License to a killing

Publishers prefer safety of sequels, movie tie-ins over riskier original ideas

Of the 10 top-selling games in 2003, there were four adaptations of entertainment properties, six game franchise sequels — and zero new original game properties.

Blame it on rising budgets, the growing integration of gaming and Hollywood or increasingly risk-averse publishers, but the result is that fresh concepts continue to be fewer and farther between.

“There’s lots of data to support the argument that native game properties make the most money,” says Jason Hall, senior VP of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. “But we’re seeing a gravitation towards licenses to mitigate the risk of the skyrocketing costs of development.”

Most publishers attest to having continued interest in original ideas, which certainly haven’t disappeared. Recent original hits include Activision’s “True Crime: Streets of L.A.” and Midway’s “The Suffering,” while original titles on the horizon range from THQ’s alien invasion game “Kill All Humans” to EA’s urban life simulator “The URBZ.”

Launching at least a few original properties each year remains a key goal for most publishers, but in an increasingly competitive environment, the marketing benefits of a license or franchise are hard to ignore.

“Publishers are going out and securing licenses not because there’s a lack of good ideas or interest in them,” says UTA vidgame agent Brent Weinstein. “It’s just a pure business decision to identify and tap into brands with a big existing market base.”

Many insiders agree that while publishers understand that original franchises generate the most money, licenses and sequels are the safer bet. It’s difficult to argue with the top 10 sellers from last year, after all. And when critically panned titles like Atari’s “Enter the Matrix” still break through thanks to publicity tied into a major movie event, the lesson isn’t that creativity counts most.

Every major publisher, after all, is either a public company or owned by one, and thus faces intense pressure to please investors every three months, rather than risk tumbling stock prices while searching for the next big hit. As with the film industry, being risk averse translates into big budgets for established properties rather than smaller bets on untested ideas.

The trend toward greater consolidation by publishers of developer talent makes it even more difficult to generate original properties. With creative talent owned by the people who sell their product, the process of pitching by an untethered creative is become rare to the point of impossible in the vidgame world. While some developers enjoy relative creative independence, most in the modern market have nowhere else to turn with an idea if their corporate parent isn’t interested.

Indeed, most publishers are brutally honest about their reliance on licenses and franchises, but argue that creativity isn’t lessened as a result. Instead, they contend that the confidence that comes with a near-guaranteed sales base can free developers to be even more inventive with game design.

“On a game like ‘Spider-Man 2,’ where we had success on the first iteration and know the characters, we can focus our creative juices on a unique style of game play,” says Activision publishing prexy Kathy Vrabeck.

For those appreciative of the mechanics of game play, it’s hard to argue with. But some wonder whether the mere existence of fewer and fewer original properties means that vidgames will be viewed by the general public as an industry that’s more derivative of other entertainment forms than truly creative.

It’s an argument that won’t be settled, some say, until the next generation of game consoles comes out in 2005 and 2006. At this point in the hardware evolution, after all, there are more existing franchises for the current crop of consoles than ever before and little time for a new one to establish itself before a redesign for Xbox 2 and PlayStation 3 becomes necessary.

“The timing on this generation of consoles makes it harder than ever to do an original concept,” says Sheraz, director of product development at THQ-owned developer Heavy Iron.

In a couple of years, that excuse will no longer exist. With new technological abilities and a long product lifecycle, the vidgame industry will have to prove just how much creative juice it has left.