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A History of Vileness: The Problem With Licensed Video Games

By Jared Cornelius

The last few weeks I've found myself slowly completing South Park The Stick of Truth, not because it's a bad game or has technical issues, but because I want to savor the experience.  After getting new abilities I find myself pouring over the town to find new items and quests, not wanting to miss a single piece of dialog or contextual joke.  I'm by no means a South Park super fan, I own the movie on DVD, (It's the best musical ever) but no other South Park merchandise occupies my home.  Sure I watch the show, I've been watching it since its debut in 1997, but I'm by no means its biggest fan.

However, Stick of Truth's authenticity to the franchise has made me fall in love with the series all over again.  It's very clear that Matt Stone and Trey Parker were very involved in the project as the personality and color they've inserted into the series shines brightly in the game.  The quality of Stick of Truth reminded me that it's taken quite some time to get here, and it's a miracle when a licensed game turns out well and the South Park franchise is no exception.  All this got me thinking about franchises, licenses, and the history of video game adaptations, so let professor stupid put on his tweed jacket and talk about why licensed games are often garbage.


Terrible licensed games are nothing new, companies have been churning out awful licensed titles since the Atari 2600.  Just for context there was a Chuck Wagon game, let that sink in, they made a game based around a dog food commercial.  Back in the Atari's hay-day almost any franchise would be made into a game, take for instance the Porky's game.  Yes dear reader, someone made a game about a movie that essentially revolves around losing one's virginity and glory-holes.  But no licensed Atari game is as infamous as E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, the game many believe was the tipping point in the video games crash of the 1980's.  E.T. was at the time was the one of the world's biggest franchises, Steven Spielberg was super-hot having just come off Indiana Jones and his next project was highly anticipated.

Spielberg and the studio executives were no fools and knew they could make money off E.T. merchandise including an E.T. video game.  The game would be farmed out to Howard Scott Warshaw who had made the successful Yar's Revenge and the Raiders of The Lost Ark game.  Warshaw reportedly was given a little over a month to develop a concept and produce a game, having met with Spielberg in late July and having a deadline of September 1st.  E.T. was released December of 1982 and was a huge flop.  The gameplay consisted of E.T. avoiding scientists and FBI agents and falling into holes to find pieces of a telephone to call home.  The concept and gameplay were confusing, under ambitious, and worst of all boring, with players having to hold up to extend E.T.'s neck for a prolonged period to escape holes.  E.T. cartages would be returned in droves and many would remain unsold with the rumor being stores couldn't give them away and truckloads would end up in a New Mexico landfill.  While E.T. would be the biggest name in games failure at the time, the problem was bigger than E.T. and there was plenty of blame and other factors in the games crash.  E.T. would be remembered as the first big release to highlight the problem of licensed titles in the videogame space.


One of the biggest problems around this time was license holder looking for a quick cash-in.  License holders want their products or characters in games to generate more revenue and awareness, that's obvious.  Atari from 1977 to 1982 was one of the hottest toys for kids, and there was no better place to put images of popular characters and properties.  At the time video games were seen as arcade distractions and children's toys, not the sophisticated pieces of culture many now consider them.  So the goal by license holders that still hold true to this day is who will do this project fastest and get the quickest return on investment.  E.T. was a textbook example of this, having only a month to be designed and completed.  Game companies like Atari would routinely put out anything, with little regard for whether it was good or not.   Since games were in their infancy quality control was overlooked, there was no internet, and games journalism was niche pass-time at best.  Generally people would only know what games were good by word of mouth, or actually playing them.  Every game bought was a spin of the roulette wheel to whether you would get something fun or something awful.  Parents finally got fed up with their children being bored or not playing a freshly purchased game because of poor quality and would stop buying them.  Popular franchise games with recognizable characters like E.T. that parents would know, caused children to shy away from their expensive game consoles.


Another huge problem with licensed games is the audience the game is after.  Back in the 70's and 80's video games were almost exclusively looked at as children's toys.  As a child of the 80's everyone knew the best games were from Nintendo, but games like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Uncanny X-Men with marketing in Nintendo Power and comic books wanted you to think otherwise.  Bombastic images of your favorite characters with slogans like, "Uncanny Action." made the idea of living out the fantasy battles I had with my action figures intoxicating, at least until I played them.  By this point the graphics were sophisticated enough to feature semi-accurate representations of X-Men or Ninja Turtles but the gameplay often left much to be desired, in some cases being almost the opposite of what the license would be about.

For example, the LGN Wolverine game released in 1991 featured the iconic character, but a key element of the gameplay featured Wolverine's ability to sheath and unsheathe his claws.  Wolverine the mutant with the original regenerating health would lose energy if his claws were out.  I can honestly say this was my earliest experience of nerd rage, everyone knew Wolverine could regenerate health, why would energy deplete if his claws were out?  It seemed like games designers would tack on arbitrary rules or restrictions without explanation leading children like me to almost resent their favorite characters.  It seemed like games publishers and license holders alike were content to sell a game based on box art alone with little regard for the product inside.


