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Designing Original Games Based On Licensed Properties
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Designing Original Games Based On Licensed Properties

March 8, 2003 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

Publishers are increasingly turning to licensed properties when it comes time to create a new game. Licensed properties bring with them built-in fan bases, "guaranteeing" sales and helping to hedge bets in an increasingly hit-driven and risky market for publishers. As game developers, we can deal with and profit from this trend, both creatively and financially.

The chart below lists the top-25 grossing console videogames between January and November 2002, according to TRST data:

1 GTA 3 PS2
2 GTA: Vice City PS2
3 Madden 2002 PS2
4 Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec PS2
5 Madden 2003 PS2
6 Halo Xbox
7 Metal Gear Solid 2 PS2
8 Final Fantasy X PS2
9 Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3 PS2
10 Medal of Honor: Frontline PS2
11 Super Smash Brothers Melee GCN
12 Pokemon Crystal GBC
13 Pokemon Stadium 2 N64
14 Bond: Agent under Fire PS2
15 Super Mario Advance GBA
16 Spider-Man: The Movie PS2
17 NBA Street PS2
18 Max Payne PS2
19 Super Mario Sunshine GCN
20 Luigi's Mansion GCN
21 Super Mario Advance 2 GBA
22 Harry Potter 1 PSX
23 Mario Kart Circuit GBA
24 WWF Smackdown PS2
25 Kingdom Hearts PS2

Of the games shown on this list, 10 are based on traditional licensed properties, 13 are based on existing videogame properties, and two (Halo and Max Payne) are original games. Considering that some of those established videogame properties, such as Mario or Pokemon, are licenses in their own right, the trend seems obvious. On some consoles, such as the Game Boy Advance, it's even more pronounced.

Despite their generally bad reputation, licenses are here to stay. In this article, I'm going to explain what defines a license (I define it pretty broadly), some of the disadvantages and advantages of developing using licensed properties (which I'll call "licensed development" for the sake of brevity), how to evaluate a potential license and licensor to determine if it's something you want to work on. I'll also go over some of the rules for successfully designing licensed games, the potential pitfalls of licensed development, and some of the opportunities to turn a license to your advantage. Then, hopefully, I'm going to challenge some assumptions about licensed development.

Traditionally, licensed development gets a bad rap. The first licensed videogame I've found was Superman for the 2600, which was actually a pretty good game. The first licensed game most people remember is ET for the 2600, which really works hard to earn its reputation as one of the worst games ever made. Unfortunately, in the years after ET almost destroyed the game industry, licensed development became synonymous with side-scrolling, slapped-together mediocrity, and that reputation still sticks today.

Even today, licensed development is perceived as "less cool" than original development: not as interesting, innovative, or fun as totally original titles. The attitude seems to be that it's what you do to pay your dues until you can make a game you really want to make. I really want to challenge that assumption. First, I think that you can be as innovative with a licensed title as with an original one. Second, the reality is that unless you are at the very top echelon of the game industry, you are going to be doing licensed development. If you're "waiting" for your original game to do something innovative, chances are you're going to be waiting a really long time.

One thing people sometimes lose sight of is the fact that most licensed development is also original development: new games, new game types. The license informs the game design, but it doesn't have to control it.

What is a license?

I really hate speeches that use a definition from the dictionary, so I won't do it here. For our purposes, I think a good working definition of a licensed property is an intellectual property that's brought to the game developer; that brings with it pre-assumptions about the game's potential characters, content and story; and that the developer does not have creative control over. That seems to cover it. I think there are three really important keys there: it's brought to you, it brings with it some assumptions that you have to deal with, and most importantly, you don't control it. So, some examples: The NFL is certainly a licensed property -- it brings plenty of presumptions about the game will be. So is Mickey Mouse, or even an upcoming property, like whatever Disney's next new character is.

But, and I think this is an important point, I'd argue that so is Mario or Grand Theft Auto, or any game that reaches a certain point of critical mass in the minds of gamers, or in popular culture. If you're working at an independent developer, and you got a deal to bring Diablo to Xbox, it would definitely fall under licensed development - Blizzard would very probably want full approval of the game's design, direction, and final implementation. But would you be upset? Probably not, because it's a cool license. I think, and I'll try and show down below, that you can bring that attitude to any license.

Advantages of licensed development

There are a lot of advantages to licensed development. Not all of these apply to every license, but in general, you can get a pre-built back story. Your designers can simply start working on the game, without worrying about the "whys or wherefores" of how the character got into the situation of the game. Artists can have pre-build characters and enemies to draw from, and a fully developed world to base their concept art on. For a real-world license, like the NFL or another sport, you've got your heroes, your stats, and your playing fields all done for you in real life. Bottom line: there can be just a ton of reference material to draw on, especially if you're developing using a robust license, like Spider-Man.

