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In my years of game development I have had a number of projects where I worked with a licensor. Some of these include:
Sylvester and Tweety
Olympic Mascot (ACOG)
Working with a licensor on a project can be very different than a non-licensed project. In this article I hope to provide a couple tips to assist you if you end up working with a licensor.
NOTE: Working with a licensor can be very tricky. This article is not meant to be the final resource on the subject but just an introduction and some useful tips. Always remember to read your contracts carefully and work closely with legal when working with a licensor.
Sylvester and Tweety
One of the levels we had in Sylvester and Tweety in Cagey Capers took place in Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde's lab. It was straight out of one of the cartoons. Tweety gets into the Doctor's potion and turns into Tweety Monster. This turns the tables on Sylvester and now the cat is being chased by the giant, flying, Tweety Bird.
After giving the design of this level to our publisher, we soon received word back that the licensor did not approve. Turns out, according to Warner licensing, Tweety Monster did not fly.
We went to the video store and bought a copy of a Warner Cartoon collection that had Tweety Monster in it. We found the section with Tweety Monster flying, noted it, and sent the notes along with the video to the publisher which was then forwarded along to Warner Licensing. Our Tweety Monster level was approved.
Invasion of Planet X
Let's work through a hypothetical example of working with a licensor. Your hypothetical company has purchased the rights to create the video game for the new movie in development, entitled "Invasion of Planet X". What are some of the first things you should do? What are some of the questions you should ask? Here are some examples of the questions you should immediately be asking:
- When is the release date of the movie? And based on that, when does sales/marketing want the game on shelves? And when do you need to have the game ready for First Party? (First Party meaning Microsoft, Sony, Apple, etc...)
- Does the game need to follow the movie story? How much leeway do you have in the storyline?
- With your license, do you get access to other characters/materials? Is this movie based on a book, graphic novel, or previous work? If so, can you use them in your video game?
- What naming restrictions do you have for your video game? Can you name the game the same name as the movie?
- Do you get any rights to the movie actors with the license? Guarantee for at least actor likeness rights? NOTE: usually when actors sign the movie contract there are some rights that are given to derivative works - you need to be aware of this.
- Any rights to the music used in the movie? And what do those rights cover (platforms, worldwide, digital, etc..)? And then what rights do you have in regards to releasing your own soundtrack to the video game?
- What sign-off requirements does the licensor have?
As you can hopefully tell, there is a lot that you need to consider when working with a license. And by no means do I consider the above list complete. With each license comes a set of questions and concerns you should have. For every part of your development from design to budget to schedule the license could have an impact.
Licenses Cost Money
A challenge that often comes up when developing a game for a licensed product is that the license costs money. "Well, of course," you might say. And while this is obvious, it is one of the top issues when working with a license. For example, the cost of the license usually takes away from your development budget. Simply put, you often need to make a competitive game with less money.
Knowing how the cost affects your development is important. When you look at your ROI (Return on Investment) there are additional costs to developing your game with the license that would not exist if you were working on an original IP (Intellectual Property). When working with the publishing team on the ROI, it is important to understand where that licensing cost is being put and how the company expects to make it up.
Hopefully the sales expectations are being increased by enough (well, hopefully more) to cover the additional licensing cost. Meaning, having the license itself (just the name and the additional marketing/PR you get from the license) should sell units to exceed the cost of the license.
Often, the development cost is decreased. And by decreased I mean that your budget is less than competitive products of the same genre. The publisher will often feel that because you have this license you can "cut some corners" on the development - the quality of the license (the marketing plus) will make up for the potential decrease in quality of product.
However your team is handling it - the licensing cost must be handled and as producer you need to fully understand what the rest of the publishing team is expecting from you and the product.
While working on an Aliens game, we decided we needed more types of Xenos in order to provide the variety of game play experience necessary. Also, for the natural push and pull design of a first person shooter, the player needs different kinds of threats. Traditionally you'll find a somewhat set package of enemies in a shooter: the run and gun, the sniper, the rusher, etc... The Aliens license only gave us a couple different types: the soldier, queen, facehugger.
