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Zlatan Ibrahimović: "I want to make a difference in the video game world"

World renowned footballer on why his new mobile title, Zlatan Legends, stands apart from the flood of celebrity games

Celebrity video games aren't exactly big news anymore.

There was plenty of excitement when the industry realised Glu's Kim Kardashian: Hollywood was raking in millions, but this preceded a wave of me-too mobile games (not least from Glu itself). Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gordon Ramsay, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Jason Statham, Little Mix, Lil Wayne - the list of famous names and likenesses to be slapped on to smartphone titles feels endless.

So you'd be forgiven for being initially dismissive when you discover that Swedish footballer Zlatan Ibrahimović is headlining a new game that launches today. Fortunately, Zlatan Legends has a few crucial points of separation from all the celebrity apps that have come before it - not least of which is the direct involvement of Ibrahimović himself.

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Zlatan Ibrahimović and his in-game alter ego

Developed by Sweden-based studio Isbit Games - of which Ibrahimović is co-owner - Zlatan Legends revolves around a fictional sport called Driftball. Players guide zero-gravity driftballers through a series of complicated courses by kicking the ball up into the air and warping to its location.

The story of the game is fairly nonsensical: a Driftball tournament across the multiverse sees different realities putting forward their best athletes to compete - it just so happens they all put forward Ibrahimović. It's up to players to prove they are the one and only Ibrahimović in a game that the footballer tells us "feels very Zlatan."

For Ibrahimović, it's the chance to become more involved with his greatest passion (off the pitch, that is).

"Since I was a kid, I always loved video games," he tells GamesIndustry.biz. "Throughout my career, I had a lot of [downtime] and video games became my saviour. I was playing lots of different kinds of games, getting more advanced and getting good at them.

"It's something I love, I want to be involved and I want to make a difference in the video game world because it's part of my life"

Zlatan Ibrahimović

"I was given the opportunity to meet a great team [in Isbit]. And they're from Sweden, obviously. I believed in them, said I wanted to invest and talks began about doing a game together. To work on something like that with a team you believe in is, for me, the perfect connection. The guys are working hard and putting their passion into that. When you have that combination, nothing can beat that.

"It's something I love, I want to be involved and I want to make a difference in the video game world because it's part of my life. I'm super happy that I can sit here and talk about it, because there are so many minutes and hours I've been wasting by playing and now I feel involved because I'm producing my own things."

He continues: "I remember when I was in Amsterdam, just moved to Ajax, my first professional contract [outside my home country]. I only had a bed, the biggest TV I could buy, and a PlayStation. I went for three or four hours training [per day] and after that I was playing games. I would play until night. My life was sleep, train, come home and play games. That was my life."

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Zlatan Legends' Driftball is a skill-based affair

It's easy to argue that co-owning the studio doesn't necessarily equate to being involved in the game's development. Most celebrities seem to simply agree for a games company to use their name and likeness, help out with the occasional TV spot or marketing campaign, and otherwise stay out of the development process. Ibrahimović insists his role is different; in addition to providing plenty of voice acting for the multiverse's various Zlatans, he has also consulted with the team throughout the game's two-year development.

"I'm involved, I talk a lot with the team," he says. "Markus is the genius, I'm the one saying if I like it or not. Even if I don't, he does what he wants [laughs].

"No, we talk a lot because I think the game is about catching as much as possible from my personality, from my image and maybe the world I'm living in. I feel like a superhero, so I'm bringing that across in a game and saving the world.

"This game is pure quality - and not just because it's me in the game. It's because the feeling of playing, the technique you use and the way the game is played. I demand quality from the projects I work on, it has to be 200%, so I'm involved to make sure of that."

Of course, Ibrahimović is not the first footballer to get involved with games development. Chelsea and Italian football legend Gianluca Vialli worked on Geniaware's management title Lords of Football, released in 2013. Two years later, Spanish footballer Gerard Piqué assisted with the release of Golden Manager for mobile. Ibrahimović hasn't played Piqué's title so refrains from offering comment, but has plenty to say about the aformentioned wave of shallower celebrity titles.

"We didn't want to copy-paste anything, like an auto-runner. We used to say in the office that Zlatan doesn't auto-run, that became something of a mantra."

Markus Koos, Isbit Games

"You can see immediately whether it's a good game or not," he says. "I can connect immediately if it's a good game or not. I just need a few seconds. Trust me, when I say I don't put my name or face on something I don't like. I need to like it, feel like I'm involved, because then it feels real and that's the way things should be. It has to be a real game. I can't be in a game that's just for wasting time.

"The kids, when they play it, they need to feel like they're me. They need to feel like they're a superhero, saving the planets. That's the opportunity we will give them - and I will challenge all of them and I'll be better than all of them, even though they're playing me when they're against me."

Koos adds that from the very conception of Zlatan Legends, the aim was to avoid reskinning previous games, which seems to be a model for some celebrity apps: "We didn't want to copy-paste anything, like an auto-runner. We used to say in the office that Zlatan doesn't auto-run, that became something of a mantra. We wanted something truly unique, but also something you can recognise. It has been designed from the ground-up, nothing is copied, and it's been a great journey together with Zlatan to try and make this as 'real' a game as possible for the mobile platform."

