Merchandise: Easy cash-in or a vital experience?

We all have run into merchandising. Whether it’s bands, movies or tv-series, at least the popular ones have toys, clothing, gadgets and so on tied into them. Videogames or gaming in general are no different. You can buy almost anything with the theme of a certain intellectual property. This also includes works that expand game universes, like books, spin-off games or even tv-series. Hence the term “expanded universe”. I include spin-offs too, particularly if they’re released on mobile platforms. In this text I will be focusing more on the book/spin-off/tv-serie-side of merchandising, since you can just not opt to buy that Mass Effect hoodie and not lose or gain anything essential in terms of the storyline.

I think no-one can deny the benefits of expanded universes. Things like books give the fans of a certain franchise a possibility to learn more about said universe. Since the expanded universe stuff isn’t mandatory, someone who for example likes Dead Space but isn’t really that interested in other than playing the main games, can just ignore the books and spin-offs. The player still learns all the important stuff through the games. And there is always Google and wikias for quick recaps. Another positive thing that books may bring in their wake are people who don’t care about games or the franchise in particular. I’ve read a couple of reviews on about novels related to Halo-games. Some users wrote that they’re not really fans of the games and had no expectations about the novels, but have read many of the them and are enjoying them a lot. There are over 10 novels and a couple of graphic novels about Halo. One of them is even a novelization of the first game, so you can get a pretty good idea of whats happening through the books too.

The good things about expanded universe work on more traditional games, like board games, too. Warhammer 40,000 is a huge franchise. The universe is really dark, massive and a bit ridiculous so you can have many different types of stories in it. But the thing is that playing 40k is really fricking expensive and time consuming. So what can a fan of WH 40k do? Thankfully there are really good videogames made with 40k license and also lots of novels. Since the books are not that expensive, everyone can experience the universe if they want. The books come in many varietes too. It is good to have alternative and cheaper ways of enjoying a certain universe.

There is a special kind of example about merchandise and games coming together. Namely the Skylanders games. These games are played along with toys that interact with the game. The toys have tags that can be read through Near Field Communication. Skylanders franchise has passed 1.5 billion in global sales, which definitely proves that combining toys and videogames this way is a way of earning ridiculous amounts of money. That’s why Disney and Hasbro have jumped on the same bandwagon and are making their own product lines. The use of NFC technology is interesting and something we haven’t seen a lot of before. Maybe this is the way the toys of the future are made. Will this business model spread into so called core games too? Maybe not since it would most likely cause a backlash from gamers. It could work on tabletop games though. Imagine tabletop game having a digital side to it. For example Warhammer figures positions could be read relative to others and the information displayed on a screen. Or in card games combining already existing physical cards and videogames. The players could save a bit of money if they could play a videogame with the cards they already own etc. There are a lot of possibilities and problems but we will most likely see more NFC or similar technology used in gaming in the future.

A downside to expanded universes is that not all published titles are worth the players time. It’s expected and understandable that not all books are good, but what if the novels that are specifically targeted to expand the universe aren’t just bad, but in fact are full of inconsistencies with the games and lore? This happened a while ago with the novel Mass Effect: Deception. This book was so full of errors that Bioware, developer of the Mass Effect-games, promised to patch the novel. This is a problem when other authors write the books than those who write the games. Novels shouldn’t contradict the main series this way. It amazes me that no-one at Bioware apparently read the book before it was released. Otherwise this whole thing would have probably been avoided.

I mentioned at the start of this text that players can easily skip spin-offs or novels and still get the whole picture. Well that ain’t always the case. There are intances where a sequal relies heavily on both the earlier games and the expanded universe works. Such is the case with Halo 4. The game can be played and enjoyed without reading these particular novels, but it leaves many things open and doesn’t really explain everything. It just expects you to know stuff already. This is a bad design choice, since not everyone wants to read six books worth of text just to play a game. It would have easily been avoided by, for example, introducing a codex system much like Mass Effect did. Or simply by just explaining plotpoints with a little bit more dialog. There is no need to leave a certain player demographic scratching their heads.

Of course you can also read the synopses from the internet, but those don’t really tell you everything. Sometimes you don’t know what you are looking for. Apparently in Halo 4 there is a character, who is introduced in Halo: Forward Unto Dawn tv-series and if the player hasn’t watched it, the character personality seems two dimensional. How can the player know that the character isn’t actually badly written, but instead just not developed because it already happened off screen in another title? This is not good game design and relying too much on expanded universe stuff is actually detrimental to the game. Many role-playing games get away with this because you can have conversations with the non-player characters and get more info about the world. In case of The Elder Scrolls games expanded universe books are in the game. If the player doesn’t understand a certain thing, he/she can just find the book in game and read about it. It’s a really interesting choice and adds a bit of immersion to those games.

Another example I would like to point out is the upcoming Deus Ex universe. The developer of said franchise is planning on broadening it beyond just core games on consoles and PC. There is a real danger that this universe can go the same route Halo 4 went. Eidos already released Deus Ex: The Fall on iOS and plans to release more games on that platform. There is nothing inherently wrong in making games for these platforms but I hope that reading and playing everything wouldn’t be mandatory to understand the storyline. Not everyone owns an iPad or an iPhone or wants to play a FPS on a touch screen. If the iOS games are designed with full and independent storylines connected to the main games, the games could become really important. There’s also a possibility of Eidos making a lot of games and books fast in an attempt to cash in on the popularity of the franchise, effectively reducing the value of the franchise in the long run.

In the end the games are almost always the most important works in game franchises, which is only natural. That’s why everything else should be completely optional. Still, expanded universe works can be really beneficial to those who want to dip into them and to the games themselves, but the knowledge of tie-ins shouldn’t be made mandatory. Videogames are becoming more popular than ever and many franchises are bound to expand beyond just videogames. I just hope that developers remember to write good videogames and not rely on things like novels to explain everything to the player. Make a game stand on its own feet!



Joystiq’s article: Fans find shiploads of errors in latest Mass Effect novel

Eidos blog post about the Deus Ex universe

BGR article about Skylanders and Disney Infinity