Becoming a superfan: how to make a licensed game

Regardless of genre or platform, pretty much every game can be divided into being ‘licensed’ or ‘unlicensed’. We call games licensed if they use someone else’s intellectual property (or IP), as in, ‘They have the license to use that brand without being sued by whoever owns it’.

To clarify, an IP is a brand that someone has established using movies, TV, games, books, and so on: Star Wars is an IP, as are Harry Potter and Dracula.

Most IP is owned and controlled by a parent company, and sooner or later, that company is going to want a video game set in their universe. This leads to a development team being told: “We’re making a game based on brand X!” – which is where you come in.

The value of an IP

If you work at a game studio, you’re likely to work with someone else’s IP at some point in your career, and even if you’re an indie developer, there are strong reasons why you should get this experience. Working with an IP will give you a grounding in making audience-focused decisions, working within constraints, and delivering a polished product on time.

But the big benefit of working with an IP is that your game is going to get noticed. With huge numbers of games released every day, one of the biggest problems the industry faces is ensuring new games get seen.

With Visa’s Financial Football, the publisher secured the IP for us. Now we had the complication of needing to satisfy publisher, IP holder, and fans.

You might think your ‘Colourful Warriors Punch Bad Guys’ is the best game ever, but getting news sites, influencers, and an audience to notice you is going to take a huge amount of effort.

On the other hand, if the same game was released with the Power Rangers brand it will instantly receive attention. Of course, games without an IP can be a success, it just takes luck (Fortnite) or a big marketing push (Destiny).

The risks

While the attention is great, there are challenges when working with external IP. These include getting things approved by the – usually non-gamer – IP holders, working within the constraints of their universe, and most importantly, making the right decisions when you’re not the game’s audience.

Getting this right is key to making a game which is loved by fans of that IP, such as Transformers: Devastation, or Batman: Arkham Asylum (it helps if you deliver a genuinely fun game, of course). On the other hand, games like Aliens: Colonial Marines failed to resonate with the IP’s fans, meaning those players didn’t recommend the game to others, and the whole point of using an IP was lost.

Becoming a superfan

There are two parts to making a game that the IP’s fans love – understanding the IP and understanding your audience.

I believe that as a developer, just knowing about an IP isn’t enough. You need to unleash your inner nerd and become a ‘superfan’ of that brand. To be a superfan, you have to immerse yourself in that universe, learning and absorbing as much as you can, so that you quickly progress through just knowing about it and cross over into fandom.

Sites like Deconstructor of Fun (pictured here analysing the dress-up RPG, Love Nikki) provide information on gamers, but consider other areas – such as the toy industry – for surprising insights.

You see, reading a few websites and making a mood board will only get you a superficial knowledge of the IP. In order to make a game the fans genuinely want, you have to understand why the audience loves it, what they dislike about the IP, trends and changes in the brand over time, who their influencers are, and so on.

And you can’t do this ironically, or while mocking the IP because it’s just for kids or only for geeks. We have a rule on the wall in our team area, which says ‘We embrace nerdery’. For as long as the project lasts, you need as deep an understanding of the IP as you can manage. You need to be a superfan.

Understanding your audience

The main reason for becoming a superfan is to help bridge the gap between you and that IP’s audience. You may be younger or older than them, or the brand may be targeted at a different country or gender, or linked to fashions and trends you have no idea about.

Research site has some great – and free – blog posts on gamer demographics and audience motivations.

Of all the licensed games I’ve worked on, only a couple were aimed at ‘me’, but I managed to dig into the core of each audience anyway. Let’s look at how:

Brand research

As mentioned earlier, the first step is becoming a superfan of the brand itself, otherwise, your starting point for the second half will be flawed.

• Watch the shows/movies/internet episodes, and listen to podcasts.

• Play any board or video games, and check out critical reviews and fan opinions to see what those games got right or wrong.

Games containing multiple IP, such as Epic Mickey 2, require constant negotiation between IP holders. Build their trust through a
deep understanding of
their brands.

• Read books/comics/websites to absorb the language used by the IP, and also the common terms used by its fans.

• Visit conventions – you can find a fan gathering for pretty much any IP.

• Talk to fans and ask them questions (more on this later). However, you need to agree this with the license holder, as most licensed games are covered by a strict NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement).

Audience research

Knowing the IP inside-out is only half the story – you also need to understand its audience. Unless you happen to be a 40-plus American mother, it can be tricky to design a game around their likes, dislikes, and play patterns. This is where research comes in.

Here are some common techniques, and while I don’t have space to go deeply into them, this list should at least let you get online where you can do more research.

• Mind or empathy mapping. The practice of creating complicated spider diagrams which branch out again and again (see Figure 1). The closest points to the centre are questions you want to answer, which then branch out as you dig into more and more detail.

Figure 1: Empathy mapping produces spider diagrams which pose simple questions then keep asking ‘Why?’. Digging down produces fundamental truths which you can build from.

• Another approach is to create ‘personae’ of your audience. These are like role-playing game characters, except instead of magical feats, you work out their name, sex, age, likes, what they do during the day, what they play, eat, and listen to, and so on. The goal is to create a ‘real’ fan of your IP which you can refer back to as you make decisions.

• Qualitative research is gathering detailed answers from a few people. You can chat to them or ask them to fill in surveys, but you’re basically trying to replace guesswork (‘I think they like X’) with facts (‘I know they like X’). However, unless you ask thousands of people, the results you get will be subjective, so combine this approach with some of the others.

• Quantitative research means looking at stats from hundreds or – ideally – thousands of your players. This can reveal useful trends and patterns which the fans might not even realise, such as ‘Fans of IP ‘X’ are also fans of IP ‘Y’’. You can gather this information by running Google surveys, or searching for surveys and reports from other industries – there’s a surprising amount of free data out there.

Know your IP

Two accusations levelled at licensed games is that they’re rushed or lazy.

The first problem is difficult – licensed games often have to hit a hard deadline – so try to design a game which can be built from a solid, fun core outwards. This will mean you can ship a small, enjoyable game anytime – it just gets deeper and wider until you run out of time.

But the second accusation – that licensed games are cheap cash-ins to grab fan money – is entirely within your control.

As demonstrated by Diablo Immortal, bringing a PC game IP to mobiles can alienate its original audience. Instead, focus on the much larger mobile audience.

Understand your audience and embrace what they love about the IP and you can help your team make good decisions which the fans will approve of, rather than just making ‘generic game X’ and draping the license over the top of it.

Showing that you know the IP inside-out will also reassure the license-holder that their IP is in safe hands. Trust me, this can make the lives of everyone on the project a lot easier.

So, if you find yourself working on an IP you’ve never heard of, you can either shrug and plod on through the next year of your life, or you can fully embrace your inner nerd, learn something new, and maybe deliver a great game.

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