins, it will take time for game consumers, most especially the hardcore, to overcome prejudices against movie tie-ins and licenses. Speaking of the perception of movie-games, Tremblay admits ruefully, "From the moment we start to work on a movie property we start with two strikes against us."

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