Disney's announcement that it is to discontinue its Disney Infinity toys and games and effectively withdraw from game creation and publishing came as a shock this week - an especially unpleasant shock given the 300 jobs to be lost at Disney Infinity's development studio, Avalanche. In the wake of the announcement, a lot of legitimate questions are being asked about the so-called toys-to-life sector. Whether Disney's exit is down to a broad slowdown, or whether it will ease market overcrowding in a sector that remains healthy and vibrant otherwise (as would be suggested, for example, by the continued strength of Nintendo's amiibo sales), is an interesting topic for debate, albeit something that only time will tell.
Looking at a broader sweep of industry history, though, Disney's exit from game publishing feels like punctuation in a much longer sentence. It's not so many years since the entry of companies like Disney, Universal or Warner Bros into the videogames industry was hailed as proof of the industry's maturity and mass-market appeal, and interest from a movie studio was the go-to claim of a games exec trying to drive hype for a new title. For decades, from the 1980s through to the early 2000s, movie tie-in games had been the industry's bread and butter - a trend that reached a high water mark, in hubris and miscalculation if not in sales or acclaim, with 2003's Enter The Matrix, a mediocre tie-in game whose connections to its movie counterpart ran so deep that without playing it, the Matrix sequel movies became even more of an incoherent mess, as the introductions of several major characters had been left up to the game.
"The sense over the past decade has been that most movie executives' understanding of videogames hasn't really moved on from the licensed tie-in era"
I wouldn't go so far as to say that Enter The Matrix caused the retreat from film tie-in titles, but it certainly marked a line in the sand; after years of hype about trans-media franchises that could bridge games, cinema and other media, Enter The Matrix seemed to give plenty of people second thoughts. Straightforward tie-in games were still released, but they've slowed to a trickle; with the exception of the Lego franchise, which plays extremely fast and loose with its IP, it's become rare to see any movie arrive in cinemas with a licensed videogame in tow. When this does happen, it's now a big event, with the game treated as a major release in its own right rather than part of a marketing package; last year's Star Wars Battlefront being a good example of this fairly rare occurrence.
The sense over the past decade, though, has been that most movie executives' understanding of videogames hasn't really moved on from the licensed tie-in era - and that's meant that while movie companies have a strong sense that videogames are a business they need to be in, their understanding of what that requires or what it means has been deeply compromised. On the other side of the divide, that's been met by a welcome boost in the confidence of game companies - no longer overawed by meeting Hollywood execs, game firms have come to recognise that they're at their best when creating their own IP, and that IP originating in games is just as valid and valuable as IP originating elsewhere. Moreover, there's been a recognition - slow in coming but hugely welcome nonetheless - that creating games to tie in with the narrow vision of a movie is a fool's errand for the most part. You can't make a good game by replicating the character and narrative beats of a 2 hour movie; though games can and do provide superb narrative and character development opportunities, they're creatively distinct from those of films, and players demand a degree of freedom, of exploration and expression that intrinsically breaks the passive-audience model of movie creation.
"What that means, in practice, is that games creators are at their best working with their own IP"
What that means, in practice, is that games creators are at their best working with their own IP - and that in the past decade, the only times that movie or other franchise IP has really worked in games has been when the IP holder has taken their hands off the reins and allowed a game studio to seriously play around in the world of the franchise. Rocksteady's Batman games work precisely because they're divorced from the contemporaneous Christopher Nolan movie trilogy, and even from any specific arcs of the character's comics background; they delve into all kinds of different sources, plundering deeply from the character's past and inventing new things along the way, building a game that's a unique take on the franchise and unrelated to anything Warner Bros' film studios were working on at the time. The same can be said of Shadow of Mordor, which works precisely because it's so removed - temporally and geographically - from anything that's been explored in depth in the Lord of the Rings movies or books. The Lego games mentioned above are also, of course, noted for their playful approach to their source material.
This is the kind of approach that was forbidden to game creators for years. The old model for developing a game with a licensed IP involved immense involvement from the movie studio, which would have a right of veto over almost everything. Game studios in this era made a big deal of how closely they were working with the film directors, the script writers and even the cast of the movie - none of whom, of course, actually knew the first thing about videogames - and the greatest badge of honour a licensed game could claim was "authenticity", hewing closely to its movie origins. No wonder most of them sucked! The success of games like the Arkham series and Shadow of Mordor owes a great deal to the slackening of those reins and the granting of creative freedom to talented teams - but this is far from being an easy thing for Hollywood studios to do, as it relies on a willingness to hand the keys to a very valuable kingdom to a third party and trust them to make judgment calls quite different from those the movie studio is making.
"just as game companies no longer fall over themselves with excitement at the idea of working on movie IP, they also aren't prepared to license their game IP to movie-makers without being very careful about it"
What we've seen, then, is the emergence of a much more taciturn and carefully negotiated relationship between movies and games. On rare but notable occasions, studios work with a developer they trust to build out a game using licensed IP but straying far from the movies' ken - Arkham, Mordor, the Lego games or even, to some degree, Star Wars titles. Otherwise, it's hands-off; movies don't generally become games any more, even movies which might have been an incredibly obvious tie-in game smash hit in the past (like Disney's Marvel Studios movies). In the other direction, too, things have become more circumspect. The era of Uwe Boll's cheap videogame tie-in movies is past; just as game companies no longer fall over themselves with excitement at the idea of working on movie IP, they also aren't prepared to license their game IP to movie-makers without being very careful about it. The potential of game IP in movie format remains contested (if turning a linear two hour experience into a worthwhile game is tough, shoving a great game experience into the constraints of a two hour movie is unimaginably tougher), but this year will see two high budget, heavily promoted efforts with big headline stars in the form of World of Warcraft and Assassin's Creed. If they fail, that's likely to signal a further phase in this gradual divorce between games and movies, and another rethink of how IP from one medium can or can't work in the other.
In this broader context, Disney's move away from games is part of something that's been developing for some time. Disney says it will now focus on licensing its IP, and with any luck, that means that it's recognised that attempts to give fine-grained control of game development to people from the movie industry is a fool's errand; instead, Disney's enviable library of IP (which, let's not forget, includes Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar) should be handed out at arm's length to trusted, talented developers, who are allowed to play within these fantastic worlds without having to worry too much about bumping up against the hard edges of a movie director's vision. Games and movies still have much to learn from each other in many areas, but they are following different, independent paths, and the disentangling of the two industries is an inevitable consequence of that.