The development team worked up designs for some new types of Xenos. We also made sure to include the backstory of the new Xenos and how they fit into the world of Aliens. In the end, FOX approved these new Xenos. FOX understood that in order to make a good game based on the license some flexibility with the license was required. And FOX was instrumental in helping us ensure they fit into the license.
What does the license buy me?
The entire publishing team needs to be aware (and on the same page) regarding what this license gets you. It may seem obvious to you what you are buying with the license, but not everyone on the team may have the same idea. And being of one mind on the goals of your project is always important. Ensuring everyone working on the game is approaching the value of the license from the same direction is critical. Some examples of questions to ask:
- Are you gaining a strong established fan base? If so, what are they expecting from this license? What has the fan base responded strongly to (good and bad) from this license in the past? Example: Aliens has a very strong fan base and they expect to see the Alien Queen in the game.
- Does this license expand outside the fan boys? If so, how? Example: Iron Man has a strong comic book fan base and should be popular to people unfamiliar with the comic book. For Iron Man, the game should draw on how the movie is expanding the franchise and not rely too heavily on unknown comic book references.
- Are you getting a strong marketing push from the license, like for a upcoming movie release? How is it being marketed? How can we take advantage of this? Example: Can the video game box art be similar/same to the movie posters?
- Are you getting an established art style? If so, be sure to mimic it. For example: Sin City, by Frank Miller has a strong art style. Any game based on Sin City should look like Sin City.
- Does the license come with known music that is associated with the franchise? Do we have rights to the music? Example: a game based on the Halloween movie better have the recognizable Halloween music (and those music rights may not necessarily come with the movie rights).
Things to remember
Here are some bullet point items to think about when you start working with a license:
- Read the licensing contract carefully. The contract will stipulate what the licensor has approval rights over. Be sure to get written approval rights for everything that is stated needs their approval. And then try to get even more approval rights whenever possible.
- The contract will probably also state what parts of the license you have access to. For example, for Thor we only had access to certain other Marvel characters. We couldn't just use anything from the Marvel universe.
- The licensor's main concern is the portrayal and reputation of its license. Be sure the licensor is in the loop on any decisions that could effect its license, even if it does't have contractual rights over approval for those areas. Keeping the licensor involved as much as possible can save headaches later.
- Though the licensor will have game approval rights, video games are not its area of expertise. The people you work with at the licensor may not be gamers. Some handholding and education about games may be necessary.
- Work with the licensor to expand the license where needed. A great license does not necessarily provide for a great game. The goal is to make a great game with the help of the licensor.
- When working with talent, utilize an outside expert. When dealing with Hollywood talent, I highly recommend hiring someone to handle the negotiations and deals.
- A license grants you certain rights - the key word is "certain." Be sure you understand everything you are and are not getting. For example, when getting some music rights for your game, be sure you get the platforms you need; the worldwide rights, the digital rights, and the derivative rights (for future budget re-release), and potentially rights to include on a game soundtrack. It is not uncommon for you to not get everything you actually want/need with your license.
- Document and track everything - make sure everything that is approved is documented. Track all changes requested. Keep detailed logs of communications Create a detailed spreadsheet that tracks all submissions, comments, changes, and approvals. A history of requests, changes, and approvals will be invaluable.
- Be sure to work with your legal team closely
- Keep in contact with licensor
- Conference call often with your licensor
- Meet in person regularly
- Be sure the licensor receives regular builds and has clear build notes
- Provide detailed instructions on how to run builds
- With builds, provide details on what has changed
- Send the change/review log with each build (this is the tracking sheet you use to track all licensing requests, changes, and approval).
- Remember: these are not developers - they may not be technical
- Be sure you have a strong boss who can be ready to elevate when necessary
- Be sure to look out for actor rights
- Verify that you have likeness rights?
- VO (voice-over) rights and/or sound-alike rights
- Worldwide and digital rights?
