Which summer blockbuster has the better tie-in videogame: ‘The Avengers’ or ‘The Dark Knight Rises’? This will have to be a theoretical debate, because neither title actually got a console game to coincide with its movie.
Granted, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ has an iPhone title, and the Warner Bros. game division released ‘Batman: Arkham City’ this past fall. Also, the second ‘Lego Batman’ game came out recently. Still, there are no major videogames for Christopher Nolan’s last two Batman films.
Then we have ‘The Avengers’. While a game based in the Marvel Universe (‘Avengers: Battle for Earth’) is scheduled to release this fall, it seems entirely separate from the movie adaptation. ‘The Avengers’ film didn’t even get an iPhone game.
‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ received a movie tie-in and an iPhone game, but in that sense, it just seems like a throwback. Say what you will about ‘The Hunger Games’, but how can such an obvious blockbuster not have a game tie-in? With all the marketing spent on ‘Prometheus’, no one thought to make a survival horror game out of it?
Historically, Movie Tie-in Games Are Forgettable
I remember playing ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘Star Wars: Episode III’ on my PS2. I even remember playing ‘Total Recall’ on NES. Unfortunately, my strongest memory of ‘Total Recall’ is the boss fight with the homeless guy who throws his hat like boomerang. Movie tie-in games, with the exception of ‘GoldenEye’ on the Nintendo 64, have been lucky just to be average.
‘Avatar’ on the Wii showed some promise, and the ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ game is certainly better than the ‘Spider-Man 3’ game. Nonetheless, the big movie tie-in games are no longer en vogue.
Why Are Movie Tie-in Games Not Worth the Effort?
There are some obvious reasons why license-based tie-in games are usually awful. First off, game tie-ins ought to be good games even without the license. If you removed the license and replaced it with something generic, the game should still be fun. Sadly, a license-based game actually has to make do with less than what a normal game has to work with. They start with less money (after all, the license isn’t free), less time (the game needs to come out in the same window as whatever it’s tying into) and of course less freedom.
Even more issues beset a license-based game. Normally, a big license holder will immediately look to a big publishing house like EA, Activison, Ubisoft, etc. So, almost right away, many development studios that are prototyping the next amazing game technology get cut out of contention for the license. Then, the big publishing house that lands the license has a simple choice: either put its best-established or promising teams into the license-based project, or keep them working on the publisher’s own intellectual properties.
Now you have the project being developed by a publisher’s B team, or possibly worse. The developers are basically hamstrung. They need to develop a game without premiere resources (like, say, a top tier engine). Whatever work they do will be sent back to the publisher, who will send it along to the licensee (which could be multiple groups). These reviews will generate a lot of notes and action items (easily pushing the project a month behind) that range from the unrealistic desire to change everything or clone someone else’s existing AAA game, to the completely pedantic, like the way a character’s eyebrows look.
At the same time, the game may be tied to a movie whose release date, script and talent still aren’t set. If that movie’s been in production on some level for years, it won’t wait for the game development team at any point. Many projects that are tied to big movies have less than a year to develop games that will be compared directly against other titles that have been in development with top talent for four years. Whatever gets released will be lucky not to be unplayably buggy.
Likewise, so many people involved or potentially involved in the process know that the title will sell based on its license alone. If the movie does well, a B-grade game will do OK. If the movie bombs, a good game will get dragged down with it. This creates a situation where the people involved from a high level have little to no motivation to create a quality title. Meanwhile, developers who can be choosy try to avoid getting caught in a lose-lose proposition.
The Movie Tie-in Game Clone
A few years ago, the ‘Wolverine’ movie and first ‘Ghost Rider’ movie had tie-in games that were perceived as ‘God of War’ clones. There is only one ‘God of War’ studio and franchise. EA tried to make a full-fledged clone of ‘God of War’ called ‘Dante’s Inferno’. The company put one of its top studios on it, Visceral Games, which had produced the very successful ‘Dead Space’ titles. In the end, ‘Dante’s Inferno’ was such a big failure for EA that there haven’t been even whispers of a sequel. (Critics derided it as an inferior ‘God of War’ clone.) If EA can’t clone Sony’s ‘God of War’ under the best circumstances, how likely is it that the ‘Wolverine’ and ‘Ghost Rider’ games could manage?
The iPhone Movie Game
These days, the preference is to have Gameloft to produce iPhone games. Gameloft flies under the radar. I’m not trying to suggest that the company is evil or unethical, but I think it has managed a remarkable feat. Typically, Gameloft produces games in a mold intended to cash-in on other companies’ success. (In other words, it clones popular games.) I’m not saying that this is a bad business practice. After all, cloning successful games and recreating what players want is an important part of the business. However, Gameloft skews toward knockoff status, which is a big part of the mobile game business. For Warner Bros. to commission Gameloft to produce an official game for ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is something akin to Rolex asking a bootleg watchmaker to produce cheap Rolex-branded watches.
Where Do We Go Next?
Even though Marvel enjoyed success from its various superhero films, the tie-in games stopped at ‘Iron Man 2’. (Edit: Marvel decided to let the licensing agreement with SEGA expire after ‘Iron Man 2.’ Two more games were produced in the lame duck phase of the agreement.) ‘The Hunger Games’ will likely get some kind of game in time for the second movie, but of course nobody knows what the future plans are for Batman movies. While ‘Man of Steel’ may try to wash the taste of ‘Superman Returns’ out of audiences’ memories, nothing has been hinted at for a new game that might erase memories of ‘Superman 64’.
Somehow, I think that the search for more money will come back to real movie tie-in games. As for the ‘Avengers’ versus ‘Dark Knight Rises’ game debate, we’ll have to stick with our imaginations.