Online Extra: Syncing Hollywood and Gamers

The relationship between films and games hasn't produced memorable offerings, complains Titanic director James Cameron, who aims to change that

Hollywood has long seen the appeal of video-game licensing deals. Having a hot new computer game released in conjunction with the latest blockbuster can mean added buzz and ticket sales. And as games get more sophisticated, there are even more ways to forge movie tie-ins.

The latest gaming craze to catch the attention of Hollywood heavyweights: Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG), in which hundreds, if not thousands, of players interact in their own online gaming universe. MMOGs aren't new, but interest in them from the film industry is certainly on the rise.

Ron Howard, director of Apollo 13, has partnered with former Halo producer Alexander Seropian to develop a new science-fiction reality TV show called Xquest that will let viewers interact with contestants in an online video game.

More recently, Titanic director James Cameron, along with fellow Oscar-winning director John Landau, joined the board of Multiverse, a gaming company that launched in December. Multiverse, founded by Netscape veterans Bill Turpin and Corey Bridges, aims to let independent developers create their own MMOGs.

Cameron, who directed Aliens, Terminator, and won an Academy Award for Titanic, took a break from working on the script for his next movie to talk with BusinessWeek Online reporter Burt Helm. He discusses Multiverse, science fiction, and why he's taking the unusual step of debuting his next project as an MMOG before it's released as a film on the big screen. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

How did you find out about Multiverse, and why did you sign on?

This company picked me out, really. I'm involved with Microsoft (MSFT ). My point person over there, Maria Wilhelm, told me about it, and it seemed like a really interesting opportunity. I don't usually serve on boards unless I can learn something while advising too. The world of MMOGs is an area of interest for me. What can I bring? I create worlds [through film], though mine are narrative-oriented. I can smell what's going to work and what's not.

What's appealing about massively multiplayer online games?

I've been a science-fiction fan from the time I could read, and so much of literary sci-fi is about creating worlds that are rich and detailed and make sense at a social level. They force people to be more imaginative.

It's a little bit like a tango with these games. There is a godlike hand that starts it all in motion, but the fact that all players have control over who they are in some ways works against [the] narrative. But there's still this guiding hand that creates the rules of the universe.

I want to see developers create games in which players can add to the worlds as they go along, so you can see what hundreds of thousands of people in this game environment can create. It's like each is being handed a tool set.... Instead of creating a $50 million game, you're creating $2 million games and letting them grow themselves.

Do you see these kinds of games moving into the mainstream?

In some ways it has already. Vivendi (V ) -- which makes [MMOG] World of Warcraft -- is making $75 million a month [from subscriptions] on that game. It's business already. As we get more and more different kinds of worlds with these games, you'll see more people interested. You get to be an individual in a group, but that group will be like you, in a world that interests you.

There's been a lot of news about Hollywood directors getting involved with games. How do you see the relationship between games and film developing?

If you look at the relationship with movies and games in the past, it has been unidirectional. Either a great movie comes out followed by a pretty crappy game, or some game intellectual property led to a pretty bad movie. It's gotten to the point where that isn't even happening much anymore.

What I'm visualizing is generating in parallel a game created by top developers that takes place in the same universe as the movie. There are some of the same characters, but players are empowered with their own characters. The game doesn't run against the action of the movie, but it doesn't necessarily have to follow the same action, either. Right now, actually, I'm looking at ways for to co-generate my stuff in the film with the world with the games.

How so?

My next project -- which I'm currently writing the shooting draft for -- is going to be this completely crazy balls-out sci-fi flick. The plan is to develop an MMOG that takes place in the same universe and release it a little while before the theatrical release. That way people can start playing around and learning about this new world. Then we present a narrative in it with the movie.

Is that for use as a marketing tool?

From a marketing standpoint it definitely makes sense, but the primary reason for me is – it would be really cool. When people see a movie that's really immersive, like Lord of the Rings, for example, they don't want to stop living in that world. What if you could just go to your computer, then just click and stay in that world?

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