The Rise And Fall Of Licensed Games
During January of this year, James Cameron’s Avatar crossed the $1.8 billion mark and became the highest-grossing film of all time. The same week, Ubisoft’s tie-in to this movie event of the century groaned to number eight in the UK all-formats chart, its joint highest position since its release. At this point, most retailers were selling it for under £18. During its first week on UK shelves in early December, it only reached number 29, ranking behind Peppa Pig: The Game on Wii and DS, while none of the game’s six ports managed to crack the US NPD Top 20 in December, either. This was after a hefty marketing campaign, which began with the game being unveiled (and endorsed) by James Cameron himself at E3 2009, as well as utilising 3D technology never before available to gamers. In an earlier financial report, Ubisoft called sales of the Avatar tie-in ‘disappointing’. CEO Yves Guillemot later said in a conference call, following the results, that “[Ubisoft] will leave less place for licensed games” in the future.
It’s quite a sequence of events. The biggest movie success of our lifetime left in its wake a videogame flop, something that performed so disappointingly it literally led to a publisher changing its entire business philosophy. For so many decades, games based on successful movies – regardless of what that movie was – tended to sell greater than almost anything else on the market, just through simple name recognition. Reviewers used the term ‘cash-in’ to describe these games; now, in the wake of Avatar flopping for Ubisoft, as well as the relative failure of other comparable products in the past year, we’re not even sure that terminology is relevant to the situation.
2009 was a double-edged sword for licensed games, however. Batman: Arkham Asylum was the year’s bestselling title based on a licence, shifting over 2.5 million copies and rightfully earning a ton of Game of the Year nominations. The action-adventure walked the line between being a great piece of software in and of itself, as well as tapping into the strongest qualities of the licence. Its success versus the failure of so many middling tie-ins, like Avatar, illustrated something quite important: gamers have woken up. There’s no guaranteed windfall to be had any more, and it’s a state of affairs that threatens to wipe out these weaker titles. Although this is an outcome that publishers would rather not face, for gamers it may represent a significant creative shift in the way these titles are produced. With the cost being as high as it is to produce a 360 boxed title, developers are likely to be more discerning with the licences they work on in future, with quality control becoming more of a priority.
“There are no short cuts available in this industry any more; you just have to produce great games, licensed or not,” says Johan Kristiansson, CEO of The Darkness and The Chronicles Of Riddick developer Starbreeze Studios, renowned for its deft handling of both licenses. The studio is currently hard at work on an adaptation of the Bourne universe for EA, and Kristiansson tells us that it’s overconfident to rely solely on the strength of the licence. “A strong licence can be one component in making a successful game, but it is certainly not the only one. A lot of licensed games have failed miserably on the other components.”
Indeed, there was a long period of time – when games development was cheaper and risk was less of a factor – that saw misfiring licensed games flood the market. If you think it’s bad now, let’s recall just the last generation, when in the space of a few years, legendary TV family The Simpsons managed to find their way into skateboarding, grand theft auto and taxi driving across three creatively flat products. That churning-out policy isn’t something that’s financially viable any more, much to the publishers’ chagrin. Consumers demand more.
Tim Jones, head of art & design at Aliens Vs Predator developer Rebellion, believes that the licensed games market itself isn’t dying – it’s merely changing. “I’m not sure it’s died out; it has just found new approaches. There’s no shortage of more casual web-based games being used to boost the marketing and profile of new movies,” he says. “I think part of the reason you are seeing fewer high-profile licensed games on platforms like the Xbox 360 is because they are so expensive to make and the risk makes it hard to justify. Publishers are much more keenly aware now that developing a game on a very tight timeframe, to hit the shelves in time for a movie release, inevitably leads to compromises on quality that ultimately reflects badly on the licence itself.”
Jones refers to a situation that has obviously affected big publishers in the past few years – EA, for example, once in possession of the James Bond, Batman, The Lord Of The Rings and Harry Potter licences simultaneously, only has the latter remaining, as it instead endeavours to create quality new IP, like Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge. Big publishers are realising that much of the long-standing critical backlash reserved for these types of products is now reflected by consumer behaviour.
In the US, the Ghostbusters game sold 440,000 during its two-and-a-half weeks on sale, while Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen sold almost 150,000 fewer copies during a similar timeframe. Ghostbusters, remember, wasn’t tied to a movie release, but received critical acclaim for its ability to capture the essence of the licence, while the mechanics were okay too. Transformers was based on the biggest film of the summer, but it was received apathetically across the board. Effort is actually being rewarded, for the developers that try.
As well as financial and scheduling-related issues, though, developers face one other headache with licensed games: approval processes. Although it can be a collaborative process to create a game based on somebody else’s media property, it is, nevertheless, something that takes time. Besides, not every licensor operates in exactly the same way, as Kristiansson attests, “That differs a lot between different licensors, but often they are most involved in the beginning of a project, approving stuff like story, setting and age rating.” It’s another element developers have to consider when working with an intellectual property from another medium.
