Steven Spielberg’s Big Flops and Sporadic Successes With Video Games

Films were the first encounter. TV was second. Why weren’t games as successful a third encounter?

Steven Spielberg games
Steven Spielberg games

Considering his immensely successful film career and several big TV shows under his belt, it’s a bit strange to imagine Steven Spielberg in any other industry. Still, the director of classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial has actually had an interesting career as a video game writer, producer, and director.

That’s not too surprising when Spielberg’s a self-proclaimed gamer, appearing at E3 multiple times and claiming to have played a lot of Pong with Richard Dreyfuss during the filming of 1975’s Jaws. “With a video game, I can play Tempest, and in ten minutes, I can probably feel totally like I’ve accomplished something,” he once said in an interview back in 1982.

It’s been a long while since he’s been a part of the gaming industry, but Spielberg has had quite the number of successes in this medium. Of course, he’s had lows too, but with quite a unique history in gaming, it makes you wonder why he isn’t involved in the industry more, and if there’s anything in his history to suggest gaming would greatly benefit from his return.


The Dig & Director’s Chair

The Dig
The Dig

Spielberg’s first video game was 1995’s The Dig, a LucasArts point-and-click game that was both a failure and a success. Centering around an expedition crew trying to stop an asteroid heading toward Earth, the PC game featured a full voice cast, a digital orchestral score, and the combination of 2D and 3D animation.

Originally meant for an episode of Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, an anthology show that ran from 1995 to 1987, the idea was then considered as a movie. However, the director concluded it would’ve been too expensive to film, shelving the project. Later, he decided to adapt it into the adventure game format, with Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card and Loom project leader Brian Moriarty joining him as writers.

Because of its ambition, the game was significantly difficult to develop. It had LucasArts’s longest development time for a game during its release, taking six years when the company’s games typically only took one. Had it not been based on a concept by Steven Spielberg, the game would’ve most likely just been canceled, given how high its budget was running and how the entire process required four successive project leaders.

When it was finally released in November 1995, it received mixed reviews. Its atmosphere and soundtrack were praised, but many criticized the difficult puzzles and the graphics, which looked outdated compared to other 1995 computer games like Full Throttle.

The game fared much better commercially, though. By early 1998, global sales for the game had reached 300,000 copies, the highest of a LucasArts adventure title at the time. Unfortunately, with such a lengthy and expensive development, the company’s upper management considered the sales a letdown. Artist Bill Tiller said that the “project had been way over hyped” and speculated that its “budget had run so high that it couldn’t make its money back.”

Time has been kind to The Dig, though. Nowadays, it’s considered one of the best adventure games of all time, with Adventure Gamers including it in their Top 100 All-Time Adventure Games and TheGamer writing that “for all its flaws, The Dig is unlike anything else from the era.” It’s not as well-remembered as something like The Curse of Monkey Island, but it’s developed its own considerable cult following.

Spielberg also had another computer game in 1996 called Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair, in which the director himself guided you on the movie-making process, including steps like scriptwriting, filming, editing, and marketing. It’s noteworthy for featuring crew members like the writers for 1992’s Aladdin and actors like Jennifer Aniston and Quentin Tarantino, but has mostly been forgotten by the sands of time and become abandonware.

However, in 2020, a game designer named Paolo Pedercini made a browser interactive movie game based on live-action clips from the Director’s Chair game. It’s decent fun if the novelty interests you and you enjoyed Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.


Medal of Honor

Medal of Honor: Allied Assault
Medal of Honor: Allied Assault

The Dig may have not been the success you would expect from Spielberg, but four years later, the filmmaker would finally achieve that video game hit. In 1999, DreamWorks Interactive would debut Medal of Honor, their first game with Spielberg as a writer. The game was a PlayStation first-person shooter set in World War II, and was conceived during the filmmaker’s work on the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan and after watching his son play GoldenEye 007 on the N64.

Medal of Honor was a big success, debuting to commercial and critical acclaim. It received a “Gold” sales award from ELSPA, indicating sales of at least 200,000 copies in the United Kingdom. GamePro called it “one of the year’s top titles and a must-own game,” while PSM said it was “an extraordinary game with no equal on the PlayStation.” The game is credited with popularizing the trend of World War II shooters, with titles like Battlefield 1942, Day of Defeat, and Call of Duty: WWII debuting after its release.

This was a big sigh of relief for DreamWorks Interactive, as the studio was experiencing severe losses through the game’s production and was sold to Electronic Arts who published the game. Spielberg continued in this franchise, writing for both Medal of Honor: Underground and Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, but by the fourth entry, Medal of Honor: Frontline, he was no longer involved with the IP.

The franchise continues to this day, now having 17 titles, but is nowhere near the quality or popularity of its early years, with franchises like Call of Duty and Modern Warfare taking the spotlight. However, its latest release is noteworthy for something. 2020’s Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond includes a short documentary called Colette, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject in 2021, making it the first film produced by a game studio to win or be nominated for an Academy Award.

Perhaps more interestingly, Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond is something of a full circle moment, having been developed by Respawn, a studio consisting of ex-Call of Duty devs, which itself was started by devs who previously worked on, you guessed it, Medal of Honor.

While Spielberg may have been done with Medal of Honor, he wasn’t done with EA just yet. In 2005, it was announced that Spielberg was working with EA yet again to create three new video game titles. Two of these titles were code-named LMNO and PQRS. LMNO, unfortunately, was the first true failure in Spielberg’s video game career, as the full game never saw the light of day.


