Hollywood has tried to figure out how to successfully wade into the world of video games for decades, but a recent string of animated and live-action hits have demonstrated there is more demand than ever from fans to see exceptional adaptations and extensions of their favorite games.
Sony is moving forward with adaptations of its most popular franchises, including The Last of Us, God of War, Uncharted, and even nostalgic plays like Twisted Metal. There's Halo series on Paramount+. Sega’s new Sonic the Hedgehog movie secured nearly $400 million globally. Amazon found success with Legends of Ex Machina. Nintendo has an animated Super Mario film due out this holiday season, and Ubisoft has a full partnership with Netflix to produce several series based on its games.
All leading to the very important question: Is now the time that Hollywood gets gaming right?
So Far So Good
Much like comic book IP in the early ’00s and into the 2010’s, gaming IP is the next well that studios, networks, and streaming services will mine for their next big hit. Most importantly, gaming studios and development teams will become more involved than ever before to the benefit of the final product.
We’ve already started to see it play out on streaming services like Netflix, which in absence of owning top comics IP like Disney and WarnerMedia do, jumped on gaming. Arcane, Castlevania, Pokémon, Dota: Dragon’s Blood, Digimon Adventure, and Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness all demonstrate good to outstanding demand worldwide. Of course, there’s also The Witcher, Netflix’s fantasy series that’s technically based on a series of books by the same name, but is closely associated with the corresponding game series. These series are well-reviewed, unique adaptations or continuations of beloved digital worlds that created a cultural zeitgeist moment.
Though audiences have seen countless film adaptations of massive gaming franchises over the last few decades — Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Doom, Max Payne, and House of the Dead — these were largely regarded as uninspired failed translations of the original story, focusing more on trying to make the most basic cinematic elements of the game work in a two-and-a-half passive format. More recent movie installments, including the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise and Detective Pikachu prove that creatives on the film side better understand how to adapt the stories for global audiences.
Throughout all the attempts, however, one of the most popular video game adaptations in the world premiered, picked up, and has become one of the biggest cultural forces in the world for the last two decades — Pokémon. So how did an anime series about pocket monsters capture the world’s attention beyond a video game and a competitive card series? More importantly, what can Pokémon’s success tell us about the future of gaming adaptations and cinematic expansions?
Between 2022 and 2023, several new gaming expansions will arrive. HBO is getting in on the action to with its live-action adaptation of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, and Paramount Global will attempt to use Halo to bring swaths of subscribers to Paramount+, and Netflix has…well, let’s just say Netflix has a lot going on — including an adaptation of Pokémon.
Incorporating lessons from shows that did work like Pokémon and Arcane, while studying everything that did not work, there are four key facets that stand out when it comes to creating a successful gaming franchise at the height of demand:
- Going Beyond The Typical Gaming Narrative
- Original Games Engines Can Translate Into Beautiful Linear Art
- Respecting The Original, But Subverting The Genre
- Leaves Room Open For Further Expansion and Adaptation With New Technologies
Color Outside the Lines
“The stories you didn’t the chance to tell, or you’re thinking someday maybe this is the story we will tell...”
That’s how Arcane co-creator Alex Yee described coming up with the show in a recent interview, noting that when cinematic shorts were made for League of Legends in the past, they were based on a gaming perspective. How will players, looking for an interactive experience, receive a more passive form of entertainment. With Arcane, the opposite became true for Riot — how do they remove the gaming perspective to create an episodic experience that’s enjoyable for anyone and everyone?
It’s worked. Within just days of premiering — timed perfectly with League of Legends’ Championship match that saw more than 40 million people tune in — Arcane saw its demand skyrocket. Its average demand is about 40x that of any other show in the world, putting it in the top 0.2% percentile of all series. At its peak, the show reached 53.5x the demand of other shows, making it on par with series like Stranger Things, Game of Thrones, WandaVision, and Squid Game.
