License To Thrill: Why Licensed Games Are On The Rise

Quick, what’s the worst video game ever?  I’ll give you a second….OK, what did you come up with?  Superman 64?  E.T., perhaps, or maybe Shaq Fu?  Note that Make My Video is also an acceptable answer.  One thing these games all have in common, besides being notoriously awful, is the fact that they are all based on another intellectual property.  In other words, they are all licensed games.

The stigma surrounding licensed games is certainly nothing new.  E.T. is the first, and perhaps most dramatic, example of why it exists in the first place.  Atari assumed, correctly, that people would buy a video game based off E.T. because…well, just because.  Who cares if it’s good?  It’s freaking E.T.  People can’t get enough of the little bugger.  And what happened to him?  He is rumored to be buried in a landfill with hundreds of thousands of copies of his unsold game.

For the uninitiated, he’s the blocky looking thing.


As the industry learned the valuable lesson that people won’t always buy crap just because it has a name attached, some semblance of quality finally entered the battlefield.  Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out proved that not all big names have to promote awful games.  The Super Nintendo/Genesis era played host to a number of decent licensed games like  Aladdin and Chip ‘N Dale: Rescue Rangers, but for every one of these gems, somebody else was making the next Warlock or Star Wars: Masters of Teras Kasi.  That game literally frightens my children, and I don’t even have kids.

The move into 3D may have been a boon to the 3D platformer and RPG genres, but licensed games took a seat directly in the mediocre section.  Most seemed content with the quick cash grab resulting from name recognition, and in a way, it’s easy to see their evil CEO logic.  It cost money to make good games.  However, people aren’t buying licensed titles based on their quality, they are buying them because they love The Lion King (or whatever).  So once they buy it, it doesn’t matter if its good or not, they have already given away their money.

Looks good. Roll it out.


This went on for a while.  The rise of the PlayStation signified a shift in the industry, one that was leading to better games, bigger marketing budgets and an overall “growing up” for the business of video games.  Through it all, though, licensed titles were cashing in on the same formula.  Sure an anomaly like Goldeneye 64 could pop up every now and again, but for the most part we were stuck with a string of movie tie-ins that were at best mediocre, and at worst feature Fred Durst beating up a digitized Jared Leto.  I mean, I’d like to see that, but trust me, its totally not worth it.

But then something started happening.  Incredible titles like The Warriors, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and The Walking Dead (you know the one) started showing that hey, video games don’t have to suck just because they are based on an external property.  There is actually a right way to do this.

It isn’t easy, but the best licensed games capture the essence of the source material while optimizing it for an interactive experience.  Sure, Batman: Arkham City would be a great game still if it was just a generic superhero IP, but Rocksteady delivered the best of both worlds: a game that could be enjoyed by fans of video games and fans of Batman.  If you happen to like both (although I’ll be honest, what sort of crazy person likes video games and Batman?  That’s akin to liking peanut butter and jelly.), then its win/win.

I’m sorry. What were we talking about?


That is the strength of licensing.  It allows you to pull in people that wouldn’t otherwise give your game a second thought.  If you can deliver a great game that also attracts customers with its critical success, you have a unique edge that can be taken advantage of.  In my lifetime, I’ve seen licensed games go from literal landfill fodder to GOTY material.  Now that developers are utilizing the properties as successful avenues to game development, instead of greedy get rich quick schemes, the sky truly is the limit for what we  will see next.