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Analyzing Licensed Games

19th November 2011; By KnucklesSonic8 & Patrick

Although some would argue that the whole lot of them are poor, the range of quality with licensed games is all over the place. In the last few years, we've seen both good and bad efforts as this unending cycle of licensed material continues to wreak havoc on the industry. It probably sounds a lot worse than it actually is, but there's no shortage of these sorts of games, from video game adaptations of animated films to popular children's television shows. Only seldom do these manage to break the normal platformer or beat ‘em up formula we've seen getting rehashed over and over again. You'd think by now with so many failures not far into the past, developers would be taking hints. But for one reason or another, they're not. I suppose all we can do is praise the ones that innovate. That is, if you're only interested in looking at one side of the problem. To get a fuller scope of how licensed games still have a hold on the gaming scene, Patrick and I decided to engage in the following discussion.

Patrick: To start things off, what are your opinions on licensed games? They're clearly not all bad, nor do they guarantee bad quality in and of themselves, but why do you think people look at them with such a universal disgust?

: Well, that's an interesting comment you make because, first of all, as prolific as the negativity surrounding licensed games, they're not universally panned. There are people out there who enjoy games based off of properties that they already like or even love. To us, it's surprising to hear of someone having fun with a game based on a movie or what have you, but to others, it's probably more surprising that so many people view licensed games with such low regard. 

But to answer your question more directly, I think part of it has to do with the fact that other than the unending wave of mini-game collections on the Wii (which, thankfully, has stopped), licensed games epitomize just how lazy developers can get. And what's more, that they're able to get away with it. Licensed games that are devoid of any kind of fun say a lot about the development team behind the projects, so despite what false pretenses may suggest, they probably got bored making the game. That's not always true, mind you, but when a game starts to lose appeal not even halfway through because it's just the same old formula repeated again and again, you can tell the developers weren't ready to go all out and make the experience worthy of a successful standing.

Another reason could be because licensed games have always had failed attempts on each system, and often times, it's the truly horrendous ones that the gaming community (both general gamers and games journalists alike) still references at length. These often overshadow even the quality titles we've seen over the years -- which thankfully do still get recognition down to this day. Movie adaptations often tend to go predictable routes, either being continuations of where the movies left off or a retelling of events. And because of that widely-maintained mindset, people automatically judge licensed games before they even see gameplay footage. Just hearing that it's in the works or seeing some preliminary assets immediately turns people off, which says a lot about how many failures we've seen over the years.

Patrick: Alright, then other than a lack of interest, what do you think would cause a game like, say, X-Men Destiny to be created as opposed to a game such as Phineas and Ferb: Across the Second Dimension?

: Well since you're speaking about quality, I think if you were to look critically at the underlying causes behind why a game flops, you'd discover that this often can be pinpointed to the developers. More specifically, they lost sight of the purpose behind the project. Sometimes time constraints can be a factor, and with superiors breathing down you're neck, you're not going to do as good of a job as you would if you were given more freedom to pursue a creative license (excuse the pun). Now, I'm not saying you shouldn't hold to a set schedule necessarily, but rushing through development isn't the way to go. Then again, what do I know? I'm no developer.

I can imagine the pressure extends far beyond just the publisher or even the Project Director/Producer. Just think of games like Skyward Sword that experienced delays, and instead of the masses realizing that this may very well result in a more crafted, fine-tuned experience, they just wanted it right away -- which is understandable, but you do need to look at the other side of the coin too. In short, I think there are a whole slew of factors that contribute to a game's success or failure, and it's hard to focus on just a cluster of possible reasons. But I do feel that although the development team will usually take responsibility for a negative outcome of games they've made, I think that the media, the gaming community and consumer trends shouldn't be discounted as playing a role in all of this as well.

: I do agree that delays are usually not the way to go, but I think another factor is how they take the project as a whole. If they try to create a linear retelling of the film (for instance), where you just re-enact the story, then almost nobody will enjoy it. On the other hand, if you do what Toy Story 3 did and create a Toybox mode where you can use the characters in game to create your own little world, or something akin to that, it's critically appreciated.

One company that is famous for doing great licensed games lately is Telltale, making point-and-click games based on Sam & Max, Wallace & Gromit, Homestar Runner, Monkey Island, and Back to the Future (review incoming). On the other hand, they were also supposed to release Jurassic Park: The Game in April of this year, then delayed it to improve its quality. This is funny, as it is one of the worst games, if not the worst game they've made to date, being critically panned for being hardly interactive at all, instead being one giant cutscene with minimal interaction.

