Are licensed games actually getting better? | This Week in Business
We put a bit of conventional wisdom to the test and find it doesn't quite reflect what's actually going on
This Week in Business is our weekly recap column, a collection of stats and quotes from recent stories presented with a dash of opinion (sometimes more than a dash) and intended to shed light on various trends. Check back every Friday for a new entry.
Earlier this week, we ran an interview with Atomic Arcade GM Ames Kirshen that was pretty firmly premised on some conventional wisdom in games: Licensed games used to be terrible in some unspecified previous era, but they're much better now.
That's certainly Kirshen's view. And given his decades of work with Warner Bros, DC, and Marvel on gaming adaptations of comic book licenses, and his current gig working on a new game starring the G.I. Joe character Snake Eyes, he would seem to be a domain expert on the quality of licensed titles.
But the track record on conventional wisdom isn't exactly flawless and even experts can be wrong, so let's try to test the idea a bit.
Given the subjective nature of whether or not any given game is good, it's an impossible thing to actually prove. But it feels right, doesn't it? Acclaim going out of business almost single-handedly makes it a defensible claim, and the very existence of Insomniac's Spider-Man games practically makes it a slam dunk.
But when people talk about licensed games having been terrible in the past, the first thing I think of is all the exceptions, many of which are so cherished they get re-licensed, re-released, and even remade on a semi-regular basis. Aladdin, Duck Tales, Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, Konami's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, X-Men, and The Simpsons arcade games, just about everyone's Batman games were good back then...
I also think about some licensed stinkers I've played on modern consoles, games that accurately replicated the look and perhaps sound of the source material, but failed to reproduce the key appeal of it.
So let's poke around at this idea that licensed games are getting better and see if it withstands a little scrutiny, much as we did when asking whether Electronic Arts made better Wii games than Nintendo, or if the "Fewer, Bigger, Better" trend in games actually led to fewer titles, and if they are any better.
As in those columns, we're going to use Metacritic averages as a rough proxy for quality. Yes, that's a deeply flawed way to measure the quality of a given thing for a host of reasons, but it's at least consistently flawed and there are going to be a load of caveats here anyway. I'm just indulging curiosity here, not looking to get published in a peer-reviewed journal with a respectable impact factor.
To that end, I looked at the top 100 games from each year since 2000. We would have gone back further, but Metacritic doesn't even have 100 games with enough reviews to get an average score before that. Also, Metacritic only includes games with a minimum of 7 critic reviews in these lists, so there may be titles with worse scores that just didn't get enough critical attention to appear in the numbers.
Be that as it may, if licensed games really are getting better, it stands to reason that we should see more of them among the very best reviewed games each year. (Yes, tallying up and averaging every last licensed game review from the past couple decades would probably be a more effective way to answer this question, but this is a weekly column, I have other stories to write, and my curiosity on the issue only runs so deep.)
There's also the question of what counts as a licensed game here. This required some judgment calls, and in those cases I'm trying my best to stick to the type of games that are at the heart of that narrative about licensed games getting better. To that end, I'm limiting the definition to games that were based on properties that were popular in other media, and the license is a key part of the appeal.
I'm also ejecting sports, racing, and flight sim games from the discussion because they have never really shared the terrible reputation that licensed titles have had over the years. To the contrary, they've been well-received mainstays in video games basically since video games existed. (One exception in the sports world is pro wrestling games, which I will count in this exercise because it's not really a sport, they're sold on colorful characters and storylines as much as any licensed title, and the genre absolutely had a terrible track record of adaptation over a long stretch of time.)
Requiring the license to be a key part of the game's appeal means that Call of Duty doesn't count, even if it uses authentic licensed weapons. Soulcalibur and Mortal Kombat don't count no matter how many cameos from Star Wars characters or movie monsters they cram in there. And at the risk of upsetting bibliophiles, Metro and The Witcher don't count because they largely served as the gaming audience's introduction to those worlds; the license was marketed as an incidental assurance that the world and narrative would be good rather than an attempt to capitalize on the existing familiarity and fanbase.
However, requiring the license to be a key part of the appeal also means that a game like Nickelodeon Kart Racing counts, despite it being a racing title.
I'm also leaving out rhythm games like Just Dance and Rock Band. Their appeal may be 100% dependent on licensing, but it's not like Steely Dan fans endured disappointment after disappointment waiting for "Dirty Work" to be done justice in the realm of interactive entertainment.
And after much deliberation, Tom Clancy games don't count either. I waffled on this for a while because replicating the Clancy tone and vibe did seem to be a key part of the appeal for those titles, but the successful games carrying the name were pretty far removed from the novel and movie adaptations, and it's a gaming brand unto itself now. Or a brand unto Ubisoft, as the publisher permanently acquired the rights to his name in games in 2008.
Even more edge cases that wouldn't make the cut: Spyhunter: Nowhere to Run (based on the never-released movie starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), anything based on public domain characters like Van Helsing and Sherlock Holmes.
