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The Godfather Goes Interactive

Few of today's college students were alive when The Godfather first graced the silver screen in 1972. But they still want to hear the 69-year-old actor Alex Rocco repeat the line he delivered as Moe Green, the Las Vegas gangster, to Al Pacino's Michael Corleone: "You don't buy me out -- I buy you out!" Says Rocco today: "It was 33 years ago. Do you believe all this for a part that had three lousy scenes?"

It's that kind of fanaticism that game companies -- including heavyweights Electronic Arts (ERTS), Take-Two Interactive Software (TTWO), Vivendi Universal's (V) games unit, and smaller outfits like London-based SCi Games -- hope to tap into.

EPIC PRODUCTIONS. In the coming year, they'll release a slew of games based on old movies, including The Godfather, Scarface, From Russia with Love, the 1978 cult hit The Warriors, and the relatively recent Reservoir Dogs, which debuted a mere 13 years ago.

We're not talking about slapped-together rehashes, either. Games are turning into productions nearly as big as the original films, complete with the real stars, Hollywood screenwriters, and painstakingly detailed reproductions of characters and places. Budgets for the most expensive titles are reaching the low tens of millions.

Still, the effort could carry a handsome payday: Consider Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a game about a gang member's odyssey to avenge his mother's death. The overarching story line has about 100 subplots and hundreds of characters. Despite the cost of all these turns and twists, the game made $235 million in its first three months after its October, 2004, release. It remains on best-seller lists today.

TRICKY BALANCE. The trend toward movie classics has expanded as kids who grew up playing on the first home video-game consoles are now entering their late 20s. Game publishers are hoping to tap into the cult status these films held with this age group, harnessing built-in fan bases. And game consoles have made huge leaps in technology, boasting scenes nearly as realistic as the ones in the movies themselves.

The only hurdle: figuring out how to turn a two-hour movie into a game with 12 to 40 hours of playing time -- all while keeping the feel of the game true to the movie. "James Bond in the game needs to move just like Sean Connery did, karate chop just like he did, or fans will notice," says Jillian Goldberg, vice-president for product marketing at Electronic Arts, which is releasing both The Godfather The Game and From Russia with Love this fall.

So, at the outset, Electronic Arts signed up Sean Connery. The actor will provide Bond's voice for the game. And by mimicking scenes from the 1963 movie, Electronic Arts made the video-game character walk, run, and shoot just like Connery. In addition, Bruce Fierstein, the screenwriter on the three most recent Bond films, is writing the game's script.

SOME STARS RELUCTANT. Other developers are signing up Hollywood talent, too. Scarface, developed by Vivendi Universal for release in the second quarter of 2006, will include the voices of Steven Bauer and Robert Loggia, both actors from the original, along with Jay Mohr, Cheech Marin, James Woods, and Michael York. David McKenna, author of the screenplays for Blow and American History X, will write the script.

Along with the original musical score, The Godfather The Game includes voice-acting from James Caan and Robert Duvall, who played the characters Santino Corleone and Tom Hagen in the movie, and the likenesses of Marlon Brando, John Cazale (who played Fredo Corleone), and Alex Rocco, among others. SCi Games and Take-Two, which are developing Reservoir Dogs and The Warriors, respectively, declined to disclose who would be involved with those games.

Because many of these movies were made before video games existed, none had clauses allowing all-encompassing video-game licenses in the contracts. As a result, not all actors agreed to sign on. Al Pacino, for instance, agreed to have his likeness displayed for Scarface, but not for The Godfather The Game, and he lent his voice to neither. "Michael Corleone is almost an historic character, and [Pacino] feels a special obligation to protect [that character's] image" wrote Pacino's publicist in an e-mail.

3-D CRAFTSMANSHIP. Meanwhile, designers are carefully re-creating settings from the movies, piece by piece. In the case of From Russia With Love, that meant not only replicating the scenery from the movie but also mimicking the way director Terence Young lit the scenes.

"In an outdoor scene at night, he put these big floodlights to one side off camera, and put a blue-ish tint over it," says Glen Schofield, the executive producer of the game. "It doesn't look quite as realistic as what we do today, and yet it had this really cool 1960s look. So we worked to replicate it."

In Scarface, Vivendi producer Pete Wanat and his team recreated Tony Montana's mansion, down to the smallest prop. In addition to examining the movie dozens of times, the Vivendi team got Universal to send it photos of the original set, so it could get an idea of what things looked like just-off the camera, according to Wanat. "It's a 3-D version done to an almost exact detail," he says.

"WHAT-IF?" STORIES But the biggest challenge is creating something that's actually fun to play. Game designers must balance memorable parts from the movies without banally plodding through the same plot. "People have already seen the movie," says Wanat.

To achieve the balance, manufacturers developed elaborate backstories, or "what-if?," scenarios for many of these games. In The Warriors game, the player starts out well before the action of the movie in a sort of prequel: You and fellow gang members explore 1970s New York City -- riding the subway, getting into fights, and spraying graffiti on walls in the weeks leading up to the meeting in the Bronx that starts off the movie.

In The Godfather, you play not as one of the Corleones but as one of the family's henchmen, completing separate missions behind the scenes of the first movie's action.

EMBELLISHING BOND. Scarface starts at the end of the movie, working from the supposition, "What if Tony Montana hadn't died?" Instead, Tony escapes from the mansion with nothing but his own life. "It becomes a question of, 'What would you do? How would you get Tony back on top?'" says Wanat.

Some "must-have" movie scenes don't play well in games, either. For the climactic fist fight between James Bond and his nemesis, Schofield says he and his team decided to cut away to a clip from the movie, rather than try to re-create it within the game. After the clip ends, the villain runs off shooting, and Bond must continue pursuing him -- something that didn't happen in the movie.

"We've embellished on the big scene, and we've gotten back to what [the game] is good at -- shooting," says Schofield.

CLASSICS SAFER. Some scenes don't fit for other reasons. Patrick O'Lunanaigh, the creative director at SCi Games, declined to fully describe what was planned for Reservoir Dogs but did say one thing: Players won't be able to cut police officers' ears off, as Mr. Blonde does in the movie. That isn't to say other ears won't be cut off. "All the key moments will be shown," says O'Lunanaigh.

How well will these games do? Developers acknowledge it's hard to beat the success of a great game timed with the release of a new blockbuster. But games based on the classics are less risky -- they have guaranteed fans and developers have plenty of time to do a careful job.

In the past, SCi Games has released games based on other classic movies, including The Great Escape, in 2003. It didn't turn into a blockbuster, but it did gross $3.5 million in the U.S., according to the NPD Group. As developers look to bigger and bigger movie titles, revenues should grow. After all, few kids these days quote Steve McQueen from The Great Escape, but stars on the MTV show Cribs display posters of Tony Montana.


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