TV Editor Tom Stone explores the history of licensed games and whether they are nothing but cash-grabs
The relationship between video games and popular brands goes back to the inception of the interactive medium. So long as there have been people exchanging money in return for an engaging video game experience, there have been companies looking for ways to cross-promote and build up brand value around intellectual properties of various kinds. Perhaps the most infamous of the arcade-era was E.T. the Extra Terrestrial that was blamed for the collapse of the gaming industry in 1983. But have things changed?
2022 and 2023 have both been excellent years for game releases. Finally, releases like Elden Ring, God of War Ragnarok, Baldur’s Gate 3, and Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 have demonstrated the effectiveness of well made interactive narratives beyond the ‘live-service’ model that has characterised the last decade of business in the industry.
Simultaneously, the connection between production companies and wider commercial businesses have been as active as ever. Especially through the role of free-to-play battle royales like Fortnite and Call of Duty Warzone that have incorporated brand deals and exclusive events in aid of promoting other products. These take advantage of the mass appeal, often younger audience, and free-to-play nature of these platforms for pushing brands into the limelight.
Free-to-play models have often been the focus of cash-in titles, as these can get away with being lower quality whilst capitalising on addictive microtransaction purchases. Recent examples are evident in Disney Speedstorm, or The Lord of the Rings: Heroes of Middle Earth mobile game, proving to be generally mediocre.
Or, more bizarrely, in the 2019 Game of Thrones Winter is Coming in-browser game, that was so loosely connected to its source material that its ‘official’ status seemed like some kind of satire. This year, however, has seen two of the most confounding full-price releases in recent memory: The Lord of the Rings: Gollum and Skull Island: Rise of Kong.
Both of these games, initially priced between £40-£60, are drawing on huge intellectual properties, sporting multi-million dollar film franchises, TV shows and comics, and yet are hilariously awful. In both cases, small studios with limited development time were saddled with what should have been left to a more experienced and better-funded studio (just look at the success of Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 under Insomniac). The final products contain bare-bones gameplay, limited narrative (barely existent in Rise of Kong), alpha-stage glitches and bugs, and an insulting lack of graphical fidelity; which for Gollum saw an evident downgrade in relation to its trailer.
It is almost forgivable, and worthy of a few tired sighs and eye rolls, to see awful cash-in games under the free-to-play model, but what sets these apart is the complete disconnect between the assumed value of the brand name, and the reality of the product being sold . . . at full price . . . on current-gen consoles!
One look at GameMill’s website (the publisher of Rise of Kong) tells you all you need to know. Their emphasis is first and foremost on wrangling high value property rights for low costs, followed by the claim that they work with high-class developers to “navigate the landscape of licensors.” It should be no surprise that the licensing emphasis is really the only thing that carries through in their business-model.
Despite some mediocre successes in Nick Kart Racers 3 or Nickelodeon All Star Brawl, their overall ability to turn deals into valuable interactive media is evidently delusional. Considering the mostly negative scores for Rise of Kong and its absence from their website, the notion of producing “hit games” is not quite in accordance with reality.
In this context the recent and most egregious rip-off projects are more evidence of businesses that could not care less about what is being made, so long as it has checked the right boxes in terms of name and price-tag. It is almost as though the managers organising these property deals only see the title and assume that games just manifest spontaneously with their popularity ensured.
Despite this, the number of recent games clearly aimed at actual players and not abstract numbers of faceless consumers lends some comfort – there are still plenty of things worth spending money on for a valuable experience at the end. The silver lining to the aforementioned examples is that the more flagrant companies get with their exploitation the easier it is to spot and the easier it is to avoid!
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