Movie tie-ins, sports titles, TV shows on your desktop. Licenses seem to have a death grip on the videogame industry. Whether it's Jack Bauer running around to the sound of a ticking clock, or the latest NFL game, licenses make games easier to sell.
Licensed games are the ones that keep you up at night before they release, but let you sleep soundly once you have them. Welcome to the wonderful world of marketing.
An informal survey of my bloated videogame shelf reveals eight licensed titles, well below a fifth of the total, and all of them sports titles. Yet, when I stop to think about the games I am eagerly anticipating, at least half of them carry major non-videogame labels.
It's always this way. I first got into the "religiously follow a game umpteen times before an uncertain launch" community with Middle Earth Online, which obviously never came to be. Since then, I've followed all sorts of licensed and non-licensed games, both as a fan and a journalist. Yet, for a myriad of reasons, I never seem to buy them.
The biggest reason may be their tendency to get cancelled. It's hard to make a game when you have to worry only about your own crazy ideas. It's damn near impossible when your crazy ideas need to go through a licensing board who know nothing about videogames. Then comes the rush to get them out to coincide with the book, film, game or show they're based on.
Let me regale you with the true story of a game based on a license. In the interests of secrecy, I have omitted any names. A developer is in need of a project and knows some higher ups at a big entertainment company. That big company has an important date three months out when a product will hit the market. To promote that product, they want a videogame. The developers, desperate, claim they can deliver the world in three months. (Developers, stop snickering.)
So what do they do? They take an engine demo, reskin it for the theme of the license they've secured and shove it out the door. To their credit, they did make a game - in the loosest sense of the word - in three months. The problem was that it made no sense, was terribly tested, had fun bugs like non-existent textures and a host of other issues. Thanks to its license, it doesn't even slide quietly into bargain-bin oblivion. Instead, it goes down like a ball of flames, being reviewed at record low levels all the way. The game tanked, but the developers achieved their deadline and the IP release in question had a game to go with it.
This is one example of the crap some game companies are forced to spit out in the name of a license. While extreme, having played some of the movie, book and TV tie-in games that hit the shelves, I have to wonder if it is really as uncommon as one might think. Fairly or not, I mentally discount any game that launches simultaneously with the major product that dragged it along. Most of the time they're terrible, and the bulk of those that were good had either an extremely long incubation period - such as being based on a movie trilogy - or actually slipped their launch much later than the product they're based on.