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Turning famous names into famous games

Translating films, TV shows, books and other intellectual property into digital products and services can be a challenge –particularly when you’re creating something that’s going to be distributed in a number of different countries.

If what you’re trying to create sits in the digital gaming space (such as a slots game which uses the imagery, theme or characters of a hit movie, book or PC or video game) then you’re facing even more complications, including brand fit, demographic fit and more specifically regulatory matters – the laws on gambling, whether bricks and mortar or online, are wildly different from one country to another (or, if you plan to operate in the US, between one state and another). Sorting out all of the different variables before successfully launching a digital version of an existing IP is a complex operation.

There is an argument that the very first thing you need to do is define your target audience and understand what appeals to them, what digital media they consume and on what devices. Slots, for example, have a heavy female bias, with most players aged between 40 and 55 and earning below average. From a pure financial perspective, the biggest-spending online slots market is the UK. For ‘free to play’ or social games, however, it’s the US. Themes and imagery for both physical and online slots machines will tend to appeal to this audience demographic and resonate with them. US players tends to prefer stronger fantasy looking games. Agatha Christie, for example, works – and there is actually an Agatha Christie online slots game (Agatha Christie’s Mystery Wilds). I should admit at this point that we ourselves did this deal, which has succeeded brilliantly because of a great brand and demographic fit. We worked for over nine years on the digital brand extensions of Agatha Christie and we learnt a huge amount about translating IP into the digital space from that experience. Agatha Christie’s works have sold roughly two billion copies worldwide – a figure only beaten by the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. According to experts, she is the most-translated individual author in the world, with her books available in at least 103 languages. On top of that, there are all the films based on her books. And, of course, the hugely successful TV series which have been sold around the world. There are very few countries which will not be familiar with Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. However, even Agatha Christie’s works had to be adapted for some markets – Japan, for example, is the only country in the world where both Miss Marple and Poirot feature in the same creative work, the NHK anime cartoon series Agatha Christie’s Great Detectives Poirot and Marple, where the two are linked by a new character, Mabel, who is supposed to be Miss Marple’s great niece and Poirot’s new assistant.

Well-known authors can translate into the online gaming world; so can familiar historical periods and cultures, particularly ones which are rich in visual imagery. Again, you need to look at your audience to see what resonates with them. If we are looking at slots games, then, as mentioned above, the audience is heavily female. According to research published in January 2017 by research company Quantic Foundry, women like ‘Match Three’ tile moving games (like Candy Crush) and time and resource management games (like Farmville). So it’s worth exploring both of these genres and seeing what themes appear there – and what you’ll find is that ‘Match three’ games in particular use imagery from ancient cultures like the Egyptians, Romans and Greeks, because of the rich history and iconography available to designers.

Unsurprisingly, similar themes appear in social slots - so you have Roman chariots, gladiators and coins, Greek heroes and legendary figures, and Egyptian gods, goddesses, hieroglyphics and architectural details. You also have a huge number of slots games themed around Native American topics – not just because of the attractive imagery and US-oriented cultural elements, but also, probably, because of the leading role played by Native Americans in the US gaming industry. US Federal laws govern officially-recognised tribal territories or reservations, not state laws, so tribes can run casinos and other gambling operations when the surrounding state has banned them. Not all cultures, however, are open to being used in online gaming – so it’s important to check that you won’t run into opposition from national or tribal groups.

We’re working with global entertainment group Fremantle Media, advising them on the worldwide roll-out of New Zealand TV sensation, Sidewalk Karaoke, created by Maori TV. One thing we’ve learnt from that relationship is that the Maori people – the natives of New Zealand, who colonised the country around 1300 CE – are very proud of their heritage. As a result, Maori traditions, symbols, cultural artefacts, music, dance and religious ceremonies are protected by law and their use in film, TV, and online is monitored and controlled.

So be sure you understand what language and cultural barriers you may have to overcome. We’ve also had problems with what you might call another kind of ‘cultural’ issue. When we were working at Celador, launching the classic TV quiz show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, we found that ‘Ask the audience’ just could not be made to work in Russia. Why not? Because the audience wasn’t interested in helping the contestant to win more money. In Japan, we had to totally re-structure the show’s format to make it more active, adding extra hosts so that the show had a more energetic feel.

These are all issues which could affect the successful translation of an existing property into a digital product to be launched in other countries.Then you have to understand the local moral codes and regulatory system. We ran into a problem with an online game we launched in Singapore. Consumers would win prizes, but there was, as far as we were concerned, no gambling element. We had launched the same game with no problems in multiple countries. In Singapore, however, our game was classified as a gambling product and subject to a heavy extra tax, which made it far less profitable for us than in other territories.

You also need to understand who owns the IP rights in the different countries you want to sell the new product into, which is not always easy, as new technologies are constantly creating new formats, which may require new licensing deals. This last point can be a real pain; you sometimes find that earlier IP rights deals for different territories effectively give someone the rights to all versions of a property, even when what you want to do wasn’t even considered possible when those deals were signed.

This question has actually been around since the beginning of the computer games industry: back in the 1980s, there were numerous cases in the UK where a company which bought the rights to create a board game based on a TV show also found itself owning the rights to do computer games. That’s because when the original licensing deals were signed, computer games weren’t the multi-billion-dollar industry they are now, so people just lumped them into a generic ‘games’ category.

There can also be issues with the names of game shows, computer games, books and so on, particularly if they are fairly common terms –or if they’ve been around for long enough that local businesses have stepped in and registered them as trademarks or copyright. Sometimes, such registrations are perfectly innocent, particularly if a word or phrase is already in common use; at other times, though, they are examples of ‘brand squatting’, where people try to cash in on someone else’s hard work.

We have worked on projects where problems occurred because TV show titles had not been cleared and properly investigated for potential trademark or copyright infringement before an international roll-out, leading to concerns about claims from brand owners from other industries. As a result, on a couple of occasions – one a TV show and another involving a well-known retro console game – digital extensions have had to be called by a different name in some areas. For example, with the Endemol TV show, Wipeout, when we launched a mobile game we had to call it Big Red Ball Challenge in some territories.

So you need to fully understand the dynamics of the different regions and countries you are planning to launch your product in. Obviously, brand values and resonance is important; but cultural issues can be just as important. Then you have to check who owns the rights to the IP in different countries –including looking at any previous deals that may have been signed and checking just what rights may have been given on what platforms to which companies. In over 15 years of brand licensing in the digital space we have seen a lot of changes, mostly to do with different digital platforms emerging; but the principles remain the same; brand integrity, resonance, cultural influences, local regulations and IP clearance are key to success. The last hurdle to overcome is the rights owner. We have often faced opposition from IP holders over translating their properties into online gaming or slots products – until we showed them the potential revenue streams.

This article was published in G3 May 2017 Edition

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