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On Pathfinder and Business Decisions Gone Awry

If you are not familiar with or not into role-playing games, then purely as a story about business decisions gone awry this still makes for some fascinating fare.

Lately it has been interesting to me to to read about the new Role-Playing Game Pathfinder – how the game came to be and how it appears to be smacking around industry giant Dungeons and Dragons and taking it’s lunch money. Here is the nutshell version, and then I will link to some meatier analysis.

With their 3rd edition rules of the game Dungeons and Dragons the game publisher (Wizards of the Coast) made a business decision to license it under an open license.  A generous open license which allowed others to freely develop adventures, add-ons or even upon the core game itself.  The goal of this would seem to be to generate demand for the core product which is the Dungeons and Dragons rule and source books.  My understanding is that this strategy worked.

Eventually Wizards of the Coast decided to produce a 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons and, in doing so, made a business decision to radically change the game people were used to playing.  This left their customer base scratching their heads and wondering if they wanted to get involved with it.  As it turns out, a lot of them didn’t.

Enter Pathfinder. Thanks to the Open Game License which Wizard of the Coast published the 3rd Edition of Dungeons and Dragons under, another company was able to pick it up, tweak it some and then re-publish the 3rd Edition of Dungeons and Dragons under the name of Pathfinder.  And it appears to be outselling the 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons.

I, myself, have not played table-top Dungeons and Dragons since the 2nd Edition.  The computer game Neverwinter Nights was a game engine based on 3rd edition rules, so I guess I can cop to having experienced them in that fashion.  Still it is an interesting tale of executive product and marketing blunders.

For meatier analysis on what Wizards of the Coast has inadvertently done to itself, try these posts:

Pathfinder vs. 4th Edition (Grrr…)

Yeah, So, Like There’s A New Edition of Dungeons and Dragons Coming…

John Carter review

john carter of mars

In the bosom of Barsoom

The other day I linked to news sources which are reporting that the new John Carter movie is in dire straights for poor ticket sales.  Being a fan of the source material, and having read the John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs,  I decided to go see it in theaters for myself.

The good points?

It is a well lit, bright film which looks very good in 3D.  Usually a 3D film will  make a dark film appear even darker – so, not a problem here.

Both the costuming and sets were very elaborate and well done.  They felt very true to what I remember of the books.

Tars Tarkas and the Green Men of Mars looked good to me and hit all the notes I remember of the Green Men.  I felt the special effects mostly looked good.

Lynn Collins was very easy on the eyes as Dejah Thoris.  The make-up and wardrobe professionals assigned to her did a remarkable job in making her beautiful in every scene of this film.

The story seemed generally true to the source material as far as I remember it.  That could be construed as either a favorable or an unfavorable.  I would hate to suggest that a Science Fiction classic required some tweaking – however our understanding of Mars is considerably different than it was for Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1911 when the book was written.  I am going to go with it as being an asset, however it requires that the audience come to the film prepared for some serious suspension of belief.

The bad points?

The lead actor,  Taylor Kitsch, in the role of John Carter left me feeling underwhelmed.  Whether it was the directing or just the actors natural range, the performance felt stiff.  There was a certain spark missing there.

The pacing of the story could have been more brisk and coherent.  While I did not have any trouble following the plot, the film weighs in at over two hours and drags in places.   My recollection of the source material was that the John Carter of Mars books were fast reads of high adventure and this movie could have been a smoother and leaner experience.

Conclusion?

A film with some flaws but certainly not a bad film.  I enjoyed going out to see it and geeked out some on the detail of the Martian sets, costuming and generally seeing the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs brought to life on the screen.  I don’t believe it deserves to be the biggest flop ever – I mean it is not a film that is on par with a disaster like Battlefield Earth or anything.  I think that when people have an opportunity to enjoy the film on Blu-Ray once it  leaves theaters that they will generally think well of it.

It is unfortunate that Disney may have a terrible loss on their hands over the film.  I do see that they put in an effort to be faithful to the novels and that is worth something to a fan of the novels.  There were some very poor marketing decisions on the film, I have read, and my understanding is that the director, Andrew Stanton, made some of those marketing decisions personally that have led to this end.  There is much that could have been done to give people who were not aware of the novels some context and prepare them to suspend belief and get into the adventure.  That is the role of marketing.

There is quite a bit of criticism out there about the title which is simply “John Carter” as opposed to the more proper “John Carter of Mars”.  I agree with this criticism because the title in its current form is rather puzzling as to what the film is.  Far better that it would have been named something like “The Adventures of John Carter: A Princess of Mars”, as they do with the long titles of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  The title “John Carter” is so ambiguous that it can leave people confused as to what the film is. Again, that is a criticism of the marketing of this movie.

