Licensed Insanity

Movie tie-ins, sports titles, TV shows on your desktop. Licenses seem to have a death grip on the videogame industry. Whether it’s Jack Bauer running around to the sound of a ticking clock, or the latest NFL game, licenses make games easier to sell.

Licensed games are the ones that keep you up at night before they release, but let you sleep soundly once you have them. Welcome to the wonderful world of marketing.

An informal survey of my bloated videogame shelf reveals eight licensed titles, well below a fifth of the total, and all of them sports titles. Yet, when I stop to think about the games I am eagerly anticipating, at least half of them carry major non-videogame labels.

It’s always this way. I first got into the “religiously follow a game umpteen times before an uncertain launch” community with Middle Earth Online, which obviously never came to be. Since then, I’ve followed all sorts of licensed and non-licensed games, both as a fan and a journalist. Yet, for a myriad of reasons, I never seem to buy them.

The biggest reason may be their tendency to get cancelled. It’s hard to make a game when you have to worry only about your own crazy ideas. It’s damn near impossible when your crazy ideas need to go through a licensing board who know nothing about videogames. Then comes the rush to get them out to coincide with the book, film, game or show they’re based on.

Let me regale you with the true story of a game based on a license. In the interests of secrecy, I have omitted any names. A developer is in need of a project and knows some higher ups at a big entertainment company. That big company has an important date three months out when a product will hit the market. To promote that product, they want a videogame. The developers, desperate, claim they can deliver the world in three months. (Developers, stop snickering.)

So what do they do? They take an engine demo, reskin it for the theme of the license they’ve secured and shove it out the door. To their credit, they did make a game – in the loosest sense of the word – in three months. The problem was that it made no sense, was terribly tested, had fun bugs like non-existent textures and a host of other issues. Thanks to its license, it doesn’t even slide quietly into bargain-bin oblivion. Instead, it goes down like a ball of flames, being reviewed at record low levels all the way. The game tanked, but the developers achieved their deadline and the IP release in question had a game to go with it.

This is one example of the crap some game companies are forced to spit out in the name of a license. While extreme, having played some of the movie, book and TV tie-in games that hit the shelves, I have to wonder if it is really as uncommon as one might think. Fairly or not, I mentally discount any game that launches simultaneously with the major product that dragged it along. Most of the time they’re terrible, and the bulk of those that were good had either an extremely long incubation period – such as being based on a movie trilogy – or actually slipped their launch much later than the product they’re based on.

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Ironically, as videogames matured into a legitimate entertainment medium of their own, we’ve seen a dynamic turn-around. Movies and TV are now licensing games at record rates. There was once a time when we’d run a digital Angelina Jolie around, not watch Jolie act out our favorite short-shorts clad, gun toting explorer on the big screen. Sadly, it seems like the quality relationship is pretty much the same. The movies based on good games have been, for the most part, terrible.

Cross-promotion is a reality we’ll have to deal with. It helps sell product and makes a lot of people a lot of money. It would be nice to stand up and yell that it should end, but I’m going to be realistic about it. I want to find a way to make it work. To do this, let’s look at movie-based games.

The biggest problem game developers face when hit with a movie license is a game generally takes longer to make than a movie. Games can take several years, and while movies can too, the timeframe is normally a bit shorter. They also suffer from changing visuals, re-writes and cast changes. It would be fine and good to give the game developers a script of the movie before filming starts and let them get going, but what happens when the director decides they need to change a major plot point or an actor drops from the project? Suddenly, the game is in a state of emergency. For cross-promotion to work, the game and film need to be similar enough that gamers go see the movie and movie-goers grab the game.

The solution is better cooperation. They need to share early scripts, get a heads-up on casting decisions and, most importantly, concept art from all stages. If they build the game from the same basic template as the sets are built, they may not be identical, but at least they’ll be in the same stratosphere.

There have been a host of decent games tied into successful movies or television, but they’re the exception. With the built in marketing power of the film, it would seem that these games have the highest chance of reaching out to the non-gamer. Yet, we as an industry continually deliver to them sub-par products. If companies can do what it takes to make good movie, film and television based games, a door is opened for the rest of us. As we all know, it only takes one game to get you hooked. These big licenses represent a huge opportunity to hook a whole new audience. It’s time we capitalized on that.

Dana “Lepidus” Massey is the Lead Content Editor for and former Co-Lead Game Designer for Wish.

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