Monday, March 31, 2008

The Unethical Usage of Licenses

The majority of games that come out are based on licenses. Comics, TV, movies, books, and even music all have games based on their intellectual property (IP). More often than not, these games aren't that good. For every GoldenEye 007, there are numerous games like Enter the Matrix and Spider-Man 3, which fail as games and ultimately leave most fans disappointed. Ubisoft just recently released Lost: Via Domus based on the hit ABC series. With an average MetaCritic rating of 55, Lost: Via Domus is an attempt to cash in on the popularity and mystery of the TV show to unsuspecting fans. This is, unequivocally, unethical of Ubisoft and Touchstone Television to release a game with such low quality. Let me repeat that: this is unethical. It violates the sense of honesty and trust that is implicit when playing a licensed product. It spits in the face of the fans who it's marketed to. And it harms us as an industry.

Let's continue to use Lost: Via Domus as an example. I am a huge fan of the TV series Lost. It certainly has its flaws, but I have watched every episode faithfully. Like many fans of the show, I have no idea what is going on that is causing all the events to occur to the characters stranded on the island. The show is a large mystery that slowly unravels each week, posing new layers of complexity along the way. When I watch an episode of Lost, I am expecting a certain level of quality that has been delivered by the show the past four seasons. At its worst, Lost is a well-written, intriguing show and at its best it is the best show on network TV. Never has the show been just mediocre or average.

Since Lost is a mystery, many spend their time engaging in conversation with co-workers about what is going on. People read forums and message boards and post theories. People dissect every frame of the show and post their analysis for the world to see. Everyone wants to know what's going on. So, Ubisoft releases a video game that is considered to be canon to the show. You interact with characters from the show. The executive producers for the show were even responsible for the plot of the game. People will flock to the game hoping it will offer some clue as to what is happening, and make the mystery that much more understandable than just the show alone gives. The game may or may not do this. The fact that it fails as a game, however, means that the concept of trust has been violated.

This is why it is unethical. The game isn't good, according to the reviews (I have personally not played it). In fact, it's downright terrible. It's a lie. The quality that one expects from the TV show Lost is not found in the video game Lost: Via Domus. The cast doesn't even voice their own characters, for the most part. How is a fan of the series supposed to defend themselves from a game such as this? A part of me wants to play this game, just for the canon plot pieces so I can feel like I've experienced the Lost universe wholly. However, I don't want to encourage such unethical usage of licenses in the gaming industry. What am I to do? Do I pirate the game? Do I just merely rent it or borrow it from a friend? Do I break down and buy it at bargain in a number of months? Ubisoft and Touchstone have put me, the fan, in an awful position. All because they couldn't make a halfway decent game that matched the quality of their show. I am lucky enough to be informed and in the video game industry. Think of all the fans who enjoy some video games, but aren't as in-touch with the community as I. Think of how many of them will go out and buy Lost: Via Domus on name and promise alone. Now think of how many of them will be, ultimately, disappointed. Lied to. This is shameful.

This is similar to what happened with Enter the Matrix a few years back. Piggybacking on the success of the original movie, and the upcoming final two movies, Enter the Matrix promised to fill in the gaps of the movies and let you see the parts that happened off-screen. Instead, it delivered an incredible waste of time (of course, the other two Matrix movies were considered by many to be an incredible waste of time as well). I remember picking up Enter the Matrix and proceeding to be pissed off for the next week as I played insipid gameplay and, to top it off, got little insight into the Matrix universe. I felt betrayed by Shiny and the Wachowski Brothers. The game wasn't fun and the universe wasn't expanded enough to my liking. I was doubly lied to!

It is time for this to stop. If you are making a licensed game, you have an obligation to the fans of that license to meet the standards of quality that have been set forth in the other mediums. If you're making a game on a B-movie, the game can be cheesy and average. If you are making a game on a landmark TV show, you damn well better make sure you are holding the game up to the same quality mark as the show is held up to. Doing anything else hurts us as an industry, hurts the value of the license, and hurts the fans of the license. You may get away with pissing off fans once or twice. If you repeatedly piss in the eye of the fan, however, you can expect a revolt at some point. In fact, you deserve it.

I implore any developers making licensed products to take a greater level of ownership over the game and make sure it's matching the level of quality the fans would expect. If you aren't a fan of the license, make sure you understand why others are. This is more than just "make a good game". This is about making sure your game melds with the other aspects of the license. I also implore any license owners to hold developers to a high standard with their IPs. Make sure you understand the advantages and disadvantages of the medium, and utilize it to tie the game into your IP. Do not just accept any game that has your license tacked on. It's helping no one in the long run. Finally, I implore the fans of licenses to act with your dollar. Do not purchase shoddy licensed products. Do not buy the games or support them in any way. Tell the developers and IP holders that you will not support a low level of quality. Tell them that they must do better. Tell them with what they care about most: money.

As an industry, we need to rise to the challenge to use licenses thoughtfully and responsibly and stop with the dishonesty. They say the first step is admitting there is a problem. Well, on behalf of the industry, I'm admitting there is a problem. Now it's up to all of us to solve it.