I am sure that if this film does go on to be the most costly flop on record that there will be a lengthy postmortem on where the responsibility for it lies.  However, in the meantime, I was glad to go out and buy a ticket to support the film, small drop in the bucket though that may be.  I’d give it 3 out of 5 stars.

The Green Arrow TV Series

Green Arrow is a hero I’ve always been a fan of.  While many go for the cosmically powered Superman or Goku characters, I’ve always favored the Street Level types.  Daredevil, Batman, The Punisher – and of course my favorite archer – Green Arrow.

The CW Network is working on a Green Arrow series which looks pretty cool.  It will be the “Ollie” Oliver Queen character as the Green Arrow, thankfully.  Read more about it here.

But inquiring minds are left to wonder… will the Green Arrow T.V series feature the Green Arrow Car?  Time will tell.

The Mego Green Arrow Car

Cover me! I'm changing lanes.

 

On Green Lantern and the State of Comic Book Movies

I know who the Green Lantern is as a Comic Book character and, also, I have spent good money for his monthly title (published by D.C. Comics) from time to time in my life.  That probably should have made me a prime candidate for wanting to have seen the Green Lantern film in theaters.  However, I did not.

It also should have made me a candidate for either watching the film on cable Pay-Per-View or purchasing the Green Lantern Blu-Ray, both of which I did not.

No, such were the reviews of the film in both the movie and the comic community for Green Lantern that I could not bring myself to pay currency to see it.  And so my review comes months after the fact after watching it in HD on HBO.

There are a group of comic affectionados which believe that we should simply be grateful for getting a Green Lantern movie, at all.  Like participants in a co-dependent relationship, they make excuses for the poor movies which Hollywood produces.  I can forgive that impulse because I understand that there were long, dry decades where the film studios hardly touched the Comic Book genre except in the most shoddy productions.  Those days are gone, however.  In a world where The Dark Knight exists and has made for film studios a billion dollars while blowing the sox off of both Comic Book fans and laymen alike, that argument no longer flies.  And so, we come to the Green Lantern.

Sitting down to watch it on HBO with a bowl of popcorn I was actually excited about seeing it.  I mean, how bad could it be?  It’s the Green Lantern.  The animation studios have put out some Green Lantern stuff lately which is absolutely great.  If the film just followed that formula it would all work out.  And that’s just the problem.  They didn’t.

What works?  I give Ryan Reynolds a gold star.  He really did give the role everything he could give it within the confines of the awful script and terrible directing.  Nothing else besides some of the excellent special effects is worth noting or remembering.  I really think Ryan Reynolds wanted this to be a franchise and I really think, under different circumstances, he would have made it one.  But you go into the production of a film with the team you have, not the one you wanted – and the rest of the team on Green Lantern was pretty much missing in action.  The scriptwriter did not understand either Green Lantern or what moves a Comic Book movie and the director was clearly uninspired by the subject matter. In the end, I was actually somewhat upset by how bad it was.  From a Comic Fan perspective I was upset because I know the Parallax storyline from the Emerald Twilight run of Green Lantern and that wasn’t it – nor should it have been for the opening film.  And, as a fan of comic book genre films in general, I was saddened by the missed opportunity to properly introduce the character and give it a fan base.

And so this is the part where I put some knowledge to Hollywood on Comic Books and films based on them.

Comic Book stories and characters are, at the end of the day, products.  And many of them like Green Lantern, for example, have long product lives.  Sometime the product is working well and people respond to it.  Other times, the product is not working well and it is criticized.

Lets us look, for a moment, at comic book characters and stories as products.  Using the Windows operating system as an analogy, sometimes Windows is well loved and used  (Windows XP for example) and sometimes it is hated and reviled (Windows ME or Vista).  The same is true with Comic Book characters and their stories.  Sometimes they have a run of stories that become seminal, and sometimes the comics are just rather expensive bird-cage lining.

Hollywood would do well to identify the seminal runs of comic book characters and port them directly into film.  Scene for scene if necessary.  These stories have already been Product Tested.  They have already been proven winners with an audience.  When a studio allows a scriptwriter to produce a custom story they are taking a huge chance that was never required.  And in the case of Green Lantern, that was a very expensive flop for somebody.  It could have been a win simply by identifying an existing wildly popular run of the series within the comic cannon and adapting it directly to film.

There is literally no need for a film studio to take a chance with a multi-million dollar budget on a bad script when a story exists which was already marketed, tested on live readers, analyzed and found of superior quality by the audience.