And some edge cases that I ultimately decided would count: Anything Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop/board game adaptations, America's Army: True Soldiers, Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn, Rogue Warrior (starring U.S. Navy SEAL Richard "Demo Dick" Marcinko).
Licensed games in the top 100
Let's do this. We all know licensed games are great now, so let's take a look at how they choked up the list of the top 100 best-reviewed games of 2021.
STAT | 1 - The number of licensed games in Metacritic's top 100 best-reviewed games of 2021: Guardians of the Galaxy, which was 95th.
Ok, that's not great. 2021 was weird for all kinds of reasons though, so maybe it's just an outlier. Let's look at 2020.
STAT | 3 - The number of licensed games in Metacritic's top 100 best-reviewed games of 2020: two versions of Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales and the PC version of Cyberpunk 2077.
I'm almost afraid to ask, but what does 2019 have?
STAT | 4 - The number of licensed games in Metacritic's top 100 best-reviewed games of 2019: two versions of the anime adaptation Steins;Gate Elite, Star Wars Pinball on the Switch, and The Walking Dead: The Telltale Definitive Series.
It turns out most years since 2000 see single digits of licensed games in the top 100 chart. And for every Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor or Batman: Arkham City that serves as an example of the kind of well-received licensed game that's supposedly so much more common today, there's a Zen Studios licensed pinball game (six of them since 2010), a Steins;Gate entry (four since 2014 taking up five spots thanks to the aforementioned multiplatform Steins;Gate Elite), or a Telltale Games title.
2019 wasn't the only year where those three categories accounted for all of the licensed games in the top 100. It also happened in 2013, when Star Wars Pinball: Balance of the Force, Pinball FX2: Star Wars Pinball, and The Wolf Among Us: Episode 1 (two platforms) made up the only four licensed games in the top 100.
So which year saw the most licensed games in the top 100?
STAT | 14 - The number of licensed games taking up spots in Metacritic's top 100 best-reviewed games for 2012.
Technically that's true, but if you look at the games that made up those 14 entries, you might think it maybe deserves an asterisk.
- The Walking Dead: A Telltale Game Series (two platforms)
- The Walking Dead Episode 5 (three platforms)
- The Walking Dead Episode 3 (three platforms)
- The Walking Dead Episode 2 (three platforms)
- The Walking Dead: Episode 1
- Pinball FX 2: Marvel Pinball: Avengers Chronicles
- Batman: Arkham City: Armored Edition for Wii U
All due respect to a Game of the Year award winner, but one excellent game releasing in multiplatform episodic fashion doesn't really speak to the question as to whether licensed games on the whole are getting better.
So let's take a look at the next-best year for licensed games and see if there are any asterisks there.
STAT | 13 - The number of licensed games taking up spots in Metacritic's top 100 best-reviewed games for 2006.
- Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War - Dark Crusade
- Kingdom Hearts 2
- Lego Star Wars 2: Original Trilogy (five platforms)
- The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-Earth 2
- Marvel: Ultimate Alliance (three platforms)
- Super Robot Taisen: Original Generation 2
- Neverwinter Nights 2
That's a pretty good spread of licenses right there, and only one could really be considered a straight movie adaptation of any sort (and even that was an adaptation of decades-old films). The current trend is for licensed games to eschew direct movie tie-ins in favor of creating a unique game-specific version of the property from the ground up, but this list shows plenty of evidence of that happening before Batman: Arkham Asylum arrived on the scene.
But let's step back to look for an overall trend. Here's a map of the peaks and valleys we tracked.
It's messy, for sure. And the numbers are low enough that one licensed title on four or five platforms can turn a bad year into one of the best. But one conclusion the numbers don't support is that we're experiencing some kind of golden age of licensed games, at least not relative to the quality of the rest of games on offer.
We can see that even in the best of years, we can only expect a handful of relatively high quality licensed titles, and given the recurring prevalence of Steins;Gate and pinball in there, those games may not even be all that high profile.
Licensed games in the bottom 100
But if we're supposed to be looking at licensed games and their reputation for being wretched, why are we focused at the top of the charts? How many licensed titles are there among the 100 worst reviewed games on Metacritic each year?
STAT | 13 - The number of licensed games taking up spots in Metacritic's bottom 100 worst-reviewed games for 2021
Well, that's a lot more than the single licensed game in the top 100 last year. It was a particularly bad year for pen-and-paper RPG spin-offs as Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Necromunda: Hired Gun, and Dungeons & Dragons Dark Alliance each took up three spots on the bottom 100 thanks to their multiplatform mediocrity.
Even so, that was a pretty good year as far as cellar-dwelling licensed fare went, as we could see when tracing the trends from previous years.
