Not Coming to a Console Near You

What Happened to Movie Tie-In Videogames?

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.


  1. Alex

    With very, very few exceptions, licensed video games are only at their best when the developers are given reign to step away from the source material and explore in greater depth the world that the source material has created.

    Batman: Arkham Asylum works because it inhabits the world of Batman without being a recreation of the plot of one of the movies. There are some fantastic Star Wars games (KOTR, Tie-Fighter, Force Unleashed), that are terrific because they explore the universe without simply retreading the films.

    Like I said there are a few exceptions. Super Star Wars on the SNES comes to mind.

    In general, though, the two mediums are so fundamentally different in their storytelling styles that they don’t need each other. A great movie doesn’t need a tie-in video game. A great video game doesn’t need to be turned into a movie (I’m looking at you, Max Payne). There is certainly room for crossover, but only when the quality of the product based on the requirements of the medium in which is produced are of paramount importance.

    • William Henley

      One of the best crossovers I can remember had to be The Matrix. What a way to tell a story using multiple mediums! Shoot, now I want to go home and find my copy of Enter The Matrix!

      And totally agree, the Star Wars games you mentioned were awesome!

      • EM

        In my mind, one of the best home video games ever was Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back…for the Atari 2600. (This indicates something of my video-game tastes, which in turn suggests why I seldom post replies to the Bonus View’s game discussions.)

        • William Henley

          Is that the one where you just flew around in a triangle trying to shoot black pixilated giant camels? Man, I put way more time into that game than it deserved. I think at the age of six, I was just expecting too much depth from video games –

          • EM

            It’s the one in which you fly in a ship-recognition profile of a Rebel snowspeeder while shooting at AT-AT profiles which change colors as they progressively weaken. And yes, the nifty background algorithm does make for excellent depth.

    • William Henley

      Likewise, there have been some big huge turds. Other than the obvious ET, there was Home Alone for the SNES, and The Adams Family games were pretty much generic platformer clones with a couple of characters redone to reflect the movie (it actually looks like the game may have been in developement before they got the license).

    • Arkham Asylum is the gold standard of comic book games, and a top game in its own right. Even with all the obvious issues that normally doom movie tie-in games, when looking at the respective interesting takes on the Avengers and the Dark Knight, I do think that an opportunity is being missed.

  2. Rcorman

    I agree with the above, but I also think another reason for lackluster movie tie-in games is the release schedule. Like you said they have a limited time to do the game in order to make the movie release date which means time consuming things like innovation and playtesting are sacrificed. Almost all of the good tie-ins were ones that have been created well after the movies have left the theater.

    Look at Dune II for example. It was released 8 years after the movie and while it didn’t invent the RTS genre, it certainly influenced every RTS that came after it.

    • I am a huge C&C: Red Alert fan, and a fan of Westwood Studios during their awesome mid-nineties period. If only Game of Thrones: Genesis was half as amazing as Dune II.

  3. There’s a noticeable pattern: the best movie-licensed games come out AFTER the movie. Rare had 2 years after GoldenEye’s release date to finetune the game, and it shows. The Godfather (not universally loved, but I’m a fan) was released a full 34 years after the film. The list goes on: The Warriors, TellTale’s Back to the Future (finally a good game based on such a rich canon!!) … really, there are barely exceptions. I haven’t played Jaws (but it sure got sour reviews) and even Starsky & Hutch (not based on the movie) got solid, if unimpressive, notices.

    In short: movie-based games can turn out excellent, but you have to give the developers more time.

  4. Jason

    I’m surprised there’s no ET reboot for the upcoming release of it on blu-ray. I really think the ol’ Atari game is prime for a make over.

    • Telltale has done such an excellent job with the Walking Dead thus far, I think they could make an E.T. game that wouldn’t be immediately scorned.

      I probably would suggest them for the Goonies as well, but I heard that people were asking for a Goonies reboot movie, which I think is not such a good idea.

    • EM

      I think 2600 E.T.’s poor reputation is vastly out of proportion. While the game has its problems—the programming was a rush job—I’ve always found it an entertaining challenge. I wonder if popular assessment of the game itself has gotten too intertwined with the game’s role in the great video-game crash of 1983. Although the game was a bestseller, far too many copies were produced. But that’s not the game’s fault. Even if the game had been universally well received, poor production and distribution decisions could still have led to a serious glut.

        • EM

          No, the E.T. game was indeed released—as I said, it was even a bestseller, at least at first. But even so, Atari made way too many copies. I’m not sure whether the contents of that infamous landfill have ever been or will ever be definitively established, but it’s certainly plausible that many unsold E.T. cartridges were laid to rest there, never to be revived and shot into space instead. On the secondary market, E.T. cartridges nevertheless remain fairly common.

      • William Henley

        It was more than a challenge – the game made no sense. I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be doing. The manual was no help whatsoever. The game was as buggy as hell, making it even more infuriating. I think that is the only game cartrage that I ever litterally destroyed. The game was hidious, and you couldn’t even pay anyone to take the game off your hands.