If they had done that with Green Lantern then I am sure Ryan Reynolds really would have brought that material to life.  As it was, they gave the actor a dead story with a terrible villain selection to try and carry.  I give him credit for carrying the awful burden as well as he did.

There is one other thing which needs to be noted about how Comics and Comic Book films should progress which they completely misunderstood on Green Lantern.  The hero needs a villain which compliments the hero at the hero’s stage of power development and which they can play to on a very personal level.  The Parallax villain as seen in this film – a giant tentacled CGI space monster – was the product of a script produced by a lost and out of touch writer.

More than anything the failure of Green Lantern must be attributed to the script writer.  Film studios make a dangerous gamble when they allow a script writer to produce what comic writers have already fan tested successfully.

On M&M’s, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and the Death of Atari

In 1982E.T. for the Atari 2600 the Steven Spielberg film “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” hit the public consciousness  with a sonic-boom.  The film would quickly become the highest grossing film in history (a record which would last a decade) and, strangely enough, the film would also be the catalyst for the destruction of the console video game market a year later.

Recently I flipped past the film playing on cable which left me remembering the massive impact E.T. had on two things I was in love with at the time of the films release: candy and video games.

For historical context on the effect of the film on society at the time, I submit the following.  As a child I was carted off to theaters to see E.T. more times than I can even recall.  Family members, neighborhood parents, everyone was going to see it for their first, second or tenth time. Neil Diamond was on top of the radio charts with his E.T. inspired hit “Heartlight“.  The television news breathlessly reported on how Princess Diana of Wales was moved to tears by E.T. and how the U.N. would honor Speilberg with a Peace Medal for the film.  Here in Los Angeles we were treated by Universal Studios to the opening of the “E.T. Earth Center” where one could buy every conceivable piece of E.T. related merchandise imaginable – including Michael Jackson reading E.T. on audiobook.  Even my own father, an ex-marine, fell victim to E.T. mania when he felt compelled to paint a picture of the long-necked, glow-fingered alien which he hung on the wall.  Ah, they don’t make cultural phenomenon movies like they used to.

E.T. was a movie which would make millions of dollars for many companies, but two would not be so fortunate: Mars Inc. and Atari.

In 1981 Universal Studios approached Mars Inc., the makers of M&M candies, with a request to use their M&M’s in a new film Universal was working on.  The product placement deal would showcase M&M candies in a crucial scene to the movie in exchange for some cross-promotional advertising by Mars Inc.  The new film Universal Studios was working on was, of course, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and to the use of M&M candies in it the Mars Brothers gave a firm denial.

Product placement deals with movies are a common thing and one can only wonder why Mars would pass on a mutually advantageous deal. Of course they could not know that in passing on it they were handing perhaps the greatest marketing coup in history to their direct competitor Hershey Foods.  Hersey had their own little round candy called “Reese’s Pieces” and it was to Hershey that Universal Studios turned next in trying to find a product that Elliot could use to lure E.T. into his house in that seminal scene from the movie.

The release of E.T. caused sales of Reese’s Pieces to skyrocket with most accounts suggesting an immediate 65% sales boost as the Hershey confection became known as “E.T.’s Favorite Candy”.  I know that I, personally, was eating them by the bag full in 1982 and I was not buying M&M’s.  I recall being in the car with my parents going somewhere during that time and the news guy was on the radio saying people at Mars Inc. were literally beside themselves crying in tears over the lost opportunity.  Such would be the bitter fruit of making one of the worst business decisions in history.

While the tale of Mars Inc. is a straightforward one with an utterly predictable ending, the story of how Atari was destroyed by the advent of E.T. is the story of the video game crash of 1983.  The Wikipedia entry does a wonderful job summarizing it, and it is a good read.  Arguably, however, the straw which broke the camels back was in fact E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600.

Atari paid $20 Million for the license to produce an E.T. console game based on the film.  Their plan was to produce the cartridge of the game quickly in order to capitalize on the holiday buying season.  While Atari had rightly predicted that parents would line up to buy a copy of the game for their kid at $40 bucks a pop,  this would prove to be the undoing of mighty Atari – the first great force in video games.  For Atari had produced a game so foul, so noxious, that is takes an article by 1UP to fully capture the terrible and unnatural thing Atari had birthed upon the world.

This would lead to the famous Atari Video Game Burial where millions of unsold Atari video games were unceremoniously driven truck after truck to the desert and left for dead in a New Mexico landfill.

