For a small developer, the opportunity to create a game based on a licensed title is a decidedly mixed blessing. Publishers often view the process as assembly line game making of the basest sort, eschewing innovation for pandering to the lowest common denominator - and doing so with cut-rate budgets and shockingly short development cycles. To add insult to injury, it is not an area that garners much respect from fellow developers, and you can expect at least mild ostracism at trade shows. In many ways, you are doomed before you even begin.
It isn’t all bad, and there is an upside of sorts. You are granted a built-in user base, a wealth of source material, and - usually - relatively strong characters, storylines, and voice actors to work with. Notwithstanding, it is a tricky - often thankless - endeavor, and hopefully some of this information will serve to inform small developers what they can expect when tilting at the big bad licensing machine.
Theoretically, when it comes to asset build-out, licensed titles should have a marked advantage when measured against their unlicensed counterparts. In most cases there exists a treasure trove of source material that could make your job much easier – if you could only get your hands on it. In stark contrast to their enormous popularity and the fact that they cater largely to the golden demographic of commerce, most license holders don’t treat games as the priority their profit potential warrants. With luck, you have a publisher that really pushes the issue and gets you the resources you need in a timely manner.
Sadly, rushed development cycles and legal issues make this a perpetual issue, and the best you can hope for is minimal delay. It isn’t a matter of wanting to take shortcuts by using someone else’s work, it’s a matter of getting reliable and concrete proof that location A looks like location A and that character A does indeed have four spots just beneath his left ear. Guesswork is almost always wasted time, and, in the absence of assets, getting answers on the simplest queries about color or composition may be near impossible.
Get used to hearing the phrase “I’ll get back to you by Wednesday on that” – especially on Thursdays. In the end, licensed assets are a dubious boon; any advantage you hope to gain by using them is usually negated by their lack of timeliness and the fact that you need to match them so closely.
For any given license there is a large amount of variability in the details, and these details can make a developer’s life unbearably difficult. Most troublesome are the often convoluted relationships between the publisher and the license holder. Even if the publisher’s contract explicitly states that they have final approval on all assets, most will be reluctant to override any issues brought up by the license holder. This is understandable; it would be foolish for a publisher to rock the boat, especially if the license is proven in the field. Unfortunately, the upshot is that this onus gets passed on to the developer - who has just unwittingly taken on an additional set of opinions to deal with and opened themselves up to be liable for any miscommunication between licensor and publisher, as well as publisher and developer. This is further complicated by the fact that you are often dealing with more than two parties.