Licensed games are seen as a sure bet in some ways -- and in this economy, many studios are more willing to work on them.
The complex issues of that decision were robustly explored in a discussion between executives of publishers and studios -- including Obsidian, BioWare Austin, and Disney -- at GDC Austin.
Says Feargus Urquhart, CEO of Obsidian Entertainment, "A lot of it has to do with looking at the economic times. When there's more money, people are more willing to take risks. What we really rely upon on [these economic times] is to look at the catalog of the publisher." This is not a movie license, but the reawakening of a dormant franchise, in other words.
"We look at what licenses that work for us as a developer and blend with what our studio does. You've gotten past step one or step two of doing a deal."
Disney studio vice president of global production, Jean-Marcel Nicolai, believes that the licensor must be careful in dealing with developers. "We cannot inhibit creativity by saying to the developer, 'please do that', because it's all about quality in the end."
"Sometimes the brand you are working with is going to define certain boundaries, and you as the developer will have to stay within those boundaries. Sometimes you do want developers to come in with their own ideas and see how they fit within your brand. I would always promote creativity first, and along with that, the quality of the product at the end."
Leo Olebe, director of marketing at BioWare Austin, which is currently developing Star Wars: The Old Republic
, an MMO based on the storied franchise, believes that online games add complexity in the licensing arena as much as any other.
"When you're working on an online game there are a lot of different ways players find fun. You really have to make sure that all parts of your IP are very, very well thought-out so that any way a person comes at your experience can find something unique and exciting for them."
Urquhart sees pushing the boundaries of a license as an inherent part of working on it: "The biggest lesson that I've learned in dealing with a particular license, is that when you're making a big game with a license, you're expanding the license. The best thing you can do when you're doing that is ask lots of questions. It's not about waiting for them to tell us stuff, but ask every question we had in our heads. It's about boundaries."
Nicolai agrees: "It's the role of the creative community and the developers to push the boundaries." He also sees the developers as bringing something more to the table that the fans will appreciate. "The guys have sat in the movie theater and they understand the world, but they want to know more about the world and have an experience that is compatible with the movie experience."
While Urquhart said he felt confident that a license is more likely to be greenlit, Nicolai doesn't necessarily agree: "We all know those movie licensed games have a perception issue among the consumers, so sometimes from an economic standpoint it does not make sense to greenlight those games."
In the past, games were seen as just another form of merchandising similar to toys, but Urquhart says that the situation has changed. "It doesn't have to just be the movie... That's important to a developer. It can be complimentary and not just an adjunct to the movie experience."
Part and parcel with this is the time developers get, which has increased as the need for high-quality games has become better understood by studios, says Urquhart. "When we are approached for a movie game, it's no longer you have six, nine, or 12 months. It's now, 'This movie is going to launch in 2011 or 2012'. There's now an acknowledgment that if you make a great game, it's not just an offshoot of the movie. It can be something that pairs with the movie to push forward the whole brand."
Of course, developers are passionate fans of many different IP that get turns into games. Does that ever affect objectivity? Says Urquhart, who has made games based on Dungeons & Dragons, of which he is a fan, "We all have the things that we love. When you get a chance to make a game about what you grew up with, the opportunity is weird, actually. It can jade your vision when it comes to what's appropriate from a business perspective. To get enamored of an IP, you can't have a habit of making the wrong decision."
Olebe thinks carefulness is the watchword. "It's important to let your passion drive quality, but not to let your passion drive insanity. I'm not a designer, but I'd imagine that people have to be very cognizant of the fact that your passion can drive you away from the business necessities."
Working with a licensor can be tricky, says Urquhart. Remember that a license is "not yours, it's theirs, and when you treat it like that, you get on their side. Help them understand how games are made, don't talk down to them, and help them understand what can be done."
Nicolai sees a potential pitfall, though: "As soon as you touch the creative side, everyone wants to be creative, and thinks that they are the next big creative mind. This becomes a very slippery slope. In this case I think that the developer has to make it understood that the creative vision has to stay with the people who know what they're doing. And the publisher has to understand that the creative role has to stay with those who have the creative minds."