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

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.

Where have all the movie tie-in games gone?Where 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 Win is a rare example of a recent tie-in — and it's good too.Cars 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 and TT Games have been left to virtually monopolize movie games for kids.LEGO 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.
Posts on this article have been added to a thread in the Editorials and Features Forum.
  • DwaggieniteDwaggienite2,115,922
    Posted on 30 July 17 at 18:48Permalink
    I dunno, I'd say they've kinda been replaced by Indy games and the ripoff re-releases of all the ACA games and such. Why would they do movie title games asking for £40 or whatever when they just wouldn't sell for that anymore thanks to the 1000G for indie games. The achievement hunters are just gonna wait, and the parents have given their kids smartphones so they're not gonna spent £40 on a retail game, you know?
  • JMJimmyJMJimmy426,412
    Posted on 30 July 17 at 19:01Permalink
    Same thing happened in the movie industry - the 40-80 million dollar budget movies are all but extinct. The problem is one of marketing and talent. In order to get the attention needed to recover mid-level budgets is similar to what it costs for big budget titles but with far lower returns. If you've only got so many talented people in your employee roster, you might as well go big rather than spread them around mid-level stuff that's more likely to go bust than something you put all your effort into. There are exceptions to the rule like John Carter just as there were exceptions to the rule in the mid-budget movies which turned into breakout hits.
    Life, it's funny that way.
  • Corrupt XBACorrupt XBA1,708,734
    Posted on 30 July 17 at 19:02Permalink
    Most games still don't care about achievements. Easy 1k games still don't sell in great numbers. We are in the minority, Dwaggienite.

    Good article though OP!
  • AllgorhythmAllgorhythm257,132
    Posted on 30 July 17 at 19:03Permalink
    Couldn't agree more. I'm a movie buff. If I liked a movie or a TV series, I would always get the game tie-in. They weren't great games, usually, and sometimes they weren't that good as games. However, the movie/game combo enhanced the experience. I'm thinking of games like Lost: Via Domus, Peter Jackson's King Kong, & X-Men Origins: Wolverine among others.
  • Vitiated1Vitiated11,265,128
    Posted on 30 July 17 at 19:05Permalink
    There was a reason these games were referred to as shovelware, because they usually were. For every movie tie-in that was actually decent (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) you had 5 that were poorly designed trash used to pad some pockets in case the movie didn't do very well at box office.

    I really can't say I miss it, especially in this day and age. The Emoji Movie: The Game doesn't particularly sound appealing to me. Indie games and remasters are already 2 plagues on the market, we definitely don't need to bring back a 3rd.
  • MathGuy42MathGuy42574,961
    Posted on 30 July 17 at 19:22Permalink
    I miss mid-tier move tie-ins too. Puss In Boots remains one of my favorite Kinect games. It actually had story-driven gameplay, going beyond the usual Kinect mini-game collection. And I recently had a good 10 hours of fun with Captain America: Super Soldier.

    Disney Infinity had some decent reduced size movie tie-ins. Perhaps Avalanche could repurpose that technology to make a toy-less movie tie-in hub. A starting retail price of $20 for each movie add-on might make sense.
  • LittlePardueLittlePardue238,592
    Posted on 30 July 17 at 19:24Permalink
    When I was a kid in the days of my Playstation 2, I can say I loved these games, my parents didn't mind me getting them because they knew the properties were okay, and since my dad and I loved the old avatar series, we played the tie-in games together. Even if the game wasn't the best, I am happy with the memories these games let us make back in the day
  • LuckyKantLuckyKant445,031
    Posted on 30 July 17 at 19:39, Edited on 30 July 17 at 19:39 by LuckyKantPermalink
    I was thinking the same thing a few weeks ago.

    I miss the old PS2 games like the Harry Potters, The Lord of the Rings etc.

    Just not enough these days. Had enough of LEGO games for a lifetime.
  • Nexus GruntNexus Grunt149,064
    Posted on 30 July 17 at 19:47Permalink
    I think an example of a recent movie tie-in done well is Alien: Isolation - technically not a movie in itself but related to the movie franchise.

    I remember in the Sega days, the whole thing was getting a little ridiculous with tie-ins that had nothing to do with the movies, Predator 2 on the megadrive, Alien 3, and the worst of the bunch, Robocop vs Terminator ... and yes I owned and played them all ... and I don't miss any of them.

    My feeling is, it is possible to do a good movie tie-in if you take the time to develop it and do it well. I think too many are rushed to make the same dates as the movie releases.

    PS. Good read. smile
  • RadiantViperRadiantViper736,019
    Posted on 30 July 17 at 19:50Permalink
    This article hits home ... I've had this exact same feeling lately, nostalgic for these usually mediocre movie tie-ins for some strange reason. I think it's because the games were always pretty safe, with a really basic setup up (set amount of levels, useless collectibles, short playthrough time) which made renting the games and getting some mildly amusement - and all the achievements - pretty easy.

    A few I can think of off the top of my head:

    Toy Story 3: This one is actually a genuinely good game. Top tier as far as movie tie-ins go. Toy Box mode was creative and fun.

    Wanted: Weapons of Fate: This was a pretty by the numbers shooter although they did try to incorporate the "bullet curving" which was kind of fun. Standard achievement list, boring collectibles.

