We Need More Video Games from Licenced IPs

March 7, 2024
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What’s your favourite book, movie and television show of all time? Seeing as you can’t tell me the answer to that question as I’m writing this (although you can comment on our Facebook and Twitter!), I’m going to assume it’s Firefly: The Ghost Machine, Firefly, and Serenity respectively, and then stop myself before I rant about the implications of Canton’s socioeconomics. Although I’m not sure whether or not Firefly would’ve actually been good after more than a few seasons, think the book series is hit-or-miss, and glad there wasn’t a sequel to Joss Whedon’s only good film, I am sure that the Firefly IP is without a doubt one of the best of all time. It’s a perfect blend of retrofuturism, actual futurism, Wild West fantasticism, and social commentary. Its characters are all more than archetypes, its action sequences are intense, and its world is varied enough for its authors and directors to tell unique tales that all fit within its overarching narrative. It’s a near-perfect setting for a video game, yet no developer has ever made one. And the same is true for The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, the Guy Ritchie cinematic universe, and countless other established franchises.

Before anyone else points it out, I’m well aware that there are certain series with books, shows, movies, and video games. Star Wars and Alien / Aliens are probably the biggest two, with others like Starship Troopers and The Walking Dead also having a couple of titles on Steam shelves. There’s even been a bunch of Marvel and DC-licensed games that’ve released recently (most notably the Spiderman titles, which unlike some of the others, aren’t live-service garbage), yet fans of the vast majority of popular novels or movies aren’t able to explore their favourite universes beyond scrolling through Fandom or rewatching or rereading their media of choice. And now that video gaming isn’t just some niche hobby for nerds, and instead generates noticeably more revenue than cinema, it’s time for that to change, and I’m not just saying that because I’m sick of installing hundreds of mods to build a lore-accurate version of Mal’s ranch in Shadow from Firefly.

For the record, I’m still waiting for a single-player Starship Troopers FPS so I can shoot Lieutenant Rasczak instead of some random person.

See, at risk of stating the obvious, there are a lot of reasons for game developers to make a title set in an established world. If you’ve never tried to write a novel or a screenplay, you probably don’t know how bloody difficult it is to create an interesting setting that isn’t filled with contradictions or aspects that don’t make sense, let alone an interesting narrative. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent on the first draft of my first novel, or how many times I’ve opened up its Google Doc in the middle of the night when I realised that something about it didn’t scan. I’m still yet to publish my science fiction book because every time I look it over, I end up changing major aspects to make it more like whatever I’m reading at the time (Hammer’s Slammers is great, by the way). Now, to be fair, I’m not a professional author, or a game designer, just a guy who really likes John Scalzi and spends his free time typing things while reminiscing about the time I actually was a professional writer and drinking scotch, but that’s true for a lot of people who make video games. The wonderful thing about the industry is that you don’t need to have the backing of a huge studio to put something on Steam’s virtual shelves, and can instead learn how to code off of YouTube and go from there. It’s a lot easier to mess around in Unity if you don’t need to care about the lore of whatever you’re trying to create, though.

Worrying about writing aside, though, there’s another big advantage to having something set within an existing universe. Doing so means that, for better or worse, fans are a lot more inclined to overlook certain lacklustre elements of any given piece of media if they’re already invested in it as an IP. I’m not saying that I love to recommend Starship Troopers: Extermination simply because it’s loosely based off of a movie I’ve rewatched a dozen times. However, I am saying that I’m willing to put up with some of its oddities because it is. People didn’t seem to like Starfield, and one of the things they really didn’t like was its world. I personally don’t agree with its haters saying all of its planets were one-dimensional and its factions weren’t interesting, but I get where they’re coming from, and it’s easy to imagine just how much better the title would’ve been if Bethesda ditched the pretences of it not being a Firefly title and just gone ahead and paid Fox a few grand so they could put the ‘verse into it.

Seriously, why couldn’t Starfield just let me play as Mal Reynolds and fly Serenity without installing a bunch of mods.

There’s an argument to be made that copying existing media is lazy, and that instead, developers should instead take inspiration from IPs and improve on them. That’s what the folks behind Helldivers 2 did, with it being a Starship Troopers title in all but name, and people (myself included) bloody love the game. However, in my humble opinion, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writers throwing up their hands and giving people what they want so they don’t need to create a world of their own. The phrase “fan service” has, or at least used to have, negative connotations, and that shouldn’t be the case. Making video games is hard, and it’s even harder when that game needs to come up with its own lore and universe. If the talented people who make those games don’t have to worry about the latter, though, their games will — if the existing ones that take place within established IPs are anything to go by — be better overall. And, hell, even if they aren’t, at least doing so will get me and a lot of other people to stop praying to the Fox executives every night in hopes that they’ll stop cancelling shows, give us another season of Firefly and a video game to go along with it. 

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Derek Johnson

Somebody once told me the world was going to roll me, and they were right. I love games that let me take good-looking screenshots and ones that make me depressed, so long as the game doesn't overstay its welcome.