The overall impression of movies based on video games is that they don’t work, often fail at the box office and are critically condemned.
Only five movies passed the 60% fresh threshold of Rotten Tomatoes over the years:
- Werewolves Within (2021) at 86%
- The Angry Birds Movie 2 (2019) at 73%
- Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (2022) at 69%
- Detective Pikachu (2019) at 68%
- Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) at 63%
Of those, only two passed $400 million at the worldwide box office:
Detective Pikachu (2019) at $433.2 million
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (2022) at $402.7 million
And we can't forget these films:
Rampage (2018) at $428 million
Warcraft (2016) at $439 million
Uncharted (2022) at $401.7 million
For comparison, however, the most successful movies of all time pass the $1 billion mark, often almost reaching $3 billion (Avatar - 2009)
The most successful video games movies seem to be the ones based on very popular IP that goes beyond video games with other media and/or merchandise (Pokemon, Angry Birds, Sonic the Hedgehog, Mafia).
There are currently 26 movies based on video games in development, including 2 sequels.
The video game industry is very lucrative, projected to be bringing in $197 billion in 2022, while the movie industry is expected to reach $76.2 billion in 2022.
Making movies based on video games does seem to make financial sense from that point of view, so why does it not work?
From translating an immersive experience into a passive movie, players’ expectations not being reached and compromises on the source material, there are a lot of different reasons.
Video games are also telling a story, with a strong narrative and cutscenes, a movie can be seen as a repetition.
A good example is Warcraft; while it did bring in $439 million, its Rotten Tomatoes score is only 28%.
The critics focus mainly on the script, not translating the experience of the game, while the actors are either praised or ignored by critics.
Warcraft, the movie, is based on video games made by Blizzard Entertainment as far back as 1994.
Beyond video games, the Warcraft universe can also be found in tabletop games, collectable card games, novels, comics, manga and a magazine.
The Warcraft universe is a fantasy setting rich in different races, magic and a full history.
The screenwriter responsible for Warcraft is Charles Leavitt, best known for a political war action thriller (Blood Diamond - 2006) and without any video games experience.
While the director, Duncan Jones, is well known for directing science fiction movies and participated in the movie's screenwriting and is said to be an avid player of the games.
Translating a full universe with an exciting story into one movie seems to be a daunting task.
Looking at online reception from fans, the criticism that comes up the most is the lack of consistent storytelling, making the movie feel like two different stories glued together between the human and orc sides.
Other critics are about the pacing feeling rushed and too many scenes being cut, as is confirmed by the director:
“It wasn't crazy [the length of the first cut]. There's a lot of great stuff that wasn't in the final cut of the film, and there will be DVDs and Blu-rays, where we can hopefully add those scenes. It was probably about two hours and 40 minutes. It was not a crazy length. Just for the sheer scale of this film – and it's a big, robust fantasy – you have to be really judicious about how you're going to shoot it, so there isn't that much fluff in the editing room. You know, "This is the stuff I absolutely need to tell the story." Two hours and 40 minutes down to a little over two hours feels like a pretty reasonable contraction. It was more trimming. There are one or two storyline elements that are not as explained as they used to be. A lot of people who are Warcraft fans continue to wonder, "If Garona (Paul Patton) is half-orc, how can she be half-human?" There is a good reason for that, but the detail of that is more in the scenes that we weren't able to put into the film.” - Duncan Jones, Warcraft director
Fans and critics both mentioned too many characters fighting for the spotlight while no lead character was found.
Based on this information, we can conclude that the movie did have enough to be really good and satisfy fans, but as it couldn’t exceed 2ish hours, so much was cut the final product wasn’t working.
That’s often the issue of translating rich universes (video games but also books or other media) into one movie of 2 hours while those universes have been expanding for multiple decades.
One idea could then be, would it work as a series? Longer run time to show the stories fully.
There are fewer series than movies based on video games, but a few did work really well both financially and critically.
A recent example is Arcane.
Arcane, like other successful series based on video games, is animated.
The animation based on video games does seem to be a bigger success than live-action.
Arcane is based on the game League of Legends by Riot Games and is available on Netflix; it ranked first on the Netflix Top 10 Chart in 52 countries and ranked second on the chart in the United States.
On the other side of the coin, Detective Pikachu is a strong example of a positive critical reaction and a good box office score. Why?
The movie had it all: a good story, good acting from famous names, good visuals and it was from a very successful IP that hadn’t made a movie since 2003.
The Pokemon IP relies on success from video games but also animated series, animated movies, card games and much more. The very successful launch of Pokemon Go in 2016 also reached new fans and expanded the reach of the IP.
The director, Rob Letterman, is now poised to direct a new video game movie for Ubisoft (Beyond Good and Evil).
The most positive reactions were the visual effects and Ryan Reynolds’ voice acting & motion picture for Pikachu.
The Rotten Tomatoes consensus reads:
"Pokemon Detective Pikachu may not take its wonderfully bizarre premise as far as it could have, but this offbeat adaptation should catch most – if not all – of the franchise's fans.”
In conclusion, it looks like movies based on IP popular beyond video games is the secret recipe for a good video game movie, if the movie has enough runtime to breathe and tell the story, which can be an issue for any movie.
Simply taking a video game to the big screen isn’t a guarantee of success.