FreeToPlay.biz The Business and Design of Free-To-Play Games

17Sep/090

Developing Licensed Games: Doing It Successfully in Tough Economic Times – GDC Austin 2009

Feargus Urquhart, Obsidian Entertainment
Jean Marcel Nicolai, Disney
Leo, Bioware
Eugene Evans (Moderator), EA Mythic

As a developer, what is your bias/approach when you're pitching your own products vs opportunity to do a publisher's IP?

Feargus: Pubs are more willing to take risks when there is money. When we are looking at what we will pitch, we consider the climate - i.e. if publishers are willing to take risks. Normally we put together 2-3 pitches, hand them over, then we get the word on what they would really like us to work on (i.e. a license). We will often look at a publisher's catalog to see what they have - sometimes what they offer doesn't make sense for the platform or genre - we try to figure out what would a license that works for us look like as a game. That's where we focus our efforts. If we pitch a license they already have and it blends with what we do, then you've gotten past step 1.

Jean Marcel: Different pubs have different priorities. Some are heavily driven by their slate. For me it's all a question of quality. It's all about what a developer can deliver. Sometime the brand you are working with will define the boundaries and you'll ask the dev to stay within those boundaries. But sometimes you want the dev to bring their own ideas and see how they fit within your brand. Can be dangerous for a creative org to take directly what the publisher wants and not bring their own creativity.

Question for Leo: You've worked on titles like Matrix Online and Star Wars Old Republic. What are challenges of producing online vs standalone?

Leo: Couple challenges... from a user's perspective, you have a bunch of passionate people. When you are making a single player game that is more scripted you can have a better understanding of how they will interact with your IP. In an MMO, users may find a bunch of different areas fun - combat, harvesting, etc. Working on an online game, you have to make sure that all parts of the IP are well thought out so that any way a person comes at the experience is unique and well done.

Feargus: The licenses we've worked with a lot (D&D, Star Trek, LOTR), when you are making a big game with a license you are usually expanding the license. So we need to ask lots of questions... when we wanted to use some iconic characters from within D&D, we had to ask what the IP holder cared about - can we change colours, etc. We didn't wait for them to tell us. Can we blow this city up or can't we? Need to bring the question of boundaries up ASAP. We did a little design work, but not much, just to find out these boundaries up front with tons of questions.

Jean Marcel: Great point. Most of the company may be risk-averse, but the role of the developer is to push the boundaries, otherwise you will end up with a copycat product and no one will be happy in the end.

Feargus - do you feel more or less secure as a developer because it is based on an IP or not?
Feargus: I would feel much more secure about working on a licensed property in times like this or not. From time to time, we're living in the minutiae of making a game and the publisher is looking at ROI. It is easier for non-gamers to understand a game if it is a license than if it is not. Licenses are something we pursue more in these economic times because the org would understand the product more due to license.

Jean Marcel: I understand this point of view. Right now movie license games have bad perception among consumers. Sometimes they don't make sense to greenlight. That's why I go back to quality. When you have an IP holder who has a big vault of IP, it is good for the developer to come back to the publisher with what they would like to do - regardless of whether there is an upcoming movie tied to it. More secure for developer because the amount of promotion that needs to get done for this type of product is less than original IP.

Arkham Asylum doing incredibly well without being released with a movie. Dev times getting longer and longer. What's your POV on this approach on not tying a game to a movie launch?

Feargus: That's interesting. Talking to my neighbour... he knew WoW and the name of the company I worked for. And he didn't dress like a gamer. Acceptance of games as a whole by everyone. Led to an understanding that games are a part of a brand as a whole. Now when we are approached for a movie game it's no longer a 6 or 9 month dev schedule, now they are calling 24 and 36 months out. Great to see that there is an acknowledgement of how making a great game can push the whole brand. Also seen a lot lately that people are open to not following the plot of the movie. We can now add in more creativity. Great business decision too.

Leo: Lot of things come into play when considering this issue. What does a coordinated entertainment launch due in terms of a multiplier effect. Does that drive concurrent movie/game releases. How does this corrolate to kids games? Do you have to make a 95% game? Or is it more important to hit at the same time as the big movie? My experience is that it's a balancing act between associating a game with a movie release or delivering a well reviewed adult-oriented product.

Jean Marcel: I agree. Let's take the big movies - $50-100M marketing investment. If you position yourself very differently from the movie, your game may be lost in translation. But it's important to understand the world, but not re-tell the same movie they just saw. Need to have a deep dive on how we build the product from a dev perspective and how we can create more synergies with movie and its director, right from the beginning. If there is a better synergy from scratch - the game guys have good dialog with movie director - then movie director can get cool weapons in film, etc. But in the past, we were struggling with the lead time. Movie script takes lots of time. For developer, takes a long time to create tech and pipeline. But if we can match the 2 schedules together, then the result all around is better.

Do you think the market is more fickle? As dev times have become longer, how do you forecast status of an IP that far out?

Jean Marcel: No risk, no business. We are trying to protect the companies with a different level of risk. What is the trend of this property - invest early enough to capitalize on that. But there is a level of uncertainty still. Market has changed dramatically lately. Dev community is trying to change processes but there are some timeframes which cannot be compressed. It will always be an issue we have to fight with. But if we have a great product, I still believe the product will find its consumer at the end. Biggest mismatch can be platform - if there is a big change there, that can be the biggest error.

I was surprised by Lego Stars' success. Two disparate brands, now they've defined their own genre. Do you guys have an example of surprising brands in games?

Feargus: We're going through all the failures in our head... Superman, Ironman, etc. Telling... there are so few of these licenses that have done well.

