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From Star Wars to Marvel, licensed video games are becoming more ambitious. Here’s why.

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)
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The upcoming Ubisoft Star Wars game can be traced back to a lunch. In a shaded courtyard at a Disney campus in Glendale, California, Disney Senior Vice President Sean Shoptaw and Ubisoft Massive managing director David Polfeldt brainstormed as they ate. The two had met the day before following Disney’s acquisition of Twentieth Century Fox, and they were feeling inspired.

The chat over lunch went well — so well, in fact, it would cement the foundation of a new partnership. Disney would soon visit Ubisoft Massive in Sweden, and Ubisoft Massive would then be invited to Lucasfilm’s Bay Area studios to formalize a pitch.

The result: An open-world Star Wars game from the makers of “The Division.”

A Ubisoft Star Wars game is far from the only large-scale licensed game on the horizon, and neither is it the only case for close collaboration between entertainment conglomerates and video game makers. Early this year, a handful of video game makers announced they had secured licenses to use massively popular Hollywood franchises, including Bethesda’s Indiana Jones game and IO Interactive’s “Project 007.”

For many years, licensed games were often movie tie-ins made by small or mid-tier studios with little care for quality. Lately, however, mega publishers have turned to licensed properties with more ambition and excitement. Renewed interest followed the success of games like “Marvel’s Spider-Man,” the fastest-selling superhero game in American history, and these days, game creators like Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and Insomniac are developing with more frequent access to filmmakers and producers.

These changes didn’t happen overnight.

Evolution of licensed games

Licensed video games were long a red flag in the eyes of consumers, particularly in the 1990s and 2000s, often deemed unremarkable or of poor quality. Nintendo 64′s 1999 release of “Superman 64,” based off the TV show “Superman: The Animated Series,” is widely regarded as one of the worst video games ever made.

“For many years, licensed games have been perceived as a quick way to make money,” said Mark Caplan, who has worked in the video game licensing business for 25 years at Sony Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox. Caplan is now the founder of consulting firm Ridge Partners, where he provides licensing guidance across several types of media. Caplan dubbed the most egregious instances “logo slapping,” noting that games tied to movie or media release dates often greatly restricted the game’s development timeline. “It’s a quick way to get it out there, turn it around and there’s no real effort put into the game or to make it stand out among the rest.”

What we want from Ubisoft Massive’s open world Star Wars game

Because of that stigma, publishers would want to assure players that a licensed product is worth their time. Ubisoft, for example, made clear before the release of “South Park: Fractured But Whole” that the creators of the television show were “really, really involved” in the making of the game. The 2009 release of “Batman: Arkham Asylum,” from London-based studio Rocksteady, was one of the turning points: Licensed games were becoming more polished, and creating a blueprint for future developers.

“People are much more understanding and wanting to be part of the games industry now than ever before, on the creative side and on the film side,” Caplan said.

Disney’s relationship with video games, for example, has been rocky. Fresh off acquiring Lucasfilm, Disney shut down its video games division LucasArts in 2013. Three years later, a similar end came for Disney Interactive Studios, the company’s first-party development team.

In a 2019 earnings call, CEO Bob Iger acknowledged that the company is best at making movies, not games. Today, Disney no longer develops games internally, focusing its efforts on licensing and partnering with external studios. LucasArts — now Lucasfilm Games — was reformed and rebranded as a team overseeing licensing for many Lucasfilm-owned properties.

In 2013, EA entered a deal with Disney, allowing the video game publisher to exclusively develop Star Wars console and mobile blockbusters. That deal expires in 2023, and Disney has started looking for new publisher and developer partners beyond EA.

According to EA’s chief studios officer Laura Miele, “nothing has changed” outside of the expiring exclusivity deal, and Miele doesn’t feel “threatened” by new development teams working alongside Disney.

“We have other deals and other projects that we’re working on, even outside of this contract [with Disney]," Miele said. “So my view on it is, we just have a long-standing creative partnership and collaboration with Lucasfilm and Disney. And that’s going to continue on. …

“We always said to each other, we did not want to run this partnership by the letter of a contract, nor did we want the relationship to be transactional. We had the contract and that was what two corporations needed to have. But we had to have a creative collaboration and a creative partnership together to do something meaningful.”

Closer collaboration

When Disney acquired Twentieth Century Fox in 2019, it opened a wealth of new IPs to the entertainment empire, including that of the second-most successful film ever made, “Avatar.” In the process, the company discovered that the creators at film studio Lightstorm Entertainment were already involved with Ubisoft on an upcoming “Avatar” game. With that knowledge, Disney seized an opportunity and set up the lunch meeting with Ubisoft Massive.

“It evolved into a discussion of, ‘OK, how could we look into another collaboration on another franchise which has the same qualities as ‘Avatar’?” Polfeldt said. “And it ended up being Star Wars.”

Disney was inspired by the strong chemistry and close collaboration between Ubisoft Massive and Lightstorm. For the upcoming, open-world “Avatar” installment, Ubisoft Massive regularly meets with Lightstorm’s filmmakers, producers, costume designers and occasionally director James Cameron. It’s similar for “Star Wars” with Lucasfilm, Polfeldt said.

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This unusual arrangement marks a break from the past, according to Polfeldt. “The people who were the creative on the game side never met the people who were the creators on the movie side, because there was a business arrangement in the middle,” he said.

Closer collaboration between film, TV and video games has resulted in many different avenues of success. Video game-based television has become more ambitious, including the successful 2019 debut of Netflix’s “The Witcher,” which amassed 76 million viewers in the United States alone. It even drove up sales of the most recent game, 2015′s “The Witcher 3,” 554 percent that same month. Epic Games, the company behind “Fortnite,” has worked with filmmakers to build movie-like rendering technology in the game engine Unreal — something Caplan believes filmmakers would have “never embraced” just 15 years ago.

