Exclusive: How TV & gaming are levelling up together

Netflix series Arcane was adapted from the game League Of Legends

As video game adaptations flood the market, Mark Layton explores how TV is partnering for success with the gaming industry.

Stigmatised for decades as a synonym for commercial failure, video game adaptations for TV and film have finally managed to shed this running punchline and emerge among the hottest of properties.

Recent triumphs such as HBO’s The Last Of Us and Netflix’s Arcane have helped to banish embarrassing memories of historic duds like ‘90s show Mortal Kombat: Conquest and the much-maligned first attempt at a Super Mario Bros. film.

Global video game adaptations soared by 47% from 2021 to 2022, according to analyst firm Omdia, and streamers are now increasing investments in bringing games to screens as high-end, live-action series – rather than simply animations, which shows such as Pokémon had long since proved possible.

It is The Last Of Us that has been dominating water cooler talk over the last few months, with the HBO series produced by Sony Pictures Television, alongside Naughty Dog, creators of the original 2013 game, as well as The Mighty Mint, Word Games and PlayStation Productions.

The post-apocalyptic drama was an instant ratings hit for the US network and one of its biggest shows to date. But HBO & Max chief Casey Bloys tells TBI that this doesn’t mean he’s now out shopping for more gaming IP.

“My experience [with The Last Of Us] would not lead me to say great, now go find other video games. The success here was saying here is a writer we believe in, what do you want to do? If the next Craig Mazin [the series’ co-showrunner] comes in and says, here’s a magazine article I want to develop, then great. It was not video game specific.”

The wider industry, however, may not entirely agree, given the sheer quantity of video game adaptations currently in various stages of development, ranging from Fallout for Amazon Prime Video to Twisted Metal for Peacock, indicating shifting headwinds.

While mileage has varied, already launched shows such as Halo for Paramount+ and Resident Evil for Netflix are among the tip of an approaching iceberg of live-action series, while animated titles based on video games are going from strength to strength.

Gain an extra life

To the gaming studios, it seems obvious why the TV sector is taking increased notice in the content and experiences they are creating. “AAA video games are very close to TV series (not movies) in terms of creating complex narratives and building strong relationships between in-game characters and gamers/audience, which is a great foundation to build on,” says Bartosz Sztybor, comic book and animation narrative director at CD Projekt Red, the Polish video game developer behind Cyberpunk 2077.

Cyberpunk: Edgerunners (left) and content added to Cyberpunk 2077 (right) that was inspired by the anime series

The game was adapted by Studio Trigger into last year’s well-received Netflix prequel anime Cyberpunk: Edgerunners – with Sztybor serving as writer and producer.

Margaret Boykin, VP of Ubisoft Film & Television, meanwhile, tells TBI that 2.3 billion people play video games worldwide (other sources suggest this figure is considerably higher), with that number increasing by 16% year on year. As such, it is “no surprise” that TV is looking to tap into such an established fanbase.

But it’s not a one-way street. The interest is clearly mutual, as LA-based Boykin works for the production company subsidiary of French video game publisher Ubisoft, dedicated to turning the firm’s games into TV series and films.

In 2021, Ubisoft struck a far-reaching partnership with Netflix to produce a swathe of video game adaptations, including (among others): animated shows based on the Far Cry and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell franchises; a film based on Tom Clancy’s The Division; and separate live-action and anime shows inspired by historical sci-fi series Assassin’s Creed.

“[Netflix is] the perfect platform for that kind of big, world-building storytelling,” says Boykin, and indeed, the streamer has more video game adaptations in the works than any of its competitors.

This is chiefly down to its partnership with Ubisoft Film & Television, and the company’s Paris-based MD, Helene Juguet, sheds light on the gaming firm’s flexibility when it comes to how rights to its franchises are handled.

“Our focus will always be to bring the best possible creative take to our productions and therefore to partner with the best partners possible for each brand – in terms of development, production or distribution,” says Juguet.

“That means that sometimes we will fully produce projects, while other times we may license. It really is a choice based on how to bring the most value to our creations and ultimately our franchises.”

