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Cartoon Network’s new approach: breaking the mold of bad licensed games

OK K.O.! Let’s Play Heroes is the first to be a game and show at the same time

ok ko Capybara Games/Cartoon Network Studios

OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes isn’t a familiar name to most cartoon or video game fans yet, but it will be soon — and at the same time.

Unlike Adventure Time, Regular Show and Steven Universe, which aired several seasons before receiving video game adaptations, Cartoon Network’s new show OK K.O.! should have a quality video game under its belt not long after its premiere.

The new cartoon begins in August, although a handful of episodes are already online. A beautiful action brawler based on it — OK K.O.! Let’s Play Heroes, headed to PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One — could be a wide audience’s first taste of the franchise when it launches later this fall. That’s entirely by design.

“I don’t want to just make TV shows,” Cartoon Network’s vice president of games and digital products, Chris Waldron, told Polygon. “That’s not what the future is going to be. We’re going to be building IP and worlds that are expressed in multiple different media.”

It’s a realization that Waldron had in recent years, as the popularity of the cable channel’s current stable of shows grew. But it took a series in utero like OK K.O.! to really break that traditional mold of TV show first, media franchise second.

OK K.O.!
OK K.O.!, the show.
Cartoon Network

OK K.O.! is an easy pick for Cartoon Network’s new production method. For one, the show has video game iconography built into its DNA. The series stars an excitable kid named K.O. who wants to be the greatest superhero in a world filled with them. He’s convinced that the best way to do that is through his fists — punching his way through enemies to prove his power. It’s probably the most “video-gamey” premise of any Cartoon Network show, and it’s one that begs for adaptation. (An earlier mobile game and subsequent game jam proved that first.)

It’s also got established showrunners attached. Ian Jones-Quartey is a former executive producer on Steven Universe, while Toby Jones (no relation) cut his teeth on Regular Show. Both aren’t just accomplished animators, though; they’re huge video game nerds. Among the influences on the show that they named were Viewtiful Joe, the Persona series and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.

They’re also big fans of Capy Games, makers of Super Time Force and the upcoming Below. Cartoon Network is, too — so when the channel began work with the OK K.O.! team to adapt it for consoles, Capy Games was on its shortlist of dream collaborators.

“If we’re one of the best in the world at making shows, we better be partnering with some of the best in the world at making games,” Waldron said. “We don’t always get the luxury of making games with the caps of the world. We want to make IP that get folks like Capy to want to work on these games.”

OK K.O.! Let’s Play Heroes, the game.
Cartoon Network

Nathan Vella, Capy’s president, said that his studio quickly fell in love and signed onto the project. But they’re well aware of the stigma that comes with a well-respected studio attaching itself to someone else’s original property — the familiar plight of the licensed game adaptation. It took years for other Cartoon Network series to receive games, and when they did, they tended to receive poor reviews. Critics and fans lamented how dissimilar they were from the energetic, absurdist cartoons themselves.

“I can’t change a bunch of shitty Iron Man games,” Vella said of licensed games’ generally terrible rap. “No offense — I’m sure the developers were given the worst timeline and worst scenarios. [But] bad licensed games don’t happen because of bad devs.

“We don’t ever talk about [OK K.O! Let’s Play Heroes] like licensed stuff,” he added. “All the way through to how the fundamental relationship between Cartoon Network and Capy is, it’s not played that way, and that’s why this game is happening. ... This is us getting the chance to make a Capy game, so if we don’t feel like we’re making one of those games, we’re not going to make one of those games.”

Jones-Quartey is totally on board with that line of thinking.

“It’s fun to think of it as not as licensed game, because for a lot of people, this will be the first thing they see of it,” he told Polygon. “I never really think of there being one OK K.O! There’s the show, there’s this game.”

The game’s cartoon DNA is apparent, with dramatic camera angles and cutscenes taken straight from television. But the art style is its own, and Let’s Play Heroes has a ton of unique, Capy-created elements. Whether this new approach to establishing media franchises pans out for Cartoon Network will be tested sometime this fall, once both game and show are out.

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