Key licensing tips from working with big brands
Having worked on IP such as Portal and Lego, ClockStone's Tri Do Dinh gives advice on targeting, obtaining and working on licensed games
Working on a licensed property can be a dream come true for many, especially if it’s for a franchise you have a strong emotional connection to. I’ve been truly blessed that at ClockStone Studio I’ve gotten to work on titles like Bridge Constructor: Portal, Bridge Constructor: The Walking Dead, and most recently Lego Bricktales.
Naturally, I was thrilled to be a part of all of these projects. But working on a licensed game isn’t easy, as these partnerships are difficult to acquire and at least as challenging to make good on. There’s a lot of work that goes into a collaboration with a major IP holder, and we’ve learned a lot about how to keep our corporate partners proud while having fun doing it. Here’s some of the best practices I’ve learned from my time at ClockStone.
Identify the right licensing partner
Arguably the most important part of working on a licensed property is to find the right licence for your game. The first piece of advice I would give here is to be sure that you are always open to what’s going on, not only in the gaming industry, but beyond it. It’s very easy to be inwardly focused on your own studio’s work and this means missing out on opportunities that could overlap with what your studio is doing. Keeping your eyes and ears open and trying to foster an ongoing process of idea generation when it comes to potential partners is a pre-requisite of finding the right partner.
Let’s get more specific and talk about how you identify if any potential collaboration is a good fit. There needs to be some conceptual angle that ties the licence and what you are able to offer together. To give a concrete example, in the case of Portal and Bridge Constructor, we had the meeting point of physics-based puzzles and the Aperture Science setting that could be translated to puzzles as a series of tests. The idea was to combine two different kinds of puzzle games into one experience.
Identifying that core conceptual crossover was important, but we went further than that and put a lot of work into prototyping the game – around 60 hours – before it was even pitched. The licence and crossover seemed to work clearly in concept, but was it the right licence in practice? That’s what prototyping allowed us to find out.
Deciding how much work resource you want to invest in a project like this upfront is a real challenge and I know that not everyone is going to be able to go in-depth on every project.
Nevertheless, I would strongly advise that you do at least some prototyping to see if the concept you think you have works in practice. Drilling down into the design to see if the idea works will not only help you to be certain that you’ve identified the right partner, but will give you a stronger pitch when you eventually approach them.
Partnership and contacts
Having an experienced publisher or partner can be instrumental in getting you in touch with the right people to arrange a licensing collaboration. In the case of ClockStone, all of our licensed projects were initiated by our publisher, Headup Games (now part of Thunderful).
This is not the only viable approach, but outlining what they were able to give us will bring into focus what a partner can bring you and how they can help you get a licence.
A publisher has built a lot of long term relationships over time. Where a developer might put out a game every few years, a publisher is dealing with a much higher volume, putting them in contact with platform holders, developers and all other facets of the gaming industry on a regular basis. This gives them contacts and a relationship of trust that makes it far easier to get the attention of potential licence partners and have them take you seriously.
If you don’t have contacts or the capacity to build them, then you need a partner who does
I’m aware that "have a contact at the partner you want to work with" isn’t helpful advice, but my point here is that if you don’t have contacts or the capacity to build them, then you need a partner who does.
If you have a great list of contacts and the time to go to events, shake hands and do that important work of meeting people in person to keep building your network, then great! Do that! If not, think about whether partnering with a publisher who has a host of pre-existing relationships and is regularly out there at industry events building their contacts can take that load off your shoulders.
If a publisher is not right for you, there are other options too. Consider linking up with a consultancy company, a business development support company, or something similar. The good ones will have great contacts across the industry by virtue of the work they do and can help connect you with the right people when it comes to pitching your idea or finding the right partner.
Approach and pitch
The project that kickstarted our licensed collaborations was Bridge Constructor: Portal. In our first meeting with Valve, we delivered a pitch video and a 16-page pitch document. The document itself mostly contained information about Headup and ClockStone as companies, the Bridge Constructor brand, and our successes, with only a little information on the actual game concept itself.
This just goes to show the value in showcasing that you’re an established company that thinks about business aspects rather than just proposing a game concept. So having the backing of Headup was certainly a boon to our credibility that had been helpful.
In terms of communicating the game idea, it mostly hinged on a one minute video. This teaser showed mockup gameplay cut to actual music from Portal to set the tone. While a minute may sound small, the amount of work that went into this pitch video was immense.
It took a total of 169 hours, about a week of conception, 60 hours of prototyping, and 50 hours of graphic updates to get things to look like Aperture Science, and about two full days of capturing and cutting. So with work happening concurrently, I’d estimate that it was in the ballpark of four weeks with largely two people involved. You can actually watch this pitch video below:
When you come to creating your pitch, there are a few key pieces of advice I would give. The first is to think about what it is that you are selling. Let’s say the licence you are working on is humorous and that this is something that is key to what you are proposing – that has to come across in your video. Are game mechanics the most important part of what you are selling? Or is it an audiovisual experience? Whatever it is, your pitch needs to be in a format that best highlights that key aspect.
