Cashing In 2.0: How the Licensed Game has Evolved

by John Reeves

For better or worse, the original exploitation genre has changed.


With Marvel’s Spider-Man breaking records and hearts alike, let’s have a look at how the licensed video game has evolved in 2018.

Before we get into it, let’s define exactly what I mean by “licensed game” since it applies to every other major release. The Metro 2033 and The Witcher series are technically licensed, being based on book series, so are the Warhammer and Dungeons & Dragons games by adapting tabletop RPGs, and even the Super Smash Bros. and Kingdom Hearts games since they’re all about mashing dozens of iconic characters together in a single game. All the annual sports games, like FIFA and NBA 2K, the WWE wrestling games, Rock Band and its foundation of licensed music, the Tony Hawk skating games – I’m already bored with this paragraph and I’ve barely started.

What I’m talking about specifically are tie-in games. Games based on popular stuff like movies or television shows that catch the eye from a store shelf. More technically: the products of marketing synergy, the ones that effectively exploit and build upon an active interest in a brand to create a more successful, profitable product – exciting stuff. They sound like soulless husks of half-broken software – and they definitely can be – but every so often they’re something special.

Marvel's Spider-Man

There are a handful of licensed titles that I completely adore – The Simpsons: Hit & Run and SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom are my favourites – but what the best licensed games really accomplish is letting you play inside your most-loved worlds. They’re playable versions of your favourite television show, cartoon, anime, movie, comic or epic poem, where you dive into detailed recreations of these worlds and indulge as a fan. They’re unique in a way that even the best original games can’t compare to: festivals of unfettered nostalgia that also happen to be fun video games.

However, as anyone can attest, the licensed game market really earned its reputation as ‘the worst’. The fact that so many of the most widely-detested video games are licensed – E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial on the Atari 2600, Superman on Nintendo 64, Shaq Fu (sorta?), South Park (1999), Aliens: Colonial Marines (2013) – should say enough.

In 2018 and throughout the eighth generation in general, though, there’s been an unmistakable shift in how licensed games are approached by publishers and license holders. Marvel’s Spider-Man may still be an outlier for its gargantuan production values, on par with any other first-party release on Sony’s console, but it still aligns with an ongoing trend among licensed titles: putting quality first with the biggest brands possible.

Marvel's Spider-Man

We’ll start with Marvel’s Spider-Man, the first of supposedly many large-scale efforts for Marvel’s stable of superheroes.  

Developed by Insomniac Games, Marvel’s Spider-Man is extremely impressive in both gameplay and presentation, but it’s ironically how unsurprising it was that made it so hotly anticipated. For more than a decade, almost every Spider-Man game has been essentially the same: you swing around an open-world New York City, stop crimes that pop up, complete the main story missions, and there are probably some costumes to unlock, too. The core fantasy of being Spider-Man. Marvel’s Spider-Man is also that game, just with production value kicked into the stratosphere.

For such a huge release, Marvel’s Spider-Man may be one of the ‘safest’ in recent memory, but it’s perfect for an existing brand that already has a style of game associated with it. When just about everyone knows exactly what a “Spider-Man game” entails, Marvel’s Spider-Man becomes pure comfort food: you know exactly what you’re getting but you know you’re getting a very, very good version of it. Even with tweaks to the usual formula, like stealth sequences, on-brand Insomniac-style mini-games and even Assassin’s Creed-style towers that reveal sections of the map, the central experience of a ‘Spider-Man game’ is unchanged.

As the licensed title of 2018, Marvel’s Spider-Man is the apex of this growing trend: take the biggest brand possible and make a high-quality game that rivals any other major release. It sounds like an obvious move – ‘make a good game’ – but it’s a relatively new approach for licensed games, one that was Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment (WBIE) spearheaded with Batman: Arkham Asylum in 2009.

Batman: Arkham Knight

If you go back and play Batman: Arkham Asylum, the first of WBIE’s game-specific series, you’ll find a jarringly modest game compared to the sequels that followed. It’s still a game loaded with polish and immaculate design, the origin of the forever-copied rhythm-based ‘Arkham combat’, but it almost feels quaint compared to the games that released after it. Its combat is simple, there’s a lack of enemy types, and the environment itself is rather static – all things that change or evolve with Batman: Arkham City onwards.

Following the acclaim and success of Arkham Asylum, developer Rocksteady Studios received the resources to launch its follow-up, Batman: Arkham City, as a truly ‘AAA’ release. The game’s feature set was thoroughly expanded and it saw significant upgrades on the tech side, launching with a handful of Nvidia-exclusive wrinkles, and even had a handful of pre-order bonuses and marketing tie-ins. In every sense, Arkham City was a major release that competed with anything else in the market; this was even truer for 2015’s Batman: Arkham Knight.

What Arkham Asylum’s success proved – and what WBIE clearly recognised – was the true viability of known ‘mega-brands’ in the gaming market, revealing a more assured approach to licensed titles that we saw again with NetherRealm Studios’ Injustice series and Monolith Productions’ Middle-Earth series. By treating them like any game-specific series, it proved that combining critical acclaim and positive word-of-mouth with an established, beloved brand can carry a game even further as a successful product. It can draw players from both inside and outside the general gaming audience. In the age of ever-increasing development costs and production time, the rushed tie-in console game was revealed as a severely outdated concept.

