How good do Licensed Games have to be?

Licensed games have been a thing since the beginning of video games. We’ve seen all kinds of IP (Intellectual Property) get the licensed video game treatment — from the infamous E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Atari game to the amazing Disney’s Aladdin games for SNES and Sega Genesis.

As a kid I bought tons of licensed games, many of which were horrible. I will say that 99% of movie tie-in specific games have ranked anywhere from terrible to unplayable, and there’s one reason why: Anytime a specific movie license was picked up by a game studio it probably went something like this:

Studio CEO: We have acquired this mega IP. Let’s turn it into an awesome game!

Game Developer: Cool, I love that IP.

Studio CEO: Great! Also, you have two months until the movie comes out.
They want the game release to tie-in to the movie.

Licensed Games Today

Many licensed games used to be more of a cash grab. A way to get dumb kids (like me) to buy crappy games starring their favorite characters. This formula wouldn’t fly today like it did back then for a couple of reasons.
(1) Gamers are more well-informed today. We have tons of websites, streamers and so many ways to research a game pre- and post-launch. Problematic games become memes now. Look at what happened to Cyberpunk 2077.

Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales (PS5)

(2) Many of the people working on these games today actually care about the property. Maybe not for every single licensed game, but for games like Marvel’s Spider-Man, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and even some of Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy games, you can tell that those teams actually care about honoring the source material. What used to be a rush job is now something more honorable for developers.

(3) We’ve also seen a departure from games that are direct tie-ins to movies or shows. A game like Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order worked so well because it brought you into this familiar Star Wars Universe, but introduced a brand new character, Cal Kestis. It also takes place during a very specific, important time period for Star Wars fans (right after Order 66). In the game you also run into some well-known and established characters.

Insomniac made a Spider-Man game while Spider-Man was in his third iteration on the big screen (Tom Holland). They introduced gamers to an older Peter Parker, going through different struggles and challenges. We even got to see some familiar villains from the Spider-Man universe.

Marvel Guardians of the Galaxy

Marvel Guardians of the Galaxy (PS5)

I’m currently playing through Marvel Guardians of the Galaxy and this is definitely a good game, but is it a great or outstanding game to me? I’m not sure yet. I’m about halfway through, maybe a bit less, and I’m really enjoying the story, gameplay and mechanics.

I have run into many strange hiccups in the game and it’s a bit unpolished at times. However, I love the characters and story. I did hear people complain about the overuse of the word “flark” (mainly by Rocket) and maybe it wouldn’t have bothered me so much if I hadn’t heard others complain before picking up the game.

I love playing as Star-Lord and controlling the other Guardians through commands. That’s a very cool mechanic. During the first gameplay reveal I remember them mentioning that we would only play as Star-Lord and I was a bit let down by that. After playing the game I can say that was the right decision. Of course, playing as Groot would be super fun and weird, but for this specific game it works better this way.

There are a few wonky bits in this game. Any time I tell Drax or one of the Guardians to complete a task, instead of walking through your line of vision they just miraculously appear in the task area and do it. There are other strange technical problems I’ve run into, but overall nothing that truly ruined my time with the game.

The game also features a killer classic rock soundtrack. Instead of featuring the music from James Gunn’s Awesome Mixtape Vol 1 and 2, I like that the team created their own awesome mixtape. The whole “huddle” mechanic was nice the first two times, but after that it’s always the same — choose between two pep talks. The good thing about the huddle is once you’re done you get to listen to some of the “awesome” music while you fight.

IP Boost?

My main question after thinking about all of these games is — Do licensed games get a small pass in game quality when compared to a brand new IP? Even when I was playing Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order I did run into many technical problems, but I let it slide because I was playing this really cool Star Wars game — as a Jedi!

Ghost of Tsushima (PS5)

When games like Ghost of Tsushima and Horizon: Zero Dawn first come out, they have to work a little harder to get some attention. I’m not saying licensed games can suck and be a hit, they just have that extra push from fans who just want a chance to play in this world they already enjoy.

Both of those titles (Ghost and Horizon) had the backing of PlayStation’s marketing team to help them grow a fanbase before release, but there are plenty of indie games and smaller titles released every day that have to compete against bigger licensed and unlicensed games. Every time I check the Nintendo eShop I look at the recent releases first and what stands out at first glance are games with familiar names.

Licensing can also help bring new fans to an existing genre. For instance, I’ve tried to play XCOM 2 multiple times, but couldn’t get into it. Early next year, Firaxis (the team behind XCOM 2) will release Marvel’s Midnight Suns using a similar battle system to the XCOM series. Although I could never get into the XCOM games, I am still excited to give Marvel’s Midnight Suns a chance.

The Steamworld franchise has also had me try different types of genres from turn-based tactical shooter Steamworld Heist to the turn-based deck building RPG Steamworld Quest. And now, I can’t wait to see what Steamworld Headhunter will be.

Up Next?

I don’t think we need more (or less) licensed games. I think it’s good to have a healthy mix of both — licensed and brand new IP games. I’m just glad that our licensed games of today are being handled with much more care than before. As I’ve said before, I hope to see big licenses like Star Wars and Marvel team up with more indie game developers.

We’ve recently seen some new League of Legends Story games that feature characters and the world of League of Legends, but these games are being made by smaller indie teams. They’re taking these characters into all-new genres and worlds. While League of Legends is one of the biggest Free-to-Play MOBAs around the world, it’s cool that they are making games for people like me who can’t get into MOBAs.

I’m excited to see which new strange places we see licensed games head towards in the future.

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