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How to develop for a licence (successfully)

Brand Licensing Europe's Anna Knight speaks to developers and IP holders about pleasing both fans and gamers

One of the biggest problems with the games industry -- and it's certainly not a new one -- is that consumers constantly claim they want new IP.

But with an RRP of at least £40 a pop for a new release, when push comes to shove, they're not always prepared to put their hands in their pockets and actually support it. This means the risk of failure and financial loss for developers and publishers is huge.


Little surprise then that -- similar to the movie industry -- we see so many sequels and franchises on the games chart, because (even though this has the potential to thwart true innovation) what we do know is consumers are happy to pay for proven and/or branded gaming IP.


"Lego is a great example of a brand that has created great video games offering new experiences for their fans and creating new fans in the process," says Steven Ekstract, brand director at Global Licensing Group. "In fact, Warner Bros in the UK built Lego into the third biggest games franchise in the UK behind FIFA and Call of Duty at point. Gaming is digital and most importantly it is interactive, immersing the player and creating challenges. Thus, it naturally offers a new experience for the player."

Anna Knight, Brand Licensing Europe

Developing around licenses is not new to games (any of you remember the Paris Hilton mobile game? No? Let's leave that one for now), but it's certainly becoming more prevalent.

Interestingly, unlike movies, the games industry has never had a hang up about collaborating with competitive brands, which has resulted in it working with multiple licenses simultaneously. Brand owners also wisely realise digital platforms (whether gaming or social) are so powerful that they are happy to put their old school differences to one side.


Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment, for example, worked with Marvel through its Lego license; something that would never happen in its theatrical division. But working with Lego allowed the publisher to break down barriers and act as a conduit between two massive -- normally competing -- brand owners. The result? Developed by TT Games, the first Lego Marvel Super Heroes released in 2016 sold well over one million units.


While the stats prove that developing for a license can be hugely successful and profitable, it's not all plain sailing. Brand guidelines are often super strict and tricky to work within, especially if there's a single brand owner at the helm. It's been said, for example, that JK Rowling enforces incredibly strict rules and regulations around the Harry Potter brand. It's important, therefore, for brand owners to entertain some level of flexibility; handcuffing your developer creatively can result in vanilla and bland, which may do more harm than good long term.


This means the job of developers like TT Games is to create a game that's innovative and fresh enough to appeal to gamers, but also sits within brand guidelines. TT Games strategic director Jonathan Smith believes the perfect brand owner/game developer relationship is 'a wholehearted partnership'.


"The game developer should always make the licensor feel they have made the right choice in choosing them"

Jonathan Smith, TT Games

Endemol Shine Group's director of games and gambling Anil Mistry believes it must also include an element of freedom on the part of the brand owner: "Providing there is a good synergy between the brand owner and the game developer, the brand owners need to give game developers the freedom to make the most compelling game they can.


"They need to be fast on approvals and only interfere if they feel the brand or an aspect of it is being compromised. Equally the developer has to be a great communicator, educating the brand owner if necessary and sticking to milestones. The game developer should always make the licensor feel they have made the right choice in choosing them."


Smith also believes developers must "be informed, respectful and deliver on their promises" when working with brand owners and Mistry agrees: "Licensors are very protective of their brands and formats. It's important to demonstrate that not only do you 100% understand and are respectful of the brand, but you can make a game that will actually enhance the brand, has the potential to be a part of the stable and the ability to make a lot of money."


When asked whether and how developers can create 'the best possible gaming experience that pushes boundaries in terms of gameplay and 'newness' yet stays within the safe perimeters of the brand's guidelines', Smith replies: "Staying true to a brand is easy when you love it. That's the simple secret: having at the heart of each team, and everything we do, a passionate love for the characters and universes we're privileged to play with.

"You can parrot respect for and adherence to documented guidelines and bibles -- but when you're trying to do something new, as you always have to, that can only be authentic if it comes from fully-immersed fan engagement and knowledge. We have to do the research, to become experts, and truly feel that love, in order to maintain the trust we need to do the job."

Video games can be the realm where competing brands in other industries collaborate to create something new

Mistry adds: "It is important to stay faithful to the brand, its characters and story so as not to disappoint the most feverous fans. However, the game does need to be a commercial success and, therefore, appeal to more than just the core fanbase so actual gameplay, functionality and mechanics are equally -- if not more -- important. The ability to push boundaries really depends on the nature of the licensed property. With a game show IP, for example, you might need to slightly bend the rules to make a single or multiplayer game more fun and viable. This is normally okay to do. With more scripted or narrative-based IPs, more care needs to be taken to storylines with innovative game play mechanics taking a back seat."


Mistry raises a good point here: is it ever a good idea to create a game that targets an audience other than the existing fanbase in order to broaden the brand/license's appeal? Some of the Lego IP -- Marvel, for example -- resonated to a much older demographic. For commercial reasons, he believes it is, adding, "As an added bonus this will broaden the brands appeal."


Smith is a little more cautious, however, claiming it's a "desperately fraught endeavour".

"If it's coming from an informed and nuanced sense of both the franchise's current 'fanbase', in all its breadth, and the emotional connection points between the brand and any new audience -- then, conceivably, yes. But this is art rather than a science so it cannot be forced or engineered."


When working with a brand, an important question for developers is whether the game should replicate the exact look, feel and experience of the original IP -- whether that's a film or book, for example -- or could and should offer a new experience for gamers.


"Every medium is different," says Smith. "No game can, or should try to, 'replicate the experience' of any prior expression in books or film. But its connections to the characters and worlds that people love that need to be incredibly clear, and credible. Where you're incorporating pre-existing stories, authenticity and attention to detail is key."


Mistry concludes: "In many cases replicating the exact look and feel is not important providing the integrity of the brand is not compromised. Stylised executions often work better and help define the game as being a different experience to the TV show or film."

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