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Designing Original Games Based On Licensed Properties

Despite their generally bad reputation, licenses are here to stay. In this article, Charla explains some of the disadvantages and advantages of developing using licensed properties, and how to evaluate a potential license and licensor to determine if it's something you want to work on. He also goes over some rules for successfully designing licensed games, the potential pitfalls of licensed development, and some of the opportunities to turn a license to your advantage.

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.

Disadvantages

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.


How to evaluate a license

You may be in the lucky position to take a licensed game or see if something better comes along. Or you may just be wondering how the development is likely to go with a license you know you're going to take. The first thing you need to do is talk to the publisher, and if possible, the license holder, about what they want to maximize about the property, and about your leeway in designing a fun game around that. This is really the most important step. So, here are the questions, basically, you want to ask:

  • Are the interested in pushing a character over a story-line?
  • If it's a very story-driven property, like a movie or book, are they willing to let you set the game as a prequel, sequel, or side-story to the main storyline, which will lend itself more to games?
  • Are they willing, subject to their approval, to let you create additional characters, especially enemies?
  • Are they able to provide source material, especially for a new property, so you can match the style really well?
  • Are they willing to give you enough time to do the game justice?

Now, other than the last point, for which the answer is invariably "no," you want the answers to all those questions to be yes. If so, you have a really good chance of making a successful game. You're basically being provided with a pre-made backstory, world and characters, but you have the flexibility to change the setting enough to fit it into a fun game environment. And be prepared, if any of those answers are "no," to work to educate the publisher, and especially the license holder, about why they should be yes. It really helps to be able to cite examples of successful games in this situation (steer away from citing counter-examples, because no one ever believes it will happen to them).

A question you don't need to ask the publisher, but you need to ask yourself, is whether or not the license is intrinsically a good license? Is this going to bring 200,000 additional people to your game, or is it going to send 200,000 boxes to the bargain bin? In some ways, this is easy. Speaking as someone who once said in an email "I just don't know if Lord of the Rings is really going to be a hit," believe me when I say it can also be tricky.

In general though, if you're in the target demographic for the license, you and your peers should be able to have a pretty good idea of the license quality (don't ask me what I was thinking with the Lord of the Rings comment). If you're not in the target demographic, it's tougher. On one hand, well-established brands (Barbie, Matchbox, etc) are no-brainers. For less established brands, you just have to trust your judgment. Unfortunately there's no magic answer to this.

Designing Original Games Based On Licensed Properties

Here come all of the secrets. First off, I can't tell you how to make a fun game. (Or rather, I could, but that's a different lecture. ) But if you're attending the GDC, chances are you already have fairly good ideas in that direction. There are rules to creating which will help you really maximize the chances of successfully doing a licensed game. I think you can measure success in about five ways: sales, how fun the game is for players, how satisfied you and the team are with it, critical acclaim, and how satisfied the publisher/license holder is with the game. Of those, four are important: what the critics think is probably not super important, except to have something to show your mom.

Some people think it all comes down to creating a great game that could stand on its own, but doing it inside the constraints of the license, and the license holder. There may be some truth there, but I disagree: if you slapped the "Rug Rats" license on Halo, it wouldn't be a very good "Rug Rats" game, it would dis-satisfy players, and probably the license holder and publisher. You have a responsibility, both to the license holder, and to the fans of the license, to maximize the license at every opportunity. That's why kart racers are so frequently awful: they have the characters, but they don't maximize the license, even if it was a great racer, no one would be satisfied with Return of the King Kart Racing.

The first rule, therefore, is to remember that with licensed development, you are making a game for a specific audience, and you may not be in that audience. So, the notion that "we make games we like to play," may not fully apply here. At the same time, you want to have fun, and you should have fun, when you're making a game. If you're crafty, you can do both.

Sometimes it's easy: if you're doing a NASCAR game, or you have the Tony Hawk license, the gameplay can just magically suggest itself. Other times, it's less easy. You want a gameplay style that will appeal to the same demographic as the audience, and that enables you to render the look of the license appropriately. The things to look for, we've found at Digital Eclipse, when we're trying to come up with an original game idea for a licensed property are both tried and true - what's fun, what works on the platform, what does the demographic like, what do we have an engine for - and the more abstract: what can we do that would be super fun, but that no one expects?

An example: Digital Eclipse has a team that's huge Metal Slug fans. When we got the opportunity to do Lilo & Stitch GBA, we were able to say "Let's make it like Metal Slug!" Now, the target audience for Lilo & Stitch might not like Metal Slug. But we thought about what your eyes and fingers are doing when you play Metal Slug, and abstracting that out, we decided that that in itself was fun, and if we could bring it to Disney fans, we would have succeeded in doing something original, and fun, on the platform, that kept the target audience, and license, in mind. So we did it. At the same time, a shooter didn't work for Lilo, so we split her levels into a screen-to-screen scrolling adventure, a la Abe's Oddyssey. The result was a game that was well accepted by critics, by Disney, by fans, and that we were pleased with. It had the best elements of Metal Slug - tons of shooting and over-the-top cell animation - and yet it was totally Disney through and through, from music to character design principles to story.


Disney's Lilo & Stitch

If we'd had to stick to the plot of the movie, which only has a few bad guys, and very little action, we'd probably have had to do an adventure game, which would have been totally inappropriate for the platform. Luckily, Disney Interactive really gets games, especially on the console side, and they gave us a great deal of leeway to create new characters, set the story as a sequel, and more.