        • EM

          I must have been 12 or so when I first obtained the game, and I figured out the gameplay rather easily with the help of the manual. But I sympathize. If I were as inept at playing this game as you claim to be, I might also dislike it. I would not call it one of the great games, but I nevertheless have managed to enjoy it over the decades.

          • William Henley

            I was five or six when I got the game. I am willing to bet my mom found it at a garage sale.

            There are times when I wonder if you just like controversy. You have got to be the only person I have ever seen that claims to have been able to figure the game out and actually enjoyed it.

            There was an episode of Code Monkeys that I think summed the game up rather well. Basically, the programmers never saw the movie, and instead wrote the game while they were high.

          • EM

            I like what I like. My tastes are not subject to peer pressure, and I scorn those who would scorn others for having their own minds.

  5. JM

    I wish Naughty Dog had the 007 license.

    ‘Aliens: Colonial Marines’ I’m hoping will be better than I fear.

  6. Superman

    You say that Marvel tie-ins ended with Iron Man 2, but there was a game for both Thor AND Captain America. I haven’t played them but I have friends who have. They said that the Thor game was very similar to the Iron Man games and Captain America was similar in style and game play to Arkham Asylum (although much shorter and less polished)

  7. All of the good movie tie-in games I can think of, are really old (And by tie-in, I mean based on the actual movie, rather than just the general IP).

    Robocop on the ZX Spectrum
    Total Recall on the ZX Spectrum
    Batman the Movie on the ZX Spectrum
    Star Wars (Multiple platforms, but I’m thinking of the arcade game and, surprisingly, the near perfect version of it on the ZX Spectrum)
    Oh, and Alien3 on the SNES! 😀
    Ahh, memories!!

      • EM

        It came from a British company called Sinclair (so, it’s a “Zed-Ex”); in America, a related line came out from Timex under the name of Timex Sinclair. I remember the Timex Sinclair making a big splash but I don’t remember it really catching on. I understand the British line was quite popular in its homeland.

        Don’t feel bad, Josh; after all, this is not the blog for Low-Def Digest!

  8. Haha! I didn’t think mention of a ZX Spectrum would create such interest! 😉 Basically, the short and sweet of it is that it’s one of the main reasons the UK still punches above its weight in the video games industry (and increasingly less-so, as the guys who grey up on speccys (the slang) fade out of the business).

    When the Commodore 64 was out, the ZX Spectrum was the UK equivalent. It was considerably cheaper, and while on paper quite lower spec, managed to compete incredibly well due to amazing versatility and the fact that it opened computing up to a whole generation who couldn’t have otherwise afforded it. Spectrum clones were made and incredibly successful in Russia and similar countries at the time, because it was such a great design for cheap versatility.

    Alex… I couldn’t swear to it, but I don’t THINK it needs a PAL TV. As long as you can plug it in and tune the old fashion analogue way. Check out for any and all info.

    And for sheer cheesiness… Here’s a link to a youtube vid someone did of my all time favourite game: Robocop!!

    • Julian

      As a major collector of old gear/hardware/consoles, I’m always on the lookout for second hand stuff. As such, a ZX is high on my ‘want’-list. If I’m not mistaken, its inventor also patented a special kind of bike and a range of calculators.

      • Here’s the bit from wikipedia, Julian:
        “Sir Clive Marles Sinclair (born 30 July 1940) is an English entrepreneur and inventor, most commonly known for his work in consumer electronics in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

        After spending several years as assistant editor of Practical Wireless and Instrument Practice, Sinclair founded Sinclair Radionics in 1961, where he produced the first slim-line electronic pocket calculator in 1972 (the Sinclair Executive). Sinclair later moved into the production of home computers and produced the Sinclair ZX80, the UK’s first mass-market home computer for less than GB£100, and later, with Sinclair Research, the ZX81 and ZX Spectrum; the latter is widely recognised for its importance in the early days of the British home computer industry. Sinclair stated in 2010 that he does not use computers himself, using the telephone in preference to email.[1]

        Knighted in 1983, Sinclair formed Sinclair Vehicles and released the Sinclair C5, a battery electric vehicle that was a commercial failure. Since then Sinclair has concentrated on personal transport, including the A-bike, a folding bicycle for commuters that weighs 5.5 kilograms (12 lb) and folds down small enough to be carried on public transport.”

        I still own my original Spectrums (48 and 128k model with built-in tape deck!!!) If you want another very cool retro computer (again, still have mine) check out the SAM Coupe, which was an unsuccessful attempt to carry on from the spectrum legacy and was the last and most powerful 8bit computer. People still make hardware for it, including SD card storage, net access and surround sound. 😉 (I even had a couple of games published for it lol!)

  9. JM

    ‘Rambo: The Video Game’ is looking authentically badass.

    ‘The Expendables 2’ video game is not.