One Man's Trash: Longing for the Days of Movie Tie-in Games

Opinion by Mark Delaney,
You know that feeling when you have dozens, maybe hundreds of games, but you don't feel like playing any of them? That's how I found myself recently. 80 something games installed on my Xbox One, another 200+ Games with Gold and other ready to install titles just sitting there, many of them untouched, but I wanted something different than anything I owned. I was browsing my local game store yesterday, trying hard to keep waiting for a price drop on Prey or Injustice 2, and decided to take a look at the Xbox 360 shelves to see if some backwards compatible games at their reduced prices might fulfill my desire to go home with a new game to play.

The games were littered with generic box art from games traded long ago, some surely having sat there for the better part of the last decade. There were the usual suspects, old copies of GTA IV, console bundle games like Forza Motorsport 2, and the entire Assassin's Creed collection, you know, the mainstays that reside within every used game retailer in the world. Something else caught my eye too, though. Among the many major games of yesteryear sat an almost equal number of movie tie-in games, licensed kids properties, and other things we used to refer to as shovelware.

Furious FiveWhere have all the movie tie-in games gone?

I realized in that moment we are well beyond those days, where every successful kids or family series, Harry Potter, Iron Man, Madagascar, et al, get their own tie-in games. Looking at it broadly, it seems accurate to say each generation since the 8-bit days has offered fewer such games than the one before it. The SNES and Genesis had tie-ins for seemingly every Disney movie that came out during that era. Even as late as the GameCube/PlayStation/Xbox days were tie-ins still prominent. The move from last gen's 360, Wii, and PS3 to the current generation in which we find ourselves is where the kids tie-in game has been delivered a death blow, and it might sound weird, but I mourn that loss.

The modern gaming landscape offers two poles of opportunity with startlingly little room to work in between. There are the triple-A projects, things like Mass Effect, Call of Duty, and Destiny, that take hundreds of people and tens of millions of dollars to produce. These projects limit risks by design. They are sold as well polished catch-all titles that must appeal to the masses in order to justify and eventually recover the games' enormous costs. On the opposite end of there are the indies, which have never been stronger than they are right now. These indie games take the liberating path of experimentation. They can be weird, quirky, esoteric, because the overhead isn't so overbearing and they are often the unique visions of a small handful of people or even a single individual.

The space between, where middle-tier or "double-AA" games exist, is ever shrinking. It's a space that used to be occupied by the likes of THQ and SEGA before the former went under and the latter was maybe scared off by that reality. That's because it's no secret that THQ was in great deal undone by those very licensed games they so often published. They helped fund countless titles that likely didn't turn a profit, like Puss In Boots, SpongeBob's Surf & Skate Roadtrip, and the infamous Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Burning Earth. It was an unsustainable business model to commit what seemed to be a great deal of the company's resources to dozens of games that probably didn't break five million copies collectively and over many years. THQ's fall was a sign to other studios that, if the middle-tier was viable at all, it at least wasn't viable to produce kids tie-ins in that space.

Cars 3: Driven to WinCars 3: Driven to Win is a rare example of a recent tie-in — and it's good too.

Still, I can look at those tie-in games and acknowledge that when they were anything but mediocre they were much more often bad than great, and yet I can't help but miss them. In part I think I'm just nostalgic. I used to rent all those middling to bad tie-ins back when video stores existed. Undoubtedly I've romaticized them to some degree, but I don't think I'm lying to myself. They were quite often not good games, I admit that, but they possessed a certain comfort that I don't see in today's remaining middle-tier games. Maybe it's that they were tie-ins and it's cool to relive moments or create new adventures with beloved and familiar characters. I think they were also just simplistic in a way that feels good for me both as a busy adult and a father of a four year old.

My son, like me, loves gaming. We play stuff like Rocket League and Forza Horizon 3 often since he's obsessed with cars. Beyond a small handful of games, there isn't a lot being made for kids on consoles anymore, thanks to the allure of tablets. We've recently been playing Avalanche Software's Cars 3: Driven to Win and it feels so good to do so. It's actually a great example of a tie-in done well. It has lots of game modes and content and it delivers it all in a way that helps kids learn alone or with friends and family.

With so few tie-ins available anymore, a child's options for gaming on consoles are limited almost exclusively to the LEGO games. Those games are often fantastic tie-ins, but they're a bit different than those I so dearly miss. I don't always want the LEGO treatment, and neither does my son, and neither do surely many other families looking to game together. It's tough to swallow the truth that those budget tie-in games are no longer financially viable in most cases. I'm hoping Avalanche sticks to doing tie-ins with Toy Story 4 coming out soon. I would hate to not see that movie get its companion game. But I don't even need my tie-ins to be good, I just need them to stick around on consoles. I'll gladly accept more mediocre versions as I see them as better than none at all.

LEGO Star WarsLEGO and TT Games have been left to virtually monopolize movie games for kids.

A licensed game used to mean a bad one, but now games work with the world's biggest licenses to create award-winning series like Batman Arkham and Injustice. Even those LEGO games have been blown out to massive titles with full voice acting and impressive visuals. The proposition of either huge or minuscule games is leaving no room for the in-between and doesn't take interest in little kids with no income of their own and who are preoccupied on their iPads. Our expectations have changed, and mediocre efforts don't make much sense for anyone developing games in 2017.

It feels like tie-ins on consoles are in danger of vanishing forever, thanks to the fatal combination of games moving to one of two budget poles as well as the simple truth that most kids now seem to play games first and foremost on tablets. Tablets don't offer the depth of consoles, at least not yet, and they're often developed as money pits for players to meet paywalls every few minutes. Console tie-ins are famous for their lack of innovation, but for me and for many others they were an important introduction to the medium and offer a lot more life than the latest free to play trash found on the Apple and Android stores. As a dad, a nostalgic gamer, and simply someone just rooting for the middle ground to remain stable, I look at the vanishing licensed tie-in space and I shudder. If ever they do disappear completely, and they're definitely close, I'm going to miss those stupid games.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for GameSkinny, Gamesradar and the Official Xbox Magazine. He runs the family-oriented gaming site Game Together.
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