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On licensed games

posted on August 2nd, 2007 by christian

Licensed games are probably the last thing an avid gamer would be worried about. Aside from the occasional gem, they are quite often the absolute bottom of the barrel in terms of quality. I still worry about them however, and there are plenty of reasons to do so. Let’s take a look at why.

The most important thing to understand about the modern licensed game is that it has changed greatly since the old days. Time was when video games were just another niche to exploit. They were never a primary source of profit, and so they never got a lot of money or attention. If they could whip up something playable and use marketing strength to sell enough copies, then that was good enough. Thus you had just about every movie or cartoon character finding their way into some sort of platformer or shooter. Swamp Thing, Total Recall, X-men, Aladdin. Robocop and Terminator. Robocop versus Terminator. Even food mascots got their game on.

Being too young to follow the business of gaming at the time, I have no idea how well any of these games sold (I do remember renting Cool Spot on the Game Gear, however). The only good example of a licensed flop I think of was E.T. on the Atari, but that was a combination of many factors, including an already saturated market, a game that was in development for mere weeks, and the fact that E.T. was one of the biggest IPs of its decade. Beyond this example, it seems the licenses of yore did, well, enough for everyone.

Of course, the gaming industry isn’t the same anymore. It is bigger, meaning a successful licensed game can go from being extra profit to an important revenue stream. It is older, meaning some licenses aren’t going to work as well, and others might work better. Gaming is arguably more sophisticated as well. No one these days is going to plunk down fifty dollars for the privilege of controlling Chester Cheetah. Today’s licensed games can be serious business. For many franchises, the game tie in is as critical as toy deals were back in the 80’s. It is no longer an afterthought, but a critical piece of the marketing machine. We’re not just playing King Kong ladies and gentlemen; we’re playing “King Kong: the Official Game of the Movie”.

This is both good and bad. Good because it means there are more money, clout and effort being put into some licensed games, which means there is a better chance of us receiving a quality product. It also means that license holders are looking very closely at what is being developed, and are now creating some strict guidelines as to how a licensed game should look and behave. Licensed games have the potential to go from being “mostly rubbish” to “pretty decent”, but they may still be held back for many of the same reasons.

A great example of what I mean can be found in one of my favorite franchises: The Transformers. Believe it or not, the Transformers game on the PS2 was intended to be a tie in with the then sort-of-current Transformers:Armada television show. Keep in mind that this is a show that featured the robots getting into a bunch of goofy adventures with a bunch of cliched human children and learning valuable lessons about such things as saving the environment.

How did it avoid sucking? The game was given to a good developer with a good budget, and Atari/Hasbro/whoever allowed that all-important amount of leeway with the license. The game has no humans getting in the way, and the Transformers are allowed to engage in full fledged combat rather than dancing around missing each other while screaming catch phrases. Developer Melbourne House was given a license featuring giant robots with lots of firepower, and they envisioned the perfect game to place them in. It may not integrate fully with the canon of the Armada series or its successors, but this is an easy price to pay for such a quality experience.

On the other hand, we have Transformers: The Movie: The Game. It works very much like the PS2 TF game, what with its wide open spaces and missions to accomplish. But the movie tie-in is a far, far worse game; being based on a multi-million dollar film instead of a children’s cartoon, it is forced to follow a very strict set of laws. It has to look and sound the same as the movie in every way possible. It has to follow the same story, feature the same characters, and must be designed in a way that is easily digestible to a mass crowd of gamers. Thus we have an awkward GTA-clone with repetitive missions and levels, a mish-mash of celebrity voices and studio replacements, and a vague facsimile of the film plot.

To put it another way, Transformers PS2 is an open ended GTA style game because for a game dealing with giant robots in the middle of a war, it works. Transformers The Movie is a GTA style game only because people know and like GTA. One is a game where enemies never stop shooting at you. The other is a game where no one really tries to kill you until you activate a glowing mission transponder, after which the whole world becomes bipolar and decides they want you dead. They are the same genre approached from two different angles; one tries to wrap a game around a concept, while the other shoehorns a concept into a game.

Suffice to say that many licensed games look to be going down the route of Transformers The Movie, and this is not what I like to see. This is an industry in which the publishers have as much or more influence as the people actually making the games. When Hollywood has more say than either of them in the creation of the game, it will only lead to problems. I believe there are a lot of lessons that gaming can learn from the film industry, in regards to supporting both blockbusters and niche products, as well as storytelling. Yet they are not the same thing, and they should not be treated as such.

