Star Wars, Harry Potter, BloodRayne? Not all fandoms are massive collections of people able to sustain multiple theatrical releases, inspire theme parks or events like annual conventions; most are collections of devotees that are small in number but no less loyal to their favorite universe. In the movie business such properties go "direct to DVD," a trend that, thanks to an explosion in digital distribution technology, the gaming industry is beginning to follow, but is it fair to connect downloadable games to an oft stigmatized practice of the movie industry, or will it bring the concept new respect?
“Theatrical release is an expensive proposition. You're talking about creating prints of the film. You're talking about distributing those prints. You're talking about a significant marketing investment,” explains David Thomas, filmmaker and founder of Straight2DVDMovies.com, a news site that tracks the direct to DVD movie market, “If a [movie's] distributor doesn't feel they'll get a good return on investment distributing theatrically, they'll opt for direct to video/online/cable/video-on-demand.”
While the direct to DVD is often the home of the efforts of first-time directors or the makers of so-called 'mockbusters' like Transmorphers: Fall of Man, it is best known as the place to find sequels to a particular class of film. Thomas describes one example: “...Beverly Hills Chihuahua. [A]ctually did quite well in theaters, almost $95 million domestically, but the sequel was straight to DVD and made $29 million. Would it have made more theatrically? Probably, but it would have cost more to produce and far more to market. So it's likely that when the producers did the math, direct to video seemed the best option.”
Again, while saving on production and distribution costs is a significant factor in this segment for the less-than-perfect production values and casting, an appreciative fan base motivates their creation. It’s not limited to the typically rabid genre fans. Though there have been two (soon three) direct to DVD Starship Troopers movies, there have been three Bring it On cheerleader films and twelve entries in the Land Before Time series of children's animated dinosaur adventures.
Over the past ten years, movie making has been joined in the high financial risk/reward entertainment business by gaming. The so-called “Triple A” level games released for home consoles can cost tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars to produce, but unlike theatrical blockbusters, can take years to develop. Superstar game designer Cliff Bleszinski (Gears of War) recently projected that the gaming equivalent of the Hollywood blockbuster could be a thing of the past, outside of “established brands.”
In the past, sentiment like that might have left fans of franchises that either didn’t or no longer light up cash registers without ever getting to play in their favorite game worlds ever again. However, the growth in digital game distribution technology that made indie games like Super Meat Boy and Braid household names is keeping cult favorite franchises alive, by salvaging valuable intellectual properties, sparing developers the extraordinary risks involved in investing in untested ones.
“[D]id we want to work on a side-scrolling action platformer starring a sexy half-vampire, [...] Heck yeah we did!” says Sean Velasco of WayForward Technologies (A Boy and His Blob) about the prospect of developing a game using the BloodRayne property. Their title, BloodRayne: Betrayal, was the first downloadable game in a series since 2004 that has to this point been only released on disc. BloodRayne: Betrayal joins titles like Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond and the upcoming Alan Wake sequel as franchises that have migrated to the downloadable sphere. It's a trend that Velasco doesn’t see slowing down, “I would be surprised if more games didn’t go this way. It’s such a great way for a smaller game to get out there in front of everyone.”
However, just like inexpensive direct to DVD movies are almost guaranteed to lose their original creative teams of actors and directors, lower priced downloadable sequels are likely not to have the original staff involved in their creation. Velasco counters that that doesn't mean the effort isn’t there, “The original developers weren’t involved in the development of this game, but we tried to retain the flair of the original BloodRayne games.”
Looking into the future, David Thomas sees a brighter future for lower overhead downloadable games than the stigmatized fate of their movie counterparts, “Just as before the invention of the DVD, or more the point, VHS, [cost-effective sequels or independent] titles either didn't get made, or didn't get seen outside of filmmakers' living rooms and the odd film festival. I guess the distinction I'm trying to draw is that films will (probably) always be released theatrically and that will remain the goal for many filmmakers. Video games, based on my limited conversations with developers, will eventually be primarily digital downloads, so the fact that it's available as a download won't really distinguish less developed titles from more developed titles.”
Sean Velasco agrees, “Definitely. I would be surprised if more games didn’t go this way. It’s such a great way for a smaller game to get out there in front of everyone. As somewhat of a niche gamer, it’s a breath of fresh air to see the unique content that is coming to downloadable platforms.”