Explore how your studio could benefit from working with established IP to build licensed games with popular names.
Developers and publishers discuss the highs and lows of creating licensed video games, and how the industry’s relationship with other forms of entertainment have evolved.
The games industry has done an impressive job of creating world-famous brands and franchises over the years, but there’s no denying the draw that an intellectual property from another sector can bring to the table. There are plenty of original sci-fi universes players enjoy exploring, but sometimes you just want to be a Jedi.
For the brand holders, video games have become a way to not only service fans in and around their major releases but also offer entry points for new audiences. Meanwhile, the benefits for developers and publishers adding a familiar name to their project can be manifold.
Samantha Ryan, senior vice president and group general manager at Electronic Arts, classifies two types of advantages: those for players, and those for developers. When it comes to players, an established IP brings “a wealth of emotional resonance”; fans automatically understand the universe, the characters and so on, and already view them with enthusiasm.
On the development side, Ryan says a proven IP can be a strong foundation for developers to build upon: “Games require amazing characters, believable worlds and interesting stories. If you are crafting an original IP, you must create these elements yourself, which is difficult. With an existing IP, these elements are already fleshed out, and you can focus instead on ensuring authentic and quality execution. Each path is difficult and is different in its own way. It’s good to understand which path is the best fit for your developer and not force a bad fit.”
Ian Hambleton is CEO of UK studio Maze Theory, which has produced games based on Doctor Who and Peaky Blinders. He says that there are huge positives to working with world-renowned franchises, providing you treat them with respect.
“You have a captive audience of people who should buy your games, so long as you do your job well, but additionally often the contracts we negotiate mean that the licensor is required to help promote your games and incentivised to do so,” he says. “Most big IP’s these days have a huge social media and CRM following and therefore you can use this to assist with your marketing. Arguably what you give away in revenues to the IP holder, you get back in savings on marketing.
“Another big thing is press want to write about you. Having a big IP in the headline, works for many journalists so you tend to find press are more interested to cover your stories.”
THQ Nordic has seen plenty of success with licensed titles, especially last year’s remake of SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom. In fact, this two million-selling title has convinced the publisher to double down on licensed games and even snap up the SpongeBob developer Purple Lamp.
“Players have a strong instinct whether you’re just exploiting a beloved franchise or truly celebrating the nuance of one of their favourite, fictional worlds with unique gameplay experiences,” THQ Nordic senior producer Martin Kreuch says. “Given the staggering number of games created and released every single day nowadays, an established licence of course gives you a certain level of planning security. As you can usually count on having your own release window and, oftentimes, promotional support through other media channels including new film and episodic releases and other consumer products.”
The obvious use of licences within video games is to adapt TV, film and even book series, but licensing within the industry goes far beyond this. EA’s fortunes rely heavily on its officially licensed sports titles like FIFA and Madden, while the publisher has also dabbled in securing the rights to music (who else remembers The Beatles Rock Band?) and even fashion brands for expansions of The Sims.
When asked how EA decides which licences to pursue, Ryan says: “As developers, when we are brainstorming great game experiences, it’s essential that we remember the needs and wants of our players. What are they most interested in? What do they love in the real world that might also be fun in the digital world? That could be any element from the real world – music, fashion, food, gadgets, etc.
“As long as we as developers are respectful of our players wants and needs and are authentic in how we bring a brand to life, awesome things can happen. I look forward to the day when a big brand tries out new ideas first in a digital experience like The Sims where they can learn, adapt and experiment, then later bring that element to life in the physical world. It will happen.”
Sports is certainly a big area when it comes to licensing in video games. Even beyond the top tier of FIFA and Madden, other sports titles improve their chances of winning over fans by including their favourite sports stars. This is something Steel City Interactive has gone to great lengths over in making Esports Boxing Club, which features legends such as Muhammad Ali as well as current icons such as Canelo Alvarez and Tyson Fury.
