GamesBeat: To build on Barry’s comment around knowing the IP licensor, there are some very good examples. With the Hunger Games, I don’t know if everyone knows this, but Lionsgate owns the Hunger Games rights. We’ve seen card games related to the Hunger Games, but we’ve never seen a game that exploits the fact that this was one of the most successful battle royale concepts ever created.
The reason is that the author’s intent in writing the books was to expose the craziness of a society built around violence. It was very anti-violence, the story. The author won’t approve games that have anything to do with violence. It locks away that property from anybody ever getting it. The Tolkien estate, Tolkien Enterprises, has another complex set of motivations from the licensors. It’s very interesting to look at what can be licensed and what can’t be.
I’d love to see, for example, a Stephen King Dark Tower video game. Why haven’t we seen that transformed into a time travel story? Why haven’t we seen Inception created as a game? There are some interesting things that are inaccessible sometimes.
Costantini: It’s my personal dream to eventually make a Dark Tower game. I happen to know that there are a lot of obstacles in the way of that. You mentioned having knowledge of IP owners and stakeholders. Sometimes you just have to wait for the person who doesn’t understand games to not be the decision-maker. That will eventually happen.
GamesBeat: That gets to the notion that there’s a cycle here.
Costantini: Exactly. Things change. The dynamic moves forward. You have to stay on top of it. A lot of what studios like Skydance do, we keep an eye on the properties that are available, even decades down the line. We try to go after authors that have a great story that a lot of people love, but that hasn’t found its way into entertainment. We look at it and try to decide, could it work in a game? Could it work on TV? Could it work in animation? Could it work in film?
Part of your business — if you’re in the business of acquiring IP and creating great experiences, you have to be scouting out what’s out there. There’s a lot out there that’s not being chased.
GamesBeat: There are also interesting examples of the surprises you see in terms of deals that get done. The Jurassic World theme park game, for example, made a whole lot of sense. Let’s not do another shooter. Let’s do a theme park game.
Costantini: When you look at what’s coming out and thinking about the prominence of the streaming services, the gaming population is potentially growing into the billions. That means that if you have a niche game, a niche genre, a niche type of model, that niche may still be commercially sustainable. Depending on what you’re trying to do, depending on the size of your team, depending on what you’re chasing, you can create a theme park game for Jurassic World, or something similar that traditionally, from the standpoint of five or 10 years ago, they’d say that the license costs too much to justify a game of this type.
Nowadays you can have that conversation. You can get studios that are more flexible. They’ll say, “Well, we’re making a VR game, so we won’t charge what the VR market can’t command.” We’re seeing a lot more understanding there as these industries mature together.
GamesBeat: I believe that Jeff Bezos is a very big Lord of the Rings fan. He had to wait a very long time for the Tolkien estate to come around.
Dorf: When we got the TV show, we did not get the rights to a game right away.
GamesBeat: The history is that J.R.R. Tolkien licensed directly himself to the Saul Zaentz company in the 1970s for movie rights. That’s how we eventually got to the Peter Jackson films, which then could be licensed to other folks, including game-makers like Electronic Arts. But in the meantime Tolkien died, and his son Christopher took over. He was not a games guy. He was not a movie guy either. He published things like The Silmarillion, which created a beautiful expansion of the Tolkien universe, but you would have to go to Christopher and the Tolkien estate to license that.
Meanwhile, Tolkien Enterprises, which is what Saul Zaentz became, would license their parts out to whoever wanted from there. Since they had the rights to the Lord of the Rings, and the Lord of the Rings has an appendix that has a bit of description of the First Age and Second Age — the stories in the Silmarillion — you could use that as a justification for the license.
I think you guys are limited to the Second Age for the Amazon license. I believe that comes from the Saul Zaentz Tolkien Enterprises rights, and some of Warner’s too. But the full description of the First Age, the Silmarillion, somebody is going to have to get that license from Christopher Tolkien’s children and grandchildren, which is another set of licensees associated with it. The complexity of this thing is incredible, and these deals happen over a period of years or decades.
Dorf: Things also can relax over time. I remember the very first iteration of the Harry Potter game, we had pictures in there. J.K. Rowling was actually limiting the number of stars around Harry’s wand, going into detail about — there can only be this number of stars, and they can’t be bigger than this size. The amount of detail and notes she was giving back, it took us forever to go through those notes.
By the seventh game there weren’t as many notes. Things got a little relaxed. I’m sure part of it is that we learned more, but also, she realized, “Well, I don’t want to spend 27 hours going through one screenshot of a video game.” Some things can get easier over time. But you do have to be prepared for those in-depth discussions.
Costantini: You’re expressing something important about the licensor-licensee relationship, though. You have to tell stories, and you have to be informed about the history of what works and what doesn’t. Comic books are this great example of an industry that was able to be leveraged by Hollywood because they were so willing and so flexible with their stories. Marvel was able to be as successful as they are because they were able to guide while also ceding control. The reason Warner had the Nolan movies and was able to do so well with some of its games was because they were able to give creative control to their creators and trust that they would be able to make something special.
