The industry has changed drastically over the past 5 years. Terms that were barely mentioned in passing are now commonplace. The Metaverse, NFTs, transmedia storytelling. The list goes on and on. But one trend, which is in some regards truly representative of this strange new industry, is the prevalence of game and media crossovers.
Now, the idea of the crossover is itself nothing new. Mario characters in the NES version of Tetris, Iron Man and XO Man of War tearing through a robot army, the very existence of Smash Brothers. These concepts are in and of themselves nothing new, but their prevalence and notoriety have become more and more notable over the past few years. One need only look to Fortnite which is so positively stuffed with IP, our very own rumour mill struggles to keep up.
Xbox themselves are no stranger to the world of IP collaborations. Gears 5 featured Terminator characters in the multiplayer suite, Hot Wheels and LEGO expansions made their way into the third and fourth Horizon festivals, Microsoft Flight Simulator has a forthcoming Top Gun expansion, Sea of Thieves recently entered uncharted waters with the Pirates of the Caribbean themed ‘Pirates Life’ expansion. Heck, if the recent datamined info making its way across the web is true, Buzz Lightyear-themed armour and cosmetics are coming to Halo Infinite. However, with this new emergence, comes a question: are these collaborations trendy, or do they border on tacky? I think there is a case to be made for both.
THE CASE FOR THE CROSSOVER
The case for the recent trend of crossovers is multifaceted and can be approached from a number of different perspectives. As such, I feel the best place to start is ultimately the easiest to understand: the business point of view. From this perspective, crossovers more often than not just make sense. It’s a concept of co-branding dating back literal centuries. Thing A is popular, Thing B is popular, therefore it stands to reason A + B is even more popular. Whether you’re talking Slimer-branded Hi C Ecto-Coolers, Snickers with “Shrek Green filling” (an actual thing) or Sonic the Hedgehog Happy Meal toys, it makes sense to leverage the popularity of an existing IP to push a product or service.
However, as an artistic endeavour, games themselves are far more than a mere product or service. The mere presence of an IP in a game far from makes it good. One need only look back to the glut of subpar licensed games that flooded the market in the NES days and beyond. For an IP crossover to work, it needs to be a right fit between IP and game. Thankfully, more often than not, game developers have succeeded here. Whether we are talking the aforementioned Top Gun and Pirates of the Caribbean expansions, the inclusion of Rambo in Warzone or Spider-Man in Fortnite, there are several instances where the fit between a property and a game could not be better. More often than not, these collaborations are viewed fondly by the gaming community less so as a marketing ploy (which, on a purely economic level they are) and more as a collaboration of like-minded creatives.
Finally, it deserves to be mentioned the level of wish fulfillment that come with such crossovers. With games such as Super Smash Brothers or Killer Instinct, childhood dreams are able to come to life in truly exciting ways. Who would win in a fight between Sonic, Solid Snake, Banjo Kazooie and Minecraft Steve? Now you can settle the debate in Smash! Would Arbiter kick Rash’s amphibian behind? 1v1 them in Killer Instinct and find out. While we can analyze this question in a very cynical way, it deserves to be mentioned just how cool these moments can be. Having recently completed the Pirate’s Life expansion of Sea of Thieves, I will be the first to say there were many moments that made me smile as Rare’s genuine love for the series shined above all else.
THE CASE AGAINST
However, not all crossovers are created equally and there are undeniably cases where such a collaboration risks stepping over the line into cynical moneymaking schemes. The first example that jumps to mind was the inclusion of plot-relevant details for The Rise of Skywalker in the Fortnite crossover. Had you not taken part in that event (which I myself did not), you missed a key explanation for the return of Emperor Palpatine making the film confusing and hard to follow.
Similarly, there are cases where a crossover runs the risk of reducing the immersion and credibility of a game world. While characters like Solid Snake and Mario fit well in the lawless world of Super Smash Brothers, having Mario go “Wah-Hoo” over Snake’s comms during a key mission in Metal Gear Solid 5 would just be silly. There is a time and place for crossovers, and your personal tolerance for such may vary. I know for a few friends the mere inclusion of Sarah Connor and the Terminator in Gears 5 came across as distracting and immersion-breaking.
Finally, there is one reality about crossovers that rarely gets mentioned in these discussions: licensing. For those who are big into Dead by Daylight, a recent string of content has been removed from sale, including Stranger Things maps and characters. This is due to the expiry of the license for this content. As games begin to shift to 10-year plans, these crossovers run the risk of gating content from players further down the line or at worst, if intertwined too closely, the removal of the game from sale altogether. One need only look to the regular delisting of games such as Forza and Madden NFL to see this in action.
All in all, crossovers are what you make of them. If you choose to have a cynical point of view, they are needless cash grabs. If you choose to accentuate the positive, they are cases where the proverbial peanut butter and chocolate combine to make something beautiful. More often than not, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
However, there are definite risks involved in bringing such collaborations to life, and as such, a needle needs to be threaded. With licensing issues and legal hurdles galore, a question needs to be asked: “Will the benefits of such a crossover risk any long-term consequences for my game?”
The answer, of course, to all these woes is obvious. If you own the IP in question, who cares? Halo Doomed: The Fallout of the Perfectly Dark Prey of Castle Wolfenstein when?