What would inevitably become the biggest problem in my opinion would be the Faustian pact that publishers and developers make with companies for their character or property.  Developer X wants to make a game featuring popular character Y, that developer has to go to the license holder and pay a substantial licensing fee to use that character.  The license holder then has a stake in the games development including what content is in the game, how the character is portrayed, and that the story is consistent with what the license holder has established.  These licenses inevitably expire leaving developers with a firm time table of production where-in they can make games with character Y.  This leads back in to the rushed development that helped produce games like E.T.


While rushed development can be an issue sometimes the opposite can be a problem, take 2013's Aliens Colonial Marines.  After the rights to publish Aliens games were purchased by Sega in 2006 they immediately announced Colonial Marines for the new generation of consoles.  Gamers wouldn't have a clue there was a problem until 2 years later when it was reported that development had stalled at the Austin based Gearbox Studios.  Colonial Marines would remain silent until 2011 when footage of the game was finally shown.  That footage would later come back to haunt the studio when the game was finally released in 2013.   Gamers and journalist cried foul when whole sections of the game shown in the 2011 footage was cut. Additionally, sections of the game had been completely revamped in the retail release with gameplay being nothing like the original (more impressive) footage.

Both of these complaints pale in comparison to the fact that Colonial Marines was a broken, buggy, glitch filled game.  YouTube videos went up in droves with players capturing enemies and NPC's (Non playable characters) alike being stuck in walls, floors, and walking endlessly into corners like a brain dead zombie.  The finger pointing would commence with Gearbox shuffling blame to Timegate Studios who Gearbox had subcontracted to work on the game, as well as developers Nerve Software and Demiurge Studio who reportedly worked on the games campaign.  The whole ordeal would be chronicled over at with an anonymous whistleblower revealing the drawn out history of the title even further.  It took 4 developers and 8 years to construct a game that scored in the 40's across Metacritic.  Aliens Colonial Marines would be reviewed 112 times with 2 bafflingly positive reviews across PC, Xbox, and PlayStation.  I should note that between Colonial Marines release in 2013 and its announcement in 2006 Gearbox released 12 games including the critical and commercially successful Borderlands and Borderlands 2.


I believe there's a similar attitude by some companies that character X or franchise Y is so popular that the game will sell no matter what.  Take 2003's Enter The Matrix, published ironically enough by Atari.  Enter The Matrix was a 3rd person shooter in a similar vein as the Max Payne series.  In 2003 the Matrix series was still at the height of popularity and gamers eagerly awaited the titles release at their local retailer, myself included.  But upon playing the game it was clear that the rumored troubled development was true because the game was terrible.  After having to restart the first level over 5 times due to glitching into walls I was done with the game.  Just for context Enter The Matrix was a top selling game and reportedly sold over 1 million copies across the US and Europe its first week of release.  Enter The Matrix sits atop a mix of Metacritic reviews with the highest being 85 and the lowest at 30, but the prevailing attitude toward the title was a resounding "Meh".


Today licensed games face new challenges that limit the amount of effort and creativity developers can put into a title.  Games that tie into movies regularly have to be released alongside the film or DVD leaving developers with an even stricter release window.  2006's Superman Returns fell victim to this time table.  Originally to be released alongside the movie in June 2006, EA Tiburon wasn't close to completing the game and would finally see it released in November that year alongside the DVD and poor critical reception.  The licensed game issue is one that continues and will continue into the future.  Recently games like Pacific Rim and the Expendables, which on paper have the potential to be awesome based on their source material, turn out to be garbage.


I think it's important to make the distinction that all licensed games aren't bad, games are regularly farmed out to developers of all skill levels and sizes and results will no doubt vary.  But next time you're playing a game like South Park The Stick of Truth, maybe take a little time to ruminate on what it took for that game to be as good as it is.  I'm sure everyone who plays games can point to a disappointment with a licensed game they played as a child or an adult.  In my local comic shop, (Conquest Comics in Bayville NJ) as I discussed this very topic, patrons threw out games like Top GunSpider-Man 3, and Cliffhanger.  I think it's important that we recognize bad games and if possible avoid them, but what's even more important is recognizing good licensed games and rewarding those developers and license holders with a purchase.

That, dear reader, was my two cents about bad licensed titles. Next time I think we'll chat about good licensed games and put some of the best in the spotlight.  Keep your eyes on Bleeding Cool for my regular columns, Live(ish) From The Games Shop where I tell you about the weeks hot new game releases, and Typing on The Dead where I recap the latest issue of The Walking Dead.  Until next time, stay gold.

Jared Cornelius is some guy from New Jersey's coast who'd license his soul for a cinnamon roll.  If you'd like to make an offer or discuss baked goods, contact him on Twitter @John_Laryngitis

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Hannah Means ShannonAbout Hannah Means Shannon

Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. Independent comics scholar and former English Professor. Writing books on magic in the works of Alan Moore and the early works of Neil Gaiman.
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