Licensed games have been a bit sketchy since time immemorial. These are titles that are directly licensed from popular franchises, typically rushed to production, and (seemingly) used for no other purpose than to deprive unwary gamers (or gift-buyers) of their money. No need to bring up examples; any gamer aware of the breadth of the medium’s history understands this.
The typical licensed game takes something that is close to a fan’s heart and neuters it. Replace a fun story with bored storytelling. Take a narrative suited to its medium and cram it onto a disc. Spend more on advertising than on the game itself. It’s enough to give any fan an allergic reaction to anything near a licensed title. The bottom-line (and deadline) usually trump loving care, as they so often do even with non-licensed games, except that when a non-licensed game flops there are no uber-fans to leap to the forums, their keyboards of fury ablaze with righteous indignation.
Yet, at the same time, there’s no reason why licensed games can’t be good. There is no law of physics that prevents the capable franchising of characters to the medium of video games. Indeed, video games allow the fan to take on the role of their favorite characters. When it works, a title is wish-fulfillment come to life.
There are a dozen examples that I can list off of the top of my head, but the first that comes to mind directly is DuckTales. Based off of the popular 1980’s cartoon (which, in turn, was largely based on the Carl Barks Donald Duck comics), it was a simple platforming adventure that followed the rules. Hidden rooms, multiple difficulty settings, secret treasure, power-ups, three-button gameplay (jump, bounce, move): the only more NES-style NES game would be Super Mario Bros.
So why did it become a bestseller and classic of the medium? What can other licensed games learn from DuckTales, more than two decades after the fact?
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
DuckTales is not a power-gamer’s game. There were five main stages, plus a bonus end stage; a commited gamer could beat it in under ten minutes. The bosses followed the traditional “three bops on the head” rule. The mechanics consisted of using Scrooge McDuck’s cane to bounce on enemies and reach the end, collecting treasure along the way.
This is a game for the wee folk, toward whom the TV show was aimed. The colors are bright. The music is fun. This is a game created by people who—if not fans themselves—understood the fans of the show. It’s enough to rekindle memories in any fan who picks up the controller.
DO THE LITTLE THINGS RIGHT
DuckTales is a standard platformer, but that means any garish problems would show up that much more prominently. The fact that the graphics were solid (for the time), the sound was good, the details of the animation were spot-on, and the controls responsive meant that people didn’t associate the frailties of the emerging art form with the narrative itself.
Throwing in characters and easter eggs helped smooth out the rough spots. Fans were more forgiving because every board could bring a new (playable) moment from the show. The game didn’t get in its own way showing these moments, either. When you rescue Bubba from the ice, or visit Miss Beakley in the mines, or take Launchpad’s offer to return to Duckburg, the character is rewarded. These aren’t hard moments to craft in gameplay. They just reflect a personal investment in combining the franchise with the video game itself.
This was helped by the fact that the designers didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. Or, put another way…
DON’T REACH FOR THE STARS
Technology has come a long way since DuckTales, but the lessons are still the same: don’t reach too far. A tight deadline means modest goals. A limited budget means limited visuals. Struggling against that could have turned DuckTales into a broken game, as so many licensed titles have become. Instead, it was a modest endevour that encouraged replayability with secrets. Cost effectiveness in both creation and utilization equals a solid title, so long as it is fun.
Fans want to experience the feeling of being their favorite character, of interacting with their favorite storyworld, but they want to have fun first and foremost. As title after title has shown, gamers don’t have to experience every little bit of history from the franchise. It overwhelms fans. It destroys the power of their imaginations. It costs way too much. Most importantly, from a bottom-line perspective, it limits the room for sequels.
Remember that DuckTales is not the same thing as Batman: Arkham Asylum or Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. Those were narratives that licensed the characters to tell completely different stories that could interweave with the strengths of their medium. They could live or die by their own merits.
DuckTales was an extension/port of the show… or as much as it could be, considering the tech. If it was to be successful, it had to do three things…
1.) Be a good game.
2.) Be a good representation of the franchise.
3.) Convince gamers and fans of the first two steps.
The three former criteria that DuckTales followed helped to reinforce the latter in each instance. Knowing the audience helped to make an age-appropriate game that was a part of the franchise and spoke to fans. Doing the little things made sure that developers kept focus, didn’t lose sight of the ins and outs of the entire intellectual property, and helped bridge non-fan gamers to the title itself. Finally, keeping things simple meant that it couldn’t help but be playable, made it easier to transition elements from the show to the game, and that gamers and fans would find something to like in the title.
Don’t take my word for it, though. DuckTales outsold Mario Bros. (the original), Excitebike, Dr. Mario, Dragon Warrior, and Kid Icarus, among other non-licensed but well-remembered games from the NES. Nintendo Power listed it as one of the best games of that era, as well. From its graphics to it’s non-linear completion of gameplay, to its music, to its usage of simple but interesting play mechanics (e.g., McDuck’s cane as pogo-stick, weapon, and tool)… DuckTales had a lot going for it in its bitsy package. It’s no wonder that Disney has made some of the best licensed games ever.
Of course, that’s not to say that they’re perfect…