Instead of trying to recreate League of Legends, or adapting one storyline that players have somewhat seen play out over the years (unlike heavy story games like Uncharted or The Last of Us, League of Legends didn’t focus on building out the world’s lore until relatively recently), Yee and co-creator Christian Linke worked outside the game’s normal rules. Instead of trying to make everything feel fast paced (almost chaotic) and fill every moment with action, as the game does, Yee and Linke found strengths in dramatic pauses better associated with live-action dramas.
Arcane stars some characters that players would know, but its success comes from leaning into the connective spirit of the game, not trying to adapt it outright. It’s the same reason that Castlevania, another Netflix original series based on Capcom’s Castlevania III from 1997, works so well. Instead of prioritizing winks, nudges, and nods to in-game moments, showrunner Adi Shankar and writer Warren Ellis use the game as a looser setting, deciding to spend more time building out the characters that the game couldn’t allow for at the time.
Understanding what works in what medium, and what can transfer well to another medium, is key to ensuring an adaptation pleases both fans and newcomers. This isn’t singular to video games, but whereas adapting books into TV series or movies has required cutting out less of the story to make it work in a 10 episode or two hour format, games require a fundamental shift of audience approach.
The joy a reader gets out of a book or TV show is often for the same reason: linear, passive storytelling. This doesn’t automatically apply to games. Halo can be enjoyed without knowing the story as friends go on multiplayer journeys together and appear in team battle royale situations. Game designers craft around a player’s different wants in a game; showrunners and authors navigate a story.
To create a successful adaptation, the show or film has to incorporate elements of the game to make it feel truthful and less of an homage, but has to stand out on its own to succeed as an extended arm of the franchise for fans and a standalone series for newcomers. For example, Castlevania and Arcane lift elements and familiarities from the game, interweaving stories, characters, and settings, but ensure the focus is on building something new within the foundation, not just trying to recreate what already exists and works on a completely different platform.
Pokémon led the charge, creating an anime centered on Ash Ketchum as he made his way through the Johto Region collecting Pokémon and battling gym leaders along the way. The game’s focus was on ensuring the player, acting as the director, could explore on individual terms. Play for five minutes, or play for five hours; go from gym-to-gym to complete the main objectives or slow down and smell the flowers (in the tall grass where wild Pokémon could be caught).
Self-pacing storylines and exploration doesn’t work in a TV show. Instead, anime as a medium and longform storytelling as creative direction broaden Pokémon. Players give up their directorial position and become a less active participant, watching Ash and his friends take on the role players are so used to inhabiting in the game.
Most recently, Kiki Wolfkill, the executive producer behind Paramount+’s adaptation of Halo announced that the series won’t be compliant with in-game canonical narrative. The team made the decision to protect the game’s “core canon and protect the television story,” with Wolfkill adding this means being “able to give ourselves the chance to evolve both and for both to be what they need to be for their mediums without colliding with each other.”
Consider that the most in-demand genre of entertainment worldwide between September 17th and December 15th 2021 was dystopian content at nearly 10x the demand for any other genre, followed closely by apocalyptic series at 7x the demand for any other genre. Halo, as a video game, encompasses these genres, but focuses on the first-person shooter element, allowing players to explore and have more calculating experiences. By creating a new canonical narrative for the TV show, Halo gets to shift in its expectations for a new audience.
This is similar to Pokémon. Without the added weight of trying to become the best trainer in-game, viewers can dive into more emotionally driven story arcs that seem plausible within that world. Pokémon the anime gives fans and newcomers an accessible, curated introduction to the world. The barrier of entry is lowered, the characters, settings, and Pokémon have more weight behind them, and the franchise finds new ways to entertain millions of people.
Engines Power All
Demand for animated and anime series has grown exponentially over the last decade, especially with adults.
