Video games are occasionally based on existing franchises of other media, such as movies or comic books. By combining the two concepts, the game gets increased exposure and name recognition, and allows the user a new experience with an existing background and characters. In practice, however, tie-in games are often historically hampered by rushed production schedules or constrained design choices.
Interestingly, a tie-in game had the distinction of nearly sinking the entire games industry. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600, was considered by Atari to be a guaranteed success. The popular movie license was thought to surely attract buyers. Unfortunately, the final product was hampered by poor design that included unintuitive gameplay and undecipherable graphics (the player character E.T. was green, as was most of the background). Atari printed thousands of cartridges in anticipation of a runaway success, and suffered a huge financial loss. A common myth is that Atari had so many unused cartridges that they eventually buried them in a New Mexico landfill, but many associated with the game's production believe this to be untrue, and that the carts were actually recycled. There is, however, no official statement on if either scenario is confirmed as true.
Early systems continued a tenuous relationship with movie tie-in games. Superman found his way onto the Intellivision and NES, and Michael Jackson appeared on the Genesis in the game Moonwalker.
It is widely regarded that it wasn't until the Nintendo 64's GoldenEye: 007 that a well done and highly popular tie-in game emerged. GoldenEye was noted for outstanding gameplay, including a top multiplayer experience. Additionally, the game play mechanics were highly enjoyable and the level time challenges increased replay value. Finally, GoldenEye was noted for enemy AI that was highly advanced for the time.
On the PlayStation 2, Spider-Man: The Movie was regarded as a well done movie tie-in. The game story did not directly follow the movie, but the game was noted for having a new control mechanic that faithfully represented Spider-Man as well as slightly non-linear mission structure.
Today, being a tie-in is considered to be the kiss of death for new video game products. Regular listeners of gaming Podcasts will note the skepticism with which an announced tie-in is greeted. However, games such as The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and X-Men Origins: Wolverine are widely regarded to be superior products to the movies they were based on. Most recently, Batman: Arkham Asylum won several Game of the Year honors (even though it is from a franchise, and not one specific movie, show, or comic).
Why Tie-Ins Happen
With tie-in games widely regarded as being poor choices for most serious gamers, one would wonder why they continue to be made. In theory, basing a game off an existing movie, comic, or other franchise is a smart decision.
Basing a video game off of a popular intellectual property, such as Superman or Spider-Man, helps with name recognition. While many people may be fairly unaware of the game industry, Superman and Spider-Man are recognizable names the world over. This helps with marketing and overall sales in the following ways
- Confusion: Confusion occurs when someone mistakenly compares a superior product to an inferior one based on the name. For example, the blockbuster movie Jurassic Park was well received. When someone sees the Jurassic Park name on a game, they mistakenly assume that the hype is for the game as well, and make the purchase.
- Search Engine Confusion: This occurs when someone searches for a popular character or title, such as Spider-Man, and the top search results are for the most recent Spider-Man game.
- Goodwill: Many people less informed about the game industry will assume that since Batman is a well establish character with long running popularity, the game will be equally entertaining.
- Gifting: This is the well intention Grandmother example. The hope is that when purchasing a gift for someone who likes games, a well meaning but otherwise misinformed purchaser will choose a game based on a recognizable title or character, and not inquire to the merits of the game itself.
- Hype: Tie-ins attempt to catch up on the hype of a big movie release. Many popular films become temporary "fads" and spawn tie-ins in many areas, from branded soda cans to cartoon shows. The hope is that someone will like the movie so much that they want to experience more, and therefore turn to the game.
Tie-in games have a huge advantage over non tie-in games in terms of lore and backstory. Until more recently, outside of RPGs most games were not story telling masterpieces. By using a well established universe, or even the plot of the most recent movie, a tie-in game can save time and money by having the story written for them. Additionally, even if the game's story telling elements are slightly lacking, most users will be able to fill in the missing pieces with their previous knowledge.
Tie-in games actually have some huge cost saving devices built in. As noted above, the story writing is often already completed. There may be existing art assets already created for the movie. The game can also tie-in to the original products marketing budget, for example movie trailers for How to Train Your Dragon also contain a notice that the game will be released alongside the movie. Previously, tie-in games also benefited from movie houses huge budgets and cash reserves, however recently the game industry has begun to catch up with an increased user base and sales.
