GamesBeat: I remember in the 1990s or so, there was a process of Hollywood companies awakening to games. They used to take note that maybe you’d make $100 million with a movie and only $10 million profit, but you could make $100 million with a game and $90 million was profit. Those were the days when game budgets were a lot smaller. Game industry revenues were always chasing box office revenues. It was a lesser market. But now games are much bigger, $180 billion or so.
This awakening that’s here now feel much different. If you saw Amazon go and grab the license for Lord of the Rings, it was a logical assumption that you would say, later on at least, the announcement of a game series from Amazon as well. That’s not as much of a surprise anymore.
You guys were talking about the quality of games now as well. This word “authenticity” seems to matter a lot more. It was hard, in the Harry Potter days for EA, to make a game that looked as good as the movies. But now it feels like authenticity is something different. Do you have a way of describing what authenticity is now?
Costantini: You have to be a fan of what you’re creating. People will see right through you if you’re trying to just put a name on something, or you’re trying to do what was done in the past. You have to put the team together to create an entertainment property. It’s true on the game side as well as the entertainment side. You need someone who’s a believer, and who makes everyone around them a believer. Otherwise you’re not going to have any credibility. You’re not going to create something special.
We haven’t seen that problem solved very well on the “movies made from game IP” side. We’ve seen tremendous success from movies based on IP that have also been leveraged in games, like Marvel. But it’s been way harder to crack it the other way. The reason for that is, historically to be successful in TV or film, it has to be an all-consuming part of your life, where there’s room for nothing else. It’s very common for people in that arena to not have that background, to not have spent that kind of time playing games, experiencing games, and thinking about making games, which is tremendously more involved. On the games side, that’s all-consuming as well.
We’re starting to get to the point where the makers of entertainment have grown up on properties across the media spectrum. They were playing games on their iPad, then playing games with their friends in college, watching movies with their friends in college, making their own little TV shows. Now we’re starting to see people really get how you tell a story that resonates because of the experiences they’ve had. I think the future is very bright for people who’ve grown up in games and want to see game properties being reflected on other screens, and vice versa.
Fowler: The way we’re monetizing mobile games today is we’re running events, limited-time events. The amount of content you need to make those events work is astronomical. I’m a huge Star Wars fan. As much as I’m a big fan, though, I didn’t read a lot of the books and comic books. There’s so much lore and history behind that, there’s content to work into games forever.
You talk about authenticity, there’s enough content there — it starts to get interesting when you’re building on the lore inside the game instead of outside the game. That’s where it gets interesting. If you can really convince your audience that you’re continuing the lore inside a game, as opposed to just creating a Marvel character inside the game — if you create a superhero inside the game that then lives in the movies, that’s where things start to get really interesting. That could be the 5.0 of gaming and what we’re talking about. The mediums have to cross over.
You think about what Netflix is talking about, where their biggest competitor is Fortnite. We’re all competing for the eyeballs. We have to take it to the next level.
McMahon: A question for you guys. This is a bit outside my dated experience at Fox. We would try and get involved with core production, but it ended up being more for voice or tone or text or conversations. It wasn’t really true continuity or true extensions of story. We had writers on Tapped Out getting the humor right, the Family Guy writers. But only in one or two instances — Lightstorm did one of them — were they really trying to think cohesively about building a continuity team, where the world would live in multiple places and truly be conceived that way.
Is that happening more as you deal with a story team, whether it’s Lightstorm or Skydance IP? As a fan, I would love to see that develop. It always felt like we were slapping it on a bit. It was always a bit of a struggle, and something I felt we could do better at.
Fowler: Yeah, we have a few examples. The general theme is a mutual respect partnership with the licensors and our dev teams. We stack our dev teams with crazy, relentless geek fans that may know, in some circumstances, more about the IP than our license-holders do. At least the people we interface with.
For Marvel we have a creative director, Jason Bender. We meet every two or three weeks with our team and go out with the Marvel team, and they’ll just geek-fest out. Bender will win every single time. He’ll know, “Oh, no, Namor appeared in Fantastic Four #32, and that’s why his staff is in his left hand. He’s actually a leftie. You didn’t know?” He’ll do those sorts of things.
To your point, making characters in the game that eventually make it the other way — we’re doing that with Marvel characters, and Marvel Contest of Champions has done this as well. We have a character in the game that we pitched to Marvel that lives in the world of SHIELD, Nick Fury’s team. It’s the SHIELD medic. We pitched the idea to Marvel, they thought it was great, and it’s now part of the canon. Our fans are consistently going to Marvel’s social channels petitioning them to get SHIELD medic cameos in the Avengers movies. Those things are starting to happen.
You mentioned Lightstorm. Lightstorm is absolutely interested in this. I met with Jon Landau two weeks ago, and he’s pushing us toward his lore. But he’s working all the angles to get comic books and graphic novels in place. What Landau wants to happen is our game will come out before the next film, and we’re going to see characters and personalities in our game that will then have story explanation in the comic book series, and then may or may not make it into the next movies.
That’s certainly all going on. Whether it’s as frontline — I don’t think so yet. But they’re definitely interested.