Jean Marcel: That's interesting, because Lego was not in great shape when developer went in with that license. They had to rejuvenate the brand. The quality of the product with drop in drop out play, etc elevated it. Kingdom Hearts is another example - taking a lot of characters and putting them in a world no one expect. Wound up a good matchup.

Eugene: Many industry types were surprised Kingdom Hearts succeeded... throwing all those IPs together usually regarded as crazy.

With a Star Wars Lego title, is that an example of a game contributing to the brand?

Jean Marcel: Definitely. Where Lego was before and the tremendous job they did extending that brand to a different medium. Now around the world you see Lego stores, attractions, etc.

Leo: The game reinforced both. I can see through my kids how they react to these things. They hadn't watch Star Wars but only wanted to after playing these games. By bringing those two things together, it helped expand and solidify the love of Star Wars in another generation.

Jean Marcel: Interesting to devs and pubs is that it is a broad offering - dads playing with their kids - and I know a lot of people at my age who are playing those games. Key challenges for dev community to emulate that success. How do we touch the massive audience rather than just the core. How do we create these titles that create a fissure in the business to expand it.

Eugene: Developer was incredibly passionate about both IPs. Rock Band Beatles was driven by Harmonix - it is now part of big worldwide event - the re-release of these albums - and now this dev is part of a huge event. Says a lot about games' relevancy. The reverse of that for developers is that devs can get so passionate about the IP, but they may not want to work with IP holder.

Feargus: We all have the things we love. You get a chance to make a game about it and the opportunity is weird. When I got to be in charge of D&D games, it was bizarre. My part in it was great opportunity. It can jade your vision in terms of what is important from a business perspective. Now with the big budgets if you are too enamored you are at risk of making the wrong decision. On the flip side, it can be a positive if you are that into it. Can be a good decision, but it's a risky decision. As a developer we've tried to focus on the business so we can stay in business. By bringing yourself back and making the judgment call about ROI versus passion... you are better off. I.e. our $9500 per man month vs the $11K we're getting paid - we can't put any extra man months into it.

Leo: You can't let your passion drive insanity and feature creep. Have to be cognizant of your passion driving you away from business necessities. From a marketing perspective, I can be passionate about something but I too have to be conscious that my approach may not be the right one for introducing the product to the consumer. Take it back to business perspective so you don't go crazy.

Q&A

With iPhone and webplatforms and quick turnaround, how does that affect relationships with IP holders, etc?

Feargus: It will probably go back to overall goal of using the license. iPhone games can get done quickly, but the goal may not be met. It may not be synergistic with release of a movie - an iPhone game can have SOME impact, but probably not big enough to build on what's happening with the movie. No magazine covers unless it's a AAA game.

Jean Marcel: All those approaches are always good for the business. Especially as you can plant more seeds and see what you get out of it. But the massive hype is only going to come from something big. There is probably a mix of products to do, but ultimately you have to hit the date with a big product. A small product won't help you. Perhaps a smaller product can serve as a focus test for a larger one.

Eugene: Very difficult to market mobile and web games - they are more viral. Games usually try to ride on coattails of big movie releases. Breakout iPhone and web games may be helped by being tied into movie releases.

How has dealing with license holders changed over time? What is it like for a developer to go out there approaching them now?

Feargus: I can speak to my experience. Very dependent on the people you are working with at the licensor. We've worked with D&D... from 95 until just recently. When you're dealing with a licensing group that is incentivized to work with you, it's more likely to be successful. At one point the licensing $ went to Wizard of the Coast, but then at one point it did not. When that happened the relationship changed. Might be a question to ask at the outset. We always look at it as "it's their license, not yours" and when you treat it that way, you get on their side. When we ran into trouble with Wizards of the Coast, we'd fly up there to help us stay in touch and keep it together. As to how I think it is now, I think there's more of an understanding about games. But it really depends on who you're working with at the licensor.

Jean Marcel: Licensor really understands the value of their IP or brand. So they are much more careful about doing poor products... need to product their franchises and be careful in selecting their partner. We are still fighting with the perception in our business - especially related to movie games - that it is enough to slap the image on the front of the box and the game can be poor.

Often the publishers and licensors are people who don't know games. Why not hire someone who has dev experience? Are you seeing a change in that?

Eugene: 15 years ago you were working with licensing, not interactive groups.

Leo: Just quick, 10 years ago, what would happen is companies would recognize they don't know games so they'd find one person in the department who was a game player. That was detrimental to process. Now most IP holders have departments of people with real experience.

Feargus: You are still going to run into licensor reps that do not understand games. I also was that guy once - who didn't know anything. I was telling people how to make games (when I shouldn't have). All you can do is help them understand how games are made and don't talk down to them. Ultimately they are going to believe or not believe you.

Jean Marcel: Question of skills and talent among guys on licensing front. They should recognize who they need to bring in and what they don't know. If they don't, then it's probably the beginning of a bad relationship. As soon as you touch the creative side, everyone wants to be involved. This can be a very slippery road. This is the role of the developer that they need to make sure the creative stays with the people who know what they're doing. The role of the licensor is to translate the brand. People need to stick with their responsibilities.

As media companies come into business (again), how are these companies newly approaching their re-entry into gaming business?

Jean Marcel: Culture, Talent, Processes. Culture because game space has a different culture than toy space or movie space. So you need to deal with that and make sure the two can work together. Talent because you need right skills and people to do the job. Processes because you need the right tools to get things done. Companies that are born and raised in games - i.e. 25 years in the business - have this as their DNA.

What advantages do media companies have over EA, Activision, etc?

Feargus: Deep pockets and diversified businesses.

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