Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The 'In' Crowd

It seems that an increasing amount of games released recently are either based on or tied into a license of some sort. Whether it is a movie, TV show, or even just characters from other games, the amount of individually developed intellectual property in games seems to be shrinking. Sure, there is some - F.E.A.R. for the PC is a good example - but by and large the tendency seems to be to go with a known quantity.

There are a few ways in which this happens - tie-ins, sequels, and use of licensed material in original stories. All are represented in full-force this gaming season, so what is there on offer?

Movie Tie-Ins: Usually these are pretty bad, such as Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. But games for some recent movies - such as Chicken Little and Wallace & Gromit have received average review scores of ~70%, and the upcoming Harry Potter movie game might prove again to be an entertaining if unremarkable game.

Sequel Mania: these vary, but too many deteriorate in quality. Currently I'm playing Quake IV. This game is the sequel to Quake II (Quake III was a multiplayer game), but is very playable for those new to the series. Perhaps this is partly because id software games have pretty thin plots, or because Raven has made a point of including the original story interspersed with the action of the new game.

Licensed Property:
This is really what I want to focus on. Again, these vary in terms of quality - Star Wars games are a great example, as some are terribly great and others are just terrible. These are very interesting in a way, as they allow familiar characters to get new settings and stories. There are a couple I'm playing right now - Ultimate Spiderman for the DS and XMen Legends II for the PSP.

Ultimate Spiderman is an interesting game in that it presents some new and some old material in a very stylish format that allows you to take on the role of hero or villian at certain points in the game. Spiderman is a license I know something about - he was my second favorite superhero as a kid (behind Batman), but there is much new stuff, and I don't keep up with all of it, as my kids no longer have the time for Saturday morning cartoons very often. But lacking specific knowlesdge doesn't hamper enjoyment of the game - so long as you know the basic characters and background. The storytelling is direct and interesting, and the gameplay fast-paced and fun. I'm about half-way through and it is a very good game - not one of the greats we've seen recently, but very good. XMen Legends II is an ambitious direct port of the console game, in which the XMen and the Brotherhood join forces against a new evil named Apocalypse. I know the basics of the XMen and have seen a few of the cartoons, but many of the characters and references escape me. That really doesn't matter, however, as the story of the game seems well done so far.

And that is the important thing, right? That the story work, that the characters make sense, and that the gameplay is solid? So it shouldn't matter where the ideas come from, so long as they are good. Right?

To an extent.

Take a game like Star Trek Elite Force II - this a pretty solid shooter in its' own right, averaging ~75-80% in review scores. To me, it really illustrated what I call an 80% game - very good without major flaws, but not truly excellent, but with a particular hook that keeps it from being a 70% game. But what really makes it shine above other 70-80% games is the level of Star Trek love. Taking time on the Holodeck to try a new weapon, being particularly successful and getting the praise "almost as good as a Klingon!" was great ... for me. Perhaps for you. But for someone with no knowledge or love of Star Trek?

That is what has struck me during XMen - I'm not a huge fan, and probably wouldn't know as much as I do without my son - to an extent that is true with Spiderman ... well, at least in terms of Venom. So these games are marketed to the 'in crowd' - those who know the territory, and can get maximum enjoyment based on using that knowledge.

And shouldn't we also expect innovation in terms of creative story development? Stepping outside the endless franchise-spawns and retreads and yearly sports updates and so on? I think we should - but not for its' own sake. The risk in making a new property is that it will sell like No One Lives Forever rather than F.E.A.R.; that it will turn out like Dungeon Lords rather than Dungeon Siege.

So keep producing good games based on known entities, and carefully select new properties to bring to market successfully - spend the marketing dollars to help a game like Gothic 3 succeed where the first two games have only achieved 'cult classic' status. Take the time to develop properties we'll care about, instead of always just tapping the familiar for new games.

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