Gen Z and Millennials (14-34) are the demographics that consume the most entertainment, and they’re also the two groups who grew up with animation as a core form of entertainment in their childhood and throughout their teenage years into adulthood. Whether it’s The Simpsons, Family Guy, BoJack Horseman, and Rick and Morty, to Naruto and Cowboy Bebop, animation and anime has become a premium form of entertainment globally.
Part of Arcane’s success is in its animation, which looks completely different from any of its competitors. It was created using technology from a company called Fortiche Production and on an engine that Riot Games’ has used over the years several times for the company’s own League of Legends cinematic shorts. The show, therefore, takes on the game’s aesthetic, increasing the series’ feeling of authenticity among fans and creating a unique look for newcomers who have an interest in animation and anime.
Komi Can’t Communicate and JuJutsu Kaisen, two Japanese anime series, share strong affinity with Arcane (meaning those who watched Arcane also watched Komi Can’t Communicate and JuJutsu Kaisen). Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness shares strong affinity with Godzilla Singular Point, another Japanese anime. Most interesting, few shows about gaming overlap with one another affinity wise, suggesting that while there is inherent demand for individual shows based on gaming franchises, many viewers are coming from outside traditional gaming circles.
Consider that gaming universes are constructed on intricate world building and fantastical concepts. Animation and anime can naturally achieve more than live-action can because there are fewer limitations and restrictions. For stories like Arcane or DOTA: Dragon’s Blood, reconstructing and expanding the world feels more authentic within animation. Similarly, Castlevania’s anime style allows for creatives to reach horror effects that would cost 10x as much with live-action. Pokémon would look far more terrifying as a live-action series mixed with CGI elements instead of classic, hand drawn 2D animation. That animation style has kept is as one of the most in-demand shows, with 70x the reach of other shows globally.
Game engines (like Unreal and Unity) are becoming more powerful than ever. The quality in the worlds they create, and characters that players become attached too, have never looked as sophisticated and stylized. For entertainment companies like Netflix, Amazon, and WarnerMedia, all of whom are trying to figure out their way into the gaming adaptation space while also developing high quality animation slates, relying on the same technology back end that game studios use to entertain players globally helps create a cohesive aesthetic.
Working directly with the developers and the tools they use adds a layer of authenticity and uniqueness to a project. Arcane looks distinct from any of its competitors, while Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness maintains the same visual style prevalent in the games and other animated cinematics that Capcom and its partners have released. With Unity’s recent acquisition of Weta Digital’s technology division (Peter Jackson’s award-winning film software studio), the ability to create more realistic or more distinctive series while incorporating game features becomes more ubiquitous.
Part of ensuring a gaming adaptation, live-action or animated, works is finding ways to work in authentic elements of the title. Unity and Unreal Engine, used to power animated series and premium live-action series like The Mandalorian, allows those elements to be integrated much more easily and create a cinematic but authentic experience for both newcomers and fans of the original game.
There’s a reason that Thor: Ragnarok is considered one of the best Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. There’s a reason that The Boys became an instant hit for Amazon Prime Video, and there’s a reason that Harley Quinn is regarded as one of the most impressive DC TV series amongst fans. They subvert the genre.
Superheroes, and comic book stories in general, have reached an age where audiences know what the stereotypical tropes are. Games are in the same boat. The countless film adaptations of popular games over the last few decades may have left a stale taste in audiences’ mouths. At the same time, the number of people who play games on both a casual and regular basis — and the demographics representing those players — has vastly grown and changed over the last decade. Much like how the games industry has subverted and reestablished its own genres, the television and film world is looking to mirror that evolution.
Johannes Roberts, director of the Resident Evil films Welcome to Raccoon City, told the AP he was approaching the film like he would adapting a Steven King novel. As more directors with critical acclaim approach adapting gaming adaptations, much like the comic book industry has seen with filmmakers like Chloe Zhao and showrunners like Damon Lindelof helming their own projects, the more individual it feels and the more room there is to play around with the look and feel of the title.
