Strong IP is a boost that can catapult games apps to the top of the charts. It’s clearly a privilege to seal a licensing deal with a major name or franchise in media or entertainment—but it’s also a relationship that introduces new variables (and tighter deadlines) into your strategy for soft launch. To make it big requires a new level of teamwork and open communications. Miss a step (or a deadline) and even a hit title can miss the mark. At Ludia —the Montreal-based game company where I took the position of Senior Marketing Specialist in 2014--we have a long track record of creating world-recognized branded properties including Jurassic World Alive, Jurassic World™: The Game, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Legends, Dragons: Rise of Berk, Family Feud® 2 & Friends and The Price Is Right™.
Drawing from our first-hand experience launching a string of successful licensed titles (most recently DreamWorks Dragons: Titan Uprising, which launched alongside the newest DreamWorks Animation film How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World), we have cracked the code on what you need to do and know to work with major titles and pressing deadlines. This article provides you a valuable checklist to tackle both, and best practices to help ensure a smooth(er) soft launch. /p>
Know your goals—and your limitations
A great game starts with a solid game design. It’s a simple goal, but the search for a solid game design is much like the search for the holy grail. The way is long, treacherous, full of winding roads and misdirections—and, if you’re based in Montreal like we are, filled with a surprising amount of French. (Indeed, Montreal is a hub of games innovation, creativity and home to some of the biggest names in games.)
Language barriers--as well as the typical silos that can separate product, marketing and engineering-- have no place in your approach if you are resolved to produce and promote a winning game. Communication is a must from the get-go, and all stakeholders should be able to communicate their goals and expectations effectively so that designers can fully understand the desired direction for the title.
Of course, if the game is tied with IP committed to a release and timetable of its own (for example, the debut of a movie or TV series), then make sure you confirm any restrictions before you start firing on all cylinders. Knowing if there are blacklists, embargos, or any details that can conflict with your planning ensures you avoid spending time and money on game features that may never find their way into the gameplay. Ask straightforward questions and be upfront with the licensor. Tell them why you require this information and be sure to check if there are any conflicts with other products in the pipeline that should be avoided.
Draw on metrics to define the game loop—and your audience
Designs will change, and that’s ok! You won’t nail it the first time—and maybe not on the second or third try either. It will take several iterations. But you can easily turn what can be a grueling process into a great opportunity to do the best you (and your team) can. Learn to give (and accept) valuable feedback. Don’t be afraid to point out flaws in ideas or designs as you see them–and don’t take it personally if you’re on the receiving end. The goal of the project is to succeed. It stands and falls with your effort, as part of a team, so don’t bring your ego to work.
Even the coolest design can fall short if it doesn’t map to an amazing user experience. Use this phase to define the core values and goals of the game and refine your audience targets. But don’t do this in a vacuum. Draw from metrics (and your data experts) to define user motivation and design your game loop. The audience you appeal to (and want to acquire) is a big part of the equation, but don’t forget to ask (and answer) other essential questions. What are you offering players? What is your unique selling point? Is there a fit between the features you offer, and the player type you want to cultivate and, ultimately, convert.
Defining user motivation is a key part of designing the game loop. Use market research to segment your potential audience. Fortunately, when you’re working with established licenses, there’s a trove of information already available. Take advantage of it, and take into consideration some key data points about the license itself. You may think more nostalgic IP will only appeal to an older demographic, but you could be wrong. Do your homework to be clear about who the audience for your product really is. A gap between what the title offers and the most likely audience is a mismatch no studio can afford.
You love your game and cherish your data, but don’t lose sight of the complete competitive landscape. Watch the competition and monitor the metrics. If your game is in the F2P space, encourage analysts in-house to make projections and estimates for eco-designers to work on. Knowing metric goals will give them guides to work towards, and make tweaks along the way, instead of trying to tackle them all during the soft launch.
Work backwards for the best results
Working to your soft launch means working to a firm schedule. But, if you have IP, it’s not enough to meet your timelines. You have to factor in the dates that are top of mind with your licensor as well. A game that is timed to a release event, a sports event, a movie debut or an anniversary, is linked with an immovable deadline. If the goal post can’t move (that is, you can’t delay the release of a blockbuster film), then you need to plan out your shot ahead of time.
At Ludia we have launched a string of successful titles—and we have learned the best way to meet your goal (and align with your licensor in the process) is to think forward and work backward. Put simply, you have to retroplan your timeline. To get you started, here’s a model to follow.
Working backwards allows you to better understand where you need to be at key stages in the soft launch and accurately estimate how long tasks will *really* take. It’s critical to map out a timeline that factors in time for testing, polishing and debugging before you enter into soft launch.
Test on devices, not your machine
Of course, you need to test the build internally to flag any major kinks. But it’s also a must to test on the device. While it’s easier to test builds on your machine, it’s more important to test the game on the platform it will be released on. Games that run perfectly on a machine can crash the moment it loads on a tablet, for example. Take the time to mimic real user experience—on all the devices your players might use—to iron out all the bugs
Build in buffer time
Above all, plan buffer time. Deadlines are tough, and immovable deadlines are your worst nightmare come true. Rather than lose sleep (and increase stress) plan for the unexpected. Unforeseen events (like a crashing build or a round of Gastro) can happen. They don’t have to—but they can. Granted, you can’t see into the future, but that shouldn’t stop you from planning for it.
Sure, we all know nothing is going to work smoothly–but it’s no reason to turn Murphy’s Law into Sod’s law. Things will go wrong but squeezing in the time to test early (and correctly) ensures you can keep damage—and slippage—under control.
Good relationships take time and pay dividends
Licensors are your partners and an integral part of the planning process. Open communication is essential, but shouldn’t only be virtual. If possible, meet your licensors face-to-face, at least to kick-off. It’s time well spent and helps get everyone on board for smoother approvals later on in the process. Another bonus: Building a rapport with your licensor (through 1:1 talks and meetings) can help bridge gaps and defuse conflicts before they arise.
If something’s not clear, ask! Tone can get lost over email, but having that personal relationship makes it easier to reach out and ask for clarification instead of assuming the worst.
Apply the same principles to how you communicate with design and art about the game. In practice, this means setting up regular recurring meetings to gather feedback. It’s important to do this in the early stages leading up to soft launch. But why end it there. Good communication is best (and delivers the best results) when it becomes a habit. Schedule regular meetings for feedback, from the design stages all the way to launch and beyond.
This is a partnership and being open with all stakeholders throughout the process will move approvals and procedures along at a steady pace, ensuring everyone is on the same page at every stage. Try it and you’ll see it gets easier to anticipate feedback and responses and course correct on items. It also saves time on approvals (time that can be used for your buffer!).
Connect and conquer
Building a relationship with your licensor is a great way to ideate and execute events and angles to make the most out of your launch. Should you have a live event? Enlist a celebrity influencer? Or simply issue an old-school press release? You’ll get good answers and great value by working with licensors to plan events and announcements in the run up to soft launch. As a marketer, I have to admit this is one of my favorite aspects of my job.
Building a relationship also gives you a golden opportunity to work with their teams on a much larger scale, allowing you to reach higher and think bigger than you might have done on your own. There will be hiccups along the way, but beginning with a solid plan will help smooth them all out.