Revenge of the License: A Sound of Thunder

Video games based on film licenses are nothing more than excuses for some two-bit studio to make an enormous influx of money without resorting to looting armored cars or Nigerian prince email scams, right? Wanton cash grabs by game studios leading to sub-par software and the occasional bankrupting of an entire industry have been with us since home video games were a thing. Retro gamers still get all the nookie at parties by spouting off lines like, “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial on 2600, amirite?” (Stop confusing ‘nookie’ with ‘violent beatings’, Michael! –Carl). Movie-themed games are no-brainers all around: devs make money, films get extra promotion, and grandmothers with the best of intentions are tricked by GameStop employees into spending money on garbage. This is the way of things. The way of the Force.

Well, maybe not always. Just ask Rockstar Leeds. You can’t really ask them since they found themselves out of a job in a post-L.A. Noire fiasco, but throw me a frickin’ bone here, people. This is the story of how one new development house landed the opportunity of a lifetime only to get humiliated, degraded and screwed over in the worst Mongolian clusterfuck since Genghis Khan rampaged through Asia’s countryside. This is the tale of woe which befell A Sound of Thunder on the Game Boy Advance.

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Mobius Entertainment’s marketing department, I’m convinced, was staffed entirely by psychics. “Time is not on your side,” is the most prescient tagline they could have come up with. Before being bought out and becoming “Rockstar Leeds,” known for creating spin-offs of the GTA franchise like Liberty City Stories, Vice City Stories and Chinatown Wars, Mobius Entertainment was lobbed what looked like the slowest, easiest-to-hit underhand softball pitch ever. It probably went something like this: “We’re making a film based on a Ray Bradbury short story that involves dinosaurs, time travel, guns, and killing dinosaurs by traveling through time and shooting them with guns. If you promise to make a video game based on this premise that is not called Dino Crisis, we will give you money.”

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Any game developer in the world would sacrifice body parts for the opportunity to appeal to such a broad demographic in one fell swoop. As if to sweeten the pot, this game was intended for the Game Boy Advance, a handheld system with sales figures best measured on the same scale that tracks G-Force stress on a combat pilot’s body. Combine that with all the free advertising a high-profile Hollywood film generates and you’re left with the easiest thing to say ‘yes’ to since the invention of sex.

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Mobius’s work on A Sound of Thunder began in 2002 in anticipation of a 2003 release to coincide with the film’s theatrical debut. Then, as though the concept of developing a game based on a film itself was struck with the horrible effects of the story’s own time-ripple anomalies, things began going wrong and never freaking stopped.

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Pierce Brosnan, tapped to play Travis Ryer, the film’s male lead, decided he’d rather not get involved leaving the studio scrambling to find a new leading man, and us to believe he has freaky psychic powers of his own. While the studio eventually replaced Brosnan with Edward Burns, Mobius Entertainment continued working.

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Then director Renny “Die Hard 2” Harlin decided he wanted to take the film in a different direction. This upset Bradbury, who felt Harlin’s changes violated the spirit of his original tale. Every time an author goes to war with a studio over a director’s choice to “improve” the original, the producers tell said writer to make like a cannibal and eat a dick. Someone must have been in a conciliatory mood this time though, as the producers for once sided with the guy who wrote the story. They canned Harlin and took applications for a new director, eventually replacing him with Peter “Capricorn One” Hyams. Since it’s difficult to get a lot of filming done without somebody sitting behind the camera, production delays piled up. Mobius Entertainment continued working.

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August of 2002 is remembered by Eastern Europe as, “The time we started taking ‘El Niño’ seriously.” Mother Nature cracked open her sky hydrant, and everything born without gills had a really bad day. In Dresden, they sank a depth gauge into the Elbe river and it came back marked at 9.40 meters (over thirty feet, or six of your moms), a level of flooding unseen since the thirteenth century. What does all this have to do with A Sound of Thunder, a story which takes place in Chicago, you ask? Filming was chugging right along in the Czech Republic, which I suppose looks like Chicago if you squint a bit…right up until the sets filled with water. Seventeen people and one sea lion (I’m not kidding–they built him a freaking statue) lost their lives as a result of massive flooding which caused over three billion dollars’ worth of damage in that country alone. Mobius Entertainment continued working.

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Filming finally wrapped, and thankfully everything was smooth sailing from–no, sorry, that’s a bloody lie. Franchise Pictures, the company responsible for completing the film’s special effects, looked at their bank account and said: “We have completely run out of money. Our bad.” Mobius completed the video game for A Sound of Thunder only to discover the fruits of their labors  were a bankrupt FX company, an unfinished film, and a group of producers begging for additional investors to save the project. What looked like a sure win for a new game developer became the slow, sick realization that nobody was going to see a dime for any of their hard work.

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Two years and some of the worst CGI committed to celluloid later, A Sound of Thunder was released to theaters in the summer of 2005, with the game dusted off and shipped to stores in March to try and drum up hype. The result was a universally-panned failure of a movie which barely made back 10% of its original $80 million budget, linked to a game that had fallen off of everyone’s radar twenty-four months prior, made all the more tragic because A Sound of Thunder is a damn good game: better than your average 2D isometric action title for the Game Boy Advance, and far superior to the film upon which it’s based.

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Good graphics and animation; decent sound effects; a nice mix of running, shooting and driving; cinematic sequences between levels; a robust multi-player system built around two-player cooperative or four-player competitive play styles; competent controls. A Sound of Thunder shows Mobius Entertainment knew what they were doing when it came to game design, a skill they proved with every subsequent release right up through 2011’s L.A. Noire. But of course, none of that could save the this title from the capricious blow dealt to it by fate. Had this been any other developer but a soon-to-be Rockstar subsidiary, this column would end with a note about the one-and-done dev who drew the short straw when it came to a movie infamous for having drawn nothing but short straws from start to finish.

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So the next time you roll your eyes thinking about a studio’s ludicrously easy, straightforward development of a licensed film title in exchange for what can only be enormous wads of pop culture cash, remember the tragic story of Mobius Entertainment and A Sound of Thunder. Because the journey of one thousand miles, a completely screwed up timeline, and a plunge into the sewage treatment plant’s reclamation tanks all begin with but a single step.