Several years ago, some friends of mine bought their first console - a Wii. Then, they went down to the shops to get some games for it. They came back - sadly, I am not making this up - without Mario Galaxy or Twilight Princess. Instead, they'd picked up The Pirates of the Caribbean.
Okay, so their reasons for this were kind of weird. They thought it would be good because "Johnny Depp was involved". Not with the coding, guys! That said, why shouldn't it have been a safe bet anyway? Pirates of the Caribbean could make for a brilliant game. Buccaneers, sword fights, ghost ships turning up amidst moonlight and the flicker of burning torches. Get Johnny Depp working on the texture streaming, and you've got a hit, right? The only reason I knew that game was going to be terrible was because it was a licensed game - and yet, in a better world, shouldn't the licence have been the thing that made it great?
This weekend, a lot of people are venturing into Arkham City, and enjoying a licensed title that will probably be a serious challenger for most Game of the Year lists. The issue that often comes up when discussing Rocksteady is how the studio's managed to make a comic book tie-in that is actually worth playing. Maybe, though, we should be flipping that thought on its head. Licensed games get to tinker with some of the greatest heroes and villains and settings and gadgets and robots and pirates and zombies in all of pop culture: how come so many of them aren't worth playing? What's holding licensed games back?
The first answer, I suspect, involves budgets and schedules. Somehow, Rocksteady got Eidos - and then Warner - to give the team the time and the money to take Batman and make him really work in games. Most teams, by the looks of it, aren't so lucky. Spider-Man: Edge of Time, which was out a week ago and plummeted through the charts so quickly that it's probably reached the Earth's molten core by now, may be the follow-up to the pretty good Shattered Dimensions, but last September's decent reviews didn't let Beenox off the hook when it came to turning a sequel around in under a year.
The end result - trust me, I am that rare human being who has actually played it - is a game that looks like it was turned around in under a year, and perhaps while most of the studio worked on the new film tie-in. Edge of Time recycles bosses, recycles missions, and recycles environments. It even recycles Spider-Men - and Beenox is Canadian, so I bet the team recycles glass, cardboard, and some plastics too, the communists. Spidey's latest isn't awful, but it is threadbare and rushed and ever so slightly knackered. It's a typical licensed game.
Why do licensed games get so little development love, then? I'm guessing - and I'm prepared, as usual, to be utterly wrong - that this is because a licence is the video game equivalent of a rentier state. Just as discovering you're rich in oil or other natural resources means that your typical government quickly realises it doesn't have to do things like build meaningful institutions and keep its people happy when it can just bring in cash from overseas, having the X-Men knocking about the place gives publishers the understanding that they don't need to worry about quality. Those plucky mutants will lure the fans to the stores by themselves.
I suspect this doesn't work so well anymore, and it doesn't work so well because video games have had their own equivalent of the Arab Spring. Us proles have rumbled the fact that these games are terrible. We're not trashing the shops yet, but we have stopped buying the product.
This rentier mentality - not a phrase I expected to be typing when I started down the road to a career writing about Yoshi and Princess Peach - must have a terribly corrosive effect on the moral of the people who make games. Ira Glass once said, "People who do creative work get into it because they have good taste, but there's a gap, and for the first couple of years you're making stuff, what you're making isn't so good."
So you get into game design, or programming, or art, and you work on a licensed product. Maybe it's Marvel or DC or a film tie-in. Maybe as was the case with a very talented friend of mine, it's an "immersive hub" for a breakfast cereal. That's kind of hard to get excited about, I reckon, and I really like breakfast cereal.
Another acquaintance once told me about his days working as a producer on a fairly big licensed game for a major publisher. You may well have played this game. His main duties, he said, included making sure all the subtitles were typed correctly, and, oh yes, waiting around the back of the studio to catch programmers who would sneak out of the rear windows and try to run away. The end result wasn't entirely magnificent. The phrase "tour de force" featured in very few reviews.
One of the most interesting problems with licensed games, though, comes down to a simple matter of freedom. You can be working on a great licence, but not a great use of that licence. In other words, working on a Batman game might be your dream gig, but would you be as happy to work on a Joel Schumacher Batman game?
The answer, I suspect, is no, and there are plenty of examples of this effect to be found on the shelves. Look at the difference between Melbourne House's Transformers game, and most other Transformers games, built to hit alongside movies or toy releases. Look at Transformers: War for Cybertron and the same studio's follow-up, which was based on Transformers 3. Compare Tron 2.0 and Tron: Evolution.
There are, of course, exceptions. One of the greatest licensed games ever made is GoldenEye, which managed to be significantly better than the film that inspired it. But there aren't many GoldenEyes knocking around, just like there aren't many Martin Hollises, and most licensed fare is hemmed in by someone else's visual designs and plot twists, and then rushed out to meet someone else's launch date.
When you give people a little more freedom, though, you get Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. You get The Thing, or Riddick, or Epic Mickey. Epic Mickey might not be everybody's idea of a good time, certainly, but it's hard to say that it's your typical Disney tie-in. It's dramatic, inventive, and endlessly polarising. It's that rare game that had - forgive me - a vision shaping it.
Here's the thing, though: I think licensed games may finally be changing. I think they might be steadily getting better. Sure, plenty of them are still dismal and disappointing, but a series of studios have emerged over the last few years that can work within all these restrictions and limitations, and work pretty well. Beenox is one of them, Edge of Time aside, as is WayForward, the ingenious Californian gun for hire that has brought thought and cut-price creativity to everything from Thor to BloodRayne. Ubisoft, likewise, didn't have a huge budget for Scott Pilgrim, but made something pixelated and cute and appropriate to the licence, rather than something lavish and empty - and the publisher's just done the same thing, in my opinion, with its clever spin on Tintin.
What these studios and these games have in common, then, isn't just the limited budgets and the curtailed production schedules - it's that they've responded to those problems with creativity and invention. They've responded with the kind of things, in other words, that you can find in all great games.