[Following Disney's surprise acquisition of Marvel Entertainment, Gamasutra's Christian Nutt takes a look at the games biz's long relationship with licenses to analyze the deal's potential impact.]
Yesterday's announcement that Disney has bought Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion was a surprise to just about everyone on the planet, and some of Marvel's fans and creatives have spoken out in dismay.
Whether or not it will be good for the traditional Marvel business of comic books is tough to predict from here, but it's obvious that there are two primary motivations for the acquisition.
First, Marvel's increasing relevance as a film production company and the success it's found with its franchises in the medium of film make it an attractive target for Disney, which does huge Hollywood business.
The other, more directly relevant reason, is IP. Disney has bought companies to bulk up its IP before -- notably DIC animation in the '90s, which Disney later sold back to its management after pumping out the live-action Inspector Gadget film.
This will not be anything quite that crass or temporary, of course. The New York Times reports that Robert A. Iger, Disney's CEO, said, "Marvel’s brand and its treasure trove of content will now benefit from our extraordinary reach." That tells you everything you need to know about the IP issue.
And that is broadly relevant to game developers and the games business because of the enduring strength of Marvel's licenses in the gaming sphere. Consoles and PCs have been awash in Marvel games for many years. Well before the recent explosion in the popularity of superhero films, Marvel's X-Men were a staple of the gaming universe, with titles on the NES and Genesis memorable to many gamers.
Superhero Flicks And Licenses
Activision has managed to publish more Spider-Man games than Sony Pictures has delivered film sequels over the past several years, at times by taking technology developed for the movie games and adapting it to new stories with a different feel. Spider-Man: Web of Shadows
and Spider-Man: Friend or Foe
were both released by Activision after its adaptation of Spider-Man 3.
There's some debate on the value of licensed games to the market, but there's no doubt that there is no shortage of them. On one hand, you see Electronic Arts backing away from the titles. In a Gamasutra interview
, EA Games president Frank Gibeau said, "John [Riccitiello] came in and had a big focus on... 'How do we create IP that we own and that, frankly, our people make -- as opposed to stuff that we rent?' And so that rejuvenation really uncorked a lot of talent inside our organization."
On the other hand, it hardly needs to be stated that Activision is big on licensed games. Most other publishers fit somewhere in between, with a mix of original and licensed properties fueling their game offerings.
When you're just talking film adaptations -- which do and will continue to make up an important part of the Marvel slate -- a pretty big proportion of game titles, eight to 11 percent, are film-licensed. (This is according to a recent study
from the Universite Paris Ouest Nanterre La Defense.)
A lot of the popular films that make good games are superhero flicks. According to the study
, 10 percent of film properties turned into games -- and we're stretching back to the Atari 2600, here -- are from films based on comics.
Add in games from original comics that were never films, and you have a nontrivial chunk of games. Weight it for popularity, and you have a different picture which is harder to put together. We can simply say that this source of IP is "important".
Everything from Capcom's recent re-release of the decade-old Marvel vs. Capcom 2
for Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network to this month's Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2
could be at risk if Disney decides to take its Marvel game production in-house. And that's increasingly possible, with the expansion of Disney Interactive. Marvel, of course, has no such organ in its existing corporate structure; it does its business in licensing, and business is brisk
It's a bit of an extrapolation (particularly given the "business as usual" mantra that's coming from Disney and Marvel so far) to try to predict what will happen based on Disney's actions with its own IP. But fortunately for independent studios and publishers, Disney has not so far pulled its properties from external developers and even, in some cases, publishers.
Sharing The Work
When I spoke to
Graham Hopper, general manager of Disney Interactive, at E3, he had this to say: "We can't make all the games against all the IP that we have that has potential to be a game. So to be able to go out and to work with the bodies that can do it, that have the skill set, or technology, or a set of creative assets, in the case of Square Enix... Whatever those things might be, we don't feel like we have to do it all ourselves to be successful."
Of course, analysts have long supposed that Disney Interactive will kick THQ to the curb when its Pixar movie game deal runs out, so it's hard to know exactly what to believe.
But it's not a straightforward business decision. Working with external partners offers up creative avenues that the IP holder may not be equipped to deliver on, as Hopper alludes to above. "Creative assets, in the case of Square Enix," refers to the vision of Tetsuya Nomura. He has taken Disney's IP and blended it with his original vision to create the globally successful and critically acclaimed Kingdom Hearts
series using the power of Square Enix's Tokyo-based development teams.
Another example much closer in feel to Marvel, if on the other side of the fence, is Warner Interactive, Eidos, and Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham Asylum
. It's currently sitting pretty on Metacritic with a 92
. It also bears much more resemblance to the cartoon and comic incarnations of the series than the recent entries in the Batman film franchise -- an angle that might not have been taken in the face of film marketing constraints.
Warner's recent purchase
of Midway is still too fresh to understand what impact it will have on the future. "Warner Bros. now has access to a greatly expanded catalog of valuable intellectual properties [from Midway] that can be developed and re-released on new games and digital platforms, adapted for film or TV, leveraged for consumer products, or licensed to third parties," the company recently said in a statement
Is Original IP An Endangered Species?
But as these media empires grow, and their development organizations become more robust and integrated, will companies outside of their influence suffer from a paucity of IP to license? That may seem to be a good thing for creativity, on the face of it. Yet surefire hits help fund more original titles, and even help carry companies' critical darlings when they're not major financial successes.
that Iger said, "On the video game front, [Marvel] have some smart licensing agreements with some of the best video game manufacturers in the business." He added: "While we have been steadily moving in the direction of video game integration, we don't rule out the blend of licensing and self-produced and distributed video games," echoing the basic tenets that Hopper specifically mentioned in reference to Disney-based games.
And Hopper also said to me that 30 percent of Disney Interactive's games are based on original IP, which may begin to flow outward into the company. If Marvel adopts a similar strategy, it may end up taking on original game properties and turning them into comics, rather than the other way around. This could very well be beneficial to the creators at the studios that Marvel works with.
"It's too early to tell" isn't much of a punchline to an editorial, but it seems to be the truth. Disney is a huge and multifaceted company. Marvel's editors seem cautiously optimistic
or even ecstatic
, so it's seemingly not something we can yet worry about on any meaningful level. But it's good to think ahead when you can.
Marvel's current deals with game companies are multifarious and long-reaching -- one, with Gazillion
, does not expire until 2019. External game publishers and developers currently do have a lot of Marvel work to look forward to, and gamers can expect business as usual in the licensing department. But with news that Warner Bros. has taken the Lord of the Rings license back in-house
after the expiration of the EA deal, it's easy to imagine similar situations arising as time marches ever onward.
Will new Marvel deals be signed after today? It seems certain. But for how long? How far-reaching will they be? How open to creative interpretations of the licenses?
I'm tempted to just end this with a call to arms to developers to shake off the chains of licensing and march forward with original games. On the other hand, like a lot of you, I'm playing and enjoying Arkham Asylum
right now, so that would be a teensy bit hypocritical of me.
The safest (and most artistically appealing) answer, however, in the face of ever-consolidating media conglomerates which control some of the juiciest IP around is to look within, rather than without. Even if they're willing to play ball in the coming years, they're going to be driving hard bargains. Every Arkham Asylum
or Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2
just makes their IP that much more valuable.