Massively successful, profitable, popular, a cultural event, revolutionary mechanics, glitchy, disappointing, flawed, incomplete, broken; these all describe the new mobile game Pokémon Go. Taking the world by storm, Pokémon Go quickly became one of the most popular games ever created. With a simple premise, collecting the original 150 Pokémon in the real world, the mobile game quickly stole the hearts and wallets of longtime fans and non-gamers alike.
Although Pokémon Go’s popularity cannot be argued (it is nothing less than a cultural event uniting more people than the current summer Olympics) the game is also inherently a broken and incomplete experience. The game has gotten people socializing online and in the real world, exploring their cities and neighborhoods, and has given a boost to local business while inspiring others, but the game consistently crashes and pushes away its user base. By taking creative and innovative gameplay mechanics and branding them with the original 150 Pokémon, Niantic was able to bring in an incredibly large user base, but failed to deliver a finished product to them. Pokémon Go is yet another example of an unfinished and broken franchised game; over the last 30 years, gaming has grown to a place where the public deserves better then what Pokémon Go, and all other unfinished half-baked franchise tie-in gaming has to deliver.
It has been a slow, painful, and expensive burn for gamers since the beginning of the medium. Ever since consoles first started appearing in front of the television, gamers have been spending their limited money on games tied to franchises they love. This idea of a “tie-in” game does not just apply to games developed to launch alongside movies; in the modern landscape “tie-in” games include franchise spin offs, franchise inspired mobile games, as well as the games that retell popular movies.
Over time, due to poor critical reception coupled with diminishing commercial success, these games have slowly increased in quality. Unfortunately the half-baked and unfinished tie-ins are not completely dead; the recent releases of Ghostbusters, TMNT: Mutants in Manhattan and Pokémon Go show us that Activision and Niantic, among others, are still very able, and very willing, to release hot garbage to the public in exchange for easy money from parents and kids. While we wait for the eventual, and inevitable, final death of these insulting releases, we should take pride and recognize how far franchise gaming has come.
While Pokémon Go stands as the most popular game to date, Traveler’s Tales were the studio that long ago started producing quality franchise tie-ins. While studios would infrequently greet us with quality franchised games like Spider-Man 2 or Knights of the Old Republic, Traveler’s Tales started to regularly deliver great Lego games directly created from their movie counterparts. Since its 2007 release of Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga (which includes neither The Force Awakens or Lego Star Wars 3: The Clone Wars, vague definition of ‘Complete’) Traveler’s Tale has released over 17 Lego games, most of which are tied to beloved movie franchises and most of them critically well received. Slowly, we saw games like The Incredible Hulk and Captain America: The First Avenger die off and in their place Lego Marvel Heroes and Lego Jurassic World rose captivating both long time audiences and new younger fans alike. The video game remake of the movie has for the most part, and for the better, been replaced by these Lego remakes and toys to life expansions (RIP Disney Infinity).
Now the Lego games aren’t for everyone; while they are both adult and kid friendly in gameplay and humor, they don’t click with every gamer. Existing alongside the movie adaption games stand the franchised spin off games. Titles such as Mad Max, Middle of Earth: Shadow of Mordor, and Batman Arkham Asylum have proven to the industry that established franchises can make the leap to video games without sacrificing quality. For many this level of quality is the standard for what we want to see in franchised games. They take the soul and heart of a property like Batman and give it the time and care it deserves to develop into a fully formed game.
While Lord of the Rings has gone through plenty of bad games in the past, Warner Brothers showed us that they listened to audience feedback when they released Shadow of Mordor. Taking after the Arkham route (in more than just combat) WB produced a quality standalone title that just adapted from the lore and mythos of Middle Earth, instead of trying to retell the stories already told in the movie. Too often these failed Lord of the Rings games have tried to jam in stories in between the movies, involving the main characters, corroding away at writer and developer creativity and resulting in subpar experiences. On a similar note, Mad Max released only months after the critically acclaimed Fury Road, but the game had absolutely nothing to deal with the plot from the movie and instead told its own standalone journey. This resulted in a more enjoyable player experience giving the writers freedom to personalize Max and his “hero’s journey” instead of having to hit the major movie plot points.