If you don’t do that, if you’re not comfortable enough doing that, you’re not going to create something great. That’s something we believe in. When we bring a creator on board, our approach is very much one of — the only reason we’re bringing you on board is because we’re going to give you creative freedom. Otherwise we’re not going to waste your time. That’s how you make the best games, the best movies, and the best stories.
Fowler: I agree with that on the comic book side. There are pros and cons for how much involvement a license-holder has. Obviously the authenticity you brought up earlier is something you need to keep in mind when you start deviating from, or taking liberties with, someone else’s IP.
We’re working on an Aliens game. That’s an interesting IP, because even from the films, it’s pretty mixed up. There was the original, which was a survival horror type of movie. Alien: Isolation is an example of a game that fit that movie well. But then James Cameron came for the second film, Aliens, and that was a big explosions, Michael Bay type of blockbuster, lots of aliens and Marines and guns and that type of thing. Then Prometheus is more hardcore sci-fi. It made you think. You have three different genres to play with in the Aliens universe.
We, when we were Fox, were the license-holder there. Who do I go talk to? It turns out there’s a guy at Fox. His name is Steve Zerlin. He’s written a 900-page lore document on the whole world of Alien and Aliens, all of the movies and all of the fiction. It’s basically all in his head, and he barfed it out into a document. When we go say, “Hey, we want to make a game in Cameron’s world with lots of Marines and explosions, because that’s fun in a shooter,” he says, “Let’s consult the book. There’s about 200 years open. Go nuts.”
McMahon: Some companies do it great. You talk to somebody like Games Workshop. They have hundreds of books that have been written. They’re experts at saying, “What do you want to do? We have a slice for you.” On the other end of the spectrum are people who are just starting to experience success, like Rick and Morty. They won’t have it codified yet. But you can be a part of helping them do it. You can learn together.
GamesBeat: The other part of the cycle is what the big companies do. Disney triggers a lot of cycles itself through the decisions it makes about games. If you’re AT&T right now and looking at Warner Bros., Warner is a treasure of games and Hollywood, with a dozen different studios owned internally by Warner Bros. and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. If you’re AT&T you might look at that and say, “That’s an asset we could sell. We could pay down some debt.” That’s an interesting possibility.
Disney, as well, has gone in the opposite direction of Warner Bros., licensing out games. When it cut its games division the last time, that’s how Universal got a lot of its talent, with Chris Heatherly running the games group at Universal. There are interesting possibilities for FoxNext, making games internally within a larger Disney that’s decided to license out games.
McMahon: Looking at trends at the studios, as they look at the games business and first party, there’s a lot more that goes into making a game now. There’s data science. There’s the technology platform side. There’s user acquisition and performance marketing, which is separate from your typical brand marketing that goes into a movie. It’s a tough business to run. I get why they’re taking a hard look at it.
Console is obviously different. I’m still on the mobile side. But it’s a very — there are skill sets that are not necessarily naturally akin to what you do in the core part of the media business, the core part of the film business, or the core part of the TV business. Those are changing too, but right now they’re a bit different too. I can see why it’s a little scary for them.
Costantini: If you zoom out long enough, if a large company sells their games business because they just don’t see the value in it, it’s probably going to be a good thing in the long run, even if there’s a lot of pain in the short term. It’s a good thing because people making games need to care about games. You can ask anyone that’s worked in games. You’re not going to make a great game if you don’t care about it.
Having a corporation that’s so wide and has so many verticals that they don’t care about games, unless they’re hands off, and there are some of them — there are some $500 billion market cap companies that will just buy 10 percent or eight percent and then they let them run. But I think you can get in a relationship where you’re allowed the creative freedom for games to work.
GamesBeat: There are these counter-strategies that develop. If Disney is the sort that only likes to approve a small number of films, and they cut a lot of them, then there are others like Netflix and Amazon that are out shopping for talent and stories to turn into franchises.
Audience: A core problem with license-holders still seems to be getting support for a game from theatrical marketing. You can rarely get that into the contract, and it’s always the part that ends up most disappointing. Is there anything developers and publishers can be doing to support the team within licensors to build their case for theatrical marketing to get involved and become part of the process of launching a game?
Dorf: It’s really hard. I was talking to the people at Prime. It goes back to what I said earlier, which is that you have to understand their motivation. They’re not motivated or tied to your game. There’s nobody dedicated to that. The only way to do it is to make sure your marketing people are as close to those people as possible, so they can literally come up on the stuff they’re doing.
If Marvelous Mrs. Maisel shuts down a street in Los Angeles and knocks gas down to 1950s prices or something — if there was a game, to have the people in line playing the game would have been a perfect play. There’s no game yet. If anybody’s interested, let me know. But it is very tough.
At DeNA, when were doing Star Wars and Transformers and that kind of stuff, we were pretty tight with the movie for Transformers. That relationship worked well. But I think that’s the only time it’s ever worked well in my history with games. Even at EA with the Harry Potter license and the movies, it never really worked. I don’t have a lot of advice except boots on the ground. Have your marketing people live in Los Angeles next to the people who are doing that and be persistent. You’re going to have to do the marketing, but go over here and have the conversation.