The Last Of Us has been one of HBO’s biggest shows to date

Insert coin to play

As an industry that was sized at $164.6bn globally last year (global SVOD revenues were $99bn), and is expected to grow to $192bn by 2027, the biggest game creators have no desperate need to chase TV money or put out a rushed tie-in.

Sztybor at CD Projekt Red says that the Warsaw-based firm is more interested in “creating something that matters” with the right partner, rather than just “making an adaptation for the sake of adapting the game,” but adds that the “dream is to tell them in all mediums that would be kindly open to our storytelling.”

Meanwhile, Brian Wright, a Netflix original series alum who now serves as chief content officer at LA-based Riot Games Entertainment, tells TBI that his company plans to develop “anything we do in entertainment” in-house.

Serving as the film, TV and animation division of Riot Games, the unit worked with French animation studio Fortiche to develop Netflix’s Arcane, an animated fantasy adventure series based upon its League Of Legends game franchise. Riot has invested in Fortiche to help scale the business, with Wright describing Arcane as “an organic evolution of our creative partnership.”

Wright says this strategy is “to ensure excellence and control our own destiny,” but adds that the company “will be looking for a strategic distribution partner at some point down the line”. He notes that fans of Riot’s games are clamoring for long-form narrative spin-offs, such as Arcane, which is currently “deep into the animation phase with Fortiche” on its second season in production for Netflix.

HBO’s The Last Of Us was co-created by Craig Mazin in partnership with Neil Druckmann, who also co-created the game series. While some have pointed to the close involvement of the original game creator as one of the reasons for its success, opinions here are decidedly mixed.

Bloys tells TBI that having Druckmann on board was “a very big point” but says that “there is nothing particular about video games that make them better or worse to develop” and reiterates he was drawn to the project due to having had “a very good experience” with Mazin on his drama Chernobyl.

Ubisoft’s Juguet, meanwhile, says original creators should not necessarily serve as a showrunner or writer “because those are two very different types of expertise.” She does suggest, however, that it is “absolutely necessary for the show’s creative team to deep dive into the world of the game they are adapting” so that they can understand what the creator was looking to achieve and connect with “what makes the fans tick.”

Expansion pack

It will come as little surprise that when a TV show based on a game does well, it drives interest and revenue back towards those original games.

According to data from TBI’s research sibling Omdia, the success of The Last Of Us series led to a 238% increase in UK sales week-on-week for The Last Of Us, Part 1 game, while the PS4 version of The Last Of Us: Remastered also saw a 322% sales spike.

Sztybor, meanwhile tells TBI that Cyberpunk: Edgerunners created “a lot of new fans that saw Night City (the setting of Cyberpunk 2077 and its anime spin-off) for the first time and fell in love with it,” bringing new players to the game, as well as returning those that “wanted to go back and feel the vibe once again.”

But while the conversation around the TV and gaming industry crossover has largely been framed around how adaptations of existing IP can drive fans from shows to games and vice-versa, there are other possibilities for profitable co-operation between the two sectors.

Ubisoft developed and co-produces Apple TV+ workplace comedy Mythic Quest, which is set in a video game studio, and concluded its third season in January – with a fourth on the way.

Apple TV+ series Mythic Quest is made in partnership with French gaming studio Ubisoft

Producing alongside Lionsgate Television, 3 Arts Entertainment and RCG Productions, the company provides art assets for the show, visuals for the fictional titular video game and has assisted the writers with authentically depicting the workspace and culture.

Boykin says that Mythic Quest is “a really great example of how our film and television business doesn’t need to rely solely on adapting our games.

“We can also bring our player community film and television projects that are connected to gaming and that treat the representation of that industry and community with authenticity, comedy and heart.”

Other collaborations include a reversal of direction, as Netflix’s partnership with Ubisoft covers more than games becoming shows. The game studio has teamed up with the streamer’s external games division, and an exclusive Assassin’s Creed mobile game is among the projects being launched by Netflix.

One thing is clear: as streamers move into gaming and game studios invest in TV production units to expand onto the screen, the union between these two forms of entertainment has never been stronger.

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