  1. Your article is unethical:

    " This is why it is unethical. The game isn't good, according to the reviews (I have personally not played it). "

    Making a judgement without playing the game.

  2. I agree with the previous commenter. Saying you haven't even played the game while holding it up as a prime example of your argument is pretty poor. The only saving grace is the Lost game is a certifiable mess.

    In the official Lost podcast, the producers stated the game was not canon to the Lost universe. They don't want anyone who doesn't explore sources beyond the show to miss anything. Looks like you need to do a little more research before writing.

  3. The interesting thing about this is sometimes fans of these properties are not game players. In fact, when you go over to their place, it will one of three games they own.

    And they will like it.

    I most recently saw this with Dancing with the Stars for the Wii. It is awful, horrible, and not really about dancing at all. You just shake the controllers in time. Now, let's just say that's about all you are doing in Guitar Hero or Rock Band. Fine, point conceded. The latter two are better thought out games.

    Anyways, the couple that owned it love the show, and they love the game. They play it together all the time.


    That said, I am sure the game is as awful as you say. It is a licensed property after all.

  4. Internet drama is the best drama.

    FFS, the article isn't a review; if it were, then criticisms based on not playing it would have merit.

    Some people might be shocked and amazed, but I make judgments about things all the time without experiencing them directly! Things like head-on car crashes, or eating kittens, or sticking sharp pointy objects in my rectum. I'm going to guess that those things are probably bad, and I don't feel guilty about the lack of first-hand evidence.

    By the same token, I'm going to assume that a game with a 55 metacritic rating probably sucks audibly. That's the way it works.

    In any case, I don't know that I agree completely with the article, only because "unethical" is a strong word. We may be using the word in different ways, but, to me, "unethical" has a connotation of evil and intent. There's a common quote, usually attributed to Heinlein, which reads "Never assume malice when stupidity will suffice." and it might have some bearing here.

    I would tend to assume that the game sucks because most people (and therefore most game companies) suck--not necessarily because someone said, "Let's make a really horrible game and betray a bunch of fans because, hey, we'll get money anyway."

    Lack of ethics, when it occurs, certainly harms us as an industry, but I suspect that plain old garden variety lack of talent and creeping mediocrity does far more damage, far more often.

  5. I agree with PJW, you explicated my position sufficiently for me. =)

  6. I think your post is a bit too emotionally driven here: you're clearly unhappy about the situation with licensed games and seem to be venting about it. Unfortunately you're missing some important points. The last section about what devs/IP holders/audiences should do struck me as especially poor. I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment that audiences should be voting with their dollars, but I think that your view on the dev team and IP holders roles are extremely narrow.

    "I implore any developers making licensed products to take a greater level of ownership over the game and make sure it's matching the level of quality the fans would expect."

    This seems to completely ignore the reality of how little control developers actually have over licensed products. They generally are doing the best they can under their time and budget constraints. They don't have enough autonomy to do what you're asking them to do here. I don't know any developers who don't care about the quality of the games they are making (I'm sure they exist, but they are rare), but they don't get to make the decision of holding back the game to make it better. Add to that the fact that most IP holders 1) demand some level of creative control and or veto power over ancillary projects and 2) aren't intimately familiar with games as a medium, and suddenly you have a recipe for development disaster.

    Sadly, the IP holders and publishers are probably more interested in getting the game out the door and the money rolling in anyway. I do, however, agree with you that this attitude is to some degree unethical. Looking from the IP holder's view, you must bear in mind that the potential market is already constrained by the number of people who are fans of the original license. If dumping another million into the game to hire more artists, or delaying it to polish, or asking designers to go back to the drawing board on some game mechanics will only bring your projected sales up from 50% of LOST fans to 60% of LOST fans, chances are those extra sales won't cover the cost of any of the above choices. Add my previous comment that this IP holder probably doesn't know enough about game development to quantify what exactly the extra time, extra designers, or extra artists will actually provide, and you can begin to see why they would rather ship what is in their hands and working, and which everyone agrees will likely sell to 50% of the LOST fans. I agree that the most ethical option would be to take that loss and put out the best game you can, based on feedback from the dev team, the publishers, and focus groups, but sadly not everyone thinks like that.

    The point that I'm trying to make is that I feel the majority of the failure here lies either with the IP holder or the publisher (which you didn't even bring into the fray).

  7. You bring up a very valid point. I did not bring up the IP holder/publisher... I didn't even think about the control that an IP holder has over the situation, so for that omission I apologize. The developer/publisher I was treating as one and the same, but that's because I work for Activision and more of an accidental oversight than just forgetting about the publisher.

    It's not that developers don't care about the quality, however. It's usually that the managers of those developers don't. Teams usually want an awesome game. The people in charge of them at a studio just want to hit the schedule/budget. The publisher/IP holder is even worse off. So I do think there is more control that the developer holds.

    It's too easy to say "We had no choice" and that's not usually the case. Developers can fight back. Developers can work for better contracts. Developers can say "We're not taking that license under the circumstances you're outlining"... these are all possible. They may hurt you from a business perspective, but strong ethics often hurts in another way.

    So, I agree IP holders and publishers are also to blame and I'm sad that I didn't mention them looking back at it. But I don't hold the developers any less responsible for it.

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