Project LMNO

Steven Spielberg has always been a creative defined by ambition, so it wasn’t too surprising when LMNO, Spielberg’s collaborative game with EA and Arkane of Dishonored fame about helping an alien named Eve escape, was canceled due to being too ambitious. It was meant to be a first-person parkour game with adventure, puzzle, and role-playing elements, and of course, a heavy focus on narrative.

The game was only going to be a few hours long, but it promised to be incredibly replayable as Eve’s character would vary from player to player depending on their choices and actions towards her. Narrative games that get you to sob are a dime a dozen these days, but Spielberg’s knack for emotional storytelling (especially when it comes to sad aliens) mixed with the scope of Eve’s AI was a serious draw during LMNO’s production.

This level of ambition made the game a serious challenge to develop, though, and problems only worsened when EA decided to make deep staff cuts in 2008. Among those layoffs were members of LMNO’s team, and the project was then reworked to turn the game into a more conventional action-adventure offering. One former team member described it as “Uncharted set in a Spielberg universe.”

In 2010, the project was officially canceled, disappointing several fans who were especially excited about it. We actually only know what we know about thanks to NoClip’s Arkane documentary that lifted the lid on the game’s struggles, so be sure to give that a watch.

However, Spielberg’s second EA project, PQRS, went the opposite route and enjoyed great success as it became Boom Blox, one of the Wii’s most beloved multiplayer exclusives.


Boom Blox

Boom Blox
Boom Blox

“How can interactive entertainment become as approachable as all other forms of entertainment?” asked Spielberg during 2009’s E3. He was praising Microsoft’s Kinect in this presentation as a leap towards making gaming more accessible to everybody, which was one of his biggest motivations when directing 2008’s Wii exclusive, Boom Blox.

The gameplay of Boom Blox is pretty simple: blocks are stacked upon each other in strange-looking towers, and you use the Wiimote to throw a ball and get these towers to fall. Such a goofy game was probably the last thing anyone expected from the director of Jaws or even Jurassic Park, but Spielberg said, “I am a gamer myself, and I really wanted to create a video game that I could play with my kids.”

The party game was a success both commercially and critically, selling over 450,000 copies two months after its release and earning an 85 on Metacritic. Its sequel, Boom Blox Bash Party, was conceived immediately after the first game was completed. Spielberg and the team had so many ideas and were so high-energy that producer Amir Rahimi commented that he “could hardly stop them from doing a sequel.”

Thank heavens, too, because Boom Blox Bash Party was just as unanimously praised as its predecessor, earning an 86 on Metacritic. The future looked bright for the franchise, and as early as 2008, there were talks about other consoles getting the first game too. It was even stated that Spielberg occasionally expressed interest in making a Boom Blox movie, but a spokesperson said it was just brainstorming.

However, the Boom Blox games have remained imprisoned to the Wii, and we’ve never received so much as rumors about a third game. These games are also the last things Spielberg released in the video game industry, and while they’re great games, they’re also over 15 years old.

It’s baffling how this franchise never got a title for the Wii U or the Switch, especially when EA shut down online servers in 2012, preventing Bash Party players from uploading and downloading user-created levels. The popularity of Angry Birds might’ve played a part in that, with the two franchises sharing very similar gameplay but Angry Birds being in 2D and not 3D.

Regardless, the only noteworthy things Spielberg has done involving video games since then were direct Ready Player One, a film adaptation of a novel set in a virtual reality game called the OASIS, and be an executive producer for Paramount’s Halo series. We’ve yet to hear any news of Spielberg truly stepping back into the video game industry, but should he?


Should Spielberg Make Games Again?

If we look at Spielberg’s failures — The Dig and LMNO — the obvious common thread here is that these projects were too ambitious for their time. However, given how much the landscape has changed, there’s no reason to believe The Dig couldn’t be made today with far better graphics and puzzles. A huge limitation was that it was on PC and therefore limited to low graphics and a keyboard and mouse, but that’s no longer the case given how well-designed PCs are for gaming these days.

LMNO still feels too ambitious, but tone that ambition down a notch or two, and the game might just be possible, especially with AI itself having evolved greatly since the 2020s, as much as we hate to admit it. Heavy narrative games that feel more like interactive movies have become all the rage over the last decade with games like The Last of Us and Alan Wake II. Similarly, games like The Wolf Among Us and Detroit: Become Human have also been renowned for your choices mattering to both the story and characters. Spielberg was ahead of his time with both The Dig and LMNO.

The same can be said if we look at his successes, too. Medal of Honor popularized a genre so much that WWII shooters have now become extremely commonplace. It’s more noteworthy if your shooter isn’t set during this period. Boom Blox’s easy-to-understand nature made it insane fun to play for non-gamers, so much so that Angry Birds, a game with such similar gameplay, helped kickstart a golden era of mobile gaming. Apps like Where’s My Water and Cut the Rope dominated the Play Store because of how accessible they were to casual players.

Spielberg has only been involved in seven published games, a far cry from the 34 feature films he’s directed, a plethora of them utterly iconic. He’s always going to be known, first and foremost, for his contributions to cinema. However, there’s enough to suggest that if he chose to, he could make a distinct mark on gaming as well, or at least have a legacy that’s, as his beloved Animaniacs would say, “zanier to the max” than it already is.

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