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What can the success of HBO’s The Last of Us teach us about IP adaptions?

Industry Commentary
Image: HBO 

The Last of Us, an action-adventure game released on the PS3 in 2013, is widely regarded as having one of the best narratives ever written for a video game. As one of PlayStation’s best-selling IPs, it was only a matter of time until the story of Ellie and Joel was adapted for the screen, which is exactly what happened when HBO picked it up and turned it into a TV series. 

The first episode, released in the middle of January, has been met with overwhelmingly positive reviews from TV critics, entertainment journalists and fans of the video game. At the time of writing, it holds a 99% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the highest-rated video game adaption of all time. 

As many journalists have been pointing out in headlines such as ‘The Last of Us breaks video game adaption curse’ (although we’d point them in the direction of the excellent Castlevania and League of Legends TV series), the transition from video game to screen is rarely a smooth one. There’s a long list of critically panned TV and film adaptions, from House of the Dead and Double Dragon to Alone in the Dark and Netflix’s Resident Evil TV series. 

While the simple answer for some of these adaptions flopping is the simple fact that they’re pretty naff, there are important lessons that licensors can learn from the success of The Last of Us. 

Most of this comes down to not straying from the things that fans already love and know about your IP. In the case of The Last of Us, the game’s creator Neil Druckmann has been heavily involved with its production, overseeing the script, general direction of the series and even directing a couple of episodes. 

Most of the cast and production crew have played or are familiar with the game too. Game staff, such as VFX artists and sound designers, have also worked on the TV series. And we even see the game’s original voice actors of protagonists Ellie and Joel, Ashley Jones and Troy Baker, make cameo appearances as actors

The end result is a faithful adaption that stays true to the game’s original story (although it does deviate at some points). That’s in stark contrast to the long list of video game film adaptions featuring scripts, characters and plots that seem completely alien to the original source material and, as such, are usually hated by their biggest fan base: gamers! 

For all the talk about the video game industry being the biggest entertainment market in the world – bigger than film, music and TV combined – it’s remarkable that some producers and directors think the stories in video games need repurposing in adaptions to film and TV so they can appeal to new audiences. How about satisfying the market that’s already there: the millions of gamers that picked up the video game in the first place? 

Whether you’re a licensor or IP holder looking to move into video games or hold a video game license exploring wider entertainment, don’t lose the support of your established primary market and existing fans by pivoting your IP to appeal to new audiences in a new format. Stay true to your brand values and, where relevant, original source material!


Read the episode transcript here

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