Andrew and I have been making games for over 35 years, and over a third of the games we've made have been based on popular brands.
Through our first company Blitz Games, we produced games based on Mickey Mouse, Action Man, Puss In Boots, Chicken Run, Pac-Man, Burger King, Frogger, SpongeBob, Bratz, Barbie, The Mummy Returns, War Games, and many more. It's probably fair to say that there's unlikely to be another developer in the games industry with more experience of working with brands, so we know what we're talking about.
Our first experience of working on a branded game was as far back as 1989 when we created GhostBusters 2 for the Spectrum and Amstrad. It was no surprise at all that it became a bestseller -- that's the power of brands, though obviously it was a good game too.
"Never attempt to use a brand without licensing it -- you're likely to end up in court"
But even before we could actually license existing brands, we knew the power of recognisable names and images -- so we based a game on Robin Hood. Super Robin Hood was released in 1986 and became our first UK No.1 bestseller. We'd go on to use other 'free' brands, i.e. those that have fallen out of copyright or were simply myths or legends. In the UK, Europe and the United States, the general rule is that copyright lasts for the lifetime of the artist plus 70 years after their death. It used to be shorter, so you can assume anything created before 1908 is now in the public domain, but you should always check.
Recently, just as a hobby, we designed a new Dizzy game based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, called Wonderful Dizzy. Since this was written in 1900, it's well out of copyright and therefore can be used freely without a licence. But a word of warning -- new intellectual property rights can be created by new material based on the original.
The classic case here is Disney's Snow White and Seven Dwarfs. While the underlying story is in the public domain -- first published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812 -- and can be freely used, Disney's version contains many new elements which it fiercely protects. The look of Snow White, the dwarfs and their names, were created by Disney for its 1937 film.
The number one rule, though, is that you do a proper legal check before starting work on anything based on an existing property, regardless of its age.
Warning: License it or leave it
Never attempt to use a brand without licensing it -- you're likely to end up in court. Even if you just use signs in your game carrying a company's products or logos the brand holder can object. Remember that even the look of a product has copyright, so if you put an obvious picture or 3D model of a particular Ferrari in your game, even if you remove its badge you're still in breach of copyright. Likewise, there are plenty of geographical landmarks that are copyrighted (such as the Hollywood sign), so you need to do your research on that front as well.
Understanding brand values
All brands have different values to consumers and different target audiences. Gucci is an extremely valuable brand, but it has little value in the games space. Whereas EA was rumoured to have guaranteed $50 million for exclusive rights to Harry Potter back in 2000, because it's perfect material for games and gamers.
"A smart developer will create a game that really pushes the scope of a franchise, evolving and expanding it as they do"
It's important to consider what audience you are targeting and therefore what brands will be attractive. There are many casual brands that would work well on mobile but have no synergy with PC gamers, so platform choice is also important.
What's the deal?
There are a number of different ways you might end up working with a brand. In all cases the brand holder will want final approval and sign off of all materials. That includes the game itself and all the supporting marketing and advertising materials, too. The licences contain the rules and terms that have been negotiated, including platforms, number of titles, and the period of time the games can be sold over.
Most brand holders also have a brand bible, which catalogues all the known rules of their brand. These are largely visual, but may also contain character biographies, backgrounds and motivations. Often there will be descriptions of the tone and feel of the 'universe' of the brand. It's very important to get your hands on the brand bible as soon as possible -- maybe even prior to your pitch if you can.
Work for Hire
In this scenario, you are approached to bid on developing a game of a brand, either by a games publisher or the brand holder themselves. This is often referred to as an RFP (request for proposal), and you're unlikely to be the only developer that has been sent the brief. They will already most likely know the formats and genre of the games they're looking for, and will want you to show your creative flair and your technical abilities to create great games that complement the other media and merchandise in the brand.
"It's not a sell-out to work on a licensed product -- it's a privilege"
There are times when brand holders reach out to sell the interactive license to one of their properties. Sometimes they use licensing agents for this, as happened with us when when we bought the interactive rights for the Chicken Run franchise back in 1999.
In that case, you're bidding against others and must convince the brand holder that you understand their property and its audience, that you can create a game or games that will not only increase the reputation and value of their brand, but will be commercially successful too. And you'll need to back that confidence up with forecasts, a fair royalty back to them, with a minimum guarantee, and demonstrate you have a route to market.
Sometimes you might spot a brand that's not yet been exploited in games, and you can approach the licensors to see if they'd be interested in doing a deal. Again, you'll need to present a creative and business proposal for them to consider, and then negotiate terms.
Quality beats quantity
Back in the '90s, the charts were dominated by the game of the film, toy, or cartoon series. As time went on, these games gained a reputation for being poor experiences as publishers began slapping a license on very basic games, relying on the franchise to sell them.
You see less of this now, though, since gamers are more demanding and development budgets have increased. The big publishers now pick and choose which brands to license, and balance them with their own growing gaming franchises, while the mobile market is still fertile ground for branded games to thrive.
Check the small print
With licensing contracts, you need to be very careful about what they do and don't contain. You'll need to know the boundaries, but also where you can potentially introduce new ideas. Don't expect to own any of those expansions, though -- they'll become part of the brand itself if they're successful. We created additional characters for Frogger 2 in 2000, which all went on to be part of the brand and used in later games and even in a cartoon series.
However, sometimes licenses don't include everything you'd hope and expect. We once created a game for an action movie where we discovered part way through production that the publisher's license didn't include the movie's music, storyline, or the likenesses of actors. They did have the name, logo and poster art, so effectively we made the game of the poster -- but because of production timings, we only saw this after we'd completed most of the game.
You'll obviously have existing rules to follow when working in an established universe, but a smart developer will create a game that really pushes the scope of a franchise, evolving and expanding it as they do. Licensors don't want games that add nothing of value to the brand, so you should see it as a creative challenge and not a restriction.
Sometimes games can be used purely as a promotional tool, with game sales taking second place to general brand awareness. We produced a series of games for fast food giant Burger King in 2006. They went on to sell over three million units, but more importantly for the brand holders, they drove a lot of people into Burger King outlets and garnered press attention and several advertising awards.
Similarly, we also worked with Coca-Cola on their 2012 Super Bowl campaign, creating a real-time interactive experience that allowed the Coca-Cola polar bears to react to the game online as it played out. It's not always about creating a standard gaming experience.
Brands can bring a powerful marketing pull to a game, especially if your title lines up with a major new movie or toy launch -- but with great exposure comes great responsibility. Choose the right brand, get inside the heads of its fans, treat it with respect, and use your creativity to add value to the universe you're playing in. It's not a sell-out to work on a licensed product -- it's a privilege.