The Box Office Curve of Video Game Adaptations

The live action movie adaptation of the best selling game-shooter (and soon to be franchise) Bioshock has been put on hold by Universal as you can read here and here.

To say I was dumbfounded by this news would be a massive understatement. I bought the game almost immediately after its release and it’s been an amazing and breathtaking ride. The atmosphere, the story of a utopia gone horribly wrong along with its citizen (“I’m gonna be a star. It’s not too late, not too late”) and the perfect execution make Bioshock one of the best games I ever played.

I couldn’t understand why Universal would put such a great story with massive potential on hold.

Well, after imagining myself being dressed up as a Big Daddy and paying them a visit I calmed down and started to do some research on the major video game adaptations of Hollywood and their respective Box Offices.

Frankly speaking after the visual results emerged: it looks bad. Really bad. Not only for the hopefully upcoming Bioshock movie but for the genre as a whole.

An investment of $160 Million for a possible A-Movie from Hollywood is not very much – it seems. Or to be more precise: it seems from our perspective, because most of the “big” movies make an enormous amount of money.

So, when we for example look at all those comic book adaptations we see: there is nothing that is not possible thanks to The Dark Knight, Spiderman and so on. Although I cannot prove this at the moment I am sure that many movie lovers think in this way.

But I think that this kind of thinking is wrong. You cannot compare a comic book movie with a video game movie although they seem to stem from seemingly similar niches because both are more or less a juvenile phenomena and visual by their nature.

The following chart illustrates my point by showing a simple curve of all box office grosses made by the “major” video game adaptations without their respective sequels:


As you can see it doesn’t look very promising for the genre of Video Game Adaptations.  Out of all 13 movies I have analyzed, only one – Lara Croft – made a substantial amount of money. But it gets even worse, because except for one another movie, Mortal Kombat, every other try didn’t even reach – let alone break – the 50 Million Dollar threshold.

Alone in the Dark by our extremely beloved Uwe Boll, House of the Dead and Wing Commander are the worst of the crowd, barely breaking the $10 Million mark. OK, the shit from Mr. Boll doesn’t even come close to even this.

Of course, one could say that many if not most of those movies weren’t that big, so the investment was not that high. This is absolutely true but let’s take a closer look and overlay the current graph with the investment made for each movie, shown by a dark-blue line. And boy, this is where the disaster fully kicks in:


As the image shows, only two video game adaptations made substantial more money compared to the investment so it doesn’t feel like a hiccup. These two movies are Mortal Kombat and Hitman. Yes, I am amazed myself. Lara Craft of course made tons of money – but it also cost tons of money. That 16 Million Dollar surplus at the box office almost is not worth mentioning.

On the other hand, there is a good bunch of movies in that crowd that didn’t even manage to reach the break-even point. Out of them Final Fantasy is the big and massive loser. The other ones are not that catastrophic but they’re not in any good shape either. Silent Hill: Investment 50 Million, return 47 Million. Wing Commander: Investment 30 Million, return 12 Million. And so on. What catches my eye is the fact that many movies almost reach their investments at the box office but never really break it.

Perhaps this is what drives the producers at Universal nuts: although they might love the concept of Bioshock and the game itself, the chance of making a box office failure is high, especially when you talk about an assumed investment of 160 Million Dollar. Even the best video game adaptation didn’t reach that amount. Moreover, chances are rather high that Bioshock won’t break-even; or worse, won’t earn as much as it cost.

Oh, and there is one last problem: although many of us know first person shooter like Half Life 2, Bioshock or Far Cry it’s not that this genre is very big. As far as I remember from a small paper I wrote this genre in fact only plays a marginal role in the video game industry compared to Sports or Role-Playing for example.

So, what would you do regarding those numbers? Would you take the risk fully on with a 160 Million Dollar investment? Or would you try cutting corners wherever possible? Or would you even give the project a good kick in its ass and throw it into a dark alley?


  • Fantastic article and analysis! The problem that Bioshock has is that it’s production values would have to be so high in order to capture the mood and style of the video game that they wouldn’t really be able to cut corners, except as far as casting goes. I suppose the look of the game is what attracted people to it in the first place, and that’s fine up until they realize they have to pay for it.

    • Gunther Heinrich

      Thanks a lot for your praise!

      You are absolutely right regarding the production values. I loved and still love the game for its massive amounts of details and depressing atmosphere. So, any other attempt than “we pour money into this project” to get it right will most likely result in “problems” to say the least.

      Since they decided to cut corners for a good reason we can assume the worst at the moment.


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