Working with Marvel on Thor while the movie was being made was great. Not only was Marvel really invested into the movie but they really wanted the game to be great as well and provided the development team with a lot of access to the movie as well as their vast knowledge.
I was fortunate enough to visit the Thor set while they were filming the movie. I remember walking down some hallways that had Frost Giants waiting to go on set. It was funny to see these big, blue, frost giants standing around drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. Seeing the details of the set and visiting the Marvel vaults definitely helped with development.
Marvel also gained from us. Our development team sent the movie team all the combat animations we were working on. They looked at our game fighting moves to get inspiration for the fighting moves Thor would use in the movie.
While Thor the Video Game was an entirely different story than Thor the Movie, there was still a lot of synergy between the movie and video game teams.
From the Pros
While writing this article I realized that while I have had experience on the topic I would not declare myself all knowing. There are so many things to look out for in this area. So I went to a group I have relied on many times in the past - Blindlight (www.blindlight.com) - and asked for their tips. Here are some tips from a group that deals with celebrity talent as their business.
- Reducing risk — Producers need to be diligent about protecting themselves (and their publisher) from the talent that has a vested stake in the licensed property — particularly the celebrity talent, encircled by small armies of lawyers eager to unleash claims and lawsuits in all directions “to protect the rights of their clients". The easiest, and most effective way to play it safe here is to keep the licensor in the chain of responsibility for contractual obligations that predate the game, and as the buffer to that sort of talent for those obligations. There are several reasons why this makes sense. First of all, it can be really difficult, and sometimes impossible, for the game producer to discern what rights and responsibilities the game production has to actors who have created the characters in the underlying film. But what’s more important to remember is this ultimately isn't the game producers’ problem. Those contracts – the ones that pre-date the game – are between talent and licensor, which puts the responsibility for maintaining those commitments in the licensor’s court. So make sure the licensor is on the hook to abide by them — don’t let it dump that on you and make it your problem.
- Reducing cost — Celebrities are the highest paid human beings on the planet. Keeping their fees contained to reasonable levels that make sense for your game production is paramount. It’s best to make sure these negotiations are not done internally at the developer or the publisher, nor left to the licensor (after all, they’re the ones that paid them millions for their film performance). A service company that makes it their specialty to do talent deals for games has the accumulated experience to get the best deals possible.
- Staying on good terms — You do want your licensor to love you. That’ll come in handy down the road. Sometimes, though, you need to bug them for things (or else, for example, you could be waiting forever on those approvals…) But bugging doesn’t foster love. So here again, consider what parts of this make sense for you to delegate to your outside production resources. They can take on the job of being the bad cop, leaving you to shine as the good cop.
NOTE: when working with celebrities I recommend using a intermediary group such as Blindlight (www.blindlight.com). I have used Blindlight a number of times and can recommend them.
I thought I should name drop at least one of the celebrities I have been able to meet working in video games. You might know Lance from the movie Aliens as well as many other movies. While I have worked with a number of "Hollywood Actors" - some easy to work with and some difficult - Lance stands out as one of the nicest and easiest to do business with. Getting him in to do VO was simple to schedule, and he did a great job. We flew him out to New York for NYComiCon to do an appearance, and he stuck around longer than he needed. I distinctly remember his car arriving. We let him know his driver had arrived and he could leave. He responded, "I'll like to stick around if you don't mind." And he did stay and talk to the press and fans from the publisher and developer until the evening was over. It is nice when you get to work with such a professional.
Hopefully this article is useful is providing some tips, especially some understanding that working with a licensor can be tricky.
Most important is reading the contract and working with legal. And always keep constant and clear communication with your licensor.
What stories do you have from working with a licensor? What additional tips do you have? Or maybe you have questions? Let me know; I'm interested in your thoughts and comments.
About the Author
Matt Powers has been making video games for over 20 years. Matt has been taking the time to reflect on his years in game development and write some of that knowledge down before it is forgotten.
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