    Watchmen: End is Nigh: From a highly praised graphic novel with relatively deep themes to a repetitive overpriced beat em up laugh But the graphics were amazing for 360 Arcade. One annoying speed run achievement but nothing too hard.

    Xmen Origins Wolverine: Another genuinely great game. Still hits most of the checklist above with collectibles and linear levels but the core combat was great and it used the Wolverine character better than the movie itself with the regen health system where you could watch Wolverine's flesh come back after being injured. Good achievement list with some variation and easter eggs.

    Iron Man: Not really anything notable at this one, although the game is actually kind of challenging. You could fly around small map areas at least.

    Iron Man 2: Not too different from the first but you could play as War Machine and customize your suits a bit. Real easy achievement list.

    Terminator Salvation: Very generic brown n bloom third person shooter. Mildly amusing to shoot things for a few hours and simple achievements.

    Where the Wild Things: It has 1000 gamerscore in easily obtainable achievements ... I struggle to remember anything else about this

    007: Quantum of Solace: They just reskinned Call of Duty for this one (IIRC it's a Treyarch game) but it was actually pretty good! I had a lot of fun playing the multiplayer but I imagine it's dead now which might make the achievements difficult. But the single player is solid.

    The Godfather: Doesn't really count since most movie games probably owe a lot of their quality level to a rushed development so they can launch the same time as the movie. But this is another good movie licensed game. A bit grindy to get all the achievements but the city systems of taking over businesses and robbing banks was actually creative and fun. Also check out the funky achievement list with less than 1000 base gamerscore before they added free DLC to make up for it.

    Amazing Spider Man: Pretty hard to be a licensed movie game in the same franchise that brought us Spider Man 2 on PS2/Gamecube/Xbox (top tier movie game). This one's decent but the weird "snap" targeting for traversal and combat seems pretty shallow.
  • MugenKairoMugenKairo243,338
    Posted on 30 July 17 at 19:55Permalink
    Not once have I thought "I'd really like to play a movie tie-in video game right now..." I think my only game is Kung Fu Panda, which wasn't bad but forgettable all the same.
    'Life begins beyond the edge of your comfort zone'
  • HUN playmoreHUN playmore1,015,606
    Posted on 30 July 17 at 20:03Permalink
    I find it surprising nobody noticed, but movie tie in games are still alive, just moved to the smartphones. Distribution and development costs are almost zero, the games are very simple and easy understand for anyone. Most games are F2P and turn a huge profit.
  • RadiantViperRadiantViper736,019
    Posted on 30 July 17 at 20:07Permalink
    HUN playmore said:
    I find it surprising nobody noticed, but movie tie in games are still alive, just moved to the smartphones. Distribution and development costs are almost zero, the games are very simple and easy understand for anyone. Most games are F2P and turn a huge profit.
    The article does mention this though? The point is that phone games often barely qualify as "games", at least on a console they had a half chance of being decent.
  • wosmackwosmack343,138
    Posted on 30 July 17 at 20:09Permalink
    Mad max was a great movie tie in. Not for kids really but by Avalanche studios I believe as well. I had a ton of fun playing it the first time and now a year later, I'm actually having a great time replaying it. I'm not sure but I think it hasn't gotten much attention.
  • Bond22 BrBond22 Br183,563
    Posted on 30 July 17 at 20:48Permalink
    I've been having a hard time to find anything other than LEGO to play with my 4 year old son... Great article :)
  • YinYin959,177
    Posted on 30 July 17 at 21:09Permalink
    Wow, I was thinking about this last week; glad I'm not alone!
    The lesser half of the Yin Yang gaming couple. ;)
  • Posted on 30 July 17 at 21:10Permalink
    I don't miss the adult ones like King Kong, Avatar etc.

    However I miss the kids movie tie ins. So many of them were just dumb fun even if they weren't great. Monster inc, Toy Story, Hercules, 101 Dalmations, were all incredibly fun and kept me and my friends busy trying to be the first to finish them.
    Then there were the cartoon show tie ins, Dexters lab, Rugrats, Ed Edd 'n Eddy, Scooby Doo, Rocket Power (the skating part was so damn fun), Cartoon Network Racing etc. All a load of fun too.
    I've been missing them recently, but at the same time unless the game is focussed on a show/movie of my childhood I have little to no interest in the game. A good example is my completion of Punch Time Explosion, but not even buying Battle Crashers.
  • S7ephenson90S7ephenson90292,970
    Posted on 30 July 17 at 21:10Permalink
    Gotta admit I love all the kids/disney/movie games even tv show ones like turtles and sponge bob etc I have had to buy my kids a ps2 for them to get a good range of kids games and think most of them could easily be remastered even if just for the 360 I know like people saying that phone games but im shocked not to see many of then jump to xbox only frozen free fall and the marvel one I know there small simple games but there fun quick play games like say minion rush sonic dash etc even some of the disney bubble games
    Posted on 30 July 17 at 21:11Permalink
    Some of those Disney and Dreamworks games were garbage but the majority of them were just mediocre at worst and pretty easy. The important thing is that they allowed my children to have a decent games library and kept them well entertained. I would like to buy them their own Xbox One for Christmas but the poor selection of age-appropriate games makes me hesitate. Bring back licensed games!
Want to join in the discussion? Please log in or Register For Free to comment.