Are Corporate Tie-Ins Killing Originality?
This weekend I watched the documentary Atari: Game Over, an interesting if narrow view of the rise and fall of the great Atari empire that centers around the development of one infamous game for their flagship 2600 console. That game was “E.T.,” which if you believe the legend (and haven’t played anything found in the bargain bin at Walmart), is supposed to be the worst video game ever created.
The plot of Atari: Game Over focuses on the rumored dumping of millions of copies of “E.T.” in a landfill in New Mexico in the early 1980s. It uses that event as a metaphor for Atari and, to a degree, for the decline of an industry, the “death of a dream,” and the supposed vilification (and subsequent vindication) of a game designer who I wasn’t aware was ever vilified in the first place. If making a crappy video game is cause for the destruction of someone’s career, why don’t many gaming companies have complete regime changes every six months?
Atari’s “E.T.” shouldn’t be significant for being a crappy video game. In fact, in context, it’s far from being a bad game. It was limited by development time and the hardware platform, but was otherwise an earnest programming attempt.
What Atari’s “E.T.” most represents is less a video game and more a “corporate marketing strategy.” And if “E.T.” wasn’t one of the earliest, it was certainly one of the largest “brand licenses” in the industry at the time. It set a standard for how video games would be developed, promoted and released for decades to come. It’s not about making a good game but about piggy-backing on popular intellectual property, which some bean counter will tell you will automatically generate X amount of sales regardless of the quality of the game.
It’s hard to not be a bit cynical these days when there are so many poorly designed products out there that are skating by solely on the strength of their license.
Unfortunately, you don’t learn the real reasons why Atari imploded in the documentary. Very little mention is made of the myriad other products and divisions the company had other than home gaming. But we can look at the failure of Atari’s “E.T.” game as a great example of what has afflicted the modern gaming industry ever since: replacing creativity and originality with prefabricated pop branding.
The standard that “E.T.” set for prioritizing the exploitation of pop culture over quality game design is still in effect today. There isn’t a single popular icon that doesn’t now have its name on a game title, from movies such as Batman, Star Wars and Mad Max to cartoons and children’s favorites like Teletubbies, Barney, and Garfield, to reality shows like Storage Wars, Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Duck Dynasty. Are you a fan of Orange County Choppers? There’s probably a game licensed in their name for your new “smart coffee maker.” Everything is branded now. Branding is considered a primary factor in the appeal of games. Nevermind the actual game play.
I’m not against branding games. Some of my favorite games are licensed themes, but it’s hard to not be a bit cynical these days when there are so many poorly designed products out there that are skating by solely on the strength of their license. Are we seeing this trend finally begin to lose traction? In console gaming now, most of the top titles are original creations of gaming companies. Perhaps instead of spending all available resources on licensing, companies should “Phone Home” and put the spotlight back on great game design and unique creativity.