“Within the sports gaming genre, there is a distinct opportunity in being able to license athletes that have a built-in audience of supporters,” says CEO and co-founder Ash Habib. “This can be a great avenue to bring sports fans into gaming experiences they will be primed to enjoy based on their affinity for a particular athlete... Each boxer brings along an existing audience and we're hearing from gamers who are excited to play as their favourite fighters.”
Handle with care
That’s not to say slapping an IP or celebrity into your game is a licence to print money. As so many of the companies we spoke to warned, you need to be authentic in your use of each brand.
“You can’t just crowbar in a games mechanic that makes no sense to the IP genre and franchise,” says Hambleton. “IP works so well for us as we tend to make storytelling, narrative adventure games and so turning TV and film franchises into games works really well. There’s a history of failed licensed games that crowbar in IP without any respect for the IP and the shows.”
Ryan agrees, adding that a genuine enthusiasm for the licence you have secured goes a long way in helping with this: “You must love it, know it and care for it. If you don't, fans can tell. I have worked on many well-known IPs over my 25 years in gaming — from DC Comics to the Lord of the Rings, from The Matrix to Star Wars — and I have learned that to succeed, you need to deeply understand and respect the IP. Only through care and attention to detail can you hope to craft an authentic experience that will appeal to fans.
“Too often, licence holders don’t spend the time to pair their IP with the most appropriate developer. When this happens, the result can feel forced and result in poor quality. If you are a publisher who is simply licensing the rights to a brand in hopes of leaning on market awareness to improve your top of funnel, it can often show in your game in ways that fans simply won’t respect. Instead, you must put authenticity and quality at the top of your priority list. I remember the first time that I went to Montreal and saw Motive’s pitch for what eventually became Star Wars Squadrons. The creative director, Ian Frazier, had literally posted up his childhood drawings of Star Wars ships and cockpits. It was clear that team wanted to bring that game to life.”
Habib adds authenticity is especially important when your licensed game revolves around real-life people: “For us, the main challenge is in replicating the boxers as accurately as possible – making their in-game characters as realistic as we can. For current boxers who are at their peak this is relatively straightforward but for those who’ve retired, or who are no longer with us, the modelling and animation process can be a lot more complicated.”
While all this might sound daunting, Hambleton points to the opportunity game developers have to not only bring a franchise to life for players but also to add to it. Maze Theory’s work on Doctor Who has involved the creation of new characters, monsters, planets and story events that have since been adopted into the ‘lore’ of the franchise.
Herein lies another challenge, however: working on a licensed IP limits studios’ control of the project. Ultimately whatever they make must be signed off by the rights holder, who may or may not have their own ideas about a video game of their brand should look like.
Ryan notes that the mount of creative freedom developers have can vary greatly depending on the rights holder: “If the creator and/or licence holder values interactive experiences and understands the importance of giving a gamer a sense of volition, it is a much easier relationship. Games are not linear and should not be treated as such. If a licence holder doesn’t understand that they can’t control every element of what a player does, if they try to force an outcome, then it likely will not be a satisfying relationship, and your developer will feel frustrated.
“It’s essential that you understand upfront the degree of freedom the rights holder is comfortable with. Don’t try and sort it out as you go along. Know what you are getting into from day one.”
This is something Outright Games – a UK publisher that specialises in children’s titles often bearing well-known licences such as Paw Patrol, Peppa Pig and Ice Age – has spent the past few years learning how to handle, and is now well accustomed to working with IP holders.
Business development manager Terry Malham-Wallis says: “Most media companies have a games division and they typically have 1 to 3 producers that come with different experiences/backgrounds from the games industry. This is very helpful for us as we work closely with these producers to explore new possibilities which most of the time gives us the creative freedom we need.”
THQ Nordic’s Kreuch adds that this means working on licensed video games often results in longer lead times across everything from development to marketing, all of which must be co-ordinated with the licence holder.