: Just by someone purchasing a movie-based game, it is expected that the experience will closely resemble what was seen in the films. And if that same person became a fan of the film, chances are they'll like the idea of playing a game that acts as a retelling of events. So to say no one would enjoy such a game is inaccurate. But naturally, they'll appreciate the game more if it does something unique that they couldn't experience by watching the film.

As for Telltale, I too have noticed their impressive effort with respect to licensed games. I still have to find time to play Wallace & Gromit and I never did finish the Strong Bad games, but if there's one thing Telltale effectively demonstrates, it's that the effort, ingenuity and passion of a dev team (or lack thereof) can still be witnessed even in licensed games. You would think the license would carry all of the weight, but a skilled team can ensure their personality and even creativity still comes out. Now, what does that say about other developers?

: I’m gonna have to disagree with you there. If someone were to go watch a Star Wars movie, for instance, and then went to pick up the game, then that person probably expects something compelling within the movie universe. If they just saw the exact same story, what is the point of that? They just saw the film. And if the idea is that they're making the game as a substitute for the film, that is also incredibly foolish as games are more expensive and the movie tie-in games are traditionally of a lower quality than the film.

On the other hand, if they were to go watch a Star Wars movie, and then pick up Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003, PC, Xbox) for instance, they would probably be extremely pleased. It's a licensed game set in that universe, but it is telling its own story with its own characters, some 4000 years earlier. Add to that fact that the game itself is amazing (try it out!), and I think that type of tie-in product has an amazing value. It not only sold like hotcakes, but it is widely regarded as one of the best Star Wars games, and one of the best RPG's of all-time.

KS8: That's a good point. Offering a storyline that differs from the film can work well if the team pays keen attention to detail. The last thing you'd want is for central or even minor figures from a film undergo a radical character reversal in the game. Anyway, how do you feel about the way Star Wars games have progressed over the years?

Patrick: They've been great; from the Super Star Wars games on the SNES (available on the Virtual Console) which provided great action platformers, to the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO. There have always been poor games (such as The Force Unleashed II, etc.), but that's the same with almost every series. It has a higher percentage of critically acclaimed entries than other licensed games, though. What do you think of games based on TV shows, not movies? I know you enjoyed Phineas and Ferb: Across the Second Dimension, but do you typically enjoy other TV show-based Games?

: That's a tough one. I think the quality fluctuates radically, and with the exception of Disney's outings this year, I feel that these games are just quickly churned out without much thought to lasting appeal. Take SpongeBob for example. He's had a whole mix of different adventures in the gaming space, mostly platformers with some party games on the side. Now, anyone who's tried some of these games will tell you that Battle for Bikini Bottom was the best SpongeBob game that ever came out. Personally, the only other game that I feel had effort put into it was Lights, Camera, PANTS! That was a surprisingly fun game. Even now, I can still go back to it and have a good time with relatives. 

Creature from the Krusty Krab took SpongeBob in a different direction, but the game was only half enjoyable -- at least from my experience, anyway. Recent departures on Wii and DS have failed to make a mark at all, as I'm sure you've noticed. Games like Boating Bash and Atlantis SquarePantis, for example, have quickly made their way into bargain bins, presumably with lacklustre sale numbers even after the first month of release. Why? Is it because people are sick of that pineapple-dwelling sponge? Not necessarily. 

I think the only consumers who really buy SpongeBob games nowadays are really young kids (or, more accurately, parents of really young kids). Before, even older SpongeBob fans could enjoy the games too, but there's none of that happening nowadays. Personally, I think SpongeBob games will cease pretty soon (at least as far as console and handheld is concerned) as I'm sure even THQ has come to realize these games are underperforming on multiple levels. After all, they did say they're aiming to reduce the amount of licensed material they produce moving forward. Anyway, what other TV show-based games have come out over the last few years?

Patrick: Well, there are mash-ups like Nicktoons MLB coming out lately, but other than that, Wikipedia says Rugrats received a fair few games, as did various other licenses. Any thoughts on those?

: Well I can definitely speak about Rugrats. Search for Reptar on the PS1 was great at the time. The hub world, for one, was set inside Tommy's home, which was fun to explore. That's one thing child-focused licensed games should definitely learn from: having an interactive hub you can explore instead of sticking to a strict stage-to-stage approach. 

Looking at that list brought back memories of other games I've played in the past. I remember playing Muppets Inside for the PC. That was fun too. There was even a Doom-inspired FPS activity where you had to eliminate evil vegetables as the Swedish chef. Magic School Bus: Lost in the Solar System was another great licensed game for the PC. And don't even get me started on those I Spy games. Plenty of time lost there when I was a kid! Seeing a trend here? Licensed games just aren't what they used to be, and everyone knows it. (Tiny Toon Adventures, anyone?) For every memorable and nostalgic game that a person can call to mind, there are plenty more lousy efforts out there that upset you over the way the developers have chosen to treat the license. 

