Games are Art in the Digital Age and Licenses Should Reflect That

Wallace and Gromit doesn’t have a heck of a lot in common with Deadpool save a sense of humor, but both have fallen prey to a worrying new trend in the games business. In recent months certain licensed games, in particular those based on Marvel Comics properties, have been pulled from digital storefronts with little warning. Just a few days ago, Telltale’s point and click adventure based on Wallace and Gromit suffered the same fate. What happened to these games? The terms of their licenses ran out, and their respective developers lost the rights to distribute them. At the moment nobody seems to be too bothered by this. I mean, they’re just licensed games.

Limited licenses like this have been around forever, but up until a few years ago they didn’t make much difference from the perspective of the end user. Retail games are only produced in limited runs, since most companies have to rent out the facilities that manufacture them. As such every studio was under effectively the same restrictions as those under license, only able to make and ship their games for a few months or years (if they were bestsellers) before they had to shut things down. These days publishers can stick their games on a server and sell them forever. This has helped titles like Psychonauts find a wider audience – similar to how Netflix helped Arrested Development – but it’s put licensed properties at something of a disadvantage.

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It’s also pretty rough on consumers. Most of these games can still be found on store shelves, but those who pick them up from here on out will never be able to complete their purchase with DLC. Sure, folks have had plenty of time to purchase the DLC if they really wanted to, but that’s not the case for everything. Deadpool’s barely been out half a year, its DLC for even less time, and already it’s gone. Steam users holding out for a better price are SOL. And while all these games are still available for download, that won’t last forever now that they can’t bring in revenue for the people running the servers.

I feel like people should be making a bigger deal out of this, but then, who’s really all that attached to Wallace and Gromit or Deadpool? And while there are plenty of folk who might miss Marvel vs Capcom 3, the Ultimate edition comes with all the non-cosmetic DLC they’d be missing. These aren’t the sorts of games to spark an outrage – nor are most licensed games – but we should still be wary. We may one day face a world where the Lego games are unavailable, or worse, landmark titles like The Walking Dead. Video games as a medium suffer from exceptionally poor curation, and problems like this could cause important works to fall through the cracks. Can you imagine if movies had this same issue, and it suddenly became impossible to find a copy of Planet of the Apes, Bladerunner, or A Clockwork Orange? Film buffs the world over would be outraged.

We need better, fairer contracts. Most of us can respect the desire of creators to protect and profit from their ideas, but they need to likewise respect the work done by game studios adapting their properties. In many cases, these adaptations take just as much work as creating an original IP (the sum total of Robert Kirkman’s contribution to Telltale’s Walking Dead is “Zombies, Georgia, a farm, and one Asian kid.”), and studios should have a level of control over their creations that reflects that. Instead of limiting how long they can sell their games, contracts should put a cap on how much they can produce (say, one game and three DLC packs), or how long they have to actually produce it. That way, they can profit from their creations like anyone else who’s put in the same effort, and gamers never need worry about titles disappearing into the ether. Who knows? The assurance that their games will be around forever might even spur studios to make them better. Instill them with some dignity!

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Well, a man can dream.