Pacific Rim is a movie where giant robots battle giant aliens, which makes it just about the best kind of film to get a video game spin-off. And that's exactly what Reliance Games did — only instead of a big budget console or PC release, the Pacific Rim game is available now on your iOS or Android device. It's a trend that's becoming increasingly common, as just recently we've seen mobile games based on everything from Fast & Furious 6 to Man of Steel to World War Z. In some ways, the reasons for the shift to mobile are obvious, as these games can be cheaper to make, faster to develop, and have the potential to reach a much larger audience — an especially useful trait when they're meant to help promote a movie. Licensed games have existed since the days of E.T. on the Atari, but the shift to mobile theoretically makes it easier for developers to put out titles that don't suck, something that's proven difficult to achieve in the past.
So why isn't Pacific Rim a great game for your iPad?
It certainly takes its inspiration from the right place, as the game cribs from one of iOS' biggest hits, Infinity Blade. You play as a giant robot going on a series of missions, which all amount to facing off with a massive alien, one-on-one. As in Infinity Blade, the trick is watching your foe and avoiding attacks at just the right time, thus creating an opening for you to strike. There's also a button that lets you fire laser beams, which is cool. It's not as nuanced as its inspiration — exaggerated alien movements make it pretty easy to tell when to make your move — but the combat can be fun in a sort of mindless way.
"del Toro was quite instrumental in the design and play testing."
The combatants all look relatively good, too. However, the rest of the experience, from the menus to the cities you're fighting in, look rough and unpolished. It also gets pretty monotonous after a while. There's the seed of a good game inside Pacific Rim but it feels like it was rushed to hit the App Store to coincide with the launch of the film. And that's something that, in theory, the shift to mobile should eliminate. It's especially disappointing considering just how well-suited Pacific Rim is for a video game adaptation — the movie features the voice of Glados from the Portal series, and the developers even took feedback from the brains behind the movie. "Guillermo del Toro was quite instrumental in the design and play testing of the game," says Manish Agarwal, CEO of Reliance Entertainment - Digital. "And his feedback is included throughout the entire development of the game."
Reliance has built its business on these sorts of games, thanks to its parent company Reliance Entertainment, which has co-produced a number of Hollywood movies with the likes of Dreamworks. Reliance Games, meanwhile, has a library that includes mobile titles based on After Earth, Total Recall, and Real Steel, among others. But they virtually all fall into the same movie-based game tropes, which is to say they're not exactly memorable experiences. But why? If developing mobile games is both faster and cheaper, why can't the developers of licensed games finally get their acts together? It might be because it's not their fault: unlike those who are making the games, those who license and fund them — that is to say, the movie studios — aren't exactly concerned with creating a masterpiece. And the shift to mobile doesn't seem to have changed that kind of thinking.
Movie studios aren't exactly concerned with creating a masterpiece
"Most people I've talked to at movie studios have viewed games as another way to make merchandising money," says Canabalt creator Adam Saltsman, "not as a creative, interesting addition to the movie universe." Saltsman is one of the few developers who has managed to craft a movie-based experience that seems ideally suited to mobile devices. Last year he teamed up with a few other indie developers to create The Hunger Games: Girl on Fire for iOS, which combined simple-but-addictive gameplay with stylish retro visuals and music. Similarly, Disney has been experimenting with tapping already-popular mobile game developers to create licensed versions of its hits: it's how we ended up with titles like Monsters, Inc. Run and Temple Run: Oz. Rovio, likewise, has turned its Angry Birds juggernaut into a promotional tool for films like Rio and Star Wars.
It's a technique that seemed to work for World War Z. The fact that the recently launched game was actually good is surprising, at least until you realize that it was developed by the studio behind some of the better 3D action games on iOS and Android, Phosphor Games. The studio previously brought us titles like the engaging action / adventure game Horn and the creepy The Dark Meadow, both of which were released to some acclaim. According to Phosphor Games director Chip Sineni, it was that track record that landed the studio World War Z in the first place. "A number of people at Paramount played our first two mobile games, and contacted us to see if we would be willing to put that kind of passion and attention to detail into making the game for World War Z," he tells The Verge.
"We set out to be true to the license and make some blockbuster escapism fun."
The game is a first-person shooter, a genre that can be tough to pull off even for more traditional studios, but World War Z manages to play to the strengths of a touchscreen device — something Phosphor had already proven it was very adept at. It uses a relatively simple control scheme that's perfect for the more casual audience Phosphor was shooting for, and features fast-paced action that's great in short bursts. Killing zombies is fun, as it should be. "We set out to be true to the license and make some blockbuster escapism fun," says Sineni. "A 'popcorn game.'"
Unfortunately, games like World War Z and The Hunger Games are exceptions rather than the rule. It also doesn't help that movie games don't need to be great to be successful — according to Agarwal, Real Steel has been downloaded more than 10 million times. It seems that for movie games to get better, it's a change in thinking — not hardware — that needs to happen. "I think getting really good movie games is going to involve a kind of sea change from the movie studio side," says Saltsman, "but also some intrepid game developers who can kind of see where games can fit in to these scenarios." Maybe then we'll finally have the giant-robots-versus-aliens game we've been dreaming of.