With such a history of failure, why does Hollywood keep banking on videogames as good sources of material? Because it's always desperate for the next big hit, and adaptation is seen as being easier than originality, even though by now it's apparent that it's not quite as simple as it seems. An even better question is: why exactly don't these translations work? What is it about games that makes for poor films? Let's see if we can answer this question and assess the potential success/failure of some upcoming MMO movies.
First of all, it's a truism that the strength of one medium is not the strength of another. Seeing a beloved novel get the cinematic treatment can be jarring, because you've already decided for yourself what those characters look and sound like -- chances are, they didn't resemble Today's Hot Actors. And while turning a first-person narrative into a movie with a voiceover seems like a natural transition, it's frequently the case that the written word sounds kind of, well ... goofy when spoken aloud.
Second of all, videogames are an inherently interactive medium. In fact, that's their reason for being: to provide the player with something to manipulate. Games are fun for us because we are the ones who control the action. Small wonder, then, that simply watching the action unfold on a one-way screen seems like a terribly diluted experience.
Third of all, in the particular case of an MMO, you don't have a single protagonist upon whom to base a plot, but thousands, or millions. In an MMO, you are the hero, and you decide how you'll behave, even given the limited range of possible actions. In the movies, you cringe when you see how these characters comport themselves -- you would never be so careless, or naîve, or dimwitted!
Fourth of all, in its attempt to please two masters -- the initiated fanbase, and the unwashed masses -- the producers insist on both including elements that aren't present in the game (like a romance, or inner conflict) in order to broaden the appeal of the premise, and excluding elements that the fans would want to see (like in-game in-jokes, references to the lore, etc.) to avoid alienating Joe Q. Public, who likely hasn't ever heard of the game franchise to begin with. This is a tactic that rarely, if ever, works, and results instead in a product that fails to capture the heart of either audience demographic.
This is not to say that a videogame movie cannot work. The Resident Evil series has enjoyed some small success, but it's hardly considered a breakout hit. Generally, the feeling seems to be that it's a good series 'for what it is'. Some speak of Mortal Kombat as being harmless and enjoyable, and this is because it concerns itself with action and visuals, and almost no actual story. In fact, the acting of Christopher Lambert as Raiden is pointed out as the standout element that hurts the movie, proving in this case that less is more.
So, with all of those pieces in place, let's take a look at the upcoming MMO movies, and ways in which they might succeed or fail.
City of Heroes
The greatest strength this property contains is in its producer, Tom DeSanto, who worked in the same capacity for the Transformers movie, and who also worked on the first 2 X-Men films -- and notably left the third movie alone. It's not too much of a stretch to make a correlation between the success and depth of the first two X-movies with DeSanto on-board, and the failure of the third. Clearly, he understands how movie heroics work. With him producing the CoH movie, there seems to be reason to hope.
At the same time, however, this is a movie based on the concept that there are many, many superpowered tights-wearing good- and evil-doers running around. With no immediate name recognition for the public to latch onto, there's going to have to be an awful lot of exposition just to get the lay of the land, which is never a great way to introduce a story. And ensemble superhero movies generally don't do well either.
This article has it that the Everquest movie will be written by Michael Gordon, one of the writers of 300. That's a positive only if you're a fan of brash one-liners in response to standard movie villain threats. We're not saying Mr. Gordon himself was responsible for those bits of dialogue, but remember that 300 was itself an adaptation from the original Frank Miller comic, which itself got its story from the annals of history. So, maybe working on an adaptation of an adaptation uniquely qualifies him to bring the story of EQ to the silver screen.
But another problem arises. EQ is a fantasy MMO, with all the typical trappings associated with that genre. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings managed to avoid the stigma usually attached to fantasy films, which is to say that it's difficult to buy into the medieval dress, the rarefied language, the hierarchical class structure -- and the reason the LotR movie worked is because it treated the source material with reverence, and executed the project with true fanboy passion. The massive LotR fanbase loved the seriousness with which everything was presented, and the mainstream audience was enthralled by a fantasy world that looked like something real -- can the same thing happen with Everquest? Is its lore on par with Tolkien's? We're not optimistic.
World of Warcraft
Written by Chris Metzen, who also wrote for Warcraft II, StarCraft, and Diablo (including an aborted screenplay), the World of Warcraft movie is expected out next year. WoW is now so big that even people who don't play games at all know what it is. That's going to be a huge factor in getting butts into seats. Additionally, the movie's being produced by Thomas Tull, who was executive producer for 300, Superman Returns, 10,000 B.C., the upcoming Batman revamp sequel The Dark Knight, and the film adaptation of the greatest superhero comic of all time, Watchmen. That's some serious geek cred to ride in on, and he'll need it all to pull this one off. Because this movie has to be amazing; simply good won't do it.
Working on a beloved franchise is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the built-in fanbase means that for at least the first couple of days, your adaptation will be received by packed theaters nationwide. But if it's received poorly, those initial numbers will quickly fade away. Even if your movie does well in DVD sales, the damage has been done. And in Hollywood, that sort of thing follows you around forever.
The WoW movie (listed only as 'Warcraft' on imdb.com) will have a lot of eyeballs on it the second the first photos are leaked. From the sound of it, Azeroth will be seen through the eyes of a heretofore unknown character, and the events of the movie take place a year prior to the lore of the MMO. So will it be enough for the fans to see real-life sets based on terrain they've already trod a thousand times over in-game? Will the actors playing the famous historical figures that have to be in the movie be able to invest them with the proper gravitas? Will the whole thing just come off as slightly silly? Let's also not forget the super-saturated palette of the WoW aesthetic; how will that look on-screen? Does the story even matter, or should it just be one giant homage, filled with epic battlefield scenes and hardcore references? Will the warlocks be too powerful?
Blizzard is in the enviable position of not having to worry about box office sales; they own the single most profitable game in the history of the medium. And even if the movie tanks (no pun intended), the game will still be there, possibly even including the Wrath of the Lich King expansion by then. So, ironically, the film with the biggest budget and the most people slavering over it stands to lose the least by its potential failure. We're eagerly awaiting more information, but we've seen these things come and go over the past couple of decades ... excuse us for being a little leery. We'd love to be pleasantly surprised, but the statistics speak volumes: videogame movies have a horrible history. Could MMO movies fare any better? We'll know next year!