“But at the same time you gain access to unparalleled insight into the franchise through the people your licensing partners,” he says. “From the creative point of view, challenges differ vastly depending on the IP, previous games released based on the IP, and the fanbase. It may be the art style or getting the humour right or bridging the gap between old and new fans; and often finding the right balance between all three, if the player base is divided as to which previous game was the best.”
Seal of Quality
Perhaps the biggest challenge developers of licensed games face is the rising expectations when it comes to the quality of the final product. A decade or so ago, every major movie – especially kids movies – was accompanied by a video game tie-in that rarely matched up to the standards set by AAA games franchises, but in the wake of titles like Marvel’s Spider-Man by Insomniac Games, the Batman: Arkham series by Rocksteady Studios and CD Projekt’s The Witcher 3, players often expect a licensed game to be as polished and ambitious as an unlicensed one.
“Players are increasingly sophisticated in their expectations,” says Ryan. “You can’t just slap a brand on a game and expect it to work. The best licensed IP are those with deep characters, stories and worlds. The little details matter... That being said, not every IP has enough depth to support a massive world. Matching IP with the right genre and style of game is key to success.”
Kreuch adds: “I think there are more ‘gutsy’ approaches to be seen in licensed game development right now. It definitely became more of a dialogue when it comes to matching brands with potential games than the work-for-hire mentality (‘We have movie X coming up, please make us a game to go with that’)... Apart from the rise in quality of licensed games, the biggest change to me is how games are more and more used as a vehicle to reinvigorate older franchises. It’s often less complicated to expand a franchise’s world via a video game vs. developing a whole new, linear or non-linear chapter for an original movie(s) or series.”
Malham-Wallis agrees: “I think media companies still like to have a presence around the launch of a movie for example and it’s the sign of a true media company when they can deliver a quality console product. It’s a far more considered approach to how they launch games now, there’s a much bigger opportunity going forward for sequels, multi franchise, online, integrations and cross-platform play to name a few.”
He adds that expectations are also rising on the side of brand holders, not just players, so publishers need to ensure they deliver a quality product if they hope to continue the relationship, or at least leave the door open for future ones.
“As a publisher, you typically only licence these IP for a period of 3 to 5 years and whilst it’s under our term it’s our responsibility to take care of the brand,” he explains. “If we were to deliver a bad console product we would be in danger of causing harm to the overall brand. We have steps in place and maintain a close working relationship with the brand owners to make sure this doesn’t happen.”
Of course, securing the licence itself is the very first hurdle but given the growth of the games industry, more and more rights holders are opening to the possibility of licensing out their IP. The trick is to convince them that you are the best studio to make a game for them.
“Identify a franchise you truly care about and come up with a pitch for a game that you can prove you are capable of delivering,” Kreuch advises. “It’s imperative that this shows your unique vision for the franchise. The next step is to approach the licence holder directly or, if you’re an indie developer, a publisher you want to work with (like, for example, the very nice people at THQ Nordic).”
Habib adds that this can be a little more complicated in the sports space. In boxing, for example, there is no single body with rights to all the boxers – unlike football or motorsport – so Steel City has had to individually license over 200 boxers for Esports Boxing Club.
“That wasn’t our original plan but thanks to the support of Empire Pro Tape, boxer Ryan Rhodes, Grand Enterprises and Todd Grisham the excitement within the boxing world grew and more boxers wanted to get involved,” he says. “It’s been a long time since the last big boxing game so there’s a lot of enthusiasm and pent-up demand.”
Hambleton adds that once you have your foot in the door, working well with the IP holder and delivering great games, you can earn a reputation that opens up new opportunities. Maze Theory, for example, has been able to work with brands like the BBC and Endemol Shine.
“So new IP holders know we can be trusted,” he concludes. “I think IP holders are more concerned about working with the right people and creating authentic IP projects than getting the most amount of money in. It’s way worse for them to destroy a brand with a terrible game.”
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