Licenses to Kill: A New Media Hurdle

It’s just turned 2014 and I’m confronted with a tweet from @Supererogatory containing the news that the license for Deadpool has expired and the game had been removed from Steam. The account’s next retweet from their source revealed it had also been removed from Xbox Live Arcade and PSN.

The startling thing, the game only got released in June 2013.

This is just the latest example of the troubles with using licensed content. It’s a problem that is especially a problem in the digital media age as products can be removed at a moment’s notice and effectively be deleted for existence as the publisher and/or creator doesn’t have the rights to use another entity’s property any more rendering their own product unsaleable.

It seems odd that Activision bothered commissioning a Deadpool game if they had the license for such a short period of time. It’s claimed by some who worked on the game (on a link provided by the same Twitter account to a forum post) that it was rushed and the game’s removal from digital distribution outlets only seems to confirm this. Either Activision decided to go ahead despite the shortness of the license or had it for a while before deciding to utilise it.

No offence intended to Deadpool fans but he’s not the best known of Marvel’s characters, so surely it would need a longer period of availability on digital distribution platforms in order to make worthwhile sales. Admittedly the Deadpool game was also released on physical media and boxed versions, if available, still normally outsell digital, at least at first. But on a game without a top tier budget (lets be honest this is no GTA with its $265 million on development and marketing) or wide awareness a long digital “window” is beneficial to make a game profitable.

Digital store sales events and impulse buying can greatly increase sales of even the most obscure item. Many of us gamers have read numerous accounts of those who have splurged on the likes of Steam’s infamous Sales and subsequently worry about the effect of the next one on their wallet, even if they haven’t been a victim themselves.

Gaming is not the only media affected by licensing problems, the film, TV and music industries are too, but it certainly seems to be the medium where it causes the most problems to the end users. This, I think, is partly due to the proliferation of formats that are available.

For example, if you think about film and TV there are normally only 2 competing formats (VHS vs Betamax, HD-DVD vs Blu-Ray) which normally quickly get reduced to one when the public choose their preference.

The music industry similarly often only has one predominant format and a few others for more niche functions, whether that be audio quality or portability reasons.

Whilst film, TV and music physical media formats have one widely available winner with multiple manufacturers of equipment, gaming usually has one winner and at least one significant runner up in each of it’s numerous subcategories, and many more also-rans in each of those on top of that.

Just think of the 1990s, there were a significant number of formats all competing in a small window of time.

In home consoles during the mid-90s alone you had PS1, Saturn, N64 all at least semi-successful and the likes of 3DO, Atari Jaguar, Commodore Amiga CD32 barely making an impact.

In handheld consoles you had various GameBoys dominating the entire decade, with competition from the Game Gear and smaller sellers like Atari Lynx, Neo Geo Pocket, Wonder Swan and the even more obscure Supervision at either ends of the decade.

In home computers there was the ever evolving PC, Commodore Amiga 1200 and various incarnations of the Mac that were prominent and numerous formats with much smaller user bases such as the Atari Falcon.

Historically there has always been several formats available at any one time and usually any backward compatibility, if any, only lasts a couple of generations at the most before the hardware differences make emulation too difficult and/or costly.

Think about it. Want to watch you favourite film or TV show, or listen to your favourite music? When it comes to physical media at least you knew your VHS/DVD/Blu-Ray was going to work no matter the manufacturer of your machine and due to the length of the technological cycles your film/show/song was going be playable for 10-15 years on future incarnations of the hardware when you needed to buy a replacement (or additional machine for another room).

With gaming it’s usually a one manufacturer eco-system for each format and only sometimes do they have backwards compatibility, and then only with that manufacturer’s hardware. Gaming formats, until recently, usually only had a life-cycle of approximately 5 years before being superseded, much shorter than video and audio formats.

I’m sure you are wondering what this has to do with licensing by now. Well when it comes to do with games licensing always seems to be afflicted by short-term contracts. Recent HD editions of retro games from previous generations have had to cut out or replace elements due to expired licensing deals. Either the licenses were no longer available or too expensive to justify renewing. For example, many Sega games that used music they didn’t create such as Crazy Taxi have been re-released with a reduced or different soundtrack.

Another problem is exclusivity deals. Whether it be a comic book character, film or car manufacturer the developer/publisher may no longer be able to sell or reissue a game because another party has taken over or decided it’s too expensive or complicated to get them back. Examples of these include the film franchises like Aliens and Die Hard, comic books such as Dinosaurs and Cadillacs, X-Men and the aforementioned Deadpool. Even Ferrari put a spanner in the works of continued sales of the most recent Outrun game (Outrun Online Arcade) because the Sega’s license expired and System 3 took it over resulting in its withdrawal from PSN/XBLA.

Gaming is very inconsistent when it comes to licensing. Take sports games. Some sports governing bodies deal with it all, others it’s on a league by league or club by club basis. For every NBA who have always seemed to have been willing to license to multiple companies at once you get sports like football where the likes of EA’s Fifa games have most of the licenses and everyone else has to either make up player names e.g. Sensible Soccer or pick and choose from the scraps such as with Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer and the short lived Codemasters’ Club Football series are/were forced to do.

Admittedly this is not a like-for-like example as although the NBA just represents basketball in North America it is by far the most prominent league in the world (given the relative popularity of basketball there) whereas football (or soccer as some insist on calling it) is virtually ubiquitously popular worldwide and much more complicated affair.

What strikes me is that you never hear of films having to being withdrawn for circulation due to licensing issues. I have heard of TV shows that haven’t been brought out on DVD due to the proportion of music used (combined with low potential audience) making a release not financially viable, but overall TV isn’t affected much. What is it about those who negotiate the contracts for film and TV that make these licensing problems so uncommon? Something they are doing isn’t being done by games companies.

It’s been an increasing complaint of long time gamers that reissues aren’t as widely available in gaming as they are in other parts of the entertainment industry. But it now seems that even those who are more recent converts are going to  be increasingly affected by licensing issues too if even 6 month old games can be withdrawn from sale.

I fear as the entertainment industry moves increasing towards digital downloads there’s going to be increasing discontent due to licensing. Not having a physical copy means you never truly own it and may be prevented from re-downloading it even if you’ve paid for it.

There’s a younger generation that have never known a world without digital but I hope they come to realise the advantages of the physical as they may end up allowing a limiting and inflexible eco-system to become the norm to the detriment to our wallets and our freedom of choice.

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