Gaming is Only Growing
Gaming is still seen as niche subject matter for filmmakers, which has led to pressure to create straight adaptations the source material. But consider that by 2024, gaming will reach $218 billion in revenue (much higher than the film industry), according to the Associated Press, and people between the ages of 14 and 24 choose gaming as their preferred past time, according to an eMarketer report. Other consumers in their late ’20s, ’30s, and early ’40s, grew up with games and still regularly or casually play. These stories, much like certain comic book characters, are well known; they can be subverted because the underlying knowledge of fundamentals is recognizable.
While looking at the audience demographic for some of the most recent animated and live-action gaming adaptations, we found that the majority of viewership trended toward Gen Z and Millennial (14-34 years old) audience. Series like The Witcher showed the strongest tracking of the shows listed below for Over 40, suggesting that live-action adaptations will play stronger with older consumers who might be more likely to cancel Netflix subscriptions as low engaged users.
Notably, The Witcher has a definitively smaller gap in gender, followed by a noticeably smaller gap with Arcane. On the other hand, DOTA: Dragon’s Blood has the widest gap in gender breakdown. Alongside this breakdown, we can see demand for Arcane and The Witcher greatly outpaces DOTA: Dragon’s Blood. All three series are available on Netflix, but DOTA has a smaller player base than League of Legends (about 785,000 active monthly players in November 2021 compared to more htan 115 million active monthly players logging onto League of Legends.)
Keeping that in mind, think of how The Witcher subverted the typical video game adaptation to make it more accessible to non-male, young and older audiences looking to dive into a fantasy series. Instead of focusing on how the world reacted to main character Geralt and his travels, as a game would do because the player takes on the role of a director, time was spent on developing key female characters like Yelena. Most importantly, these portrayals subverted both gaming and fantasy tropes by not just focusing on physical attributes or their relationship to Geralt. On December 17th, The Witcher became the most in-demand series in the world upon its season two premiere, amassing 81x the average demand of all other series globally.
Similarly, Arcane took a game that’s fundamentally about strategy and turned it into a story about sisterhood, relationships, and grief. Part of this is natural plot development; but Riot Games could have focused on a more male, typically sci-fi/fantasy arc (again, which tend to lean predominantly male) and chose not to do so.
Focusing on Vi and Powder, two sisters, allows the story to become much more global and resonate with viewers regardless of their interest in the actual game. When Arcane moves into more general world-building more closely associated with fantasy television and video games, it loses some of its power as a TV show. The glue holding everything together is a relationship and real world emotions that don’t get explored in the game.
Data from Parrot Analytics’ showcases that dystopian series, as a genre, skews slightly more male, but fantasy skews slightly more female. Science fiction and animation skew slightly more male, with drama skewing much more toward female audiences. The gap between audiences in genres like animation is closing, however, as it becomes even more of a ubiquitous and mainstream platform. Getting away from pre-conceived notions of what has worked, and leaning into what could work by subverting everything audiences think about gaming adaptations.
Quintessentially, these series don’t detract from the games they’re based on. Nor do they try and reinvent overarching facets of the worlds those games come from. Instead, they subvert. Detective Pikachu did the same thing, taking a Pokémon puzzle offshoot and turning it into a hybrid live-action/animated film enamored by the world Nintendo has fostered for more nearly 30 years while also poking light fun at the most obvious absurdities.
As Parrot Analytics noted in a previous analysis about subversion in the comic book/superhero genre on television, gaming could learn from similar successes and apply them to new projects going forward to widen the audience net and creating something truly spectacular.
Open to More
The very nature of entertainment is changing. Mediums are morphing; something like Netflix, which was once a place for passive entertainment, is starting to embark on games in an attempt to be an entertainment home beyond TV and film.
As we move closer to a Metaverse reality, and as the lines between different forms of entertainment continue to blend, creating a new universe that can be watched passively and inhabited actively is the difference between a franchise that keeps people’s attention and demand, and those that don’t.
