We might be standing on the precipice of a Golden Age for Licensed Games. That much has become clear this week following the revival of Lucasfilm Games, EA's grip on Star Wars loosening, and our favourite Nazi-punching archaeologist shuffling out of retirement.
With the PS5 and Xbox Series X successfully ushering in the next generation of gaming last November, the consoles have set the stage for some of the biggest developers in the industry to take on some of Hollywood's most treasured properties. And I'd be willing to wager that this is just the beginning of what could be a transformative period of interactive play coalescing around icons of the silver screen.
The reemergence of Lucasfilm Games
Star Wars has proven to be a bit of a poison chalice for EA. While Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, Star Wars Battlefront, and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order have been undeniably successful, too often has that success been overshadowed - be it by the controversy surrounding Battlefront 2 or the cancellation of no fewer than three Star Wars projects from Visceral Games, EA Vancouver, and Criterion Games. While it was understood that EA would have exclusivity over development of Star Wars console games for 10 years, carrying the torch into 2023, it would appear that is no longer the case.
With the Lucasfilm Games announcement, full creative control of the Star Wars games is back with Disney. The Lucasfilm Games and EA Partnership was clarified soon after the reveal, and with it came the news that Massive Entertainment will lead development of the new Ubisoft Star Wars game. It's understood that Julian Gerighty has taken on creative director duties, the long-serving Ubisoft employee perhaps best known for his directorial roles on The Crew and The Division 2. While details are sparse, that alone should give you some idea of what to expect from this open-world experience that's in early production.
Massive has a penchant for delivering open-world games infused with RPG DNA. Bring that expertise together with the ever-impressive in-house Snowdrop engine and the potential is certainly there for the type of Star Wars experience we've been waiting for somebody to deliver for two generations. Of course, the Ubisoft announcement doesn't preclude EA from continuing to collaborate with Lucasfilm Games in the future either. A sequel to Jedi: Fallen Order from Respawn Entertainment seems likely, as too does some kind of spiritual successor to Star Wars Squadrons – Podracing, please! – which proved a little too late that Star Wars games can succeed (creatively and financially) at the smaller end of the AAA spectrum.
Of course, this is only the beginning. Lucasfilm Games says it has more game announcements in the works, which could create powerhouse partnerships that were once contained to speculative forum posts. For example, how about a new Bethesda Indiana Jones game entering production? Developed by MachineGames, the studio behind Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus; executive produced by Todd Howard, the creative director for Skyrim and Fallout 4; to be presumably published by Xbox Game Studios. It's a wild announcement that has few concrete details, although that didn't stop us from decoding the clues in the surprise Indiana Jones game teaser.
The Golden Age for Licensed Games
There's an argument to be made that licensed games have already gone through their Golden Age. The arcade cabinets of the 1990s, headlined by titans torn from the pages of comic books, are indeed legendary, although overlooked by large swaths of players in the modern age. The PS3 and Xbox 360 era would almost certainly try to lay some claim to the idea too, although I'd argue that the licensed game merely enjoyed a resurgence spearheaded by Rocksteady with the Batman: Arkham series.
For every licensed game that arrived at the quality of Batman: Arkham Asylum you had an X-Men: Destiny. Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions was counter-weighted by the likes of Edge of Time. We might have received ingenious releases like Disney Infinity, but they arrived alongside titles better left forgotten like Aliens: Colonial Marines. For every fantastic LEGO adaptation, a mediocre Marvel tie-in out of Sega would meet it. The reason the PS5 and Xbox Series X era appears different is the pedigree of studios being attached to these huge licenses – appropriate expertise, funding, and production time likely with it.
Star Wars isn't the only massive franchise Massive Entertainment is taking on; the studio has been hard at work on The Avatar Project since 2017 and with James Cameron's Avatar 2 scheduled for release in 2022 you'd think the game wouldn't be far behind. As I mentioned above, a sequel to Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order from EA and Respawn Entertainment is almost a given, and you should expect to see plenty more studios commit to exploring that IP alongside Lucasfilm Games in the coming years. IO Interactive announced that it would be leaving its infamous hitman behind in favour of a man with a license to kill, bringing James Bond back to video games with Project 007.
Avalanche Software is also trying to do justice to a franchise with a messy history with gaming, as it works to deliver an open-world Harry Potter RPG – a game that made the news itself this week, as Hogwarts Legacy was delayed to 2022. Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment is busier than most, in fact. Rocksteady Games is hard at work on its follow-up to 2015's Batman: Arkham Knight, with its take on Suicide Squad. WB Games Montreal is working on a co-op superhero game of its own, Gotham Knights. With The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2021, you have to wonder whether Monolith Productions will be back with another game set in Middle-earth, following 2017's Shadow of War. Speaking of Middle-earth, there's also Daedalic Entertainment's Lord of the Rings: Gollum game and The Lord of the Rings MMO from Athlon and Amazon Games on the near horizon.
This console generation was headlined by Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and you have to think that Sony Interactive Entertainment and Insomniac Games is already hard at work on a fully-fledged sequel. Crystal Dynamics is still tinkering with the Marvel's Avengers formula too, a live-service action game that could pull a No Man's Sky at any time – should Square Enix get the formula right. I guess what I'm trying to say is that nearly every major publisher and platform holder is invested in creating, producing, and maintaining licensed games set in the largest entertainment sandboxes in the Western hemisphere.
This is a level of investment that we have never seen from this industry before and this is only the beginning of it. If these developers – Massive, MachineGames, Avalanche, Rocksteady, and so the list goes on – are able to land these complex creative propositions, we could well see the PS5 and Xbox Series X era defined by its licensed games. And if that happens, then this will certainly be enshrined as the Golden Age for Licensed Games forever.
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