The Evolution Of Videogame Licences

Brand recognition is an incredibly powerful tool. Companies across the globe invest millions every year promoting not only their products but the names and brands behind them to ensure that consumers know the name just as much if not better than the product that they are buying. It’s worked wonders for companies like Apple who are more now about their image than true technological innovation. Millions of loyal Apple customers worldwide eagerly snap up every new product they release simply because “it’s Apple” and nothing else.

The video games industry has been well aware of the power of branding for decades. While game development costs have increased at an astonishing rate over the last few decades many publishers also realise that the power of a major name or licence behind their product can help shift substantially more units to help recoup their development costs and push their games into profit far quicker than their rivals. In the 1980s British software house Ocean was one of the forerunners when it came to film and television licensing spending large sums on acquiring the rights to release games based on hit properties at the time including Knight Rider, Rambo, Transformers, and a flurry of arcade hits but the gamble paid off resulting in hit after hit for the Manchester based company.

It wasn’t just in the home where licenses meant big business. Major arcade game manufacturers like Sega and Atari saw the value that a well-known name brought to the table and brought games into the arcades based on Star Trek and Star Wars respectively, the latter becoming one of the most critically acclaimed Star Wars games ever released. As I child I remember making a beeline for this every time I walked into an arcade and even today I always try to hunt them out in the wild although its becoming an increasingly difficult challenge.

Pinball machines quickly followed with tables appearing for everything ranging from movies to television, comic book characters and even rock bands with the latter being some of the most sought after but again all sharing the same common traits of being crowd friendly and drawing customers towards them wherever they were placed. The tables may have been more expensive for arcades to purchase them but owners knew they’d make money from them because players would be drawn to the familiar sights, sounds and side panel graphics before even a single coin had been inserted.

It took the world of slot machines some time to play catch up and licensed games didn’t appear until years later but apart from aesthetics games didn’t really make any real use of the licenses available to them so from a playability point of view one game pretty much felt like the next, although modern collectors I’m sure would disagree. Things really changed for slots when the market turned hi-tech with the advent of online casinos.

It’s an incredibly competitive field with dozens of companies all vying for business so to regain that edge, those offering varying slots games – as with the early videogame pioneers – looked towards the world of major franchises to draw in potential customers. What is fascinating here is that instead of the expected route of opting for major blockbuster movies and current hit television shows, many such as NetBet have opted to provide players with a more diverse choice of licensed slots appealing to the gamers inner geek instead. Instead of the expected epic motion pictures and big budget television shows, instead we’re treated to games based on cult classics such as Sharknado, Highlander, and The Warriors.

From a developer’s point of view it’s common sense. The addition of a franchise tie-in adds appeal to a game and selecting cult brands resonates with audiences fitting a certain age demographic. Certainly those in their early 40s would still have fond memories of the original Highlander movie and would at least be curious to try a game based on it if not become a regular player. The National Lottery did exactly the same with their scratchcards releasing a card based on Pac-Man which proved to be a huge hit, no doubt with those who grew up with the original arcade game in the 80s.

At the same time though, opting for more obscure or older franchises is also more cost effective than the “big” name brands. It’s safe to say that a license to use Highlander is far more affordable than one for Star Wars for example, even though both would contribute the same amount of material to the game itself. For publishers it’s a case of striking a happy balance between the two while keeping the game’s playability intact without pumping the entire development budget into the licensing fees.

Branding has definitely opened up gaming of all genres to an audience that otherwise wouldn’t have been interested and it’s a safe assumption that many gamers today were introduced through a connection to a film, television show or favourite character and the online gaming world is no different. For those of us who are fans of some of these older shows being revived through these newer online ventures, it’s giving them one final send off for those of us who still remember them fondly.

Old franchises never truly die… they just go digital.

 

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