To get to the real root of the problem, however, we have to ask a series of questions about the differences between successful and unsuccessful licensed games – where developers draw the line between gameplay and dedication to the source material, as well what a property needs to transfer appropriately to interactive software. Some licences are tailor-made for videogames, at least in principle (hence why we’ve had so many James Bond games over the years), but others absolutely are not (do Pixar films really make sense as videogames?). At the same time, however, some of the best titiles have been built on seemingly game-proof concepts in highly creative ways (see ‘The less trodden path’ for an example of this).
There are moments that make or break licensed games – first diving off the dam in Goldeneye 007 on the N64, the revelation about your character’s past in Knights Of The Old Republic, or the Scarecrow hallucination sequences in Batman: Arkham Asylum. During the latter, we witnessed the internal torment of the titular character manifested as hallucination-driven gameplay, in one of recent history’s most memorable narrative sequences. We asked Paul Crocker, lead narrative designer on Batman: Arkham Asylum at Rocksteady Studios, how important these moments are to the developers in capturing the essence of a property. “It's absolutely vital. What audiences want from a licensed game is to feel like they are that character or are living in that world. It's all too easy to fix difficult problems with solutions that are counter-brand or introduce elements from other games that work in that game's context but break your licence.
“We spent pretty much the entire development process analysing everything about what it means to be Batman. With situations like the Scarecrow levels, the execution is built on top of a solid understanding of what makes Batman tick, combined with a desire to really screw with players’ minds.” Rarely are the merits of a property so well married to the gameplay, but this is the key factor that so many have missed.
It’s also important that developers like the licence that they’re working on. For Starbreeze, the company’s past choices have been built out of modestly commercial properties – Riddick is a semi-successful movie franchise, The Darkness is a slightly niche Nineties-style comic book – but the ideas they employ turned out to be very game-friendly, as Kristiansson recalls. “When we are evaluating a licence deal, we are looking for potentially interesting gameplay mechanics inherent in the key character and the world. With The Darkness we were inspired by the Darkness Powers. In Riddick we liked things like the Eyeshine. With Bourne… well, I am not allowed to talk about that yet.”
Jones explains that interpreting the licence correctly is only part of the battle. “You’ve got to be able to distil something of the essence of the licence into something that works as a gameplay mechanic. This is not always a straightforward task – most TV shows or movies are driven by the characters, and it’s the personal drama that carries the audience through the story and makes them care. You can strive for this kind of connection with the characters in a game through dialogue and cinematics and any number of other techniques, but it will ultimately fall flat if the core gameplay just isn’t fun.” It’s clearly about walking a fine line, and choosing something that’s thematically compatible with established game ideas.
We ask Kristiansson if Starbreeze is cautious with the intellectual properties it works with, and, if so, why that is the case. “Yes, we are. We want to find licenses that the team likes, that have good gameplay potential, a good licensor etc. It’s not easy, but with Bourne now I think we really have the stars aligned.” Certainly, it’s an approach that’s maintained the studio’s credibility, making Starbreeze unique among the types of developers that usually work on licensed games.
To us, the other underlying problem with all these sub-par adaptations, aside from budgetary and time restrictions, is their failure to understand the target audience, often choosing to patronise rather than challenge the gamer. Batman worked so well because it connected with every potential member of its user base, regardless of your experience with the character or his extensive lore. For casual Batfans there was a high-quality action-adventure to sail through, but for the hardcore collective there were countless comic book references that catered for them. Crocker admits that achieving this equilibrium was crucial to the game’s success. “Because everyone has a good idea of who Batman is, it's very hard to meet all the different expectations.
“We settled on making a game that focused on what it means to be Batman, to understand the sacrifices he makes every night for Gotham. By focusing every decision around this philosophy, we were able to deliver an experience that met everyone's idea of Batman. The great thing about Batman is that he is a character that anyone could be. He has no superpowers, his life is based on an event that could happen to anyone, and he has focused his life on fighting crime and becoming a better, stronger person.” It’s a difficult balancing act, but it’s clearly essential to consider this a design principle.
In quite a general sense, developers have tended to build these titles for people that wouldn’t normally play games – no doubt assuming regular gamers would ignore them anyway – but this is why trust in such products has reached a new low. Imagine you don’t play videogames that often, but you plumped for the Avatar tie-in because you enjoyed the movie so much. That, to somebody, could be representative of games as a whole when, really, it just represents one specific ongoing problem within the medium. Thus, we’ve seen a trend where fewer and fewer people are falling for it – the lesson has been learned, and few are interested in learning it again for 40 of their hard-earned pounds. Batman succeeded because it appealed to this casual part of the audience, as well as more traditional gamers, like you. Judging by Ubisoft’s decision to move out of this space, we believe the licensed market could transition away from the 360 almost completely in the next few years, save for those franchises that see evergreen success (see ‘Survivors’) and, with any luck, the high-quality games among the pack as well.
There’s a certain amount of justice and natural quality control to the downfall of weaker licensed games, though. We’ve all bought a game based on a cool movie at some point or another, and we’ve all felt the sting of that product not living up to the expectations set by the source material. Eventually, people just don’t fall for it anymore, and, as the cost of development rises on the 360, we’re less likely to see these games sharing shelf space with the Forzas and Halos of this world. Hopefully, those developers that honour the licences and shun complacency will always be the ones who succeed.