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Quality Assurance

Why are so many licensed games so disappointing?

When was the last time you played a licensed game that stood up on its own merits? This is a thought I'm having while standing in GAME. I've been scanning the âused' shelf and have so many film tie-ins staring back at me, varying from the forgettable to the appalling, that I can't count them.

Initially I think I have a decent answer to my question: Lego Star Wars. That's a recent game. It's also a good game. Then I realise that, despite its playability Lego Star Wars would be nothing with the sound effects, music and character design brought by its Star Wars licence and the visual style brought in by its use of Lego trademarks.

So, what was the last really good licensed game if it wasn't Lego Star Wars? I think the last great licensed title was probably GoldenEye on the N64. GoldenEye was, we should not forget, a game so bloody good that when they took the licensed elements out and turned it into Perfect Dark it actually got better.

If licensed games are so regularly either awful or forgettable that the most recent great one came out a decade ago on a console that is now gathering dust under wardrobes across the land, why do publishers continue to create them? That's an easy one. It's because they sell. Next question then; why do they sell? Well, it's because they're licensed. That's circular logic and it's no help at all.

Familiar territory

The main reason that licensed games sell is because of something that I've heard marketing-types call âbrand creep'. Back in the day, people bought t-shirts because they had the logo of a movie or TV show or band they liked on them. It was a sort of reverse âguilt-by-association'.

These days, thanks to the cunning of marketers and branding people, such âbrand creep' takes different, and far more profitable, forms. Take FCUK toiletries. Even if you accept that FCUK make decent clothing, what is it that suggests they should also be able to produce shower gel? The same goes for BMW making watches; people look at an unknown item that is branded as something known and perceived to be of quality, and they assume that the quality has transferred along with the familiarity.

Why should the value that people associate with one IP or brand transfer to another kind of product so easily? People see the value (or the âinherent quality') of a trademark or licence or logo as universally transferable, and that applies when the trademark or logo is that of another product rather than a creator of products.

So, just as people buy BMW watches, they'll buy games that carry the logo of a favourite film or character, often regardless of other considerations - and they'll get sold a lemon as a result.

How many bad Star Wars games can you think of? Don't make a list, you'll run out of paper. The popularity of Pirates of the Caribbean as a movie has produced numerous games that carry its logo - and none of them are any good. Yet still they sell.

When a good game comes along with a licence attached it can do gangbusters. Simpsons Hit and Run, by virtue of being playable game with an understandable licence attached, has sold a staggering number of copies. (Don't believe me? Check how many weeks its spent hovering in the top 20 all formats chart over the years.)

Under pressure

A licensed game will not only achieve a market penetration it doesn't deserve purely because of what it's associated with, it's also likely to be troubled in other ways. Its creation will likely be dogged by external pressures (pleasing licensors, respecting âbrand integrity') another game wouldn't have, and its release date is likely even more immovable than those for other games.

The odds are stacked against it 'working' in so many ways that it's understandable why some of those involved would almost stop trying. After all, the title will achieve what it needs to do anyway.

What's particularly frustrating is that the games industry is particularly susceptible to this problem. This is because it has produced so few killer IPs of its own. Games are not, as some might try and argue, an inherently parasitic medium. They don't feed off of culture without giving anything back by any means. But there are no triple-A game generated brands.

There are a few game-generated IPs that stand comparison with the second string cultural identifiers of western culture. Lara Croft and/or Tomb Raider is the most obvious example, but one dodgy game and two dodgy movies managed to kick such a hole in that franchise's prestige that more than one company involved with it effectively went down.

Licensing laws

Let's not kid ourselves that Sonic the Hedgehog or Tomb Raider or Resident Evil or Silent Hill or Super Mario Bros. can really stand comparisons with the late twentieth century's pop icons from other fields. They don't hold a candle to James Bond or Star Trek or Indiana Jones, never mind Star Wars. No computer games company has yet invented a Miss Marple, let alone a Sherlock Holmes - a fictional character so culturally significant that a large proportion of people now think he was a historical figure.

Bad licensed games are worse than bad ports or useless shooters or idiotic puzzle games. The reason is that they have a profile and a market penetration that your average bad game can never have. They get bought by parents and kids who don't know better and casuals who're tempted by the shiny logo. And they get bought in their millions.

You would expect that a surfeit of bad licenced titles would lead to enough consumers learning that they're likely to be bad, and their gradual disappearances from the schedules. They haven't. Would better licensed games (like Lego Star Wars) lead to an increase in the average quality of licensed games, or simply prolong the stranglehold of the worse ones on the schedules? Who knows.

Meanwhile, the glut of appalling tie-in products stares back at me from the shelf. More than one game here is a tie-in to the Bratz dolls toy range. There's nothing here I could possibly want to buy. I go home and play GoldenEye instead.

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