GamesBeat: The concept of a writers’ room is always interesting to me. I think the Skybound folks have a writers’ room for Walking Dead. That’s the treasure of the property, the quality of the writers for the TV series and everything else they’re doing. You can see that the value is created by the people who can tell these stories.
In games, does it feel like that’s also the case, or becoming the case? I can think of game companies that have their writers’ rooms, like Remedy Entertainment or the recently-revived Telltale. Does it feel like this is becoming more elevated in importance around games?
Dorf: At DeNA we had the Transformers license for mobile. We had exclusive rights for all the Transformers games, and it included all the different iterations of Transformers. Our version of the writers’ room was, what games and content can we build off this world? It was always with the Transformers geeks like you were talking about — in 1986 this came out in this version that was this color, so we need to have that. You could even have those conversations with the audience, because the users of the games were so passionate, the more you’d include them in those sorts of discussions.
But I don’t know anything — no company I ever worked for that had a weekly room that was dedicated for those writers that I know of.
Costantini: I think it’s very product-dependent and game-dependent. For some games, having a writers’ room is very helpful. Telltale is a great example. We sit down with the Skybound folks and talk about it because our Walking Dead game has a big story element and we know that’s going to be an important part of it. But if your game is an action game, a Gears of War 5, the right fit there was to get Sarah Conner. She’s going to be the most badass leading lady that you’ll see for a while, so it made perfect sense for Microsoft to put her in Gears of War. In a similar capacity, we’re working on putting Arnold Schwarzenegger in Mortal Kombat, because of course Arnold should be in Mortal Kombat.
It’s a fit that’s determined by what the property is. You don’t have to force the deepest integration. But the integration has to make sense. People will judge you harshly if you take their cherished memories and bastardize them. That’s the common denominator to keep in mind. You can make very tiny executions that are incredibly effective, but you need to keep that in mind.
McMahon: We’re taking a really hard look at a writers’ room right now, and showrunner-type folks to lead that. Partially because we’re looking at — we’re really about trying to build a brand and a world with character-based stories. Even in a puzzle game, if there’s a lot of depth behind it, the audience really gets that and sees that. When you add the RPG mechanics to a game, that’s a helpful monetization mechanic. It helps to create content for future live events. But ultimately it’s about how we build up that world and start to tell more stories.
We’ve worked with a number of writers consistently over time. We’ve done some animated shorts. They’ve then fed ideas back to the game world. Our studio has been wonderful at creating a world around these structures, and then telling a story around that. Our goal by the end of this year is to have a writers’ room in place that can not only attack a TV series and extend our brand in that direction, but really be a content pipeline for the rest of the games.
It sounds strange for a puzzle game, but we’re going to attack that in a big way. We want people to feel like there’s more there, something a little more emotionally legitimate, if you will.
GamesBeat: What are some interesting examples of complexity in licenses? The kinds of deals that happen, the variety of deals you see. Can you offer some tips on this front for developers as far as what they may run into or should be aware of? Especially when these licenses that are happening today are far different from the ones that have happened in the past.
Costantini: It’s about what licenses you’re going after. You don’t need the top of the world sometimes. You’ll go and get the biggest license ever and you’ll realize that if you’re not in the top five licensees, you’re not going to get that much attention. You’re going to get a whole bunch of nothing. That can be very constraining. Or maybe you’re okay, because you got a game where the model of the game works and you just want that integration to help with user acquisition.
On the other hand, maybe you want to do something really special with a license because you’re in love with it. You go after a license that’s in that area where the licensor has a smaller team that can work more extensively with you. They haven’t over-licensed their product, so they can have a conversation with you and figure out the basics. You’re going to be able to make a much cooler experience. It’ll come at a cost in time and resources, but at the same time, you’ll have that flexibility.
Think about what licenses you’re going after and why. Those are questions to ask yourself early in the process, before you’re — when you pick a license and work with someone, it’s kind of like a relationship. You’re going to be involved with it for a while. There’s going to be a cost to breaking it. There are going to be delays and things of that nature. Think carefully about who you go out and pick.
Dorf: You have to understand their motivation, too. Not every licensor’s motivation is the same. Not everyone is just bringing in revenue. Some of it brand awareness. Some of it is pitching a new show or a new movie. Money is always going to be a factor, but you truly have to understand the IP’s motivation as well. You have to be in sync. If you say, “Yeah, we’ll promote this TV show, but we’re trying to make this game here,” if that’s their main goal, you guys aren’t in sync and it’s not going to be a good relationship for either of you.
McMahon: The passion for the IP is paramount. You see people come in and not have a base knowledge, not be a really big fan of the IP they’re pitching. That’s just a non-starter straightaway. The studios in Hollywood — there’s so much love and passion that goes into that IP. Franchise management and the ability to nurture that across channels is a lot harder than it looks. The ability to trust somebody else — you have to see the passion in their eyes and have the knowledge that it’s going to work.
Fowler: Negotiate approval times as low as possible. Give your IP holder five days. If it’s not approved in five days, it’s instantly approved, whatever. [laughs] Make sure you negotiate turnaround.