So that's kind of a best case scenario. What about the worst cases? Typically, the biggest pitfall you'll find is the schedule. Licensed games just don't get the time they need. We were approached to do a game design for a licensed property last year. We did an awesome design, specced out all these innovative things we were going to do - it was going to be cool. Then, the publisher said, "well, we're not sure how it'll do, so let's bag it." Eleven months later, they came back to us and said, "Remember that game? We need it in three months." Now, we were able to deliver a pretty fun game, but all the innovative parts went away in about the first twenty minutes of development - the programmer went over the design doc with a Sharpie, saying "no, no, no."

So what do you do in that situation? Polish. Doing a game that's based on a tried and true gameplay scheme, but is polished to death, is going to satisfy consumers and license holders much more than an unpolished attempt at doing too much. When we did Tarzan for Game Boy Color, we had a very short schedule. As a result, we went with incredibly simply gameplay: Tarzan simply had to platform around large mazes, collecting bananas while avoid bad guys. In a lot of ways it was like Pac-Man. But the core of the gameplay was done in about a week, leaving the rest of the schedule to test levels, do art, and add tons of finishing graphical touches. The result was a million plus seller from a very, very simple game.

In the case of that three month game, we bid a sad farewell to our big ideas, stuck them in the "sequel box", fell back on something we knew how to do, and polished it for half the development cycle. (Having really easily alterable engines also helps immensely with this.) Really, one of the only steadfast rules I've found in game development is that the answer to a short development cycle is to keep the game simple, and polish like crazy.

What about other pitfalls - overbearing license holders, or wildly inappropriate licenses? Well, at a certain point, it may help to become a little tricky. If a model is disapproved, sending back the same model rendered from a different angle sometimes works wonders. The reality is, the more overbearing a license holder is, the less likely they are to know the game industry. Smart license-holders understand what it takes to make a successful game and usually want to help. With the less educated licensors, you have three choices: you can try to educate them about why things are or need to be, you can try to brute force your way past them, refusing to make changes, or sending the same model back four times hoping no one will notice, or you can try to accommodate all their requests. Usually a combination approach works, but it's really something you need to judge on a case by case basis.

To me, a wildly innapropriate license is one of the coolest things around. On the one hand, I look at it as a challenge - how can I make a Like Water for Chocolate game? It's almost a parlor game at our office, coming up with weird license situations: If you got the Marlboro license, how would you do it as a game? Whether or not I would personally be into the game becomes secondary to my interest in figuring out whether we can make it fun for someone. On the other hand, I think crazy licenses give you a great opportunity to play with a game and really try some new things that you could otherwise never do.

We were recently approached with a license for a very social, story-based property that I unfortunately can't mention. It's a really good demographic fit with the target platform, but there is no gameplay suggested by the license at all. So what we did was take a collection of about a dozen mini-games - puzzle games, Apple II style single screen games, etc - any one of which we'd have killed to release as a full game, but which there was just no publisher interest for, and really worked hard to tie them to the license in a way that didn't feel like we were slapping it on. I think the result (it's still in development) is going to be something really cool. There's just a ton of gameplay value there, and I hope it's going to be really symbiotic: the license is going bring people to these games that they'd never look at without a license, and then, hopefully, the game is going to really enhance the feeling of the license for the players. So that kind of thing I think is really one of the hidden attractions of doing a licensed game. If you play a lot of licensed games, you can see it too - you'll see these neat levels in an otherwise kind of bland game, and think "oh yeah, some level designer was testing out something new here." It's kind of a back-door way to really introduce some innovations.

We've done games - a few - where there has been no innovation on the gameplay side or the technology side. Without exception, those games have done poorly in the marketplace regardless of the license. The key to doing licensed games well, and creating original designs, is to know the limitations of the license up front, whether that's the schedule, the material you're going to get, the quality of the characters or whatever. You do what you can to mitigate them, do things solid everywhere, but then pick one or two areas, and put all your effort into exploiting them. Players who buy licensed games aren't necessarily looking for the "next big thing;" they're looking for a new way to enjoy a favorite property. But, if you can give them something that hasn't been done before on the platform, or hasn't been done well yet, it dramatically increases their appreciation for the game, and your satisfaction at doing it. Any of the people attending this conference can do a solid, "B+" game. But if you can find one place in a licensed game to slip in something new, something you want to try, something you really believe in, you'll be amazed at how much it can motivate you and your team for the whole project, and turn a B game into an A game.

In the end, the quality of the game is really up to you. Whether it's original or derivative, fun or lame, it's up to you.

Let me go back to something that was mentioned before, which is that a lot of people look at licensed games as the thing to do before they get their break. I think this is the one of the most stupid attitudes or poses I've seen in the game industry. As I said, any one of us at this conference could crap out a B grade or C grade game on any system in six months. The problem is, so many people when faced with licensed development, do just that. They expect that licensed games aren't cool, and they let it become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Which I think is crazy.


Activision's Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1

The best example I can think of is Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 for the PlayStation. This could have been a totally lame game and no one would have cared. Tony Hawk was no longer super-well known outside the skating community when the game was made, skateboarding hadn't really been done successfully in 3D, there were really no huge expectations from the market of success, or of anything more than a Top Skater clone. But because of the ambition level of NeverSoft, and the support they got from Activision, the result was one of the best games and biggest franchises of the last five years.

You know, it sounds trite, but the reality is that licenses don't have to be limiting at all, but it's up to us as the developers to push them forward. The biggest identifying factor of the sort of "B" licenses - not your Lords of the Rings, but your Tony-Hawk-circa-1997s - is low publisher expectations. To me, this is like being given a box full of toys, and then mom leaves the room. As long as maximizing the license if your first priority, if you get one of these "B" licenses, the world is your oyster. You can do whatever you want. And that's a level of freedom in the game industry that can be really hard to find. Ironically, it seems to be the freedom that people want when they're looking to do original titles.

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