Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Pixar's Tie-In Games Not (Doing) So Good

Via a recent Gamasutra article written by Leigh Alexander, it seems that Pixar's CG movie tie-in videogames having been doing all that well in recent years. But according to THQ President and CEO Brian Farrell, this has nothing to do with quality or the contents of the games themselves, but rather an overly saturated kids' games market. As Farrell stated in his recent interview with Alexander:
"The kids' business, as you know, has been a huge focus of THQ for many years," said Farrell. "But there has been a trend away from licensed TV and movie games, and it's become much more competitive for all participants."

Citing examples such as the 2007's Ratatouille tie-in game, which "performed disappointingly" (as did the film, which despite becoming a box office hit, nonetheless had one of the worst openings in Disney-Pixar history), and the more recent Wall-E tie-in, which did even worse, Farrell proposes that it's not that the games themselves that are substandard, but rather that the market is more competitive now than it was back in the days of Toy Story and Finding Nemo.

But did Pixar tie-in games really ever do all that well? Apart from the occasional hit with their Gameboy titles, I just can't seem to remember there being a big smash hit Pixar tie-in within the kids' games market (a little help?). Anyway, Farrell also seems to think that the continued failure of their games to attract players also has to do with the fact that just as there are now more CG animated films released every year, there are more CG animated film-based videogames to compete with. And that as a result, the kids market is getting sliced up into smaller and smaller pieces, with less to go around. Hmmmm...that seems...wrong. Do kids really care about CG or not CG? What about CG television titles? And although box office receipts may very well impact the ultimate success of a tie-in game, it isn't THE deciding factor, seeing as the Wall-E game did worse than the Ratatouille game. Besides which, the kids' market is a market that continues to grow, expanding into younger age groups, into girls' culture, and across multiple platforms. Sounds more like a series of excuses than a real explanation.

It also reproduces a lot of old stereotypes about the kids market - for example, that all you need to do to sell a product is stamp a beloved media character on it, and you're all set. Perhaps Farrell and other media giants should take a closer look at the products themselves - Pixar might win yearly Oscars for their films, but they're not exactly winning Game Developer Choice Awards. And reviews of their games consistently point to some serious design flaws...or at least, the lack of child user-friendliness in their game designs. For example, the difficulty levels climb too high too quickly, there's aren't enough save points (a serious problem among an age group where the average gaming session lasts less than 30 minutes), the written on-screen instructions don't match up with the reading skills (and speed!) of younger kids, etc., etc. The industry - and especially the tie-in/cross-media component of it - really does need to start taking kids' game design more seriously. According to some of the comments included under Alexander's article, the games fall short in other ways as well. As Rob Lazenby writes,
There are multiple reasons why THQ has been failing in this genre, and much of it directly translates to why the company overall has had so many problems:
1). Poor media marketing
2). Lack solid tie-ins with movie based titles
3). Low quality games
One can only hope that Mr. Farrell's team can assemble a new talent that will learn from their paast mistakes.
But I doubt it.

And I really like this other comment, posted by Joshua McDonald:
I'm not surprised to see these games making less money. In fact, I've expected it to start for a while. These work because non-gamer parents buy them for their gamer kids. Now, the number of gamer parents is increasing, and these parents know that most of these games are a cheap experience designed to cash in on a big name. [...] With enough parents in the know, it may actually become necessary for movie tie-ins to be good games before they can succeed.

There's no question that "transmedia intertextuality" - tie-ins, cross-promotion, licensing - are an enormous part of kids' media culture. Enormous. And too often, cross-promotion and branding take way too much priority off of the individual products involved. Certainly, licensed or tie-in games for kids have been a key area where the presence of a tie-in film/TV show/book/toy has become a blanket excuse for phoning it in design-wise. It's strange that so few of these games appear to have employed child-centered design practices. Those that do -- such as some of the Harry Potter games -- seem to be so much more successful at addressing the interests and limitations of their target audience.

I've been thinking a little bit about tie-in games lately, their odd position within gaming culture, the successes, the failures, and the larger role these games can play within transmedia/cross-promotion, intertextuality and branding, as well as within kids' own patterns of cultural appropriation. It seems to me that these tie-in games could easily be used to give kids an opportunity to co-create the story and characters, to make changes and to do things differently...to gain a sense of co-ownership over their (shared) cultural texts. There's a lot of potential here - if brand management wasn't such a stifling priority - to enable kids to explore the vast flexibility and fluidity of narrative, to redefine and make sense of their media heroes and cultural icons in original and more personal ways. Sadly, it's a potential that is very rarely realized.

That said, I'm hopeful that some of the newer or emerging standards within children's game design will eventually trickle down to licensed games as well. Particularly since more and more game developers are now expanding their efforts and expertise into the kids market, which until now was dominated primarily by Nintendo (who generally makes pretty excellent kids games) and the children's television, toy and film industries (whose combined record can be generously described as "hit-or-miss"). For instance, one of the designers behind the immensely popular EverQuest is in the process of launching a child-oriented MMOG (entitled Free Realms, which you can read more about here) that's got a lot of gamers and kids' media critics pretty excited. Not to mention the various innovative titles I've highlighted in past posts, and the growing movement within the game industry to raise the overall quality of kids' game design. My advice to Pixar at this point would be to overhaul its strategy and get in on this movement at the ground level...see if they can't earn themselves a bigger piece of that pie.

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