The success of these AAA franchised games has sent ripples of change throughout the industry; Marvel and Warner Brothers were the two of the most frequent developer’s to be found guilty releasing quick cash in games to align with movies. Now in the modern gaming ecosystem, they produce movie spin off games through the Lego franchise and separately work on standalone experiences. The ideal franchised game capitalizes on the existing fandom and appreciation that a franchise has, while also creating an experience that anyone can pick up and enjoy.
Just around the corner gamers will be seeing original Star Wars games, more Middle Earth, and now an original Spider-Man game not based on the upcoming Homecoming movie. While Warner Brothers mostly uses internal studios to develop its more popular franchise, Marvel has instead partnered with popular and talented developers to produce games from their core properties. This formula gives creative and proven industry talent the freedom to produce original stories, giving even the oldest franchises a breath of fresh air. While Disney Infinity was unfortunately canceled, its death means talented companies like Insomniac may now begin developing brand new Marvel games for heroes like Spider-Man or Captain America.
Looking at these trends in gaming, the future of franchised games look extremely bright. While Activision and Platinum continue to disappoint gamers with releases of TMNT or Legend of Korra, most other studios are pushing on into a new era of tie in games. Studios are taking their defined gaming genre and strengths, and pairing it alongside franchises that fit the game. Telltale uses a point and click, narrative driven adventure and has partnered along franchises with powerful stories and memorable characters. Likewise we see a studio like NetherRealm take a genre that they do really well, fighting games, and bring in a beloved franchise, DC superheroes, to create the excellent Injustice Gods Among Us. Instead of trying to force franchises into games and genres that don’t make sense, we see talented and established studios developing for franchises in new and interesting ways.
All of this leads us to Pokémon Go; a game that is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. Pokémon Go may be the biggest franchise spinoff we have ever seen. Pokémon has successfully established itself over seven generations of pocket monsters as one of gaming’s premier mobile titles. During that time it has seen a variety of spin-offs and tie in games, such as Pokémon Snap, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, Pokémon Rumble and many more. These games were all met with mixed reception, both critically and commercially the games were neither failures nor the success that the mainstream Pokémon games were. Then Pokémon Go changed everything.
Pokémon Go made 14 million dollars in four days as a free to play game; the game has almost eclipsed Twitter and Snapchat in average daily users, and was the number one app in the app store only hours after release. The game is a massive success among diehard fans who own a 3DS, and fans who haven’t played a game since the Gameboy color. Whether or not you are a gamer, you have probably played or adventured with Pokémon Go players. The game took the core basics of what makes the mainstream RPG so great, catching every god-damn Pokémon, and boiled down the gameplay mechanics to something so simple that anyone of any gaming experience could play and enjoy. The game promotes being social, going outside, interacting with friends and random trainers alike, traveling both your neighborhood and beyond, which has brought something fun and distracting to the US in what is a time of great turmoil and violence.
While I love Pokémon Go, and it is currently and dramatically changing society and my everyday life and social interactions, it is a broken experience with great potential for growth and great need for improvement. The game launched early and unfinished missing some core features (trading, inter-player battles and more to come later), and fails to have dependable servers continually kicking out the players that love the game so much. Pokémon Go shows us the good and bad of franchise gaming: it stays true to the franchise core playing off nostalgia, while also showing us the subpar quality we come to expect from these tie in games. Niantic has spoken out repeatedly about the changes and improvements coming to the game, but ultimately they still launched an unfinished and broken product.
Pokémon Go is a massively popular and successful game that highlights everything that is wrong with franchise tie-in gaming. Using the popular brand of an established franchise, a company releases a half developed and unfinished product to market knowing they can patch more features into the game later. Instead of taking the time to appropriately develop new features and confirm the game works and is playable, companies feel confident releasing broken products because they will sell on the franchise name alone. Games like Ghostbusters and Pokémon Go need to be given time and resources to be made into complete experiences, because the audience, fans, and gamers all around deserve better products.