Ibrahimović adds: "It's not only about me. Other celebrities put their name or face on the brand and you see only them. This is a very skilful game, I have nothing to do with [the player's] skill. You use my hero guy, but you need to be good at it if you want to take it to another level and beat all the different game modes. It's not like it's just about playing as Zlatan. It's a real game."

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Ibrahimović has been involved in various aspects of the game's development, from design and concept to voice acting

We can attest to the skill-based nature of the game. Mastering the art of rapidly warping ahead of fellow Driftball players takes some work and it's easy to see younger or more novice players struggling to climb the leaderboards. It's a stark contrast to the often casual experiences seen in other celebrity games, which usually revolve around management or match-three mechanics. But is there a danger that Driftball ineptitude will frustrate players, thus limiting the game's appeal, retention and therefore audience?

"Other celebrities put their name or face on the brand and you see only them. This is a very skilful game, I have nothing to do with [the player's] skill"

Zlatan Ibrahimović

"Anyone can play it," Ibrahimović assures us. "It depends on what level you want to bring it. There are different kinds of objectives: being the fastest, being the best and getting the different clothes or balls you want. You can use it as a skill game, but I think the audience is for everybody. I think even my wife could play it - even if she's tired of Zlatan."

Unsurprisingly, the game is free-to-play which presents the often-treacherous issue of monetising with a young audience. Mobile titles have been under scrutiny for the use of in-app purchases in children's title for years, and it's not unreasonable to assume much of the millions Glu made came from younger Kardashian fans. With a sizeable fanbase among young football followers, does Ibrahimović have a responsibility to ensure his game is not misleading or overcharging children?

"I'm not doing this for the money," he stresses. "I do this because it's my passion, I've spent 20 years playing games and now I have the opportunity to create my own.

"Of course the game has to [earn money] and the team needs to buy food. But I don't want to influence the kids. For example, I don't do poker games or that kind of things because I don't believe in it. So of course you don't want to influence kids in a negative way. There has to be happiness and they have to feel the passion for it."

"The ambition is to continue doing games - not just about Zlatan. The team has different ambitions, more ideas and more projects"

Zlatan Ibrahimović

Koos chips in with further reassurance: "We've taken responsibility from the team's side for the monetisation. As this is a Zlatan game, given his history, being able to play this game without having to pay for it is really important. We don't want to force people to pay, but of course we need to [keep it going].

"One design decision we made was if you run out of tickets that you need to play the game, you go into training mode - which means you can still play all the content you have unlocked in the game so far, and continue your training to really [hone your skills]. As you get more tickets, which are time-based, you can play new stages again.

"We really tried to be inspired by Zlatan's life, how he had become the champion that he is. Kids in this game can become just as skilled and awesome at this game. But obviously we can't force them through the monetisation."

interview

Ibrahimović and Markus Koos, the Isbit CEO with whom he has been working closely

With two years of development behind it, Zlatan Legends is not a short-term prospect, nor is Ibrahimović's involvement in the studio a fleeting one. It's the beginning of a strategy that aims to take Isbit to new levels of success - and without relying solely on the power of Zlatan. Isbit has already made a name for itself with titles like First Person Lover and Warp Shift, and the footballer is keen to see the team continue its work on original games like this.

"It's a new challenge for me, because I've come into a world that's brand new for me in terms of the way that I'm involved"

Zlatan Ibrahimović

"We'll start here [with Zlatan Legends], this is the warm-up, then we'll grow and get bigger," he says. "The ambition is to continue doing games - not just about Zlatan. We need to find new things. The team has different ambitions, more ideas and more projects, but it takes time to make those a reality."

Koos adds: "We love all genres of games. Over the past three years, Isbit hasn't done many games, but each one has been different - a different genre, a different setting, everything. We really don't want to be locked down in a genre or concept, we want to have the freedom to explore new things - and it's so amazing to have a partner like Zlatan that agrees on that. He doesn't force us to do more Zlatan Legends.

"We love this project and want to support it long-term. It's a long-term vision, but we want to explore other genres as well."

And will Ibrahimović continue to be involved in the long tail of Zlatan Legends? If the game is designed to be an ongoing hit, that will no doubt result in new content and perhaps the need for more of the footballer's input.

"We have the captain here," the star says, pointing to Koos. "I'm the captain on the football pitch, but here I have to be behind someone else. He has free access to me, so whenever he needs me, I'll be there."

Koos adds: "It's so great to have Zlatan involved in the team, as much as he has time to be involved of course. For future projects, he will come to the studio to discuss ideas and to help us get a perspective from his world on new things."

We circle back to the 'why' of it all. Ibrahimović's passion for games partly explains his desire to star in a title of his own, but it's still a hefty investment to co-own a games studio. The footballer doesn't exactly need the exposure, nor is he short of cash so what is the real benefit for him?

"It's a new challenge for me, because I've come into a world that's brand new for me in terms of the way that I'm involved," he says. "Before, I've been a big fan of video games, playing things like Call of Duty, Pro Evolution Soccer, Titanfall.

"When you're in a new world, you take it as a challenge and then you take over. Because with everything I go into, I want to be the biggest and the best. I want to make people satisfied. I'm the people's man, and I will be that in video games also. I aim to be the biggest in the world."

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