Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Licensed games, as a whole, suck. Old news - dead horse. There are a few exceptions but, outside of Batman and Star Wars, the trend is obvious. Recently, however, this trend has been a bit upset. Games like Arkham Asylum, City and War For Cybertron have been both huge hits and great games. Other recent titles, like X-Men Origins: WolverineCaptain America: Super SoldierSpider-Man:_Shattered_Dimensions haven't quite met with overwhelming success, but have clearly avoided the curse. That is,you're not going to assault someone for placing one in your disc drive.

Not the Batman game you want, but the Batman game you deserve .

Overall, the success (here measured in quality, not profit) of these titles isn't hard to explain. Most obviously, none of the recent successes where made to retell the story of a film. The Wolverine & Captain America games were tie-ins, but the developers managed to arrange that they not actually follow the film's plots, but take place during off-camera events.
Hugh Jackman basically just makes a box-art cameo.

The relevance of this is made all the more apparent if you're familiar with how "writing" generally works in video games. In most cases, the majority of a game is essentially complete before the story is finalized. The mechanics, and it's an adaptation, so let's be honest and call them combat mechanics, enemies, and even most of the level design are largely set in stone. The majority of actual game writing consists of the little things one tends to gloss over, like tutorial text, tool-tips, and excuses for having you kill 20 Armadillephants. All very essential, but without much latitude for creativity. Most game stories are the efforts of the writers doing back-flips to fit the pieces together into something resembling a narrative.

This may not be the ideal, but if either gameplay or narrative must come first, then it must be gameplay. Consider what the Wolverine game would have consisted of if it had been a straight adaptation. An endless stream of nameless soldiers, broken up by a few un-winnable fights with Sabertooth, a comic boxing match with the Blob, and a final confrontation with a bastardized Deadpool. Sure, they may have thrown in some non sequiturs that didn't occur in the film for the sake of variety, but these would serve no more purpose than excuses to drop in a few more token members of the protagonist's rogue's gallery. You know, like every crap film adaptation.

Ignoring, or at-least side-stepping, the film's plot means the game's is allowed to have a plot that, be it written holistically alongside the game-play or as an afterthought, provides for the gameplay rather than shackling it.

Secondly, to make a proper adaptation one must capture the most essential elements of the licence. The Arkham games have succeeded, in my opinion, primarily because controlling Batman feels like controlling Batman. You bust in through skylights, investigate, glide freely, make use of a variety of gadgets, even the combat is unique. Hell, with it's agressive, violent, visceral, melees the Wolverine: Origins games feels far truer to the beloved comic book character than the watered down (and frankly broken) film. If you were to take these gamse, replace all character models with a generic human, and remove all the textures, you could still identify the character you're playing.

It has been said that good character design in a cartoon is making unique silhouettes. In games, it is this sense of unique gameplay. This is where most adaptations fail miserably. Let's look at Superman games as an example.

Oh, please, let's not
In the below picture, we see Superman using his heat-vision to heat the Earth. You may recognize this as a job traditionally performed by the sun.
Take that official Republican party stance on climate change!
And in the next two, from entirely unrelated games, we see him fighting robots with it.
Robots are simple machines which reduce the work necessary to justify violence. 
In both images, the robots have health bars, indicating that each is capable of sustaining bombardment from Superman's hot-as-the-sun attack for periods long enough as to warrant monitoring by the player. In other words, his heat-vision doesn't automatically disintegrate them. You'll also notice that, in the second image, the second player appears to be controlling Batman who, one must assume, can just as easily destroy those robots. When playing these games, the player doesn't feel like they're controlling Superman. They feel like they're controlling a super-hero who looks like superman, with most of his powers, but with everything turned way down.

The problem in this example is, of course, that superman is extremely powerful.
We're talking destroy-a-planet-because-you-didn't-look-where-you-were-flying powerful.
So powerful that it's hard to imagine a reasonable threat to him. In the film being adapted two screenshots up, Superman's greatest challenge is dealing with the fact that his ex may have moved on. This doesn't make for an easy game adaptation. One could come up with such threats, but they wouldn't fit within the purview of the film. So, the devs just took the standard third-person action formula and slapped a blue costume on it. They know it's not good, but they have to put out something, because as far as the film studio is concerned that's over $100 million they're loosing if they don't crap out a tie-in game.

From a designers perspective, this addresses some of the issues with making good adaptations, but that's rarely the problem. Rather, it's that studio insisting that you make them those millions, weather or not the game they want is a good idea in the first place. They don't want a good game, they want box art and a disc. As such, they're not likely to go to the expense of giving your team extra time to tackle your harder-than-average design task, and will only allot you the time and funds necessary to create a generic 3rd person beat'm up and, with their film's imminent release date, you may not even get that time part.

So, from a gamers perspective, if you want to see more good games and less shovel-ware, the problem is economic. As long as there's a market for trash, it will be produced. Only financial motivation will change that. If you really want to try to make a difference, you simply need to ensure that bad games don't get bought.

 In most cases, anyone reading this kind of blog probably already considers themselves to have good taste in games, but that doesn't mean your parents aren't buying schlock for their grand-kids on Christmas. Family and co-workers often depend on one another when determining what's worth watching at the cinema, and games should be no different. Shovel-ware works because consumers who don't know anything about the games they buy for others are unaware of the quality differences, and the store doesn't care. Most consumers appreciate it when you give them little tips that keep them from wasting there money and make their gift recipient more thankful. I can't count the times I've awkwardly pointed out to a mother in-line at the game store that the game she's about to purchase for her kid is going to net her nothing but a $60 loss and a disappointed brat. Yet, again and again, my unsolicited advice has, surprisingly enough, been met with thanks and questions about what they should get.
So, basically, retail Batman.
The problem should be diminished as time goes on and the generations that grew up without games die off, but it will always be a problem to some degree.
Because even informed people are still probably stupid.