Another key factor is to ensure you show that you "get" the IP. Think about what the emotional quality of the IP you want to work on is and capture the essence of that in your IP. In our pitch video for Bridge Constructor: Portal, for example, we made our video in the style of an Aperture Science video, mimicking the style and humour.
But remember: showing that you are a fan of the IP and understand it is not enough alone! Your focus should be on the meeting point between the licence and what you are bringing to the table. Remember that you have something to sell!
I want to emphasise again that doing prototyping work can really help the strength of your pitch. It’s one thing to be able to put forward a cool idea, but having playable proof that it can work will really help to strengthen your pitch.
Know the IP
Of course it’s not enough to just get the licensing deal. You need to know what you’re talking about, which requires research and dedication throughout the whole process. With Lego Bricktales we were all really excited about the project, as Lego was something that had deep connections to childhood memories for most of us. It’s also an absolute behemoth of a brand, so there was a lot of pressure to get it right.
In regard to research, we looked at different Lego games that already existed to see what had been done and what hadn’t been covered well. It turned out that while there were plenty of Lego games on the market, only a few actually captured what we thought was key to their appeal: building! So we approached it from our gut understanding of Lego and what we thought was essential about it.
How you do your research will of course depend on the licence you are dealing with. It goes without saying that if it’s a game series, you play the games. If it’s a comic book series, you read the comics. And so on.
The important thing here is not to think of this as a one and done task, but as an ongoing immersive process
I think the important thing here is not to think of this as a one and done task, but as an ongoing immersive process. As you work with your partner, you should be open to recalibrate your idea of what is important when it comes to that licence and how it should be represented.
With every decision you make, you have to think about whether this represents the values of your partner and by treating your knowledge of the IP as an ongoing process, each of these decisions will help you develop a stronger compass.
You should ask your partner for any additional material that they think can help you. Be aware that depending on the partner, the amount of information and the degree to which they are going to be hands on will vary. In this case, your work immersing yourself in the IP will be vital in finding your direction. In this situation you should ensure you check it with your partner, with a playable build for example, to make sure you are on the same page and further refine your direction as necessary.
Overall, that feeling that you understand the appeal of a franchise really helps. You have to strip away all the marketing from it and try to reduce it to its very core. For Portal, this was clearly the experimental science aspect, while on The Walking Dead it was the claustrophobic and constantly threatening feel. An IP never has only one audience, so we’re always trying to find what catches our attention and keeps us engaged with the property, then apply that to our games.
Good practices during development
Remember that working with a licence holder entails a lot of moving parts. This means you need to take a realistic view of your timeline and plan accordingly. Things are going to move slower when partnering with a giant licence holder. You have to understand that things need to be reviewed and that it takes time to be checked by whoever is responsible for approval. Depending on the company, a person might have to cross-check with colleagues, other departments or at a management level on what goes and what doesn’t. Again this takes time. Accept this fact and plan accordingly.
Of course it’s important to stay in touch with the licence holders all throughout to ensure that you’re on the same page. You’ll need to set up communication channels and have relevant people to talk to. Have regular check-ins where you talk about what's going on. Provide transparency. Find processes to check adherence to brand guidelines. Just be aware that communication and approvals take time and wheels don't turn as fast in bigger companies.
Remember that working with a licence holder entails a lot of moving parts. This means you need to take a realistic view of your timeline and plan accordingly
When it comes to communication, you need to interpret this as broadly as possible. Communication does not just mean calls or emails. Communication transcends writing or talking. Sharing screenshots is communication, sending a build is communication. With every piece of communication, you should be clear about what you are sharing and what you want from it. If you share a build with placeholder visuals where the focus is on the mechanics, make sure your partner understands that! Spell out clearly that the purpose of this build is not for a check on visual style, but to refine the mechanics and that you need feedback on that. You don’t want your partner panicking, thinking, "Why isn’t the presentation up to scratch?"
Preparation is key to ensuring effective communication. Your time and the time of your partner is limited, so you need to think about communication long before a scheduled meeting takes place. You should allot time in your day to day work to collect and order information ahead of a meeting, because this is important work that takes time.
Make sure the information you need to get across is prepared, that you can clearly communicate your progress, issues and challenges, and be clear about where you need help and how they can help you.
Collaborating with a major licence can be intimidating. But it can also be exciting, as you get to be a part of something that meant so much to you. You’ll have to learn how to do your research, be detail oriented, and work alongside a big, lumbering corporate structure, but the results can be something you’ll be proud to be a part of.
Tri Do Dinh is a game developer at ClockStone Studio who has worn many hats over the years, ranging from animation to audio to design. Lastly, he was game director for the 2022 title Lego Bricktales.