Inside the Sausage Factory: The Art of IP Development

By Marcus Andrews

"We had no idea it was going to be this big" is something you often hear from developers behind massive hits. Hits -- excluding sequels -- often come from nowhere. They're completely unpredictable and utterly surprising.

Take, for instance, SimCity, The Sims, Pokémon, Tetris, Grand Theft Auto, and Counter-Strike. The probable causes of these hits are brilliant developers, hard work, timing and some luck. Unfortunately, I wouldn't know, really; therefore, this article is not about those games -- as much as it is about the process of actively trying to conceive the next big thing.

While I haven't yet been a part of fully launching a huge new IP, this article builds upon the seven months I worked at the IP development team at EA DICE where we came reasonably close to doing just that.

This article is about how to deliver under creative pressure, finding inspiration and developing it to attractive IPs and communicating them to executives - over and over again.

While at the IP team I developed 31 IPs over a period of seven months.

IP in General

This article is going to be a lot about movies. Why? IPs don't really have a platform -- by their nature, they're an "immaterial" property. Anything is fair game as inspiration for an IP, and since being inspired by other games is standard, I won't talk as much about that.

Channeling Creativity

Quantity

Let me begin by saying that creativity doesn't necessarily need to be channeled, but I found it necessary to continuously come up with new stuff. When you are operating under immense pressure to produce huge quantities of original creative material, you need to channel your efforts in order to reach both quantity and quality. If you are like most people, you get inspired, sometimes from big things and sometimes from the small things. The question becomes, how do you proceed once you get inspired?

Your brain constantly bombards you with pieces of inspiration, and capturing one or two of these pieces of inspiration every day will leave you with a huge quantity of ideas at the end of the week. By having several core ideas, you and your colleagues can make a more informed decision at the end of the week on which idea has the most merit. When this is decided you can start investing a little more time into these core ideas and see where it will take you.

Quality

Making games is very little about you and very much about millions of other people. This is crucial to keep in mind when you start prodding at your core idea. The refinement of a game idea is a process in which you are required to find its place in popular culture, time, and trends. This might sound harsh -- but this is the reality of professional IP development for mainstream gaming. We are in the forefront of culture, media, and social life. We call for the attention of hundreds of millions of people; the stakes are high.

A high quality pitch should ideally be a really interesting core idea, anchored in popular culture and trends, with clear and convincing references.

One important tool to improve quality is to verify that a reference you are alluding to actually has the qualities you are claiming. A problem I faced when I did my first couple of pitches was making references to other media and IPs which I had too little knowledge about. I could be arguing a certain trend is hot -- "just look at this movie" -- and someone in the audience would enlighten me that movie didn't perform as well as anticipated. If you've built your pitch on a particular reference and that turns out to be weak, your pitch is pretty dead.

Why am I talking so much about references anyway? However you came up with your IP, you will at some point need to convince people it is great and the chances are that, whether you want to or not, you will have to give them references to comprehend a game that does not yet exist. Therefore you might as well be prepared, and pick references with care.

As I got more experienced I started to prepare by indexing my references in using a system similar to index cards. Structuring your references and inspirations helps a great deal when it comes to building a strong case.

The card above displays the most successful movies of all time, after adjusting for inflation. That is just one general technique to keep in mind; you can choose to assemble indexes of references in any way you wish. The point is to choose only the most relevant references for your IP. If you aren't primarily aiming for a blockbuster reference, you would need to index your references in a different way.


Trends and vitalization

The next big IP will likely:

  1. Build upon a hot current trend
  2. Catch a ride with an upcoming trend
  3. Create a trend
  4. Revitalize an existing IP

As an IP developer you have to be able to work with these concepts. Which TV show is hot? Which big show is starting to decline? Which networks are up and coming and which are losing ground?

Even if you can't know what will be hot in the future, you still want to be able to explain your choices.

By trying to feel the pulse of popular culture, TV, and movies you can make decisions how to develop your core ideas further. There is no exact science of feeling the trends but Google trends allow you to compare keywords and see their development over time.

However, finding the correct keywords is difficult and the result can be unreliable, so be careful.

The trend chart above shows the search volume for the terms MMO game, RTS game, and FPS game. Doing the same search for MMO, RTS, and FPS gives a completely different chart since there are other industries using the same abbreviations.

Hot current trends

What is currently dominating culture? What shows are hot, what's on the news, what movies, games, and books are topping the lists? What are people talking about and how are they living their lives?

Given the success of the Twilight saga I'd suspect vampires are a current hot trend. Let's say I'm not sure, so I consult Google trends. The graph confirms my suspicion, allowing me to confidently claim that "vampires" is a hot trend. In this scenario it might feel obvious that vampires are the big trend given the bombardment in media, but it serves to illustrate the process of identifying trends and building your case. The same process is applicable with less obvious cases.

Catch a rising trend

The obvious danger with current trends is that they may be close to their expiration date. I would for instance argue that the vampire trend might be a risk for that exact reason. Betting on a vampire game now would be a reasonable bet but not without risk, since all trends inevitably begin to decline eventually.

