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Licensed Video Games Move From Bargain Bin to Big Budget

Licensed Video Games
Courtesy of Xbox

Licensed Video Games
A lot of writing has been done on awful video game movies, but adapting existing intellectual property across mediums is a two-way street. As such, it’s worth noting that video games based on movies are also pretty awful. Syft writer Jacob Boren wrote a piece on just why that has so often proven to be the case. However, as the video game landscape has continued to develop and film studios have become increasingly determined to diversify control over their content, the quality of video games inspired by movies is improving, as is the scope of the games themselves.

In a recent article from The Washington Post, writer Elise Favis took a look at the changing landscape of the licensed video game. Of the examples she examined, a recent meeting between Disney and Ubisoft regarding the upcoming open-world Star Wars game is particularly worth noting. The very first Star Wars video game, an adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back, was released in 1982 for the Atari (though there was a pinball version of the same installment released in 1980). Now, nearly forty years later, with many a video game released in between, a lot has changed.

Of those things, the understanding of just how much potential profit there is in licensed video games is a lot clearer. For instance, Favis writes that “Electronic Arts reportedly has grossed a whopping $3 billion in revenue from all its Star Wars games.” When Disney first acquired Lucasfilm back in 2013, they promptly “shut down its video games division LucasArts in 2013” and within three years had shut down their own internal game development branch, Disney Interactive Studios. 

Licensed Video Games
Courtesy of Ubisoft

Although some of the Star Wars games before then had proven profitable and relatively popular, the quality of the games weren’t particularly high. In both Lucasfilm and Disney’s cases, the games were coming from branches run by the film studios. Favis reports that Disney’s former CEO acknowledged that this wasn’t the best course of action: “In a 2019 earnings call, CEO Bob Iger acknowledged that the company is best at making movies, not games. Today, Disney no longer develops games internally, focusing its efforts on licensing and partnering with external studios.” 

A big part of the change in approach would have to be due to the fact that certain companies were achieving success with adapting pre-existing IP into video games. For instance, The Witcher game series successfully adapted the popular book series (and Polish television series) into a game franchise, which then successfully transitioned into a popular Netflix show, which then resulted in renewed interest in the games.

Part of the success with this example comes from the wide breadth of the source material. As opposed to the limited perspective of trying to translate a movie’s plot into a tie-in video game, The Witcher games were able to tap into a larger, more expansive narrative. There was a level of freedom in that project that allowed game developers to focus on crafting a satisfactory game narrative as opposed to pouring a movie’s storyline into the format of a game. 

Licensed Video Games
Courtesy of Insomniac Games

Similar success was achieved with the Marvel video games. In 2009, Marvel Entertainment had, similarly to Disney and Lucasfilm, developed their own video game development branch, Marvel Games. But the executive vice president of Marvel Entertainment, Jay Ong, quickly realized that “a new leadership direction” would allow video game adaptations of their IP to transcend simple movie tie-in games. Ong joined the company in 2014, at which point the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, was already well into ‘Phase Two,’ meaning the MCU was already into the second wave of movies, having released eight movies.

Ong’s approach was to embrace the spirit of collaboration with game producers such as Insomniac Games (the company behind the popular Spider-Man games). As Favis puts it, “Rather than forcing a game development team to use certain assets from the Marvel Cinematic Universe or from the original looks of the comics, for example, those have now become open discussions for what fits best for each game.”

It’s this prioritization on “what fits best for each game” that has ushered in a new age when it comes to licensed video games. As a medium, games are inherently different. A movie’s plot and outcome are fixed and satisfying based on how the narrative beats of said movie play out. A video game however, hinges upon the interactive nature of the medium. If a player does something differently on a subsequent playthrough, the game’s narrative must alter accordingly and still be satisfying.

As such, over the years, the intent of these companies creating games has shifted from a mere cash-grab, trying to capitalize on popular titles and become more about creating quality games. In order to create quality games, the priority has to be in assembling talented development teams and trusting them to do their work.

Licensed Video Games
Courtesy of Atari

Thanks to this trust and spirit of collaboration, the days of the infamously awful E.T. The Extra Terrestrial movie tie-in are a thing of the past. As Ong puts it, “Does the quality of games matter? It matters a lot. In fact, that’s probably the only thing that matters.” It must be acknowledged that a lot of this shift in prioritization comes along with a change of perspective when it comes to video games and gamers overall.

Previous attitudes were that video games were for kids and kids didn’t have particularly discerning tastes. As we further understand the nuance and quality of video games and it becomes more commonly acknowledged that video games are their own narrative medium, it has become clearer that licensed games must reflect that level of nuance and quality. 

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