It Started with Adamantium
Were metal claws the tipping point? After a year in which we saw primarily low-key presentations, Sony decided it was their turn to increase the noise around their gaming platform with the PlayStation showcase last week. It started with a CGI trailer to announce that Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic would be coming to their console as a temporary exclusive despite the IP being synonymous with the original Xbox. Later in the show, Insomniac would announce two Superhero games. The first wouldn’t be a surprise as they revealed that Spider-Man 2 was in production following the wildly successful original by Insomniac. Next up, a CGI trailer would divulge another popular Marvel character as Wolverine’s adamantium-fused claws unleashed from his hands.
A beloved Star Wars classic and two of the biggest superhero names coming exclusively to PlayStation has generated a lot of buzz on social media…however, the expression of feelings has been quite different from a vocal contingent of Xbox enthusiasts. Does Microsoft need to respond? If so, what should the response look like? While Sony appears to have assembled a winning combination between Insomniac and Marvel’s biggest characters, the question deserves to be asked whether the motif being echoed by many that Microsoft needs a counter has weight. Is there evidence to suggest the social media metaverse is being reactionary in their assessment of the situation?
To License or Not to License
Historically there are two ways to sell games. One is based on the quality of the game. Another is the reputation of the name. In recent years, we’ve seen that within the AAA space, the reputation of the name has significantly increased in the role. As we discussed in our “Are Acquisitions “Good for the industry”? – XboxEra” article, AAA developers have been willing to take fewer risks on new IPs. One way to mitigate this risk can be through a licensing agreement of a popular existing property. The advantage of borrowing an established license is that it alleviates some of the challenges to market a game since potential customers have a sense of the characters and world. It may draw people to genres they otherwise wouldn’t have considered and even draw the attention of people who only casually consider gaming.
Does it work? Without financial statements it can’t be said with 100% certainty however based on the fact that there’s been no recent shortage of licensing agreements by large publishers who have copious amounts of data and resources, one would have to assume it works more times than not.
Despite this assumed success, when we look at the historical data of the gaming industry, it shows throughout its history, the most successful gaming IPs were born as video games first.
As we break down all the IPs who’ve crossed the 20 million sales marker over their lifetime, it paints an even clearer picture. While Star Wars, Spider-Man, and Batman all exist within the following list, they make up a group of 7 IPs among 111 of videogame’s most successful franchises.
The higher we go on the list, the more lopsided it is in favor of IPs born within the gaming industry. Lego Star Wars is the only non-sports game IP in this licensing category to cross over the 50 million sold line.
“With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”
To understand why there is a lack of prominence among gaming’s Sales Hall of Fame for our favorite movie and comic book licenses, one only needs to take a stroll down Metacritic lane to see how we got there. The road to Rocksteady’s Batman and Insomniac’s Spider-Man was paved with popular licenses whose video game interpretation landed with poor or mediocre critical reception. Name recognition might get our attention but it won’t hold it there if the game isn’t good. Why the low batting percentage?
Video game development is hard. Having creative and game design limitations in order to stay true to a license makes it even more difficult. Maybe someday a team will figure out how to make a great Superman game. Until that time, it’s fair to assume merging faithfulness of a license to something that is fun to play limits the choices of IPs available. Even among those licenses with gameplay potential, there are boundaries.
Creating the Licensed Game We Deserve
Eighteen years ago, Bioware reimagined the Star Wars universe with brilliant story-telling that many felt surpassed George Lucas’s prequels. Six years later in 2009, Rocksteady would rescue the industry from Superhero game mediocrity by creating the gold standard for gameplay combat in Arkham Asylum. Nine years later, Insomniac would set an industry bar for traversal in open-world games with 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man. The element these games all had in common is that despite facing the additional creative challenges that come with licenses, they were able to set industry-high watermarks in video game categories that could critically define those studios whether the games were attached to a popular IP or not. The IPs may have drawn people in but it was the unique match of developer strengths with the needs of the license that ultimately led to great games.
The Licensed Game Xbox Needs?
If Xbox is looking for critical and commercial wins in the gaming industry that have legs to drive their Game Pass platform, they need great games. As discussed in our “Xbox Game Pass – Is Microsoft on track to be the Netflix of games?” article, big tentpole IP that resonates with the mainstream will be a critical ingredient in growing their service. However, the historical data suggests this is more likely to be achieved with licenses that are born within gaming than outside of it likely due to broadening the chance of matching developer strengths with needs the best serve the IP. While it’s difficult to deny the effectiveness a movie or comic-book pop culture phenom can have in offering talented studios or platforms additional exposure and attention, the Game Pass model has already provided evidence to suggest it can help creatives overcome the industries “should I try something unknown” problem.
Of course, we’ve also seen evidence of what happens when stars align. In some cases, developers have been on record to be inspired by a license due to their love of it prior to joining game development. In other situations, their creative and problem-solving strengths are what the IP requires. The key is a complementary match. One that isn’t forced. As Xbox has opened up the creative autonomy to their studios, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that a team wants to tell the next great chapter in some galaxy far away. Until that time comes, movie and comic licenses aren’t what the platform needs. Great games are what we consumers deserve and should be focused on.