For mobile game developers, one look at the top charts on iOS and Android is enough to make you dream of what branded intellectual property you can tap into for your next game.
From Kim Kardashian and Gordon Ramsay to Marvel Comics and Madden NFL Football, branded IP has proven a fertile ground for developers angling for a hit game. According to a recent report from Sega Networks and Sensor Tower, games based on branded IP were one of the fastest growing categories in the space, showing a 139 percent growth rate in 2016.
Branded IP is one of the most battle-tested ways to ensure an effective launch and long term success. The built-in fanbase practically guarantees a certain number of downloads, and the value of the PR and marketing effect of popular franchises is immeasurable.
But branding doesn’t automatically guarantee success. For every game like Pokémon Go, The Walking Dead: Road to Survival or The Simpsons: Tapped Out, there’s an app that simply doesn’t manage to achieve the same success, despite having a big celebrity name or brand attached to it. Developing a successful mobile game requires more than just successful IP – it also requires a lot of planning.
Before you jump at the chance to make a game based on intellectual property, it’s important to ask yourselves the following fundamental questions.
How much will the brand help you promote the game?
One of the biggest reasons behind the success of Glu’s Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is the fact that the reality TV star has one of the largest social media followings on the planet. As one of just a handful of people with more than 100 million Instagram followers, a single post from Ms. Kardashian West reaches more people than some of the most expensive user acquisition campaigns.
Many brands also bring a strong multi-channel marketing infrastructure that spans TV, print and outdoor advertising, as well as online channels. But this isn’t a silver bullet. Even the most recognizable brands with the widest reach can’t save a game that simply isn’t good to begin with – but when you layer an A-list partner onto a genuinely well-built game, you’re really looking at a recipe for success
Can you make the game fun?
Even the strongest, most recognizable brands in the world can’t ensure success if the game itself isn’t fun to play. Too many developers have slapped well-known IP onto a game that wasn’t well thought out or was maybe just re-skinned from another game, to detrimental results. If a game feels like its development was rushed or that it merely exists to flaunt the IP, players will see right through it. They want fun mechanics, challenging gameplay and a unique experience that gets updated with fresh content consistently.
If you’re not in a position to deliver all of those things, don’t bother investing in branded IP. Make sure you get the basic principles of fun game design down pat before taking the leap into IP-based games, and make sure you have a team in place for LiveOps: to add new content, host in-game events, and generally make the game feel alive to its audience. If you or the IP holder are simply thinking of building an “advergame” rather than building a truly fun game designed to sustain success, we suggest you think twice.
How much freedom will you have?
In any business, partnerships work best when each party allows the other to do what they do best. The most successful IP-based games were created by developers who had the freedom to design the game however they saw fit. When the IP holder steps in and tries to maintain too much control, it often stifles the creativity of the game developer and leads to a less than stellar final product. Brand-centered games are most successful when both parties respect the licensee/licensor relationship and allow the other party to focus on their own area of expertise. So before signing any contract, try to suss out how much freedom and creative license they’re willing to extend.
Can you monetize it?
Often, a game developer and the IP owner won’t always agree on how revenue factors in as a core performance indicator. The IP owner might be interested in using the game to extend the brand into a new arena, or to promote a specific launch, like an upcoming movie or TV series. In these cases, since the game is essentially a promotional tool, they might not particularly care if they make any money on it. But as a developer, producing revenue is likely your number one goal. You need to ask yourself if, given the structure of your contract and any constraints of the game, there’s an obvious and viable way to make money from it, whether through a paid or freemium model. If not, think of how you can structure the contract for the long term.
Do fans of the brand really want to play a game based on it?
Not all types of branded IP equate to mobile gaming success. TV brands probably offer the highest success rate, as evidenced by mobile games based on shows such as The Simpsons, Family Guy and The Walking Dead. Perhaps that’s because TV shows offer continuously expanding universes, in much the same way that LiveOps games continuously offer new content. Games based on sports-related IP, such as NBA Live or Madden NFL Football, also tend to do well, while games based on celebrity IP can be hit or miss, depending on the celebrity’s cachet with the game’s targeted audience. Games based on movies, meanwhile, have have historically struggled to get much traction. So before taking on the challenge of building a game based on IP, make sure that it has a passionate community of fans who are willing and interested in playing it.
Is the brand a good fit for your studio?
There are practical questions about marketing and revenue, and then there is the more abstract, but no less critical, question you must ask yourself about whether the IP offers a good culture fit for your studio. Does your studio embrace the same values as the brand? Do the developers who’ll be working on the game feel passionate about it? Does it complement other titles in your portfolio? If your studio is used to building dark, edgy sci-fi games, then Hello Kitty probably isn’t the type of IP you should pursue. Make sure that by staying true to core of the branded IP, you stay true to the core of your own brand as well!
Today, more than ever, branded IP offers a way for games to stand out in an ultra-competitive environment and break into the top grossing charts. But as with anything else, there is no secret recipe for success. A well-known IP might be enough to get you in front of your audience, but it’s tried-and-true gaming mechanics and thoughtful monetization strategies that will ensure long-term success.