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Why licensed property (‘tie-in’) games are usually bad

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A reddit thread asked if there were any good games based on movies and noted that Aliens: Another Glorious Day in the Corp was bad. (It’s actually pretty well rated on BGG, but none of my geekbuddies have commented one way or another, so I have no real basis to judge. I’d never heard of it).

I’ve generally had (and followed!) a “don’t buy games based on licensed IP until they are proven good” meta-rule (of which movies are very common example). There are good (even great) games using licensed IP (Battlestar Galactica, Jaws, some LotR games), but I actually didn’t really have reasons for my meta-rule. I’d just noticed that most licensed games were bad a decade — or more — ago. That thread led me to ask Why?

I remember reading Tyler Cowen (of Marginal Revolution, who wrote the DC dining guide) gave guidelines for finding good restaurants. One of his rules was that a hole-in-the-wall dive in a strip center would often be good …. a small business would spend as little as possible on rent or amenities (or help) and just pour their limited resources into making good food. That certainly seems to apply. Licenses are (presumably) expensive. Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to skimp on game design (like a restaurant might have to skimp on rent) but for many games companies, why bother?

(Another rule: avoid restaurants full of beautiful people, because they would often not need to have good food. The restaurant itself had become a status symbols. This may also apply).

Another concern is that the license imposes additional constraints on the game development. If you have a great idea for a worker placement game, how does tacking on a movie theme help? Making a great game is hard, and the additional constraint may make it harder.

Counter point — sometimes constraints lead to great art. The aforementioned BSG is an excellent and fairly-early example of a social deduction game. In this case the mechanisms (social deduction) tie in beautifully with the theme (“Who is a Cylon?” and “You might be without even knowing it!”).

So one possible extension of the rule is “Does the game’s theme tie in with the license?” or more specifically “Could this game have swapped its license out for some other IP?” If you could hot-swap the Aliens from “Another Glorious Day in the Corp” with fast zombies (etc), then why license the Aliens? A cynical take (and we have plenty of those here at Casa de Tao) is that “we licensed it because our game is mediocre but people like Aliens(tm)!”)

(My most cynical answer is — “Most games are bad, why should licensed games be any different?” But in reality most games are mediocre; but licensed games are often terrible).

If the license ties in well, there’s a decent chance that the designer loves the license and/or was inspired by it. (Even in the case where a company got a license and then hired a gun to fit something to it. I’m looking at you Reiner and Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation (which was good).

Looking back on my reviews of Nemesis and Who Goes There I have a number of thoughts:

  • Nemesis (the better game) doesn’t actually license Aliens (I think). It rips it off! Why pay for the license when “a monster is loose on your spaceship” can be generic? Their are no character names (like Ripley, Dallas, etc) just generic stuff. The xenomorph’s life cycle is clearly inspired by Aliens …. but the ship is just a ship, not the Nostromo, etc. (HR Giger’s estate seems like they’d have a cause for action from the artwork if it isn’t licensed, but I’m not about to wade into IP law for my own personal edification).
  • For all I know Who Goes There licenses the short story and not the movie, which would be much cheaper (although I assume that The Thing licenses go for much less than Alien/Aliens, but the short story would be even cheaper!). (The game uses the character names, but the artwork is all original…) Still not a great game, but that would at least match the dining guide’s rules of going for the cheap license.

One final issue that licensed games have — licensing is kind of a nightmare that game developer’s don’t want to deal with. In this I’m particularly thinking of The Princess Bridge RPG where the author (and publishing company) had to jump through hoop after hoop after hoop to satisfy the license’s legal restrictions, then the license holder’s other demands, but finally got a game published …. only for the license holder to give up the gaming license, meaning that no future work could be done.

If you are a talented game designer, you’d ask yourself “Why bother?” (paying the fee, having to abide by some extra legal and corporate restrictions, etc) unless you really thought that the license was the Dude’s rug and “ties the whole thing together?” If you come up with a game and say “Man, this license makes it really shine and will elevate the whole thing” then the license gets added to an already good game (assuming you are accurate at judging the designs). But most of the time the license is an upsell with a game tacked on, so that’s why most licensed games are bad.

