Frictions, Factions, and Fatalities: Adapting DC Comic Characters into Video Games

The Superhero Multiverse:
Readapting Comic Book Icons in Twenty-First-Century Film and Popular Media
, edited by Lorna Piatti-Farnell, published by Rowman & Littlefield, 2021. Please note that the sample below is from the pre-print article – as such, all errors belong to the author.

According to the online video game database Moby Games, Batman has starred in 105 titles, inclusive of downloadable content episodes, starting with the release of Batman (1986) by Ocean Software Ltd. Quite soon after his digital debut, Batman’s franchise presence exploded into mass culture through a “plethora of corporately orchestrated expressions” centred around the theatrical movie release of Batman (1989), prompting Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio to call 1989: “Year of the Batman”, or, due to the plurality of potential universes: “Batmen” (Pearson and Uricchio 1991, 1). Reflecting this eruption of transmedial interest, when sequel film Batman Returns (1992) followed, there were “eight different games from four different publishers. With the exception of two titles where one was on a console and the other was a handheld port of that game, there were seven different games that carried the title Batman Returns” (Farrell 2017). By comparison, Superman has featured in less than a quarter of the titles than his Dark Knight counterpart, and Aquaman has headlined only the one game: Aquaman: Battle for Atlantis (2003). Not emerging from purely artistic or altruistic reasons, according to Michael Devine, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Aquaman developers TDK Mediactive: the game was released to tie-in with the “recent resurgence in popularity for classic super heroes” (Robinson 2012), which also coincided with Aquaman’s comic return to regular release status after being relegated to cameo appearances since 2001. Significantly, while Wonder Woman features alongside her collaborative colleagues in various Justice League titles, there have been no stand-alone titles with her name on the box-cover; although, there have been two eponymously titled Catwoman games: one was released in 1999 to coincide with the end of Jim Balent’s huge run on the Catwoman comic since 1993, and another was launched to tie-in with the Halle Berry movie in 2004.

As Eileen R. Meehan reminds us, “For much of American culture, corporate imperatives operate as the primary constraints shaping the narratives and iconography of the text as well as the manufacture and licensing of the intertextual materials necessary for a ‘mania’ to sweep the country” (Meehan 2015) and prior to 2004/2005, after which there was a fundamental shift in how games adapted from DC Comics properties were approached, these earlier licenced video game adaptations almost all function as ancillary streams of revenue generation for parent company Warner Communications/Time Warner. Rarely centred around a special “event” in the published output from DC Comics (with the Death and Return of Superman storyline being one exception alongside the end of Bolland’s Catwoman and the resurgence of Aquaman) the video games tend to be released when other adapted products, such as tentpole movies and popular animated television series were on the consumer market. One critical difference is that where the movies and shows were made in-house by subsidiaries Warner Bros. Pictures and Warner Bros. Animation, these video games were treated more like merchandise, all outsourced to third party game development studios. The solitary exception to this business practice is the video game Superman (1979). This title is not only the first video game adapted from DC Comics material a full ten years before the polyvalent cultural ascendancy of Batman, but this Superman game plays a pivotal role in shaping the strategies of synergy and corporate relationships for the larger Warner entity, leading up to an age of media convergence, and in doing so helps to define their attitude towards the medium of video games and the representation, and distribution, of their own licences.

Post-2005, where there was a switch from outsourcing all DC Comics licences through to Warner mostly creating games in-house through subsidiary studios, video game aggregate review site Metacritic has video game Batman: Arkham City (2011) rated at 96 per cent, making it the 23rd highest reviewed title since their records began. This is a title which also won two BAFTA Games Awards (Best Action Game and Best Performer). First game in the series, Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009) also acquired two BAFTA awards (Best Game and Best Gameplay), and sequel, Batman: Arkham Knight (2015), picked up one (Best British Game). Beyond the accolades, Arkham City “shipped more than 6 million units worldwide” within 4 months of release (Vore 2012), and according to The Time Warner Annual Report 2015, the sales of Arkham Knight also helped make the company “a top-three videogame publisher in the U.S” (Time Warner 2016). The 2015 report goes on to state that their business was benefitting from “a shared infrastructure, including shared production, distribution, marketing and administrative functions and resources” between “Warner Bros.’ television, film and videogame businesses”. As such, it would be more accurate to state that one of Time Warner’s divisions, Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc., used their own sub-division Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment to publish the work of subsidiary company Rocksteady Studios Limited, who were adapting from the comic book works of DC Comics, a subsidiary to DC Entertainment Inc., also reportable to Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. Pre-2005, this was not a fully fleshed out process for Warner; however, through bringing subsidiary game development studios within the structure of their horizontally integrated media corporation and in developing a greater control over their licensing options, Time Warner (later renamed WarnerMedia, itself being incorporated within AT&T Inc. as of mid-2018) were capable of pooling their technological and industrial acquisitions to better facilitate the creation and promotion of interlinked cultural products that better responded to the varying demands of the audience. For example, the LEGO Batman (2008 -) and LEGO Dimensions (2015-2017) series of game titles emerge from the popular, physical Lego Batman playsets (2006-) made under licence from DC Comics, with the animated movies and shorts (2008-) being an equally integral element in the economic composition and social reception of the LEGO franchise. With the type of cultural and commercial acclaim they failed to achieve pre-2005, this change in strategy is not only a keystone behind the recent digital successes of the DC Comics superheroes, it can be viewed as a direct response to the received wisdom of licensing video games at a detached distance, solely through third party developer studios and publishing houses, and signals a partial return to the corporate logic that created Superman (1979) but in a way reconfigured for the twenty-first century: these games do not tie-in to other products as merchandise, they are their own DC Comics based entities with both merchandising opportunities and tie-ins, such as the various comic book series continuing the narratives of the games, adding to the ongoing expansion of the carefully controlled superhero multiverses.

