I actually don’t have a problem with (good) licensed games, just so we’re clear here. As a matter of fact, one could argue that overall, licensed games are the best they’ve ever been in the last few years: the Batman: Arkham series, the various Telltale games, the Scott Pilgrim game, the Disney/Marvel Infinity series, the surprisingly fun LEGO games, Chicago’s own Injustice: Gods Among Us…the list goes on and on. So why would I suggest doing away with licensed games at a time when we are seeing so many great ones?
Let’s look at the Uncharted series. If you were to take everything that makes those games so great – the story, the dialogue, the characters, the set pieces, the gameplay, the graphics, etc – and imagine that all of that would’ve been applied to a series of games based on the Indiana Jones universe instead of Uncharted‘s, would those games have been quite so special? I would say no, and I am a huge Indiana Jones fan (so huge that I legitimately enjoyed Crystal Skull, though I offer no defense of Shia LeDouche). I definitely would’ve been thrilled to see such terrific Indiana Jones games, but not at the expense of getting introduced to Nathan Drake and Sully and Elena and the rest and going on their unique adventures. I wouldn’t have wanted to trade that for a couple of new adventures with my old pal Indy (and most likely one not portrayed by Harrison Ford if we’re being realistic here). If I ask myself that question about almost any game or series, and consider substituting in the characters and settings with those from a movie or TV show or comic book I love, I choose keeping the original story and characters every time.
I don’t think you get as invested in a licensed game as you do an original one. How can you? There just doesn’t seem to be any real stakes, and certainly very few surprises. When we played Batman: Arkham Asylum, we knew we were going to encounter the Joker, we knew he’d have Harley Quinn in tow, we knew we’d be communicating with Commissioner Gordon, we knew we’d have certain familiar gadgets, and we knew he wasn’t going to die. We also assumed none of his enemies were actually going to die, either – and even if they did, they had the luxury of living on in the comics or in future movies or whatever. Hell, even in future games, really, so long as it wasn’t in the “Arkham series.” It just doesn’t feel like it “counts.” When I’m playing a Metal Gear game, I haven’t the slightest idea what the game is going to have in store for me from one scene to the next. I don’t know who or what I’m going to encounter, where I’m going to travel to, or who is going to live or die (myself included in MGS4), and whatever ends up happening, that’s what actually happens. The bosses I kill are dead in that universe, period, because the games are the primary universe. And the rules of a universe in an original game are completely up in the air. The people making the game can do what they want, when they want, how they want, and we as players get to enjoy the fun of that uncertainty. They aren’t at the mercy of a license holder to adhere to certain guidelines and restrictions as to how characters can behave, the characters they are required to meet, the things they can do, and so on. How much of the things that Nathan Drake says and does over the course of the Uncharted series would Indiana Jones have been allowed to say and do?
So maybe you completely agree with all of the points I made in the previous paragraph, but are still unsure as to why both can’t exist. We already have Uncharted and Metal Gear and such, and those games coexist nicely with Batman Arkham and The Walking Dead and so on. Okay, do what I asked you to do with Uncharted, only the other way around. Imagine your favorite licensed game of the last few years without its license. Think about playing Batman: Arkham Asylum but as an original character, in an original universe. You would be navigating this insane asylum with absolutely no idea as to what kinds of twisted characters you were going to encounter, and each new character you came into contact with would be a unique encounter because you wouldn’t already have years of backstory and experience with them in other stories/games/movies/etc that you’d be bringing into the game. You wouldn’t be able to think “Oh, there’s so and so, I bet I know what his role in the game is going to be,” and not only that but be disappointed when they don’t live up to those expectations and hit those fan service bullet points you want them to hit. I truly believe that the excitement of meeting new characters and doing unexpected things in unknown places trumps the excitement of seeing familiar faces and doing somewhat expected things in Unreal Engine-powered versions of locations with which you are already familiar.
With the ever-ballooning budgets and team sizes required to make AAA or even mid-level games these days, there are only so many games that the relatively small number of developers out there can make in a given year. When you allow for the ones that have to crank out annual franchises and sports games, that’s even less developers available to make truly original games. Knowing all that, I just wonder if it’s worth it to “waste” one of a given year’s small number of big blockbuster games on a license. It’s hard for me not to look at it as a trade-off, where for every licensed game that comes out, that’s one less potential Metal Gear Solid or Uncharted or BioShock or Red Dead Redemption or Alan Wake or Enslaved or any of the other games I’ve played in the last generation that had original stories and characters and adventures that I recall fondly and that I wouldn’t trade a “side story” in an existing universe for, no matter what the universe is.