My friend Pat got the E.T. cartridge for Christmas in 1982.  We tried to play it that day and something in both of us died.  It did not take long for us to go back to Pitfall! which was an awesome game.  Pat would never load E.T. into his Atari 2600 again after that fateful morning and his parents would become more judicious about buying any game after that.  The same story of any parent who saw their kid crying over their copy of E.T. for the 2600  on Christmas morning.

It is interesting, in hindsight, to note that Mars and Atari could have both prospered had they played their cards differently.  But I guess someone has to serve as a lesson to the rest of us.

The Amazing Fantasy Art of Liz Danforth

Tunnels and Trolls Liz DanforthWhen I first got into table top Role-Playing games my friends and I spent a lot of time with Tunnels and Trolls  by Ken St. Andre.  It had a few things going for it which kept us playing it.

First, it had books called “solo dungeons” which you could play by yourself with your pen and paper fantasy characters.

Second, it was built on rules which were much easier for a group of ten year-old kids to work with than the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition.

Finally, it had amazing art by Liz Danforth which really brought the game to life for us.

Liz Danforth has had a long career producing fantasy art for a variety of games.  She has done artwork for cards in just about every Collectible Trading Card game there is, I think.  If you are playing any trading card games, you are probably holding on to some of her artwork.

Drop by and browse her gallery.  http://www.lizdanforth.com/

The Cataclysm Post Mortem

Recently, World of Warcraft’s lead systems designer Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street did a “Post Mortem” interview on the Cataclysm expansion.

My initial reaction to reading through this interview was “Old Fail is Old”.  However, on further contemplation I realized that I had a specific bone to pick with the Cataclysm expansion and I believe I can pinpoint exactly when I first realized the whole experiment was on very thin ice.

Now, Cataclysm was a WOW expansion with some serious issues, and anyone playing it could probably write you a dissertation.   In fact, if you read the interview above you’ll find that Blizzards technical lead just did.  And while this seems at first glance to be a sober assessment of the expansion’s problems, this humility coming from Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street is a new thing.  Back when Cataclysm was released we found a very different Greg Street pontificating sarcastically to the Warcraft Community how they just didn’t measure up in a post entitled “Wow, Dungeons are Hard“.  This post was the first indication that the expansion was well and truly boned.

You see, Greg Street had this great idea for Cataclysm to tune the difficulty of the opening Cataclysm dungeons up to an extremely challenging level.  Clearly this was done to appease the constant whining of the “hardcore” gamers who wanted a challenge, but Greg Street seemed to forget, somehow, that the game had Ten Million subscribers or something.

This dungeon difficulty was tuned on the backs of the healing classes by making every dungeon a completely unforgiving experience for keeping the party alive.  Even if everyone in the dungeon was playing their class competently, the healer still had to be stupidly judicious about healing anything or they soon would run dry their Mana bar – which meant nothing would be getting healed at all.  And, at the start of Cataclysm, finding pick-up groups where everyone played their class competently was a tricky thing.  My primary character is a Priest healer, so I remember this well.

Now, as it so happens, a lot of the people who play Healers are not the hardcore challenge-mode kind of people that Greg Street was apparently speaking to when he taunted the rest of us in his “Dungeons are Hard” post.  They are often wives, girlfriend  and best-friend types who play to do something with their significant other when that significant other has the urge to fight dragons.  Those folks were not into Greg Street’s hard-mode fantasy and they headed for the exits pretty quickly.  And often times they took their significant other with them.

The beginning of Cataclysm was like watching a slow motion train wreck as people began drifting away after only a few weeks.  I, myself, try to be a pro healer and the initial challenges did not bother me so much.  But I saw what it did to other people, and the wives of other people, and I saw how our guild began shrinking after not very long at all.

Based on the Post Mortem interview, it may be that Blizzard and Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street have tuned into this fact.  Cataclysm was an expansion with quite a bit of intelligence but very little wisdom.  We shall see if their next expansion Mists of Pandaria does any better.

 

Aliens: Colonial Marines

I recall seeing James Cameron’s Aliens in the theater when it was released.  I was absolutely blown away by the film as a young spud and it is definitely still a movie I love to return to and watch on Blu-Ray.

Alien 3 had it’s moments, I guess, but it wasn’t the sequel to Aliens that I (or apparently most other people) wanted to see.  And as for Alien : Resurrection, as much as I love to see Ron Perlman on the screen chomping the scenery with one-liners, it still was not the sequel to James Cameron’s Aliens.

Recently I heard about a new game which is described as a true sequel to James Cameron’s film, and that is exciting news.  You can read more about it here on wikipedia.  It sounds just perfect, with the Sulaco, LV-426 and the derelict alien spacecraft from Alien all serving as environments in the game.

Looking forward to playing this one…