That being said, in the last few years, we've had a couple good ones too. Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions instantly comes to mind. I can't speak for the Scooby-Doo games but it seems like they're still doing well with the kids. And I did hear good things about Batman: The Brave and the Bold as well.

Patrick: I see your point. But what about games based on Game Shows? I know that the recent Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy games by THQ have almost identical assets, with all the modes, character art, and music being used in both.

KS8: Interesting. Well stuff like that is obviously still going to be purchased by fans of the show, regardless if the quality is only modest at best. Having true-to-the-show gameplay is all consumers really care about, and I imagine the same ideology is adopted by the developers as well since it gives them the excuse to skimp out on the so-called "fluff" that may actually make the game more enjoyable and less sleep-inducing to look at. To be honest, I can't recall a recent game show rendition that has done well from a critical standpoint, but that might be just because I typically stay away from these. 

Just take Deal or No Deal for instance. It's often looked upon as one of the worst games on the DS, but even without considering faulty gameplay and everything else, I personally think that in a case like that, deciding to make a game out of a show that isn't that involved is trivial at best. I mean really, they're just setting themselves up for a boring turn-out. Even Ubisoft's renditions of game shows like Hollywood Squares and The $1,000,000 Pyramid are disappointing from what I gather. And if these are anything like their attempt at re-creating
The Amazing Race in video game form, I don't want any part of them. If memory serves correctly, the only time I've seen game shows have done consistently performed adequately in video game form is with PC translations. But that's just what I've observed.

Patrick: So looking at everything as a whole now, what would be your advice to developers creating licensed games? Obviously we don't want copycats or what works, because that's usually what doesn't work.

: Well, I should preface this by saying I'm no expert and I don't claim to be. However, if you were to analyze the commonalities of the licensed games that don't work well, you'll easily discover that the most prevalent complaint is that the games turn out to be boring. Again, going back to what I said earlier, I think there are multiple reasons for this and it's impossible to cover all the bases in this article. However, I am going to focus on a few points.

Unless you're really devoted to the task and are prepared to go the extra mile for a respective license, developers need to cut it out with the straight conversions. They need to add their own spin to things so the game becomes worth playing instead of being content with the bare minimum. This does not need to be limited to the gameplay perspective. Creativity can shine in all areas if they really put a lot of thought into it. If they're not prepared to do that or think that they can just do a minimal job and not incur skepticism from critics and even those who treasure the license, they need to think again. Regardless of the personal attachment a potential consumer may have to the license, if the design sticks, it'll show. I do realize that publishers call most of the shots with things like this and will likely be the ones who control where development leads, but that should not be seen as an excuse. Even with what restraints you may be given, a team can still think outside the box and create something that breaks the mold while still attaining relevance amongst target consumers.

Additionally, I think some developers need an attitude adjustment when it comes to licensed material. If you try to pass the video game counterpart off as a legitimately enjoyable experience, meanwhile you're just spewing words without having any sincerity behind them, people can usually see through it. And yes, I am speaking about PR as well. 

If the project is driven by a need to amass financial resources (perhaps for other more ambitious projects), it can quickly become evident in the choices that were made for the final release. Some developers get caught up in the imitation aspect in trying to represent the license adequately, but in the process, they end up cutting corners and treating the project as more of a monotonous task that has to get done instead of something they feel fully invested in. Losing sight of the big picture, this can result in cracks in the experience that will spring forth in potentially traceable areas where the team started to falter.

Furthermore, many movie-based games have this kind of play-it-in-an-afternoon approach that immediately shafts a title like this to rental status. Even if this is done with the idea that it should last about the length of the film or slightly longer, the entertainment factor can and should excel beyond that. Now if you're immediately thinking that I'm wrong on this front and that most games of this nature have conformed to this general understanding, then as a developer who's looking to make a mark, it's imperative that you break the mold. I mean, just look at Disney. Look at how proper attention to licensed games has done well for them. A developer may view a license-based project as just contractual work, but why not take it on as your own project; view it as an opportunity to impress, rather than just doing what's asked of you. That's my two cents on the matter.

So what say you? Think licensed games will see brighter days in the future? We don't think it's impossible. Perhaps you'll share the same view we do. But if you don't, we don't blame you. After all, licensed games have suffered much shame over the years. But as we've discussed today, there's more to this issue than you might have previously thought.

And so comes an end to License Week at Wiiloveit. We hope you've enjoyed our week of license-themed content!

Feature by KnucklesSonic8 & Patrick