There is a notable drop in activity for the vampire keyword near the end of the graph but to contradict that the curve retakes much of the lost ground again. Anyone's guess is as good as mine.

UFC is well-established as a hot trend today, but not too long ago it was an upcoming trend, a trend that THQ managed to pinpoint with their official UFC game Undisputed. Undisputed is a great example of a new IP that caught a trend upward and is now an enviable and strong IP.


Creating a trend

The western genre is an example of a powerful trend lying dormant. Once a dominant fiction for movies and TV, it now sees little of the limelight. The western genre has a strong track record but is pretty cold right now, making a bet on it means trying to spearhead the western trend to come back.

Soon we will have the answer, will Rockstar San Diego create a western trend with Red Dead Redemption, or will they fail? They are making a bet on westerns. If they succeed, many will likely follow, and a new trend emerges.

IP revitalization

One increasingly common and important method for working with IPs is "revitalization". It's natural that starting with something fairly well known is easier than starting with nothing. However, rebooting an old IP doesn't guarantee success, after all there is a reason the IP is in need of a revitalization.

Analyzing successful and less successful attempts at bringing an IP back to life is a good way to increase your understanding of IPs and the process of revitalizing them.

When thinking of an old IP and how you can bring it to present day you have to understand what the culture was like when the IP was created and when it got strong. Let's say it's been 20 years since that IP made any noise. What has happened in those 20 years?

You can begin by looking how your neighborhood looked when people first got excited by the IP and compare it with today. That should illustrate that things were different and that people had different mindsets and liked different things. A successful vitalization needs to translate what people liked back then to the present time; it must involve subjects we care about today, politics, economy and culture.


Times Square, at 1989 and 2009 respectively.

Successful revitalization - Batman

One spectacular example of revitalizing an IP is the resent rebirth of Batman movies beginning with Batman Begins in 2005.

What is really striking with Batman Begins in comparison to the earlier movies is how Batman now has to be believable to a degree. There has to be a hint of an explanation behind his person and powers, he has motives and depth. It could be argued that the trends have shifted and that people demand something that allows them to believe in the fiction and enjoy it.

I think in the wake of the last 20 years people in general have become more skeptical and less willing to accept a fiction for what it is. We want things to make sense even when here is none to be had perhaps a behavioral "defect" of our time. Even when we know Batman is highly unrealistic, we want his strength, heroism and motives explained, at least just enough to allow us to believe.

The creators of Batman Begins made sure to provide a lengthy prologue that explains who Batman is, from where he got his strength and how it makes some sort of sense. Incredible wealth combined with science and a semi-believable elite martial arts training is just enough to convince us.

In the original Batman movie from 1989 there is very little reference to the source of Batman's abilities. You understand as much as Batman is just a man with advanced gadgetry, and that was probably enough of an explanation in 1989.

In this case the creators of Batman Begins have masterfully adjusted Batman to the trends of 2004 transforming something a little silly into something very cool.

Unsuccessful revitalization - Terminator

The success of the new Batman (and also Spider-Man) clearly inspired many more attempts of revitalization. One example that didn't do as well is the Terminator IP.

The first attempt at revitalizing the IP was Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, 12 years after the success of Terminator 2. Although the third movie wasn't exactly a failure, it didn't manage to maintain the appeal of the IP over time. Could it be that Terminator is an IP that was ideally suitable for the era when it was conceived -- when we weren't as familiar with computers and technology as we are today?

One of the huge cultural changes between the first two films and the third and fourth is the internet revolution and other advances in technology. Maybe we aren't so worried about machines taking over any longer?

The second attempt at revitalizing the IP was Terminator Salvation, six years after Terminator 3. This time the very same actor (Christian Bale) that helped revitalize Batman was brought in to do the lead role in hopes it was his performance that was the key factor to the Batman rebirth. It seems it was not since once again the original success was unmatched and the trend for the Terminator IP continues down.


IPs over time - Batman

As time passes between each big outing of an IP each new version has to be adapted to suit fit in time and culture. To put that into perspective, let's look at what happened in 1989 more than the Batman motion picture premiere.

1943

1966

1989

In 1997 by the time of the last Batman movie before the revitalization, Batman & Robin (1997) the situation was the following.

1997

World political events may not influence the success of a given IP directly but it tells us something about the people we want to attract to our product. The people in 1997 aren't the same as those folks who went to see Batman in 1989, the cold war has ended and the kids who saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have grown up.

The most successful reboot of the IP was between 1997 and 2005. There's now a completely new audience that must be attracted to the Batman IP if the film is to be successful.

1997 to 2005

Just stop for a second and think that the moviegoers who went to see Batman in 1989 couldn't find a theater using their smartphone, look at the trailer on YouTube, or purchase tickets online. That says something about the cultural differences between moviegoers in 1989 and 2005.

When looking at an IP over time, it's vital to learn to identify our own time and the audience we try so hard to impress today. Who are we? How are the 2010ers? Whoever can answer that has a great chance to make a great IP!

References

Box office data: www.the-numbers.com

Meta critic data: www.metacritic.com

IMDb stars: www.imdb.com

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[Title photo by Stefano A, used under Creative Commons license.]

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