At the annual D.I.C.E. Summit of February 2020, Disney made it clear it was approaching video games through a new lens. Shoptaw spoke to a large room of developers, encouraging them to pitch original stories that could have a place within Disney universes.

“We’ve had various models over the years of vertical development, co-development, licensing,” Shoptaw told The Post in a recent interview. “I think that narrative could have gotten away from us as far as what people thought Disney might be open to from a games perspective.”

Disney’s goal going forward, Shoptaw said, is to “empower” video game studios like Ubisoft and Bethesda to create original stories within the larger framework of a Disney franchise and to partner with game studios that have a deep passion for Disney brands they’d work on.

Jay Ong, an executive vice president at Marvel Entertainment and head of Marvel Games, reflects that his company, too, has learned plenty through the years. By 2009, Marvel created the specialized internal team of Marvel Games, composed of veteran game developers, to help steer licensed products in the right direction, much like other Disney-owned teams do (i.e. Lucasfilm Games). Ong, who began working there in 2014 and shaped a new leadership direction, says he’s helped the 18-strong team pivot from being what he calls “brand police.”

“One of the things we’ve done very well and was a major break from how things were done in years past, was to pivot from being a brand police to much more of a collaborator and consultancy,” Ong said. “Our job is to help make the games more authentically Marvel, and that’s it.”

Rather than forcing a game development team to use certain assets from the Marvel Cinematic Universe or from the original looks of the comics, for example, those have now become open discussions for what fits best for each game. This gave Insomniac Games, the developer behind “Marvel’s Spider-Man” and “Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales,” the freedom to design their own Spider-Man suits, and Crystal Dynamics, who made “Marvel’s Avengers,” the choice to place Ms. Marvel (also known as Kamala Khan) front-and-center in the story. But Marvel is more strict about principles relating to their worlds and characters. Among the most important for Spider-Man is that he does not kill.

“In ‘Marvel’s Spider-Man,’ when you toss someone off the building, they don’t drop in the street,” Haluk Menteş, vice president and head of business development at Marvel, said. “They somehow get glued to the side of the building and Insomniac took great care to uphold that.”

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Despite working as a Disney subsidiary, Marvel Games calls itself “fairly” autonomous; they make creative calls with partnered game studios, but also decide which games are best for which platforms. For example, movie tie-in content with restrictive deadlines has mostly moved to the mobile market, where developers can produce a product more quickly than a full-fledged console game.

“Those were exceptionally difficult to do well, because of time frames that don’t match and you can’t really attract the caliber of development talent you need,” Ong said. “The creativity is relatively constrained to what the movie is.”

Rather than movie tie-ins, filmmakers are considering more deeply how to expand their worlds through interactive entertainment in ways that feel novel, or as an extension to what fans experience in a movie theater.

“I think that the level of success we’ve seen from some of the most recent blockbuster games demonstrates that investment can truly pay off in the ongoing engagement for players and the longevity of these games, unlike a film which is really at some level make or break from their opening weekend and the few weeks after,” Lightstorm Entertainment’s president of franchise development Kathy Franklin said. “A game has to continue to prove itself over the long term.”

Making of a deal

Electronic Arts reportedly has grossed a whopping $3 billion in revenue from all its Star Wars games, including those before its exclusivity deal. Despite EA shipping only a handful of Star Wars blockbusters on console during the exclusivity contract, canceled projects like “Project Ragtag” from Visceral and adding controversial microtransactions to “Star Wars Battlefront II,” both EA and Disney consider the partnership a success — and have the sales numbers to show it. EA’s “Star Wars Battlefront” games collectively sold approximately 33 million copies. The EA mobile game “Galaxy of Heroes” is a billion-dollar entity.

Disney declined to say how much EA paid for the Star Wars exclusivity deal. According to Caplan, generally the most expensive licensing he’s seen was upward of $40 million, and the lowest, particularly for lesser known or newer IPs, was around $100,000.

“What we try to do is work with our publishing partner to figure out a low, medium and high number based upon [sales] forecast projections and running numbers to see how things would net out,” Caplan said. “And then we come up with a comparable, reasonable arrangement between the two parties.”

But recent licensed games don’t always equal success. “Marvel’s Avengers,” for example, sold short of expectations last year, with Square Enix experiencing an estimated $67 million loss.

“An IP helps build [a game publisher’s] portfolio and offer up variety to their consumers and to the people that are already playing their games,” Caplan said. “But the question always becomes, what’s the right IP for them?”

At Marvel Games, Ong recognizes certain genres and platforms are more profitable (“Contest of Champions” is their biggest hit on mobile, and single-player action adventure is the most successful format on console), but he steers clear of what his team internally calls “IP bingo,” — matching certain IPs to specific genres.

“[Sometimes] we’ll have a potential partner come say, ‘we’re interested in working with Marvel,’ and it’s not even a genre we were thinking about at all,” Ong said.

Like game development as a whole, there’s no way of ensuring a product will be a success, but Ong and his team have learned the best chance for a licensed game to be profitable is by prioritizing talent rather than optimizing terms of a deal — another “major pivot” for Marvel over the last few years, Ong said.

“Does the quality of games matter? It matters a lot. In fact, that’s probably the only thing that matters,” Ong said. “To get the best games, you need the top caliber talent. We have a saying: It’s not guaranteed that a great team is going to make a great game, but it is guaranteed a mediocre team cannot make a great game.”

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