LEGO DC Super-Villains

This is without even mentioning the LEGO series, WB’s real juggernaut that basically makes up it own genre. A licensed powerhouse for Warner Bros. since it purchased developer Traveller’s Tales in 2007, the series has even seen trips outside WB-owned properties with Marvel-themed games and a few original experiments like the Minecraft-y LEGO Worlds, the toys-to-life LEGO Dimensions and the open-world collectathon LEGO City Undercover. While the LEGO games haven’t changed much, tweaking things here and there while adding small new features, they still follow this modern trend in licensed titles: their quality is widely recognised and assured. They’ve stayed consistent in both quality and format, crafting reliably good games with the most popular brands.

Studio-publisher Telltale Games works the same way – exclusively developing licensed titles – and, at least in 2018, has built a reputation of crafting high-quality and critically acclaimed adventure games. Telltale developed licensed titles like Back to the Future: The Game, Jurassic Park: The Game and a handful of CSI-themed games, but its break-out hit, The Walking Dead (TWD), incited an entirely new approach. The company’s releases following TWD shifted away from traditional point-and-click games to a style that simplified the puzzles, emphasised more action-oriented gameplay wherever possible and highlighted player choice as a central feature. Telltale Games adapted to a new style of adventure game that critics and players embraced.

Both the LEGO series and Telltale’s releases are built on two pillars: games that are reliably high quality, and games that are based on popular ‘mega-brands’; the latter impossible without the former. Although these games are modest compared to the Arkham series or Marvel’s Spider-Man, their renowned quality means there’s little risk to the brands or the financers in using these massive brands.

The Walking Dead: The Final Season

Then there’s anime tie-in games, where, in 2018, we continue to see the same approach. The Japanese market sees hundreds of anime tie-in games that the rest of the world doesn’t, but those that are localised have the same focus on ‘mega-brands’, high quality and production value.  

Dragon Ball has seen a resurgence in gaming after a period of mediocrity since Bandai Namco released both the inventive Xenoverse series and 2D fighter Dragon Ball FighterZ, currently the biggest competitive fighting game on the planet. The Naruto series has seen reliably high-quality releases since 2008 with developer CyberConnect2’s Ninja Storm series, as well as the multiplayer brawler Naruto to Boruto: Shinobi Striker releasing earlier this year. One Piece, meanwhile, though not as big overseas as it is in Japan, is seeing a similar change as the next game One Piece: World Seeker shifts to the West-friendly open-world genre.

Jump Force, which crams every major anime property into a game; the Attack on Titan games; SEGA’s Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise; the upcoming 3D fighter My Hero One’s Justice based on the newer My Hero Academia series; and even a 3D brawler based on the long-finished anime Kill la Kill. There’s been no shortage of high-quality games based on popular anime series, either now or in 2019, and it’s the same trend we’ve seen among Western licensed games: a greater focus on quality and far fewer games based on more niche franchises.

Once upon a time, licensed games were far more common. They were also terrible, because that’s how that market worked: they weren’t made to be good, they were made to make money by leveraging a brand’s popularity. Publishers weren’t paying for quality, they just needed something to sell. Especially in the 80s and 90s, tie-in licensed games were seen like action figures, pumped out with little effort or time.

Video games are different. They take time, expertise and more time; they’re the software equivalent of a wrist watch, made up of thousands of virtual moving parts that need to reliably interact and coordinate forever. Some are more complex than others (especially today), but each game takes a massive production to even function, let alone sell as a product.

When word-of-mouth becomes so necessary for a game’s success and the cost of developing even the most modest title is far greater than in previous years, the licensed game market’s degradation is the only realistic conclusion, and that leads to what we see today. Marvel’s Spider-Man is a natural evolution of the licensed game over the years, prioritising quality and scale to compete with the rest of the market on the same terms, and it won’t be the last time we see a licensed title in this vein.

Marvel's Spider-Man

However, gaming may have lost a unique part of its culture. Licensed games were the careless toys of gaming that were occasionally great, helping shape the medium over time. With this lost in favour of bigger and admittedly better games, something of the collective gaming culture could have been lost in the transition.

This is admittedly a tough point to argue, but I’m still sad there won’t be any games in the style of Hit & Run or Battle for Bikini Bottom released any time soon. I would kill for a Bob’s Burgers game like Hit & Run with added cooking mini-games – kill – or games based on less popular superhero series like Ms. Marvel, Green Arrow or Doom Patrol. Due to the new realities of game development, though, we won’t see games of this scale and quality for smaller properties perhaps ever again. While the licensed games we do get will undoubtedly be better on average, the inventive out-of-nowhere passion projects vanished when the expectations of quality and scale reached critical mass.

Without Spider-Man 2’s bizarrely good swinging mechanics, we wouldn’t have Marvel’s Spider-Man. Without The Punisher in 2004, we might not have seen Volition’s Saints Row series turn out the way it did. Without GoldenEye, we might not have Halo and Call of Duty grow the multiplayer arena shooter into what we have today.

The genre has evolved but we’re missing out on all the unique curios that came out of it. For all the odd, innovative, iconic, terrible games the licensed genre brought to the medium over the years, it’ll be missed.


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1 comment

Doublejump Digest: September 23, 2018 - Doublejump September 23, 2018 - 8:30 pm

[…] light of Marvel’s Spider-Man’s recent release, John stood on top of the soapbox to explore how licensed games have changed in recent […]

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