Beyond the game: the world of the spin-off

Playing with toys

Oddly, if you want to take your favourite characters into 3D, you're likely out of luck. There are many action figures out there, but they tend to be based firmly on console games, particular Japanese ones, like Final Fantasy and Street Fighter. PC specific characters are in short supply, or restricted to promotional items.

Only a couple of PC companies have really gotten into this market, and they're exactly the ones you'd expect: Blizzard and Valve. Valve sells geek-friendly gear by the Weighted Companion Cube load, including a plushy Cube, Black Mesa branded mugs, Aperture Labs parking permits (that sound you can hear is an idea being stretched far beyond sanity) Headcrab hat (and there it goes, snapping right back into awesome), and cuddly Vortigaunts.

Blizzard is all about the collectibles. The World of Warcraft ones are the best known, although there's a range for Starcraft as well. Nothing with the Warcraft brand on it has much difficulty selling (see our review of the WOW gaming mouse for the exception). There are extremely good quality figures, drip-fed onto the market, and offering everything from jabbering baddy Illidan Stormrage, through to Blood Elf rogues and tooled up Orc warriors.

WoW figurines

WARCRAFT FIGURES: Almost all the Warcraft characters have been immortalised as collectibles

However, they're not the coolest Warcraft merchandise. For that, you usually have to head to the big conventions, or get ready to have your wallet emptied by eBay. Talking Murloc toy? That'll be £60 from sellers right now. Inflatable Frostmournes (the actual sword wielded by the Lich King himself, if you ignore the 'inflatable' bit) go for at least $20, despite having been originally handed out free in goodie bags.

Of course, this is nothing compared to the cost of some in-game items from these conventions. At the time of writing, a polar bear for your character to ride on is going for £250, a virtual Murloc suit £320, and a pet from the Diablo games on sale at a phenomenal £900. Of course, whether the sellers actually receive the cash is anyone's guess. It can't be long before Warcraft players take a page from Atlas Shrugged and set up a whole loot-based country, funded entirely via gold-selling and weapons crafting.

Where companies fall down in providing toys, some enterprising individuals have found a niche. There's a small but active custom action figure scene on the net, combining bits of existing figures and creating new bits and pieces from scratch – is just one – many of whom take commissions for anything from your MMO character to the star of your favourite series.

Hands down our favourite recent find is mother-daughter duo Necronomical Custom Plushies, who specialise in creating bespoke soft toys based on any character from anime through to gaming. They recently started making Warcraft toys, which are just adorable.

Our favourite is a Draenai Paladin, complete with balsa wood sword, wired up tentacles and black vinyl gloves. Unlike Figureprints (see 'Warcraft comes alive') these are completely unofficial, but so far Blizzard and co have turned a blind eye. Of course, anyone trying to make a business out of an individual game would be wise to expect a call from the relevant company's legal Nazgul.

The fandom morass

You don't have to spend money to massage your geek-spot, or have any discernable talent. Nowhere is this more evident than the world of fan fiction. Now, let's be clear. There are fan fiction writers out there with serious talent, and some excellent projects worth your time.

One of the most ambitious is a 'proper' retelling of Planescape Torment, using the actual dialogue and situations from the game, rather than the hacked-up mishmash of the official novelisation. Download it from here.

All that said, more often than not people pass around fan fiction for a very different reason. A recent trend in the Half-Life community is using Garry's Mod to put some of the worst to animation, with the most famous being Full Life Consequences. Watch it on YouTube, but beware. It starts: "John Freeman who was Gordon Freemans brother was one day in an office typing on a computer. He got an email from his brother that said that aliens and monsters were attacking his place and asked him for help so he went." and promptly gets worse.

And if you think that's bad, we haven't even mentioned the porn. There's erotic fan-fiction based on Team Fortress 2, and no, we're not kidding. Sample line: "When he was healing his Heavy, crouching behind his large friend in an effort to avoid grenades, rockets, and flares, he would find his eyes drifting toward the Heavy's small, but muscular butt." We can't print most of the rest…

Good and bad and just plain wrong fan-fiction aside, some of the most fun are the stories that take a serious game and put a funny spin on it. Chris Livingston's Concerned does this brilliantly with Half-Life 2, retelling the whole story from the point of view of one Gordon Frohman, not so much an alien sympathiser as an all-out fanboy of the brutal Combine regime, who just happens to accidentally set up almost every single part of the actual game while working for the baddies. The comic was so popular, it even got a shout-out in Episode 1.

The Last Days Of Foxhound, available at, is another great example of this style, retelling the whole Metal Gear Solid saga from the villains' point of view. It's not exactly Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but only because Revolver Ocelot would have shot them on the first page.

Cosplay complex

Arguably the ultimate expression of fandom however is trying to become your favourite character. You might not be able to leap buildings in a single bound, but at least you can look the part. That's the theory, anyway. As ever, this tends to be focused around Japanese games, but MMORPGs have helped pull things back in our direction.

Popular costumes include Lara Croft, often patterned after the official models that Eidos hires to play her, and some insanely well put together MJOLNIR armour based on the Master Chief in Halo. Cosplayers don't simply buy a hat or don a wig.

The level of detail and build quality can be jaw-dropping. It can also be terrifying, especially when someone tries a look they just don't have the build for, and doubly-so when you factor in 'crossplaying': guys in costumes designed for already impossible girls, often without even bothering to shave. Google 'Man-Faye', if you must, but don't blame us for what you see…

With MMORPGs, there's a greater connection to individual characters. After all, they're yours. Cosplayers and costume contests are a regular fixture at conventions, with game-specific ones including Blizzcon and the Everquest-based Fan Faire. However, probably the most fun competitions have been the ones that NCSoft threw for City of Heroes/City of Villains.

These typically ask people to dress as their own character, with much of the fun coming from the contrast – not necessarily how different the person is from their avatar, but how something that looks sleek and awesome against a glimmering comic book background doesn't necessarily retain its mystique in the stark surrounds of a parking lot. Will Champions get the same treatment? Only time – and overwrought dialogue – will tell.

Games and beyond

When it comes down to it though, games are primarily about having fun, and nobody said it has to be done on screen. Warcraft, you'll be shocked to hear, has several physical games out there, including a boardgame based on the original strategy titles, a trading card game a bit like Magic: The Gathering (boosted by the fact that cards can be redeemed for rare items in games), and a tabletop RPG from White Wolf, creators of Vampire.

Doom also has a boardgame, and an interesting one at that. One player controls the demonic invasion, including Hell Knights and Marines, with other players controlling one marine each. We haven't played it, although we've heard from people that have that unlike the game, the armies of Hell tend to have a slight advantage. Clearly, Satan can handle his Weetabix.

Most card and board game conversions aren't as well-known, outside dedicated gaming circles. Very few are aware that Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness was turned into a boardgame set in a museum (Lara trying to find evidence to prove her innocence in a murder investigation), that Sid Meier's Civilisation became a card game, or that Fallout, Wing Commander, Crimson Skies, Myst, and even the failed MMO Auto Assault have all made the conversion.

As if this wasn't meta enough, even online comic Penny Arcade now has its own card game, with a deck for each of the two main characters Gabe and Tycho, and weapons ranging from 'Erode The Human Soul' to the Fruit ****er. (Kids, the missing letters are 'fondl').

With all these novels, comics, stories, toys and extra games to play, it's a wonder any of us have time for what really matters: the originals. Who knows. Maybe one day, there'll even be games about the spin-offs. It worked for LEGO Star Wars. Why not Duplo LEGO Star Wars?