If you want to deliver an experience “just like in the movies”, then make a game that allows me to experience scenes with the same excitement and suspense as a movie. Giving me the exact same scene I saw in the movies with the ability to press A to jump is one of the worst ways to accomplish this. Licensed game developers are frequently forced to make games exceedingly similar to the movie but they should not have to. When I buy the book adaptation of a film, I don’t expect it to be the script padded out with pages of filler. Why do we expect the same from games?

There are exceptions. Spiderman 2 found a fair compromise, offering up official music, voices and visuals, as well as a chance to battle classic villains and swing around the city with Spidey. But then we got Spiderman 3, which by all indications is much the same game and was rushed out to coincide with the film’s release. The Godfather game managed to be brave enough to play with the GTA formula in order to make it better fit the license, leading to a fantastic game. On the other end of the spectrum is Tomb Raider Legend, which takes a series all about platforming and puzzles and warps it into a half baked Prince of Persia clone with chase sequences and QTEs so as to bring it closer to the “vision” of the two movies.

Call me too optimistic, but I believe licenses can be used for good in gaming. They already have in some instances. We need game industry folk to take control of the games, and movie folk to worry about the movies. We need gamers to stop buying games like Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer after seeing how shitty the first title was. Something has got to give here.

Maybe we all just need to sit down and play some more Goldeneye to remember how good we could have it.

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5 Comments

  1. pat said on August 2, 2007:

    when i was a kid, my dentists office had a genesis in the waiting room. the only game i can remember playing there was cool spot.

  2. Matt said on August 2, 2007:

    Oh, I could tell you about licensed games…. Although I am contractually silenced, I will say this: it sucks working on them. You can come up with some awesome ideas, but if it doesn’t fit into the game’s universe, just know it will get shot down. The company that owns the IP is never willing to mess around with the formula, even if it does make it a better game. Such is life, I guess.

  3. TrueTallus said on August 3, 2007:

    Perhaps the term “licensed game” is too broad at this point. It seems clear from your critique that, in general, the less specific a license developers are given the better the chance that they will end up with something enjoyable as a good game experience. Maybe that’s why we gaming folk will look forward to the next Kotor, or Obsidian’s Aliens RPG or any other product that’s not so much based on a single product as it is on a whole universe.

    On the other hand, I think there are a lot of people out there who are looking for the game translation of their favorite movie to be just that- a chance to do little more than relive their favorite moments and characters with a controller in their hands. Gameplay doesn’t really mean much to then other than as the glue that hold together a collection of fond remembrances. My 5 year old nephew wants to play Cars on PS2 ONLY BECAUSE he can see Lightning McQueen say “Ka-chow!” one more time. And his father doesn’t much care that the racing in any number of Nascar games is mediocre (at best) because he bought them for the chance to be Earnhart- that’s all. Playing a licensed product that isn’t based exhaustively on something they specifically recall isn’t fun, often because the actual playing doesn’t interest them- or any of the millions like them.

    With that in mind, maybe licensed movie rehashes don’t need a facelift. I’m not at all convinced developers should spend they’re time and resources crafting a compelling gameplay experience when it’s a compelling dramatic experience that costumers are hoping to find when they crack open the case. That said, of course, if they actually DO have a vague enough license that good gameplay is an appreciable quality, than by all means they should knock themselves out.

    And TR: Legend rocked. You bastard.

  4. TrueTallus said on August 3, 2007:

    Er, that was supposed to have paragraphs in it. Is there any trick to making them show up?

  5. christian said on August 3, 2007:

    TrueTallus: I’ve been trying to get paragraphs to work in comments since comments existed. Sorry buddy. You make good points about how licenses are implemented these days based on how broad or narrow the “universe” is. I’m all for capturing the essence of the license, which is why Spiderman 2 worked so well most of the time. but it seems odd to make a game follow the plot of a film, because it hamstrings the game in what it can and cannot do with itself. But again, Goldeneye showed that a very liberal intepretation of a film’s events allow a developer to run wild. Finally, in defense of my TR: Legend critique, realize that I immediately follwed it up with Tomb Raider Anniversary, which brought that classic platforming fun back so very, very well (I’m an absolute sucker for Tomb Raider 1).

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