Will Brooker writes that “we can identify neither an über-Batman who unites every Bat-product across multiple media, nor a chaos of signifiers that diffuse Batman’s meaning into splinters so small that DC has nothing coherent to sell and fans have nothing solid to follow” (Brooker 2012, 76). Starting with the creation of Superman (1979), the video game, and moving forward to consider the present day release strategies of games that are interlinked with the creations of DC Comics, this chapter will explore in more detail how Superman and Batman’s characters have been represented within licensed video games. In moving through such an analysis, the types of superheroes that come from such a process will be examined, as they are bound to pre-existing moral codes, artistic guidelines, genre demands, and, in most cases, the expectations that come from them being analogous to an iteration that exists in an entirely different media form, time-period, or marketable universe.

Whatever Happened to the Superman Games of Tomorrow?

It is notable that despite him being described as “one of the most immediately recognizable and beloved DC Super Heroes of all time” by DC Comics themselves (DC Comics 2020), when placed next to Batman there has been no comparable, critical groundswell for a Year of Superman. The closest contender, as Glen Weldon suggests, would be 1978 with the movie release of Superman (1978) from Warner Bros. Pictures, and the “pumping out [out] of an unprecedented number of Superman products” by other Warner subsidiaries (Weldon 2013, 171). One of these products was Superman (1979), a video game developed by Atari, Inc.

In 1976, parent company Warner Communications aquired Atari Inc., a four-year-old company that had “invented an electronic paddle ball game [Pong] and also produces coin-operated video games” (Reckert 1976). Having reportedly paid “approximately $28 million” for Atari, Inc., “Warner wanted to follow its Superman movie – rapidly – with a video game that was somehow tied to it” (Montfort and Bogost 2009, 124). The plan was for Atari, Inc., to release a video game of Superman for their new home console: the Atari Video Computer System (VCS), which had launched in 1977. Yet, despite Warner already owning Atari, Inc. as a subsidiary company, the Superman video game was not developed alongside the production of the movie as no tie-in home video game had ever been commercially released up to this point, let alone one based on a potentially niche superhero film that was experiencing enough production issues for its release to be delayed by 6 months. Atari Inc. were also interested in the fortunes of their own pinball division, which alongside their arcade games and home video console teams were in direct competition with Williams Electronics, Inc., Bally / Midway Manufacturing, and D. Gottlieb & Co (who later entered the arcade game market in 1980). Still in its infancy but with impressive sales figures, pinball games themed on licensed movies started in 1975 with competitor Bally’s Wizard! based on the film Tommy (1975), which according to the online Internet Pinball Database had 10,005 units produced, followed by arcade hits such as Gottlieb’s Sinbad (1978) based on the movie Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) with 12,000 units produced. Showing Atari, Inc. a profitable path to follow, Gottlieb was an American pinball division that in 1976 had been bought by Columbia Pictures, the same studio that had made Tommy and the Sinbad films. While pinball machines are a different medium to that of video games, the industrial and cultural overlap with video games is significant, not least because home video games evolved from the developing technology of arcade or bar video games, the same places of amusement where pinball machines were being played. With this joined-up approach to the cross-media possibilities of the Superman brand, the successes in designing and producing the pinball game, described as “state of the art” by Atari’s former Vice President of manufacturing and engineering Noah Anglin, crucially “assured Atari that moving forward with the VCS game was a safe risk” (Conte 2018, 40). Ironically, with around 5,124 Superman pinball games sold, “Atari could not keep up with production” (Kriesel 2018), leading to the company’s decision to stop making pinball machines entirely in the latter part of 1979; but, were it not for their initial focus on the pinball game as a viable medium for movie-based tie-ins, the video game would have received a lesser level of attention, affecting not only the subsidiary company that was asked to work with the Superman licence, but the shape and direction of the video game industry in the years that followed…

Please note that the sample above is from the pre-print article – as such, all errors belong to the author.

The full 7,500 word version of this article is published in The Superhero Multiverse:
Readapting Comic Book Icons in Twenty-First-Century Film and Popular Media
, edited by Lorna Piatti-Farnell, published by Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

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