In my last post, I talked about how the key to making a good licensed game is tapping in to what makes that license special and allowing players to experience that for themselves. Great licensed games allow us to immerse ourselves in that world. This level of gaming immersion was really first mastered by traditional pen and paper role-playing games, of which Dungeons and Dragons hold prominence. While not directly a licensed IP (at least not then), D&D was for many players a chance to explore the fantasy realms they grew up with from Tolkien and others.
For me, my first RPG experience was with a licensed IP RPG called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness by Palladium Books. In this game, you created your own mutant animal character, rolling to determine the extent of the mutation, whether your mutant was secretly trained by ninjas, and what kind of relationship your mutants had with humans. I made scores of mutant sparrows and wolverines and rhinos to go fight some of the weirdest enemies imaginable. It was fantastic. I saw a near-mint copy of the original sourcebook, now long out of print, at a recent convention. The vendor wanted $100, which seemed ridiculous, but what price do you put on nostalgia? I almost went and bought it anyway.
The trouble with RPGs is that they take a lot of time to invest in properly. They provide the deepest emotional payoffs, but it can be challenging as an adult to find others willing to help you build this common experience. It’s also impossible short of schizophrenia to engage in these games by yourself. This is one area in which video games can certainly shine. When a video game captures the experience of an IP we love, the result can be magical, and, for the company behind it, incredibly lucrative. Just how much money has LucasArts made again? And I promise you, if they were to re-release their classic X-Wing and TIE Fighter series of flight simulators today with updated graphics, the internet might near break from glee.
To me, though, the peak period of licensed video game tie-ins seems to have passed. For every Star Wars: Battlefront we get, we have to wade through tons of terrible Spiderman or Transformer games. Maybe there’s something like an uncanny valley effect taking place. As we get closer to photorealistic games that might as well be movies themselves, the experience seems a little more artificial and isolated. The theme of that property seems to get lost in the constant pressure of console wars and frames-per-second and trying to figure out just how old my graphics card is.
This is one of the reasons I have turned to the blossoming market that is modern board games. They seem for me to be the happy medium, balanced somewhere between the creativeness of a video game and the imagination that fuels an RPG. When done right, board games can create powerful experiences with a great license. There have been a number of hits in this space, as well as plenty of misses, but my feeling is aside from the Cash Grab games, they’re getting more right than wrong right now.
To provide an example, let’s look at the world of Joss Whedon’s Firefly. An undeniable cult classic, we Browncoats have been dying for more from this setting. I’ve read the comic books, what few there are. I’ve thumbed through the Firefly RPG. I’ve played almost every non-Cash Grab board game that exists (Firefly Yahtzee Special Edition I’m looking at you…). There’s a Firefly Online MMO in development, the first real video game treatment of note, which has me feeling more cautious than hopeful. Let’s look at two board games that will show how it works – Firefly: the Game by Gale Force Nine and Firefly: Shiny Dice by Upper Deck Entertainment.
Firefly: the Game has players captaining one of several vessels, typically Firefly-class transports, with each ship being led by one of several key characters from the show. The slogan for the game is “Find a Crew. Find a Job. Get Paid”, and that describes the gameplay fairly well. You fly your ship around the ‘Verse, avoiding Reavers and the Alliance Cruiser, looking to take jobs from various key characters in the series, trying to hire crew that were also characters in the series, and accomplish a set of goals to complete a game. It takes a long time to play, typically 2 – 3 hours once you know the rules (longer if you’re learning), but the game drips with theme. It creates stories that feel like they could just as easily have been ripped from the show. The game mechanically isn’t much more than a traditional “pickup and deliver” game, but it uses the Firefly theme to great effect. There’s a real depth to the setting, and it’s tough to imagine this game working as well with a different setting. I love it; I own all the expansions, and can’t wait to play it again, which I’m planning to do soon.
Firefly: Shiny Dice is a lightweight, push-your-luck game of rolling dice, resolving their effects, then spending dice to cancel other dice. Some dice have faces that represent the crew from Firefly, some dice have other cast members or supplies, and still others have villains on their faces. Once you finish spending and canceling dice, you get paid some money if you didn’t fail, and can then decide if you want to keep going with fewer dice to press your luck. There are some cards that give you various dice modification effects, and the cards have lots of flavor text on them reciting famous lines or moments from the TV show. You could absolutely replace every component in this box with a couple of different colors of six-sided dice and some cards with text and nothing would be any different. The theme just didn’t work. It’s not a terrible game (though not a very interesting one), but nothing in this game felt like Firefly to me. In fact, failing to deliver the promised theme took a game that would have been just mediocre and made me hate it.
This is why so many licensed IP games fail. What is Firefly about? It’s about pulling together a misfit crew and struggling to make your way through an unfriendly universe and do the best you can. If you can help me recreate that experience, regardless of the medium, respect what it’s about, I will happily throw my money at you over and over again and tell all my friends to do so, too. If you’re going to try to trick me into buying the Top Gun
drinking game turned Party Game, expect me to ignore anything else you have to say.
What games do you think really capture the spirit of an IP best? Let me know what I’m missing out on in the comment section below.