Written by taogaming

September 8, 2021 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Rant, TV & Media

BGG sells out … to Vidal Sassoon

BGG is still a good resource but it seems to me that whenever I go to the “new” front page, I’m confronted by an image of men (and sometimes women) who just stepped out of a hair salon. I get that this is now the trend to get clicks/likes/hearts/poobahs on social media, but wouldn’t it be nice if it were an image of a game?

Incidentally my hair is long and glorious as well, but you’ll just have to imagine it.

Written by taogaming

July 20, 2021 at 7:38 am

Posted in Misc

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May Links

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May 16, 2021 at 6:49 pm

Posted in Linky Love

April Links

Update — A late link. An book review of Henry George’s economic theory that takes examples from Monopoly (literally based on his ideas), Magic the Gathering, the Settlers of Catan, EVE Online, and whatnot.

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April 14, 2021 at 9:47 pm

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Links for March ’21

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March 18, 2021 at 1:16 pm

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A bit-late Jan/Feb 2021 Links

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March 2, 2021 at 9:29 pm

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The Line between Inspiration and Theft

I saw the announcement for Terraforming Mars: Area Expedition(aka TM: The card game) because someone commented something to the effect of “They ripped off Race for the Galaxy.” And — uh, yeah. There are some differences, but the five phases, simultaneous selection, etc. Its all there. (You can’t select the same phase twice in a row).

Last week I tried the Dyson Sphere Program video game and then returned it (because it was somewhat clunky), but after watching some Katherine of Sky videos I re-bought it. (KoS is — to me — the Bob Ross of Twitch. Simply a joy to listen to). Let’s be clear — DSP takes a lot from Factorio. But it adds innovations — you are in a universe where an Astronomical Unit is a 40 km and you can run around a planet’s equator in a minute or two. Factorio meets The Little Prince. The curvature of each planet and its orbital inclination matter! Its three dimensional in a real way, and that’s a huge change. (A beautiful, albeit clunky, game).

I guess the true test is — did you build something new? When you are standing on the shoulders of giants, is it so you can see farther, or are you just pissing on them? Perhaps TM:AE does something new. It’s easy to imagine. Race where you can’t repeat your role selection is a new game (and possibly a great variant). But the fact that this “inspired by” game is tacked onto an established property by an already established company makes it feel a bit dirty. Time will tell.

Full review of DSP later.

(Slay the Spire Update — 7 wins out of 24 games so far, and only two deaths in Act I).

Written by taogaming

February 5, 2021 at 9:59 pm

Goodbye 2020 — Don’t let the links hit you on the way out

I play a fairly complicated bidding system in Bridge, but I’ve never been able to wrap my head around relay systems and control scanning bids, where one hand takes control and asks a question, with the answers encoded into steps. (Control scanning bids have you bid out number of Aces and Kings and then use bids to pinpoint where they are). Even if I understood said systems, I wouldn’t play them. I’ve been known to give the wrong answer to Blackwood (or the simply shortness-encoding splinters I play) more often than I care to admit. But I did like seeing Kit Woolsey and Bart Bramley use relays and scans to get an OK but touchy grand slam and then find a nice line to make it.

Here are 50 written languages. Can you spot the fakes?

The Great (Lego) Wave off Kanagawa (inspired by the famous woodprint).

The go-to guide for not getting murdered in a quaint English village.

When commissioned to paint a Soviet-style Cookie Monster on a building in Peoria, how many questions do you ask? Was one of them “Hey, do you actually own this building?” Me neither.

For your “How its done” pleasure — A video of traditional Japanese Wood Joinery

I’ve seen some strange dance pieces by Yoann Bourgeois, but the fragments of this dance (set to Mozart’s Requiem) astounded me –the set design and lighting made this surreal, as though people were floating from the sky to the ground. I wasn’t sure what was going on until they showed the practice…and here’s his instagram page …. “Sometimes my work consists of catching dancers who want to fall into the orchestra pit.”

