Where did all the movie tie-ins go?

Ten years ago movie tie-ins were incredibly lucrative and publishers were quite happy to make games out of anything they thought might turn a quick profit, even if the source material wasn’t ideally suited to being turned into a game. Looking back through the release lists, a decline in movie tie-ins has been happening since the PlayStation 2 started to die a slow death.

The question is why?

The easiest answer is that development costs are sky-rocketing and the formats that are cheap to develop for are slowly fading. The PlayStation 2 and PSP are dead while DS and Wii sales aren’t as strong as they once were. Once a publisher purchases a movie license, they’re usually left with a very small amount of money left out of their budget to actually make the blessed thing. Do you know why most tie-ins are rubbish? It’s because they are often given to the developer who offers to make them for the least amount of money.

Xbox Live Arcade and PSN development costs aren’t quite as high as retail releases, and as such we have seen a few movie tie-ins appear as downloads, like Real Steel and Battle for Los Angeles. The problem publishers face here is that the average price of XBLA/PSN games is about £7 (800 MSP), and the license cost still has to be recouped from that amount. Not only this but every XBLA game has to have a playable trial version – there’s no way for them to hide how bad a game is.

Sega and THQ have both recently announced that they’re ditching licenses to focus on quality software. In Sega’s case this was announced as soon as their deal with Marvel expired, the reason presumably being that their Thor and Captain America tie-ins didn’t sell as well as planned. As for THQ, it would appear that they’ve finally realised that rubbish games do not sell.

They should have looked at ex-publisher Brash Entertainment and learned this years ago. Brash were a company that snapped up the movie licenses that nobody wanted for as little money as possible, such as Jumper and Space Chimps, and put out games that were total garbage. After just a year on the scene, they ceased to be.

This brings us onto our next reason. The video game market has matured massively over the past few years and the average age of a gamer is higher than ever. With age comes experience. That experience in question being that most gamers have had their fingers burnt with movie tie-ins in the past. We’ve mentioned on Games Asylum before that we believe the actually pretty good Captain America and Green Lantern games didn’t sell well was because people assumed that they were rubbish.

Publishers have shat on their own doorstep, it would seem.

The last few years have also seen publishers focus on releasing fewer games but of a better quality. Aside from Harry Potter, EA hasn’t released a movie tie-in for a very long time, while Ubisoft and Take-Two seem quite happy to concentrate on their own IP. Eidos would put one or two out a year but since being snapped up by Square-Enix, they’ve gone back to their roots to reboot and revamp the franchises that made them a top publisher in the first place.

Publishers have also started to realise that character licenses are the way forward. Movie tie-ins sell well for the first month of release, then swiftly vanish from the top 40. The likes of Batman: Arkham City, Moshi Monsters and the LEGO games have sold better than any fly-by-night movie license could ever do.

Indeed, it would appear that now only half the publishers out there see movie tie-ins as money makers. Disney are in a different boat to most – their games often prove to be evergreen sellers due to brand popularity. D3 snapped up the licenses that THQ had ditched including Madagascar 3, which we assume they bagged for a reduced cost, while Activision has The Amazing Spider-Man and Men in Black due out soon. It should be duly noted that Activision doesn’t appear too concerned with quality control, unlike Warner Bros. and other publishers who have upped their game recently.

Will movie tie-ins rise again? There is a chance that in a few years time, once the 3DS and Wii U are well established and the next Xbox and PlayStation are on their second or third generation of software, that development costs will drop a little and there is a bigger leeway for publishers to make a profit.

If this isn’t the case, then most discerning gamers would likely argue it’s not a bad thing anyway.

Matt Gander

Matt is Games Asylum's most prolific writer, having produced a non-stop stream of articles since 2001. A retro collector and bargain hunter, his knowledge has been found in the pages of tree-based publication Retro Gamer.

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