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Heroes and Villains

Are superhero licenses really gold dust for the games industry?

With Spider-Man 3 at the top of both the movie and videogame charts, it seems that the symbiotic relationship between big movie franchises and the games industry is tighter than ever, and seemingly mutually beneficial.

As a still relatively young sector of the entertainment industry, the games industry seems to be benefiting in these instances from the reflected glow from the 'old' media in Hollywood, with its high public profile and vast advertising budgets.

Arguably, this is as mainstream as it gets, and the synergy between the two media are to be applauded if they raise the profile, and the potential profits, of the games industry as a whole.

Superhero movies, more even than less fantastical action blockbusters like Die Hard or Mission Impossible, are a particularly rich source of ideas for games to tap into. A lot of the appeal of games comes from their ability to give the player the sense of doing something outside the ordinary, to provide access to experiences unavailable in the real world.

The most successful lead characters in games are fantasy figures that can do things beyond the norm - Sonic can attain incredible speeds, Solid Snake can snap necks with his bare hands, Lara Croft can perform amazing acrobatic feats while shooting monsters at the same time. Every superhero is a tick list of desirable things to do in games, a bundle of appealing power-ups - flight, agility, enhanced fighting skills, laser vision. The appeal to consumers of getting to play with these powers is obvious.

Couple this with the high recognition of the major superheroes in the mainstream, and it adds up to licensing gold dust for the games industry. Aside from the elite of sportspeople, there are virtually no identification figures in fact or fiction more potent than the major superhero characters. Superheroes also have the twin advantages over their real life rivals of wider geographical recognition and longevity, which make them safer bets for licensing. Sportsmen may be recognised in their home countries or even continents, but Superman is recognised across the world - and he's also not going to be stuck with a sudden loss of form, retire in his mid-thirties or suffer a career-destroying injury.

No wonder, then, that this vein of ideas keeps being tapped into. The Spider-Man games have been coming out regularly since before the first movie, and even though the movie games have been the centre of the franchise Activision have still made room for non-movie instalments such as 2005's Ultimate Spider-Man. Spider-Man 3 wasn't even released before the next game, Friend or Foe, was announced.

If these products weren't selling, then they wouldn't keep coming. This doesn't mean that the outlook is universally wonderful. Spider-Man 3 has topped the chart in spite of lukewarm critical responses, with particular ire reserved for the PS3 versions half baked attempt at a next generation title. While the ability to completely bypass critics is good news in the short term, can it really be good for the industry that its number one game is an underwhelming cash-in?

If tie-in games are the industry's connection to the mainstream, a bridge between the larger market of moviegoers and the niche of gaming, then it doesn't make a good impression if the games themselves are a poor example of the form. Gateway products are no good if they leave consumers with a bad impression of gaming in general.

Superhero movies themselves have experienced the long-term effects of ill-thought-through products already - cheap and nasty third and fourth instalments of the Superman franchise killed that series for twenty years, while big budget atrocity Batman and Robin forced the defining film franchise of the early 90s into exile for a shorter, but no less embarrassing, period of development hell. A string of grotty film-related games could easily dent the sales of future iterations, a trap which the industry needs to avoid. Hopefully Friend or Foe will make a better critical impression than Spider-Man 3, and restore the reputation of a franchise still held in high esteem due to the strength of its initial PS1 titles.

Arguably, and ironically, it's the corporate synergy which makes tie-in games such big sellers that also damages their chances of being rewarding games. Although the development time of next-gen titles has spiralled in recent years, movie tie-ins are not allowed to slip their release dates if they're going to reap the benefit of cross-platform marketing. High profile, non-licensed games like Half-Life 2 or Resident Evil 4 enjoy extended development periods to ensure the end product is worth the wait, a luxury not extended to tie-in products which want to catch the buzz of their parent property.

The involvement of licensees also extends the number of partners involved in each game. Not only do the games have to receive the input of the developers, the software houses and the platform holders - and each of these will have more than one department or level of management wishing to exert their influence - but also the licensing people from the film company, the owner of the property, even the representatives of individual actors where likenesses are involved. While it may be overly simplistic to say that too many cooks spoil good gameplay, it's certainly true that a flurry of creative (and often non-creative) influences on one title are unlikely to make a positive contribution.

This is the flipside of exploiting a recognisable property, that gameplay and, by extension, the satisfaction of players, is secondary to licensing demands. A Superman game will always be a vexed proposition, as the character's godlike power levels don't make for a balanced player experience, and compromise in either direction is going to damage either fidelity to the character or the playability of the game. Equally, for Marvel Comics and Sony Pictures, getting Spidey's costume and Tobey Maguire's digital eyebrows to look perfect will always be a higher priority than gameplay issues.

A licensed product will, at the end of the day, always be merchandising first and a game second, subject to the same demands and restrictions as are placed on the manufacturers of Batman lunch boxes and Hulk pencil-toppers, a sideshow to the main deal that is the movie. While a popular licence can create high sales in the short term, in the long run the industry's future lies in developing its own original properties, properties that allow developers to put gameplay first.

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