(H/T to for several of these)

Written by taogaming

December 16, 2020 at 8:37 pm

Posted in Linky Love

Geeklinks for November 2, 2020

Wait, Senator Leahy has been in 5 Batman movies?

Who wants a multimedia story involving the weird future of football as seen from deep space probes, who are generally wondering what is up with humanity? You? Great! (Give it a few chapters). There’s a sequel (which is why I got alerted to the original a few weeks ago, but haven’t finished the sequel … but it does include the line following line…)

Now, the most common misconception about the Sun is that it’s a jolly goblin who helpfully pours raisins into your cereal. This is FALSE!….cereal boxes are responsible for a host of misconceptions but that one might be the most fundamentally wrong


A video on how bridges were built 500 years ago.

AI based robotic TV camera keeps focusing on bald lineman instead of soccer ball. (Video)

Fortnite’s anti-Apple ad based on 1984 (“Nineteen Eighty Fortnite“).

I don’t think this is the best headline ever … but “Escaped Cloned Female Mutant Crayfish Take Over Belgian Cemetery” certainly deserves to be in the conversation.

Why Pipe Organs Sound So Scary is an interesting video with sadly repetitive visuals mainly focusing on organs in movies. But I did learn that Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D-minor may not have been written by Bach.

I’ve been trying (and watching) many new video games, but honestly nothing has drawn me in, but I must admit I’m fairly burned out of Factorio and even Slay the Spire. (Among Us isn’t the sort of thing you can play by yourself). Any suggestions? (So I guess this is an open thread as well).

I read this blog on how to build a perfect connect 4 player, although not with enough effort to actually understand all the details. You can play against it.

Related — Human level performance in No-press Diplomacy via Equilibrium Search. Found thanks to Gwern)

And we have a late-breaking best headline entry! Russia’s ‘Sausage King’ killed with crossbow in surprise sauna attack. (The articles headline doesn’t quite match the picture on the front page).

Written by taogaming

November 2, 2020 at 5:48 pm

Posted in Linky Love

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Geeklinks for October 2020

Sousou no Frieren (“Frieren’s aftermath”) tells the story after the party saves the world …. and after the humans die of old age, leaving the elf her memories and regrets.

Quick, given a random google street view image, pick where it is in the world in 10s and score points based on how close you are. A rather amazing video (he gets not one but two answers wrong — out of the entire world — by 18 miles .. and even the ones he misses by thousands of miles are often impressive in how much he got right). There’s a few minutes you can skip before he starts. Related — The GeoGuessr website.

The 100 most influential scenes in animation.

Facebook AI can translate between various computer languages.

This is one of the rare groups where I lag behind most of the people in mathematical knowledge, but this numberphile video finally explained Conway’s Soldiers in a way I could remember.

Instragram Account “Accidentally Wes Anderson” — Scenes that look like they might be in his movies.

I’ve been watching more Among Us than playing it, and the Michael Jordan of this is Disguised Toast … which is also a great online vidoegamer handle, but should have been band name. (Here’s a video where they kill both imposters ….. before anyone dies! (Skip first two minutes), is a pretty nice trailer for blindsight, but makes no sense unless you’ve read the book. (I don’t think there’s an actual movie, somebody just decided to make a trailer).

I love the Kurzgesagt videos …. here is a visual comparison of star sizes.

Milgron & Wilson’s Nobel prize in Econ (yes, yes, I know) sent me on a rabbit hole of organizational theory (an interest of mine, mainly because the ones I’ve worked for make no sense), and then I stumbled on this rather curious, Lovecraftian article on management structure of programmers. (Things are Lovecraftian not because they are wrong, but because the truth is too horrible to bear). And now the world makes sense, and I think I’ll gibber for a while.

Written by taogaming

October 13, 2020 at 5:00 pm

Posted in Linky Love