James Cameron's Avatar probably won't make its $500 million production budget back at the movies â€"- and maybe not even on DVD, unless there is some serious 3D technology advancement in like four months â€"- but chances are the ancillary video games will be a financial smash.
The first reason is, of course, production cost. While Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and, to a lesser extent, Wii game budgets are on the rise, the most expensive game verified, Take Two's Grand Theft Auto IV, was in the $100 million range -â€" equal to a high end action movie. These games also go for $60 a pop. A high-end mobile video game can run a couple million and cost up to $9.99 for consumers.
The second reason is the scale of sale. The aforementioned GTA IV sold 5.8 million copies during its first week. On the mobile side, forget the Palms, the Blackberries and the Androids â€"- the iPhone/iPod Touch is still the game changer. Ethan Nicholas, creator of the blockbuster game iShoot, told me that the number one Apple Store spot meant up to 40,000 downloads and $500 daily -â€" and this was a year ago, when iShoot was at its peak. Nicholas expects that number one spot to be worth much more now. The app store is more crowded than ever, but an investment in a license, even as expensive as Avatar surely was, will make the game stand out. (Indeed, Avatar is one of the featured apps on the Apple front page, though it's unclear if this was bought by creator Gameloft or chosen by Apple.)
The final notable reason is a more abstract one: A cultural forgiveness in new mediums. Video games are four decades old, and mainstream mobile games only for a decade, so there is a certain pass critics give to interactive mediums not found in more traditional platforms like movies. This week I gave the Avatar mobile game three out of five stars this week at About.com, saying "James Cameron's Avatar is as colorful and dynamic as the movie, but some serious gameplay faux pas hamper the fun." Meanwhile, hundreds of consumer ratings at the Apple Store average about five out of five -â€" despite many mentioning the very same issues. Imagine Avatar critics and moviegoers taking it easy on Cameron, not only because of the hype, but because he's working with a well known medium. At this point, people are just happy to have a playable movie-based video game on their cell phone.
Cameron and company no doubt will be getting some serious back end from every game sale, so they'll stay afloat even if only one ticket is bought tonight.