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Piggy-backing: How Star Wars and other films are being adapted into successful games

Why LucasArts partnered with a game about pigs and birds.

Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

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This week, Finnish mobile game developer Rovio released Angry Birds Star Wars. The collaboration with film studio LucasArts has already skyrocketed to the top the iTunes App Store, like every Angry Birds app, collecting cash and publicity for both properties.

What makes a cross-branded game like this unusual is that Angry Birds Star Wars is more focused on being a good game than a one-to-one adaptation.

In the past, film studios wanting a video game adaptation, would partner with a developer to release a game, which would usually be required to meet a tight deadlines, and to recreate what audiences loved about the source material.

Angry Birds Star Wars is like a hallucination.

With Angry Birds Star Wars, Rovio foremost delivers what fans consider an Angry Birds-experience, using Star Wars' deep cast of characters and settings as spice. The goal of Angry Birds Star Wars is still to fire birds at pigs, only now the flying creatures can call in Millenium Falcon air strikes and the evil swine can dress as the Sith Lord.

Angry Birds Star Wars is like a hallucination. One can imagine the most hardcore Star Wars fans eviscerating its perversion of the brand. And yet there's an earnestness to the game that somehow lends it a cohesion, as if all of these things are meant to be together.

Why would LucasArts take such a risk, though, on something so weird?

LucasArts aligned itself with a known, successful game, rather than investing resources in its own project. That theoretical project's success — at least on mobile platforms — would likely fall short of the most successful mobile brand ever.

Simply piggy-backing on a popular game framework hasn't benefited every adaptation.

Star Wars is simply the latest and biggest brand to partner with successful games. Marvel and other properties have partnered with Zen Media for Pinball FX2 downloadable content, some of the most popular DLC on the Xbox Live storefront. Batman, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and even Star Wars have been reimagined as toys in the LEGO video game series by Traveller's Tales.

Simply piggy-backing on a popular game framework hasn't benefited every adaptation. Angry Birds Rio will likely be better known than its film tie-in, Rio, a 2011 computer-animated film that, despite making $150 million, lacks the name cache of other cartoons released the same year.

A film's universe must be rich and well-known so that it isn't lost amongst the game it's partnered with. Successful piggy-backing partnerships have been with brands like Harry Potter and DC Comics, which have dozens, if not hundreds of characters and settings — and also an established fan base.

Before, a video game adaptation was meant to continue serving fans of the movie. Now it can be an entry point, turning fans of a film into fans of a game.

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