At the heart of this conversation is the value of IP and how that IP is handled as more expansion arms appear. Does Disney become a destination for gaming, like Netflix wants to be, or continue licensing at a higher value while maintaining oversight of the final product to protect brand identity? The Metaverse will be powered by content and users interacting in way that builds upon what gaming and entertainment already have, blending online identity with fictional worlds that people want to inhabit.
Here are some quick points about gaming and entertainment, including projections over the next few years:
- The Metaverse could see a market opportunity of nearly $800 billion by 2024, according to Bloomberg Market Research
- Movie and television premieres, as well as concerts with the most in-demand musicians in the world, are occurring within video games like Fortnite. Most recently, Fortnite hosted a short film festival with Universal Pictures.
- Some of the most in-demand entertainment across global platforms like YouTube and Twitch are coming from stories being created within games like Minecraft and Roblox, both of which have more than 100 million monthly active players
- Companies like Netflix are exploring more virtual and augmented reality experiences to supplement shows, alongside physical experiences that create more real life connection to subscribers’ favorite series
- Consumers are getting their favorite linear stories in gaming universes, and passive entertainment sources (like watching TV or movies) are becoming more interactive — just look at Netflix’s foray into choose-your-own-adventure programming.
Gaming adaptations, much like comic book stories, have the possibility to introduce consumers to an entirely new world of content they can explore after the credits roll. After The Witcher premiered in 2019, CD Projekt Red saw a new record for PC gamers logging on to play The Witcher 3 (92,268 players logged in when the game was released in May 2015, and 94,601 people played on December 30th, 2019 — ten days after The Witcher premiered on Netflix).
Publishers and studios like Ubisoft, Naughty Dog, Sony, and Microsoft are teaming with entertainment partners to try and achieve similar results, much like how Disney partnered with Epic Games to ensure that Marvel characters were always on audience’s minds, no matter what they were doing. Thinking about how these relationships, which often first take form in adaptations, can help propel two different businesses right now that are quickly becoming much more intertwined.
Arcane and Riot Games’ Relationship with Netflix
Netflix’s integration of games on the platform is both an attempt to protect its core asset (more time spent on the platform takes attention away from competitors) and increase retention (or reduce churn) in the process. There’s no extra cost, so it feels like an “extra” for every subscriber, and therefore may encourage more people to check out the offering. While this is just step one for Netflix (the goal, according to COO Greg Peters, is to eventually branch out and make games that could exist outside of the Netflix app), it sets the groundwork for what Netflix needs.
If a show on Netflix can encourage fans to check out some of the early games Netflix has released, could the opposite happen? Could a game encourage other subscribers to check out a show?
Enter Hextech Mayhem. The rhythm game from Riot Games sees players take control of two League of Legends champions — Ziggs and Heimerdinger — as they move around their phone screen in time with in-game music. While the game costs $10 to players outside of Netflix (on Epic Games Store and Steam), it’s free for all Netflix customers with access to games on their devices.
Hextech Mayhem is a game that stands on its own as an experience, but fans of Arcane will also know that Heimerdinger is a character within the series. This is a face (and voice) they know. It’s a character they’ve spent several hours with over the course of nine episodes. Having a game with an interlocking connection to the TV show is another way of boosting awareness and interest in the game. Hextech Mayhem also features locations that Arcane fans will know (the city of Piltover), where Zigg first meets Arcane’s main character, Jinx.
Alex Neuse, co-founder of Choice Provisions, which developed Hextech Mayhem told TechRadar that expanding League of Legends in a format that was different than the main game (going from a MOBA to a rhythm title) would “expand the League of Legends oeuvre to include forays into less serious territory.”
“If we’re expanding the universe, let’s go where it has never gone before, you know?” Neuse said. The same could be said of Netflix’s gaming ambitions.
