One of the UK's development success stories in the past few years is the combination of Lego with franchises such as Star Wars, Batman and Indiana Jones - so successful in fact that it led to the USD 200 million acquisition of Traveller's Tales, the company behind the games, by Warner Bros late last year.
Here, Nick Ricks, producer at associated publisher TT Games, gives his views on working with the big licenses, the importance of online components to modern games, and how Warner integrated the company into itself.
Q: As a company you've worked with some key franchises already - with the Guinness World Records game that's another license, which maybe raised a few eyebrows, so what was the thinking behind that?
Nick Ricks: Well yes, I guess so, if you look at it from an external point of view. We've been remarkably privileged to be able to work with people like Lucasfilm and Lego, and for me, to be able to work with Guinness World Records is just another fantastic partner to get together with.
But while it may seem something quite different to our Lego games, our mantra - our approach - is really to make quality games for young gamers. We're all got children ourselves and we do play these kinds of games, and we think there are some games out that perhaps - if it was aimed at an older audience - there'd be a bit more investment into it.
We're very conscious that we don't talk down to young gamers, we don't patronise them, and make stuff they can understand and enjoy. So taking that and applying it to Guinness World Records seemed a logical next step for us, because again it's a property that's that we all grew up with, we're all familiar with - internally it's a perfectly natural fit.
While the formula might have changed, as far as this is record-breaking challenges rather than a traditional 3D action-adventure game, the thinking behind it is pretty constant.
Q: One of the key successes for the Lego games was that it had a really wide appeal - so while you might be aiming at a specific audience, many older people played it too.
Nick Ricks: They did, and we're confident that the same thing will happen with Guinness World Records, because the style is designed for young gamers, but not in a condescending way. It's very cool, so I think that if an adult sees it, they're not going to perceive it as young, they'll perceive it as stylised.
While we know the game is going to appeal to young people, you wouldn't believe how insanely competitive it is in our QA department as to who can break these records. When they get a new build in, there's a catastrophe, because all the data will have changed and all the previous records will have gone out the window, so they have to start again.
That's what we're aiming for, because it has that duality - it has that appeal to the people who will consume it first hand, but it's also got an element of nostalgia that's akin to Lego, and Star Wars, and Indiana Jones.
Q: The meta-services for Guinness World Records will be very important in that case?
Nick Ricks: Oh yes, of course - that's a crucial aspect of the game, because what we know differentiates this from other games out there... we know there are lots of mini-game compilations out there, and there are some good ones and bad ones, we're very confident that we've got very, very good ones - because we have a fantastic team with a proven track record in this kind of stuff.
On top of that, we have this license, and our ability to leverage from that - somebody can upload their scores and become a record-holder themselves, getting actually in the book.
Q: Do you think meta-services are more and more important to all games now?
Nick Ricks: Absolutely, and online component is becoming ever-more important. You've only got to look at the race, which Microsoft is obviously leading at the moment, in terms of their online presence. They want to do a lot of things with Live, re-rolling out the dashboard, that idea of turning your Xbox on as the thing you're doing for the evening - they're way ahead, but everybody else is catching up, like PlayStation Network and also the online sharing aspects of LittleBigPlanet are very important.
Any game worth its salt needs to have that sort of aspect.
Q: The Warner Bros deal - from an internal perspective, how did the changes manifest themselves? Every acquisition is a slightly different experience.
Nick Ricks: Well, actually it's going to be a very dull story, because actually it was a very good fit, so there's not a lot of gossip there. Obviously Time Warner has vast experience in DVD retail, and so they understand the back-end of getting stuff on the shelves - and how to market that successfully. So when they set up Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment they already had that - so going into an acquisition with some companies, perhaps a publisher, there's an inherent redundancy in as far as the operations side is being duplicated.
Q: Is it just the difference between acquiring a developer or publisher?
Nick Ricks: Well yes, because with us, TT Games is a tiny publisher - we partner with other publishers and use their distribution channels. We have the relationship with Traveller's Tales, because they're part of the same group, we're used to working with other people - so when they come to look for a partner, we have all the experience and expertise on the publishing side of things - access to the developer, and a really good QA team, but the one thing we're lacking is a really good distribution and operations, which we normally rely on other people for.
So it's a perfect fit - obviously for them there's no redundancy there.
Q: So it's been a pretty happy story?
Nick Ricks: As far as I'm aware - we both bring so much to the table, that it has actually been positive, it's worked very well. They're a very big company, and tend to do very big things, but we're small enough to adapt to that. On a day-to-day basis in our office you wouldn't necessarily know that anything's different - in terms of how we were working, it was reasonably successful, so they're not going to come and tamper with things.
Q: They've not tried to institute changes?
Nick Ricks: Oh no, not at all.
Q: Is it fair to assume that TT will work on Warner Bros IP at some point?
Nick Ricks: Well, yes - we'd be foolish not to consider some of the products in the back catalogue, but equally we're still a small company, we're focused, and that does give us one advantage of making very good games, because we have such a close relationship with Traveller's Tales we can work together very quickly. There's a good short hand between us.
If we did want to exploit lots of licenses very quickly, we think we could use that - so yes there are lots of opportunities, and we're licking our lips at what we could do, but at the same time we need to be very guarded that making quality games for young gamers is our goal. We don't need to rush out and produce dozens of Lego games based on Warner Bros properties.
We're in it for the long haul, so there's no push from Warner Bros to do that either - it's very much business as usual, but with the comfort of knowing that we're partnering with someone who has a real drive to become an industry leader, and have the opportunity to know there's all these things we can exploit when the time is right.
Q: The Lego Star Wars games did a massive amount to bring Lego to new audiences - how much credit can you take for that?
Nick Ricks: Well, without wanting to blow our own trumpets, but yes - credit where credit's due, the team has done a cracking job. But equally, the opportunity to work with fantastic partners like Star Wars - who wouldn't want to work with that? And then there's Lego as well. Put the two together and it almost writes itself.
That in no way demeans all the hard work and effort that the team has put in, because you can imagine what was left on the cutting room floor. That's the trickiest thing, trying to fit all that stuff into one game that's still accessible and enjoyable for young gamers.
Q: Now there are three major IPs that have been translated, how much more mileage is there in Lego games? Do you have to be very careful about which IPs you marry with it?
Nick Ricks: I think you have to be very, very careful about which IPs you choose to marry, particularly because while making games for young games, we have to make sure that the games are uncomplicated. As such it's very hard to make uncomplicated things fun and successful. It's always easy to make things more complicated, add more challenges and so on.
So there aren't so many things that you can change and tweak, and we have to maintain that quality bar. We're very conscious of that - it's not a case of turning cycles of games around, it's the right games with the right people, at the right time.
There is a big back catalogue that would lend itself to combining itself with Lego, but we have to make sure that things are appropriate. I think the point that illustrates that best is now that we do have huge licenses, people don't just talk about Lego Star Wars games, they talk about Lego games.
That's brilliant, that just really excited us, because if people are starting to associate Lego and games together as a really fun experience, and are anticipating what the next conversion is going to be, I think we've done our job well.
Nick Ricks is producer at TT Games. Interview by Phil Elliott.