James Cameron has transported film audiences to worlds inhabited by carnivorous aliens, time-traveling assassins, and passengers on an ill-fated ocean liner. Now the director of Aliens, The Terminator, and Titanic is trying something different. Holed up at his home in Santa Barbara, Calif., Cameron is working on the screenplay for Project 880, which he describes as "completely crazy, balls-out sci-fi." If it gets produced, it could be the first major Hollywood project that audiences will experience first as a multiplayer game on the Net, and only later on the silver screen.
Movies with game tie-ins have been around since the days of Atari (ATAR ), but the games usually follow the plot. With Project 880 (a working title), which is still at least two years off, gamers could be exploring Cameron's virtual world for weeks before they head for a theater to learn the story. And the game could spawn whole communities of diehards such as those who spend every waking hour immersed in EverQuest, World of Warcraft, and other massively multiplayer online games, known as MMOGs. "So much of literary sci-fi is about creating worlds that are rich and detailed and make sense at a social level," Cameron says. "We'll create a world for people and then later present a narrative in that world" (see BW Online, 2/13/06, "Syncing Hollywood and Gamers").
What would an MMOG bring a mogul? Cash, for one thing. World of Warcraft, a J.R.R. Tolkien-inspired fantasy game from Vivendi Universal (V ) that boasts 5.5 million users worldwide, brought in about $300 million last year in sales and subscriptions, figures David Cole, president of game researcher DFC Intelligence. And while MMOGs make up just 7% of the $28 billion game market, they may be the most addictive niche. A Stanford University researcher who surveyed 3,000 MMOG denizens found that the median player was immersed for 20 hours a week, vs. seven to eight hours for gamers at consoles.
SCI-FI REALITY SHOW
Cameron has more than a passing interest in simulation and next-generation games. A former physics major at California State University, he once served on the board of NASA. Aiming to shoot all his future films in 3-D, he has helped pioneer a whole suite of 3-D cameras, tools to capture actors' performances and import them into simulations, and various post-production techniques. Cameron now sits on the board of Multiverse, a startup that helps developers create their own games in return for a cut of the subscription revenues. "You're seeing what hundreds of thousands of people in this game environment can create," he says.
Other big directors are glomming onto MMOGs. Imagine Entertainment, the company run by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer that created the TV show 24, has teamed up with producer Jim Banister, Halo creator Alex Seropian, and others to develop a sci-fi reality show called XQuest. If it flies, contestants will occupy a cramped spaceship-like module for a month. Its flight simulators will subject them to rocket-like conditions, including six Gs of thrust. Players will ply the galaxy while following the rough contours of a plot. Outside the ship, online gamers will track the crew's mission and ultimately board their own PC-based spaceships to rendezvous with contestants in shared, simulated space. The next season's cast, in theory, is chosen from those who show the most skill playing the game at home.
For studios, MMOGs may not be much of a hedge against a fickle box office. Online gamers are famously choosy. Most games fail to bring in more than 20,000 players, yet good titles can cost $10 million to $20 million to develop. The player pool is mostly boys and young men. And the medium has genre limitations: Don't look for MMOGs based on Brokeback Mountain or Walk the Line anytime soon.
Still, for the growing hordes of gamers, MMOGs may be ripe for a crossover. "You are exploring the interaction of technology and the human imagination," says Cameron, "and you play it out in a highly competitive, fast-paced interaction." Movies can show what imagination looks like. MMOGs can show how it feels on the inside.
By Burt Helm