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IP owners are too cautious, and it’s stifling creativity in games

Popular books, hit films and TV series, characters from graphic novels, and even toys can all be translated into the digital space, allowing fans to immerse themselves in their favorite fictional worlds — and adding new income streams and brand extensions for the intellectual property (IP) holder. This increases the possibility of bringing in whole new audiences, or just maintaining engagement with their existing ones.

If you own this kind of IP, then allowing someone to create a game based around it can certainly deliver financial results — at least in the short-term. This can be true from the biggest blockbuster to the smallest mobile game.

At first glance, licensing your brand’s IP rights to digital games companies seems like a no-brainer. But it’s not always in the best interests of the long-term longevity and financial health of your IP, and it certainly doesn’t tend to deliver the most creative results or even, arguably, the best gameplay, meaning it’s an approach which can backfire if you let down your loyal audience. Nothing is worse than a fan who falls out of love with your characters and the universe they inhabit.

So as a brand owner, you need put care into who you work with and how you manage any relationship. Money must never be the overriding objective. The relationship with the audience is what’s paramount. As a brand owner, you should juggle delivering a healthy return with maintaining that strong bond between a property and its fans.

The danger of care

One particular danger is that major brand IP owners are restricting innovation in computer and mobile games based on their properties either by being overly cautious or by chasing profits above all else. Many IP owners have a habit of working with the biggest computer games publishers, who have a track record of delivering mass selling titles, and who also have the cash to pay major up-front licensing fees.

This is understandable. After all, creating a triple-A game (in theory, the level that should bring the most success) – takes at least an estimated $100 million investment in development costs and marketing.

Big game publishers can afford to pay big licensing fees; but their very size, and the size of the sums they have to invest, can make them cautious, which in turn puts a damper on creativity. Behemoth games companies aren’t motivated to risk anything or innovate, because of the large financial commitments they have to make. This creates massive pressure to deliver revenues with minimal additional investment.

The safest route to do that, when licensing existing IP, is to leverage existing game engines and assets to launch games and begin generating cash as soon as possible. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. Unfortunately, risk-averse behaviour from both IP owners and big game publishers means boring games, which leads to long-term damage.

Unleashing creativity

Ideally, as an IP owner, you should be looking to work with games developers and publishers to create authentic and enjoyable digital versions of your characters and worlds. Fans should see computer, console, and mobile games as enhancing what exists in other media, not damaging it.

One way to do this is by ensuring that games that are launched are as creative as possible, in terms of visuals and gameplay (obviously, remaining true to the original IP, of course).

IP owners should try to find a way to work with smaller, more agile, and more creative games producers. They might get less money in the short term, but in the long term, they are more likely to end up with a fan-pleasing hit on their hands that truly complements their IP. If they get the fans, then the revenue stream should last for much longer.

Above: A simple loot crate reward.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

Experience suggests that if you license your IP to a single “major player” games developer, you run the risk of being almost completely cut out of the development process. It can boil down to a conference call a month, if you’re lucky! That can lead to some very disappointing games hitting the market and potentially damaging IP brand values. (Just ask Disney.)

Working with one or more smaller developers will certainly involve more management time and resources on the part of the IP owner – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Working with smaller developers, for example, can mean IP owners taking on more of the responsibility (and arguably the risk) for marketing and distribution, which a big publisher would usually handle. That risk has to be balanced against the potential gains in terms of creative freedom and even IP protection.

Who’s doing it right?

One example of how an IP owner can work with a range of publishers, rather than putting all its eggs into one basket, is UK company Games Workshop, now best known for its Warhammer fantasy and science fiction universes and related figures and tabletop games. It has been licensing its creative IP for decades, with mixed success; in the last few years, however, it seems to have hit on a winning formula.

Swedish developer Fatshark has just released Vermintide 2, based on the latest version of the Warhammer Fantasy RPG and table-top wargames universe (the Age of Sigmar) to great success. It’s the sequel to the 2015 licensed game, Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide, which itself sold more than 500,000 units.

What’s interesting here is that Games Workshop maintained extremely close links with the development team throughout – to the extent that new concepts from the computer game have now been integrated into the original tabletop version.

But Games Workshop has also been working with other developers and publishers. These include Bigben and NeocoreGames, for a space role-playing game, Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor – Martyr, and Sega and Creative Assembly, for Total War: Warhammer. A portfolio of different titles from different developers illustrates how Games Workshop is actively looking to work with a number of companies to exploit its IP in the gaming space.

Another example would be Marvel, with its hugely valuable portfolio of comic book characters, films and related licensed products. They have worked with many different developers/publishers over the last decade. Looking at the latest figures for top grossing IOS games ranked by daily revenue, the best-performing game app in April 2018 was Marvel: Contest of Champions, a free to play game built by Kabam under license from Marvel and first launched back in Dec 2014.

Kabam is a smaller studio which built on the success of its previous hit game, “Injustice: Gods Among Us”, and also took learnings from its other games, improving the economy design and multiplayer, and ensuring that events were strongly tied to its core. So it learnt from previous games, but changed some fundamentals in the game design like what happens in the meta outside of the battles. The meta for all games is what drives long term retention and strong monetization. This paid off for Kabam. They focused on creating a pure Gacha system (gacha games give out randomized rewards in exchange for some form of in-game currency). As a result, Kabam and Marvel have a top performing game.

We at IRM decided to work with best-of-breed developers on different game genres with Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. We opted to take a risk with the developers and preferred for them to focus their resource on innovative and bespoke game design for our brand and our audience, rather than sizable upfront fee commitments. We replicated this strategy when working with the Agatha Christie estate; selecting smaller development studios with passion for the brand and a focus on creating unique experiences for different audiences. This is is why many of our branded games have won awards voted by the players themselves.

IP owners don’t have to avoid risk all the time – and nor should major publishers. Yes, IP owners must protect their property; but launching mediocre products alienates fans who may never return.

Megan Goodwin is joint Managing Director of IRM. A content innovator and digital media entrepreneur, she brings more than 15 years’ experience in television, publishing and digital media specialising in the creation of great digital products and pioneering new business models.

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