Typically, the target demographic for a superhero movie, a comic book and a video game were essentially the same. They tended towards teen to young adult, white, well educated, males. The classic stereotype of a "nerd" including a comic book collection, at least one computer gaming system, and standing in line at midnight dressed up as a superhero for a movie premiere. The attempt to cash in on this "synergy" is obvious. However, as this market fragments with more older adults, and especially more females, entering the game market, user tastes are more varied and more discriminating, and a one size fits all approach is less successful.
Tie-in games often benefit from having authentic voice acting talent. An actor or actress typically can also do fine voice acting work, and the movie tie-in helps facilitate this.
Why Tie-Ins Fail
While there are many reasons that a tie-in game should be successful, history has generally taught us the opposite is true.
Tie-In games are generally released at the same time as their movie counterparts. The idea is to have both on the market together to take advantage of shared marketing, popularity, and name recognition. Therefore, tie-in games often are released rushed. This leads to an unfinished feeling when playing them, or may simply result in buggy gameplay.
Tie-in games start their lives as something other than a video game, and sometimes, the translation does not go well. For example, certain movie story-telling techniques, such as multiple perspectives or narrators, do not translate well to games. Games tend to focus on a single protagonist, and may feel confused or disjointed if more are shoehorned in.
A tie-in game may be hampered by the source material. The game may be better suited by different story elements or gameplay mechanics, but due to the source material, have to forgo these items.
Another problem is when the tie-in game drifts too far from the source material. For example, Superman for the N64 (widely regarded as one of the worst N64 games) has the player complete tasks such as flying through rings within a time limit, and throwing cars. This is not representative of Superman as a movie, television, or comic book character, and this game would be better served without the tie-in.
While costs can be saved by a tie-in as noted above, they can also be increased. A short development timetable may make the production more expensive. Also, obtaining the licensing fees for use of the intellectual property or other branding may drastically increase costs before development even begins, requiring cost cutting elsewhere.
Types of Tie-Ins
This is probably the most common type of tie-in, although it overlaps with many of the other tie-ins listed. As noted above, previously video games and comic books had nearly the same target demographic, and this was an obvious choice. Additionally, many Superheroes with fantastic rescues, havoc causing villains, and awesome super-powers, could not be fully realized in movies or other media. Tie-in games are often the closest one can come to replicating the experience of actually being a superhero.
While these tie-ins often fail, the greatest potential for success also lies here. Superheroes have well developed back stories and lore, but by not being constrained to one story arc, the developer has some freedom to write something that works for the game. Also, the rushed time table of a simultaneous release is not an issue with general comic book or superhero tie-in games.
By far the second most common tie-in game is that based off a movie. This can overlap heavily with the superhero tie-in as well. For example, there are many Superman tie-in games, but there is also a Superman: The Movie game based specifically off the movie of the same name.
Movie tie-ins tend to fare the absolute worst out of any tie-in. Frequently, they are rushed to coincide with the movie's release, and therefore the game is either short, unfinished, buggy, or a all three. The story often feels poorly strung together as well. More so than being a tie-in, being a "movie tie-in" is truly the Kiss of Death for a game.
This is another tie-in example, although much less common. Games may be based on books. This is both a natural progression and a difficult task. On one hand, video games can benefit from a deep, well told story of a book, and then add in the visual element, as well as giving the player a chance to live out the adventure. On the other hand, it is very difficult is capture the subtle nuances of story telling in a game, and sometimes the imaginative mystery is ruined.
This is emerging as a new type of tie-in game, one based off a Classic of literature. For example, see the recent Dante's Inferno. This is less of a tie-in, however, because it is not done for the usual marketing or name recognition reasons, since no one is making money off of the poem.
Individual celebrities have been getting increasingly involved in the game industry, leading to new types of tie-in games. For example, 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand and Def Jam: Vendetta are two games based off of rappers. These games are able to benefit from the name recognition (and soundtrack) off the celebrities, but are not constrained by development time tables or past cannon requirements.