More than that, though, licenses bring pre-built communities and consumers who are already pre-disposed to like your game, or the universe it's set in. If you're doing a Spider-Man game, you know there are millions of people out there who either read the comics or have seen the movie, and they want more. It's cool to know that tons of people are going to see your game, even before you ever start it. If you have Tony Hawk in your game, the fans have a pre-built expectation of what that brought in THPS 1. Today, they have a pre-build expectation of what a THPS game brings, so when Activision and Vicarious Visions were able to bring the THPS property, and not just the Tony Hawk license, to Game Boy Advance, they were well rewarded with great sales, and critical acclaim.

Activision's Spiderman: Mysterio's Menace

And of course, a successful property can add a huge, free (to you) marketing boost to your game. Using Spidey again as an example, Spider-Man: The Movie on GBA dramatically outsold Spider-Man: Mysterio's Menace on GBA, even though the gameplay on both was very competitive. The movie-based game had the advantage of a very recognizable cover, and a day-and-date release with one of the biggest summer blockbusters in history.

It's also really fun to work on a license you like. When my company was starting Spider-Man: The Movie for GBA, we had people fighting to get on the team, because they were huge comics fans, and the notion of getting to make a game in that universe was just super appealing to them.

Finally, on the business side, the publisher is already invested once they have the license, so the project is really not likely to go away, unless something really terrible happens. So, doing licensed development can be a lot more secure than doing original development.


The reality is there can be a lot of downsides to developing using a license. You could get stuck with a license that you totally hate, or can't relate to. When the Spider-Man: The Movie team was told that they may be doing a toddler license, there was quite a bit less enthusiasm.

Activision's Spiderman: The Movie

You may also get a license that just doesn't lend itself to creating any game at all. I think my favorite example was Kramer vs. Kramer, which was actually in development during the Atari 2600 era. At our office, we like to joke about Mr. Holland's Opus Kart Racing, or doing a side-scrolling shooter based on "My Dinner With Andre". More realistically, the license may strongly suggest a genre, but it's a totally unpopular one. A lot of movies would really work best as adventure games, because they have so much exposition, so that's always a risk.

And, as much as a license can bring people to your game, a bad license can drive people from your game. For the Game Boy Color, we developed did a game that got rave reviews, played great, looked awesome, and did things on the system that simply couldn't be done - the lead programmer owned the Z-80. Unfortunately, it only sold about 30 copies, because it's name was Little Nicky. It was fun to develop, we got to hang out with Adam Sandler, but it was severely depressing when we saw the sales figures.

Remember what I said about lots of reference? Well, sometimes, you get none, but you're still expected to make sure the game matches the property closely. When we did Spider-Man: The Movie, our reference didn't go much past a QuickTime of the teaser trailer. We did another game based on a movie where for the first month of a four-month schedule, all we knew was the title.

Another minus can be low publisher expectations, although some people may look at this as a plus: If the license isn't AAA, you can be pretty assured that you'll be left alone to some degree. The Publisher is expecting X sales based on the license, and may not really care what's in the box, so you may not have to deal with the publisher's producer demanding things day after day. That's kind of nice, but it can really be a disadvantage, and a big one, because you aren't going to get the support, from marketing, or your producer, or whatever, if the publisher has already earmarked your game for "B" status. And the reality is that a lot of teams, especially younger teams, aren't self motivated enough to do a good job without a lot of feedback from the publisher.

Because you don't have final control over the license, you frequently have to deal with two layers of approval, one by the publisher, the other by the licenser-holder. This brings a whole category of disadvantages.

The license holder may know nothing about games, have wildly improbable expectations and pepper you constantly with insane requests. Alternately, they may be totally disinterested and never get around to answering your questions or approving your art. Either way, this usually takes a lot of time to deal with, which brings us to the next disadvantage, which is that licensed titles frequently have extremely short development schedules.

Publishers want to make sure the license will be a hit before they commit to development. Unfortunately, the result is that development times suffer. This is probably the biggest problem with doing licensed development, especially if you're trying to hit a launch date of a movie or DVD release. No one's ever said "it'll be ready when it's ready" to Disney. One of the real skills or tricks to doing licensed development is dealing with this issue - your ship date is only going to move in one direction, and that's forward. When we did Lilo & Stitch GBA for Disney, the film division moved up the release date, so our release date moved up too.

Finally, the cost of obtaining the license frequently comes from the same slice of the budget as the cost of developing the game, and there can be a royalty hit too, if the publisher is not also the license holder. This is a bummer, but on the flip side, you do get the potential advantage of greater sales from the license, so I'm not sure it's the worst thing ever.

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