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Video Game Licensing
Written By: Siou Choy

OK, folks, here's the question of the year: does a license really make or break a game? Would a licensed game really sell well if it didn't have a big name behind it? Or contrarily, could a license possibly hold a game back from wider acceptance and acclaim?

Scoring a license for a game is no small thing. It can mean an increase (in some cases, an almost astronomical one) in sales, but by the same token, a significant element of pressure is put on the game developers. Not only does our intrepid designer have to work within proscribed and often extremely narrow and restrictive guidelines of the licensor, but he finds himself grappling with a more fundamental question, inherent to the creation of any game based on or incorporating a licensed commodity: i.e., will this game measure up to whatever preexisting standards and expectations the general populace has already set for a game deriving from said license? For example, the Dukes of Hazzard: Racing for Home, an otherwise mediocre racing game, was so driven by the continuing popularity and appeal of its license (the characterization, theme, and likenesses of the Dukes of Hazzard TV show) that transcended its inherent limitations as a racing game to find itself one of the fastest Playstation games to reach Greatest Hits status (a designation and accompanying price drop given to those titles previously having sold in excess of 150,000 units). To say the least, there was nothing new or groundbreaking about the game. Its only true merit was in its success at staying true to the TV series (a goal which it achieves admirably). The Dukes of Hazzard: Racing for Home was at best an average racing game that made good use of its license, and that made all the difference.

That being said, the use of a license seems to be more of a safety net than a raison d'etre for many game developers, particularly when it comes to racing games. Indeed, it seems to be some sort of corporate mantra within the genre that when all else fails, add a license. Is it really that important to race as a Looney Toons or Disney character, or to have the privilege to drive the same make and model of car as James Bond? Does it actually impart some sort of merit or individuality to the otherwise nigh-indistinguishable sameness across the genre? Barring one or two notable exceptions, such as the N64's Cruisin' World and the PS's Tokyo Highway Battle, which manage to stand out from the crowd with their slightly more realistic handling and road grip, a sweeping (but accurate) pronouncement can be made: with the exception of some superficial changes (scenery, appearance, or (gasp!) a license.), most racing games are the standard to which the old adage best applies: "if you've seen (or played) one, you've seen 'em all". And to such a scenario, the addition of a license doesn't really bring much to the table.

Yet even outside the careful crafting of a game like the Dukes of Hazzard: Racing for Home, it is possible for a game to be "saved" by its license. Spice World, Psygnosis' pathetic attempt at a dance game, wouldn't have sold two copies if it wasn't first and foremost a game based around, and marketed on the fleeting popularity of, the once-ubiquitous Spice Girls. But since the game does contain the Spice Girls, there are hours of camp amusement to be found in putting the formerly famous bimbettes through the motions, making them do even sillier and stupider things than they already did, in public, all over the headlines of the world media during their seemingly interminable reign as the queens of pop.

And here we come to a major offender in the "license is everything" stakes: the ephemerally popular sports game. Here, above all, the license reigns in importance. No sports game would be complete without a license. Would you buy a game if it wasn't officially licensed by the NHL, NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, or the "official" purveyor of whatever your particular sporting bent may be? More, look at the dramatic decrease in value of any given sports game once the next year's version is released. Many older games hold their value through the years (certain used games for the original Nintendo are still, to this day, priced in the range of a new PS or DC game), but even the most popular of sports games find themselves immediately consigned to the bargain bin, often for unthinkable price reductions (does $5 for a 3 year old, previously mega-selling sports game sound out of hand? I've spotted this, and worse). The reason? The players change (or at least change teams). The stats change. And guess what? 99% of the time, that's it. Most years, you'll find no real improvements or changes in gameplay, no significant extra options or graphic resolution. Do playing as this year's players, with this year's stats, really matter all that much? Or do sports fans just enjoy the chance to "play with the big boys"? Take away all the stats and big names, and look at the game. Is the game actually good, on its own merits, or is it "good" because you can play as people you know; and more, as current people you know (as Mick Jagger once put it, "who wants yesterday's papers, who wants yesterday's news.")? Most sports games without an official license sell relatively poorly unless there's something truly unique about them. So guess what our intrepid game designer shoots for here: yep, you guessed it, another kind of license. Non-NBA/NHL/NFL (and so on) based sports games almost invariably replace the real sports figure with some kind of familiar licensed character. Again, does it really matter if you can play as Mario or Patrick Rafter in tennis? The true arbiter of judgment shouldn't be its license, but its inherent quality of gameplay; the most important criterion being whether or not said game is fun.

In closing, I offer you a heartfelt exhortation, in the hopes that perhaps, by reaching you and yours, we can together begin to make an impact, and perhaps bring about a positive change in the corporate paradigm. That one thought informs this article, and is a simple dictum that the intelligent reader would have locked into well before reading these words. And that underlying question is simply this: the next time you pick up a game, ask yourself honestly: are you considering purchasing that game because you know, feel, or have heard that it's a good game, standing on its own merits, or are you letting the corporate powers-that-be sell you short once again, by buying into the hype and getting a (potentially lousy, or at best mediocre) game simply because it's based on currently popular movie, TV show, or sports team? If we all took a minute to think about this kind of thing, perhaps things would really begin to change, and the quantity of detritus taking up shelf space today would be replaced by quality games, well worth the investment of the gamer's hard earned dollar. Perhaps, if we all got together and applied this rule in a broader sense, we could change the entire entertainment industry. And if we all stopped buying into the hype of warm, fuzzy catch-phrases, laugh tracks and media B.S., maybe we would all suddenly start to see things clearly, the world as it really is. And maybe then, just maybe, we could change this whole goddamn world.
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