The Metaverse and room for entertainment
One core difference between Netflix’s gaming ambitions as they currently stand and Disney’s is that Netflix is both building a platform that games exist on (similar to a marketplace like Apple Arcade) while Disney is licensing out its IP to publishers and developers who can use globally recognized characters and worlds to create billion dollar franchises (see: EA’s Battlefront).
Netflix’s entry into games will start with ownership. The company is acquiring small studios to make games exclusively for Netflix’s platform right now. This will likely broaden into developing games for partners like Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation, but the goal is to increase time spent with Netflix, on Netflix — consistently thinking about Netflix. It’s a way to strengthen the IP for an entirely different audience.
Disney’s Metaverse ambitions will likely incorporate forms of interactive entertainment we think of as gaming right now, but licensing out its IP to some of the best gaming studios and publishers (EA, Respawn, Epic) can save on overall investing into the traditional gaming space while still commanding top dollar for lending out characters, franchises, and worlds that consumers love globally.
Both, however, are trying to accomplish a similar goal: use interactive experiences and gaming to determine viable new ways to reiterate their core IP to consumers of the future. It’s similar to what Matthew Ball noted in an essay about Travis Scott’s concert performance on Fortnite, which drew 12 million “viewers.”
“Epic is a game engine company (Fortnite too). These tests are about finding out what's interesting & viable, financing R&D that’s also great marketing, showing the world what they can build on.”
As we move closer to a “Metaverse” — the next iteration and successor to our current internet model that (in a very loose definition) incorporates a variety of factors including digital ownership through cryptocurrency, virtual/augmented reality, and real-time experiences — entertainment becomes much more of an overlap between passive and interactive. It’s partially why Facebook listed Snapchat, Sony, Roblox, and Epic as part of the “fierce competition” it’ll face in building the Metaverse.
Right now, Sony is developing about ten different adaptations of its video games, from movies like Uncharted to TV series like Twisted Metal and The Last of Us. Through a program called “One Sony,” the goal is to integrate many of the Sony companies together to produce work that brings more attention — and revenue — to each of their divisions, according to Sony Pictures chief Tony Vinciquerra. Sony has the platform and the content to create a universe where adaptations and video games help to reiterate the importance and prominence of that IP in the eyes of consumers.
Sony Pictures’ Spider-Man trilogy has grossed more than $3 billion, and Insominac Games’ Spider-Man title from 2018 generated more revenue in its first weekend ($198 million) than Spider-Man: Homecoming did in its 2017 debut weekend ($119 million). In 2020, Sony bought Insomniac Games for $227 million — and just recently, Spider-Man: No Way Home earned more than $560 million in its opening weekend. Insomniac’s sequel to 2018’s Spider-Man game is due out in two years.
Alternatively, gaming studios can partner with companies like Facebook, Netflix, HBO Max, or Apple TV+ to carry out different adaptations, and ideally bring in new players. If a company like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, or Apple also has a platform for games to live on, the deal is even sweeter. For Facebook, a company trying to carry some of the biggest IP that can draw in consumers looking for passive and interactive entertainment offerings, gaming adaptations and gaming spinoffs are the perfect place to start.
“We really think of our TV series and films as another doorway for people to enter,” Danielle Krenick, a development executive at Ubisoft, told Variety in 2019. “There really is no baseline of knowledge that they have to have coming in.”
Deciphering what can help make a quintessential title for gaming and non-gaming fans alike, how to use pre-existing technology to make those visions work, and how to incorporate future play time into the series or movie for diehard fans who want to explore more is integral to coming out on top as adaptations start to flood the market. It’s an exciting time for game developers and studios alike, but there will also be an influx in competition.
The next Pokémon is right around the corner (it may have been Arcane), but as gaming becomes even more mainstream and audiences seek out those stories in both passive and interactive entertainment arenas, watching what works and what doesn’t will be crucial to expanding the genre for years to come.