Big Game Publishers Are Retreating Into The Safety Of Hollywood’s Back Catalogue

Big Game Publishers Are Retreating Into The Safety Of Hollywood’s Back Catalogue

This week, the video game industry got a fresh infusion of boomer energy with the announcement of a new Indiana Jones game. Meanwhile, there’s also a James Bond game in the works, and Ubisoft announced it’s working on an open world Star Wars game — the first in a possible flood of new games taking place in the galaxy far, far away once EA’s exclusive deal with Lucasfilm ends in 2023. Big publishers hoping Hollywood delivers their next blockbuster hit might be smart business or just another fad. In either case, it feels like an ominous sign of creative surrender just months into the next console cycle.

WhileHollywood rushes to buy up the rights to video game movies, the gaming industry now seems poised to lean ever more into Hollywood’s established blockbuster franchises. These aren’t the market synergies I was looking for. Both mediums (and their respective corporate overlords) have plenty to learn from and contribute to one another, but spending years and hundreds of millions on swapping the same old (mostly white) stories kind of sucks. Hollywood is already growing full by eating its own tail creating endless sequels and reboots — Independence Day: Resurgence, Jurassic World, Ghostbusters. Seeing it crossover into gaming feels even more exhausting.

“Some great studios are doing licensed games,” Game Awards host Geoff Keighley wrote on Twitter yesterday. “What’s your dream studio / franchise collaboration you hope to see one day?”

The fantasy of your favourite developer making a game in your favourite genre based off of your favourite piece of existing fiction, like if Square Enix made an open world RPG based on Frank Herbert’s Dune, is nothing new. Increasingly, those fantasies are turning into reality as the cost of making big budget games balloons leaving publishers to look for safer bets. The success of Dark Knight movies led to the Arkham trilogy, followed more recently by Insomniac’s Spider-Man and Miles Morales and even Crystal Dynamics’ Marvel’s Avengers: the popular studio behind the Tomb Raider reboot working on a beat ‘em up based on everyone’s favourite Marvel characters.

Screenshot: Square Enix / Kotaku
Screenshot: Square Enix / Kotaku

This isn’t a bad thing, nor is it a guaranteed success, as evidenced by Square Enix’s disappointment with Avengers. Some great games have come out of this pitch process, but it can also be a recipe for imagination heat death. Hitman maker IO Interactive is moving from its unique Agent 47 to the to take a stab at the James Bond licence. Wolfenstein developer Machine Games will revive Nazi-puncher and colonialist theif Indiana Jones. Meanwhile, it’s been decades since those stories felt creatively fresh and relevant.

Disney is pulling Lucasfilm’s video game legacy out of the Sarlacc pit with Lucasfilm Games, a sign that the mega media corporation likely has its sights on flooding the market with newly licensed games the same way it does with movies and TV shows. All of this, of course, is based on existing canon, and all of it is owned by a company whose net worth is more than most countries’ GDP.

EA got a lot of shit for its 10-year deal to be the exclusive publisher of Star Wars games only to release, up until 2019, a grand total of three. Now it seems the monkey’s paw wish has been granted, and we’re about to get a lot more.

“We’re looking to work with best-in-class teams that can make great games across all of our IP,” Lucasfilm Games VP Douglas Reilly announced yesterday. Reilly, notably, said he expects games “across a breadth of platforms, genres, and experiences,” with lots of “professionals” at Lucasfilm Games to help make sure developers shape the creative vision of the adaptations. An open world Ubisoft game is just the beginning, in other words. For comparison, during last December’s investor call Disney announced nearly a dozen new Star Wars movies and TV.

And, of course, there are also whatever Star Wars games EA continues to work on. A spokesperson for EA told Kotaku yesterday that the terms of its exclusivity deal with Lucasfilm have not changed and remain in place until 2023. According to a source with knowledge of the deal, only EA can publish Star Wars games prior to 2023, after which point the partnership with Lucasfilm will continue, but will no longer be exclusive. This means Ubisoft’s Star Wars game won’t be out until the later part of 2023 at the earliest.

Screenshot: EA
Screenshot: EA

Some of these games might be great. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order in 2019 and 2020’s Star Wars: Squadrons were a lot of fun, but I don’t know that we need a dozen more big budget games trying to play in that space. I’d just as much like to see Respawn or EA Motive make something original, Ubisoft too for that matter. Despite the eye-roll-inducing name, Fenyx: Immortals Rising was pretty cool, even if it too grocked a lot from prior Ubisoft games and Nintendo’s Breath of the Wild.

It’s easy to dream up how studios might mix-and-match game genres and mechanics with already established and beloved fictional worlds. It’s much harder to conceptualise all of the ideas and projects that won’t see the light of day because of that media consolidation.

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“None,” former Naughty Dog developer and The Last of Us director Bruce Straley wrote with a friendly wink in response to Keighley’s thought experiment. “We need all that talent & money focused on creating new content, new IP, and innovating in the AAA space Geoff.”

Blockbuster game publishing has never been a bastion of risk taking and creativity, but it could get even staler if it becomes further monopolised by the existing entertainment monoculture. So, no I would not like to see BioWare make another Star Wars RPG, and I’m far from delighted at the prospect of Machine Games trying itself in knots trying to rehabilitate tomb raider Indiana Jones into something less culturally abhorrent. It would be great, as always, to see video games try to make something new. After all, where else will Hollywood’s future blockbusters come from?


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