Video games have brought us some of the most original stories and iconic characters in pop culture history over the years. Whether a person is rescuing Princess Peach as Mario, scouring the world for treasure as Nathan Drake, or protecting the galaxy from alien threats as the Master Chief, gamers have been able to place themselves into the shoes of someone they’ve never known and experience their stories firsthand. For as many original games as there are however, there are just as many–if not more–licensed games.
A licensed game is a game that is based off of a pre-existing property. These games take things like comics, movies, toys, and so on and try to make interactive experiences out of them. If you have ever played a game based on Batman, or one of the multitude of Lego games out there, you’ve played a licensed game. These games can serve a few different purposes, the most common of which is to capitalize on either the brand itself or on a new release from the brand. On paper, this seems foolproof. A new movie is coming out? Give it a game! This toyline is super popular? Give it a game! What could possibly go wrong?
More than you’d expect, actually.
The internet is rife with stories about bad licensed games, with everything from the infamous 1999 train wreck Superman 64 to more recent flops like Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric (yes, this was a licensed game. It was based on the TV show, not the other way around, surprisingly!). These and other licensed games are throttled by their awful controls, terrible gameplay mechanics, and horrible (if existent at all) stories.
That’s not to say that all of these kinds of games are bad, of course. Goldeneye, Dragon Ball Z Budokai, and even Kingdom Hearts are licensed games, and they’ve got a lot of clout and praise to them. So why is there such a divide between good and bad licensed games? Let’s take a look at two games with vastly different receptions and see what makes them tick.
Think about the different games The Walking Dead has spawned. There are a good number of mobile and web-based games, but two “proper” games are the most known: The Walking Dead (TWD), a Telltale point-and-click adventure game, and Survival Instinct, a first person shooter/action game made by Terminal Reality and published by Activision. Telltale’s TWD takes the world of the comic book and expands upon it with both new and old characters, and an original storyline taking place before the events of the comic. Survival Instinct takes players into the life of the character Daryl Dixon from the TV show, showing how he made it to the point he and his brother, Merle were at in the first season of the show. Telltale’s TWD is praised to high heaven, while Survival Instinct languishes in bargain bins everywhere. What makes these games so different?
Telltale’s TWD has a lot of effort put into it from both a story standpoint and technical standpoint. Its plot is multifaceted, with a lot of options and different experiences that can go into every play session, as is usually the case with a point-and-click game. These options are deep and immersive with most of the choices actually holding some emotional weight to them. It’s not a simple matter of knowing which choices to make to get the “best” experience; every choice defines how the game’s story progresses in numerous branching paths. The game runs well, and the graphics and fluidity of the game work really well in both emulating the style of the comic and in keeping the product from falling apart. The episodes the game is broken up into makes the story feel like an actual serial comic, and the characters have a multitude of dimensions to them.
Telltale cared a lot about the source material, and didn’t care about tying it in with any major event going on in the comics. They just wanted to make an engaging experience in the world of The Walking Dead.
Survival Instinct on the other hand, has some issues. To its credit, the story of the game does have at least a minor amount of effort put into it. It does try to make you sympathize with the characters, and it has some kind of an arc to it that is very much in the vein of the show. The zombies themselves are one of the best parts of the game, in terms of both graphics and AI. However, the rest of the game simply just does not hold up that well. Characters phase in and out of other objects, and the environment and character models both look like they’re from the very early days of the Xbox and PS2. The characters tend to be very one-dimensional and the survivor management system comes off as more of a chore than a way to understand and engage with the cast of the game. However, the voice acting is somewhat of a saving grace. The actual actors for Daryl and Merle were brought on to voice the characters in the game. Other characters are serviceable, but no one outside of those two are particularly memorable. Additionally, the game wasn’t even in its full state at launch because the publisher, Activision, locked content on the disc to sell piecemeal as DLC.
Survival Instinct came out around the same time that the third season of the television show was wrapping up, so it feels very rushed — as if it were trying to meet an arbitrary “synergy” deadline. Terminal Reality went under not too long after the game’s release, so this push to “tie in” with the source product led to both the death of a company and a mediocre game. They cared enough to make the game, but not enough to make it good.
What separates a good licensed game from a bad one varies pretty wildly. In cases like Telltale’s TWD and Survival Instinct, it can be a mix of how much effort is put into making a good game — not just a good tie-in product and the amount of time spent developing the game. This may not always be the case, as there are plenty of licensed games with a long development cycle that turn out awful, and plenty with a short turnaround but great returns.
In the end, I feel a good licensed game comes from a love of the source material, plenty of time to work on it, and effort put into making a good game first and a good spinoff last.
If you’ve got your own ideas on that, feel free to let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from you guys.