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HIVE EXCLUSIVE: Universal Interactive Mining Uni's Blockbuster Films for New Game Franchises

3 Oct, 2001 By: John Gaudiosi

Universal Interactive is making the most of its new role as a video game publisher and unit of Vivendi Universal Interactive Publishing, while retaining a strategic relationship with Universal Pictures.

The video game publisher, which was formerly called Universal Interactive Studios, is developing new game franchises based on The Fast and the Furious, The Thing, Jurassic Park, The Hulk, The Scorpion King, The Mummy Returns and "The Lord of the Rings" literary works by J.R.R. Tolkien.

“We want to build game franchises with the movie studio, focusing on taking the source material and turning it into a great game, which in turn will enhance the movie franchise,” said Jim Wilson, president of Universal Interactive. “We want to leverage our unique relationship with Universal to allow our game developers access to the storyboards, the sets, the script…

"With The Grinch, our team took photos of the set and translated that to animation for the game," Wilson added. "The Mummy Returns was also a close collaboration between the game developers and the movie makers.”

At the same time, Wilson will not rush a game out before it's ready, just to meet a theatrical window, and in some instances, if a movie franchise doesn't translate to one of the gaming genres, no game will be made. Case in point, Jurassic Park: Survivor for PlayStation 2 was shown at E3 in May and slated for a release this fall. The company has delayed the game until late 2002/early 2003 in order to rework the game and ensure the game and movie franchises remain strong. An Xbox version of Survivor is also in development. The action/adventure game introduces a new protagonist, security technician David Vaughn, and a new island full of dinosaurs and an evil umbrella company.

“Our roots are in developing great videogame franchises like Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon,” said Wilson. “We're not in the business of taking a movie brand and slapping it on a game to make a quick buck. We want to make great interactive entertainment.”

UI recently signed a five-year, seven-month deal with Marvel to develop video games based on "The Hulk" comic books and the upcoming May 2003 Universal Pictures movie, which will be directed by Ang Lee. Wilson said the first comic-based “Hulk” game will ship before the movie. A movie-based game collaboration is also expected. There will be multiple titles for multiple platforms during the life of the contract. A Game Boy Advance “Hulk” title based on the comic is expected to ship as early as 2002 and a GBA "Hulk" title based on the movie is expected to ship in conjunction with the film's release.

“ 'The Hulk' is a great franchise that stands on its own,” said Wilson. “We have a plan for the franchise outside of the movies, but we hope to leverage what theatrical is doing with the movie with some of our video games.”

After focusing heavily on action and adventure games, UI is ready to enter the crowded but lucrative racing video game genre with The Fast and the Furious.

“We feel we can leverage the car culture explored in the film and push the technology of today's next-generation systems to create a AAA racing game that allows players to build street cars and race them, which is a new take on racing games,” said Wilson.

The game franchise will benefit from the theatrical sequel that director Rob Cohen is developing for Universal.

Dipping into an older franchise, UI will release a video game sequel to John Carpenter's The Thing. The game, which will ship for PS2, Xbox and PC in spring 2002, picks up three months after the 1982 film ended. The survival horror game sends a new team of researchers to the destroyed Outpost 31 to discover what happened. Since the film's ending was left open, the video game will expand the story line and answer many questions that fans of the film still have. In addition to exploring the base and killing the aliens, the single-player game brings the film's psychological elements into play, as both fear and trust of other characters, who may or may not be infected by The Thing, impacts the game.

In addition to the PlayStation 2 The Mummy Returns game, which ships day-and-date with the home video and DVD, UI will ship a Game Boy Advance sequel to The Scorpion King day-and-date with the April 19 theatrical release, starring The Rock. The company's first GameCube game, a prequel to The Scorpion King, will ship in fall 2002 in conjunction with the home video and DVD release of the film. A PlayStation 2 version of this game will also ship.

The CGI feature film version of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are that Universal Pictures is developing will open up a new family franchise for UI.

“I've been wanting to make video games based on 'Where the Wild Things Are' for a very long time,” said Wilson.

In addition to the Xbox game, The Fellowship of the Ring, which will ship in spring 2002, UI will ship an additional one to two games based on "The Lord of the Rings" literary works next year. A total of 10 SKUs are planned to ship during the eight-year licensing agreement with Tolkien Enterprises.

Wilson said that in addition to the PC massively multiplayer game, which is in development, he would like to use the online technology for console online games, once Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo have their online plans in place.

UI has big plans for its core franchises, Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot, both of which will be heading to PS2, GBA, Xbox and GameCube over the next few years. Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex for PS2 ships Nov. 13 and Crash Bandicoot Advance ships for GBA ships next spring. Spryo: Season of Ice ships for GBA Nov. 5 and Spyro is expected to hit next-generation consoles next year.

“I'm not interested in turning Crash or Spyro into an animated TV show, because we have unique franchises that appeal to a broad demographic,” said Wilson. “But taking these characters to linear entertainment such as original DVD content or online, is interesting to me.”

Universal Interactive has grown from 23 employees on Jan. 1 to 55 and recently relocated to the 33rd floor of 100 Universal Plaza. Wilson expects to top out his staff at 65 people by the end of the year. UI will ship four SKUs this year, but will increase output next year to eight titles spread out over 15 SKUs, including five to six GBA games and games for Xbox, PS2 and GameCube.

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