Sweden’s Fatshark and Denmark’s Full Control share their best tips for working on established IP’s that are not your own.
An IP, or intellectual property, has become one of the most important concepts in modern game development. Often representing complex fictional universes, the intellectual property can become one of the most sought after valuables, if the universe becomes successful, and there is a market for more games (or film or books) taking place in the same universe.
Most game developers dream about creating their own IP’s when they start out. But there are also advantages to creating games based on IP’s other than your own. But when should you do a game based on other peoples IP’s, and is there something special you have to look out for, when deciding whether to do develop a licensed game?
Thomas Lund is CEO of Danish game developer Full Control, who have had plenty of experience with licensed IP’s. Recently, they released two games based on Games Workshop’s popular Warhammer 40k universe, Space Hulk and Space Hulk: Ascension, and also very recently, the studio have rebooted the classic turn based tactical shooter, Jagged Alliance, with the game Jagged Alliance: Flashback.
Lund explains that, as a developer, you will first and foremost need to understand that creating a game based on an IP that’s not your own will take more time because of a number of factors. “It has to be adjusted for, not only in the production plans, but also in game design, marketing, community management, and PR,” he tells Nordic Game Bits.
Especially in the game design, you have to adjust to the IP that you are producing the game for. “You have to look at the game from the fan’s point of view, and see if your game matches the expectations that they will have. The same goes for the IP-owner, who will have some clear definitions of what their IP can and is allowed to do. This creates both some flexible and some non-flexible restrictions for the game, and the trick then is to navigate within these.” To illustrate the point, Lund gives a couple of examples of the expectations from fans and IP owners.
Very few fans of Warhammer 40 000 would like to have a Terminator Marine that doesn’t squash a lot of baddies. So designing a WH 40k match 3-game will probably not win you many fans with the IP’s existing following.
For the other example, Lund tells how Games Workshop has some very specific definitions of their IP’s. “Games Workshop has defined Space Hulk as loyalist Terminators versus Genstealers in narrow corridors in a dead spaceship. So even if some fan wants us to do Chaos verses Orcs, it not possible within the limits of the Space Hulk IP.”
Another Nordic developer with recent experience within the field is Sweden’s Fatshark, who put out Escape: Dead Island, a game based on the IP owned by Deep Silver, last month. And at Fatshark, creative director Robin Flodin tells a similar story about how working on an existing IP sets up some more rigid boundaries compared to working on your own game.
Working with an IP is a big challenge, there is lots of expectations both from fans and from the studio. Also, how an IP is perceived can differ between different people – both developers and fans.
“The Processes was very different from what we normally do,” Flodin explains. “Our games are born much out of what we want it to become. Its both positive and negative. Sometimes its good to have strong boundaries when developing a game.”
Regarding the practical co-operation wit the IP owner, Flodin explains that they recieved an IP bible with all the available background information on the game, and also had a very close relationship with Deep Silver while developing the game, having frequent discussions about the various aspects of the game. “I think they in this case were very nice when it came to trying to get the stuff that we wanted to do to fit into the brand. Deep Silver always had the final say but there was always a good discussion,” Flodin says.
But like Full Control’s Lund, Flodin could also feel the restrictions that working with an existing IP carries with it. Especially since Escape: Dead Island was much more of an adventure game, than the previous Dead Island games.
It’s hard to meet expectations of a franchise when you do a very different gameplay and in all aspects of the development you have to ask yourself; is this really Dead Island?
“It’s a balance and I hope fans of the franchise felt we got the Dead Island feel in there,” he concludes, but still recommends to make room in the planning for “other people to come in and have strong opinions on what the game needs to be.”
As one might expect, a lot also depends on who the IP owner is and how much control they exert over the IP. Games Workshop are well known for their very detailed management of their IP’s, but that’s not always the case. “With Jagged Alliance, we had total freedom, and there were no review process at all. Which can also pose a problem, because you then risk missing some of what is the essence of that particular IP,” Thomas Lund tells Nordic Game Bits.
But in general, Lund says that one should expect to have all IP related content approved during the production. And that you should be prepared that this will take some time because you might have to go back and do things over, if the IP owner wants it changed. “So a good relationship and frequent communication with the IP owner is essential.”
Working on an established IP will also often mean that you already have a following because the IP has fans of it’s own. And that is one of the advantages of working with established IPs that you have to use and take advantage of, Thomas Lund explains. “You need to get the fans aboard to generate hype around the game. Otherwise the value of the IP is not worth the license.”
However, he also warns that you should be careful not to peel away too much of the glamour when communicating with established fans. “They can have problems understanding that something must be built before it can be shown, so there is a pressure to only show things that are already awesome in themselves, to keep the hype level up,” he says.
Some of the same issues popped up when Fatshark’s Robin Flodin talked about the fan aspect of working with established IPs.
A big positive and negative is that people will care, making sure both that you are seen but also that exceptions are raised. This can be hard for a new game Like Escape: Dead Island where we were building a new game from scratch, but people will still expect something more out of it. So I think you get an extra critical eye from reviewers.
To wrap things up, we asked both Thomas Lund and Robin Flodin for their best tips for any game developers thinking about, or already involved in, a project with an established IP. Here are first the tips from Thomas Lund:
– Think about whether or not the IP you want to work on actually has a fanbase that wants the game you are developing. An example of this not working would be EA’s Dungeon Keeper.
– Be careful with ‘dead’ IP’s. A lot of the time, you too are a fan of the game you want to work on, and that can make you blind to whether the IP really has any value. Just because you played it in the 80’s doesn’t mean that there is an audience waiting to pay you to resurrect it. And if there has already been remakes with lukewarm receptions, you should be careful as the fanbase then might have left already. So take a step or two back and try and assess the true value of the IP and your chances of making a successful game for it.
– Budget! When working on an existing IP, be careful not to underestimate the expectations the fans have. They really don’t care if you are independent or what you are. If you can’t deliver something that is better than what is already out there, you will be run over. Trying to make an indie Call of Duty game would be pretty much suicide.
And here’s Robin Flodin’s tips:
– From a developer stand point I think respecting the IP is a lesson we learned when making Escape: Dead Island. It can sometimes be hard to feel the right mood for someone else’s IP. But I think it’s important to get the entire team in the right feeling and make sure that you live and breath what made the IP big.
– Make sure, before you start, that the partner or owner is ready to bend the IP to what it needs in order to become a game. In another IP, which I should not name, the main character could not be killed as that was the request of the IP holder. In a game where death is a very common way to state failure this can be a big problem
– Make sure you have the time to finish the game. When working on Riddick: The Merc Files for mobile, we only had 8 weeks from start to launch. This is not a deadline that you can make a good game within, and I think this is a very common problem with IP’s. There are other releases to take into account and this can really imper quality of the game. So I would also make sure that you get the time that you need to finish the game.
So be careful out there. Because as Flodin puts it. “It’s cool to work with something that people care about, but it will always be a great challenge when your baby is someone else’s.”