The '00s were rough when it came to licensed games. Just look at 2007, when a whopping 48 of the 100 worst reviewed games of the year were licensed. We're talking The Golden Compass and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Surfer on five platforms each. We're talking Deal or No Deal, Aqua Teen Hunger Force Zombie Ninja Pro-Am, John Deere: Harvest in the Heartland, Shrek-n-Roll.
Napoleon Dynamite: The Game. On two platforms.
Clearly, we have a very different games industry on our hands these days. And I think that's much better reflected by this chart of the bottom 100. There are certainly peaks and valleys, good years and bad years for licensed games here, but it breaks down very clearly between one era from 2000-2010 and another from 2011-2021.
In the earlier era, we had dedicated portables that were inexpensive to develop for: GameBoy Advance, DS, PSP. We had a massive expansion of the gaming audience led by the DS and the Wii, two platforms that quickly became oversaturated with low quality games, many of which relied on a license to stand out from the crowed. Digital distribution was a nascent technology, so retailers, publishers, and platform holders acted as gatekeepers to the audience; having a license guaranteed a certain level of awareness and could open doors that might otherwise be closed.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, a lot of these factors dissipated. Smartphones and tablets had lower development costs and higher potential payoffs, so many developers and licenses we would have expected to see on portables migrated over to mobile and out of the gaming press' focus; only five licensed games even received enough reviews to meet the criteria for inclusion in the top 100 last year. The Wii and its motion-controlling cousins fizzled out, while increasing development costs on HD platforms raised the initial investment required to turn out even a modest licensed game on consoles. And in more recent years, license-holders increasingly seen how much easier and more reliable it is to have a seasonal cross-over with a proven live service game than to risk building a game from scratch.
At the same time, the indie gold rush happened and we saw a proliferation of games of all kinds, so even if the number of licensed games was staying steady, they were making up a smaller part of the market and bound to be less well-represented at both ends of the spectrum.
STAT | 968 - The number of games to receive at least seven critic reviews on Metacritic in 2021.
STAT | 546 - The number of games to receive at least seven critic reviews on Metacritic in 2001, its first full year of operation.
Having gone through all these lists, I can anecdotally tell you that there are a lot more wholly original indie games at both the top and bottom of the spectrum now than ever before. I admittedly haven't gone through the hundreds of other games in the mushy middle of these review scores -- where licensed games could well be over-represented by a bevy of 7 out of 10 "fans of the series will like it" reviews -- but my general sense is that the category of licensed games that formerly had a bad reputation and are in the midst of a Renaissance are actually just not as noticeable as they used to be.
So what did we learn, if anything?
I don't think licensed games are necessarily getting better across the board, and I don't think they're getting any worse relative to the rest of the industry, either. It's just that when they are fewer and further between, it only takes a handful of strong licensed Game of the Year candidates like Batman Arkham Asylum, Marvel's Spider-Man, and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor to shift perceptions when we're not seeing MTV Celebrity Deathmatch, Jackass The Game, and six different versions of Iron Man like we used to.
The Metacritic score cutoff for making the top 100 in 2021 was 84. The bottom 100 was 61. In 2001, it took an 84 to make the top 100 and a 59 to be in the bottom 100. Those cutoffs waver here and there, but have been mostly consistent over the years. If licensed games were uniquely bad and they represent a smaller chunk of the industry today, I might expect those numbers to have shifted more.
But maybe the ceiling for how good a licensed game can be is just higher? Well, I would basically agree with that, but only in the sense that modern technology and the evolution of game design sensibilities have allowed them to be better.
Licensed games have been winning Game of the Year awards since there were Game of the Year awards. Electronic Games magazine named Superman for the Atari 2600 the 1979 console game of the year. Ocean Software's adaptation of The Untouchables won the 8-bit computer game of the year at the 1989 Golden Joystick Awards. Goldeneye on the N64 won the first ever Game of the Year awards from BAFTA and the DICE Awards.
Looking through this makes me think licensed games are no better or worse than ever, relative to their contemporaries. But in the same way Breath of the Wild's Hyrule or The Elder Scrolls' Skyrim are more engrossing and vibrant worlds for some people than the NES Hyrule or Daggerfall, perhaps people just find it easier to get swept up in a licensed game that can reproduce the brands they love with greater fidelity and adherence to the heart of the source material.
Oh, and one more fun thing I found going through all this.
STAT | 2 - The number of games to appear in Metacritic's Top 100 and Bottom 100 for the same year since 2000.
That dubious honor first went to Lego Star Wars 2: The Original Trilogy in 2005, which got top marks on the PC, Xbox, PS2, GameCube, and PSP, but the buggy DS edition was excoriated to the tune of a 47 average.
Cyberpunk 2077 would repeat the feat in 2020, with the PC version CD Projekt provided to reviewers averaging an 86 among 92 critic reviews, while 38 outlets that went to the trouble of getting the PS4 version at launch -- they had to be quick if they were getting it digitally because Sony pulled it from sale a week after launch -- thumped it with a 57 average.
The rest of the week in review
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