NBCUniversal decided to shut down its game publishing division after almost three years. The company will go back to a strategy of licensing games to external game developers and publishers. It could still prosper with games, but it’s a lower risk, lower reward strategy.
And it’s not the first time a major Hollywood studio has done this. Disney shut its mobile game publishing business a few years ago and switched to licensing. It recently acquired FoxNext Games with the acquisition of Fox, and now Disney is selling that game division off as well.
Yet games are the favorite form of entertainment for the millennial generation, which is why games have soared to a $180 billion business. What explains this swing in Hollywood? I addressed some of this in my DeanBeat column on Friday. But I also moderated a panel at GameDaily Connect in Anaheim, California, just a stone’s throw from Disneyland. Our topic covered some of the same ground and almost predicted some of the business decisions that Hollywood executives are making now.
The panelists included Steve Fowler, senior vice president of marketing, FoxNext Games; Guy Costantini, vice president of global interactive marketing at Skydance; Matt McMahon, senior vice president of business development at Seriously; and Barry Dorf, business development for Amazon Game Services at Amazon.
We had a lively discussion, though perhaps I was most free to express my opinions about games and Hollywood. So I did, as you can see in the edited transcript of our interview.
Steve Fowler: I’m the senior vice president of marketing and publishing for FoxNext Games. It’s a little complicated. Fox used to be a different company. Now we’re under Disney. But we’re the first party group. We have four development studios.
One game is live and pretty successful, called Marvel Strike Force. That was our first game on mobile. We have another game in beta right now in Canada and New Zealand called Storyscape. It’s a choose your own adventure, Telltale Games kind of experience, but with some Fox IP and some original IP. The third game will go into technical beta in two weeks. It’s a strategy game based on the Avatar license from James Cameron. The last game we’re working on, which we’ll see sometime next year, is a hardcore online shooter in the Aliens universe.
Barry Dorf: I’m head of business development for Amazon Game Tech.
Guy Costantini: I work for Skydance. We make movies like Terminator, which you can see in November, and Mission Impossible. We also have a game studio making a bunch of VR games. We’re working on a VR game in the Walking Dead universe called Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners. We’ll have more information on that coming in the future.
A lot of what we do — we’re storytellers. We tell stories across games, TV, and other kinds of entertainment, hopefully to the delight of our players.
Matt McMahon: I’m senior vice president for business development at Seriously. We’re wholly owned at Seriously for the moment. We’re now in the Playtika family. This is a moment for us — the platform relationship is a bit of a hybrid. It’s everything we do to extend our brand, our world, our characters into television and animation and consumer products. I oversee a number of things we’re doing to try to grow the business.
To a bit more of the point of this panel, I was at 20th Century Fox for 11 years prior to Seriously, running the third-party licensing business at Fox. Fox at the time was not a first party. We were out there licensing and trying to place our IP with great developers to make interesting experiences for people to enjoy as extensions of our films and TV shows.
GamesBeat: I feel like we might be in Hollywood and games 4.0, something like that. To level-set everyone, what do you think of the 1.0 or 2.0 era? We have decades of experience on this panel. How would you describe what it used to be like?
Fowler: My first experience with licensed games was with Interplay, 22 or 23 years ago. I was a brand manager on the Star Trek games for them. I’d say at that point, it was kind of hands-off. The studios didn’t really — I’m not sure they even knew we were working on their license. That gave us a lot of freedom to experiment. We did some really cool strategy games back then. Maybe that was 1.0 that I remember. We had a Lord of the Rings game, a bunch of licensed games.
Later on, if you want to call it 2.0, Hollywood did start paying attention to us. I felt that it shifted to the point where Hollywood looked at what we did as a way to sell more of what they were pushing. If they had a movie in theaters, they needed to license out the rights to a game that came out day and date with the film. They looked at it as an extension to sell more tickets. That ended up driving down quality. Game development studios were forced to adhere to specific deadlines or put features and character in their games that weren’t necessarily great for gameplay. That was the down years of Hollywood and games.
Fast forward to now, at least from my perspective at FoxNext, with the Marvel licenses and the Lightstorm partnerships we have, it’s completely different. We make great games first, and then we leverage the popularity and awareness of beloved franchises. The partners understand that. Marvel, who we’re deeply engaged with — we have the deepest relationship with them so far, a year and a half in on Strike Force — is a great partner.
They’re probably one of the most serious groups for our category, with a fully dedicated team of people that come from the games world. Jay Ong used to be at Blizzard. They completely get it. The partnership we have with them is such that — they succeed if we succeed. It’s truly changed from what it was to where it is now. Most of the successful licensors and game studios understand that it’s not a support business. Games is a frontline business.
Dorf: When I was at EA we got the Harry Potter license. 1.0 for me was, you weren’t just making a game. You were trying to create franchises that would last for 10-15 years to go along with each new movie and book. It was a much bigger deal, much bigger partnerships. You were kind of getting in bed forever when you signed on with something back in the days of the consoles.
When I was at DeNA, you’d talk to Marvel or Star Wars, these license-holders, it was all about — you have a game with a mechanic that works, and then we’ll add the IP to it and it can be an accelerator. If the functionality wasn’t there, the gameplay wasn’t there, the KPIs weren’t there, they didn’t want to talk to you, no matter how big you were. There was no time for risks.
There’s so much noise now in all the stores with all the games. That wasn’t true with 1.0 or 2.0. If you had the Harry Potter license you owned the Harry Potter license and that was it. Even when we did Lord of the Rings at EA, there was no other game that was going to come out within months. Now they’re putting windows in the app stores — you have a four-week window where you’re going to be the only new Marvel game coming out. That’s it. When four weeks is up, there’s another game. You can’t miss your date, because that’s all the time you have, unless you’re working on a smaller license, more of a niche game, where you have more of a window.
Costantini: I can’t comment on 1.0. I think I was enjoying the fruits of your labor at the time. [laughs]
Fowler: You trying to say I’m old?
Costantini: I think I’m just thanking you? But I’ve had experience working on mobile games at Kabam. We had Marvel Contest of Champions. We did a Star Wars game and a Lord of the Rings game. They all had different degrees of success, commercial and critical. That was the last generation. The mobile game space took a while to understand — at first, they ran into a gold mine. They thought they could just print money. They didn’t realize that they were strip-mining.
Now we’re finally getting to a point where you have mobile games that are really full-on fun games. You’re competing with the traditional games, because when it’s in your pocket, different things make you happy while you’re playing it. You have execution like Contest of Champions and the stuff that Supercell is doing that’s just better. I don’t need to have the Witcher on my phone. I don’t have time to play Witcher on my phone. But when I have time to play on my phone, I want to play something specific, something good, something that doesn’t just reach into my pocket and try to empty my bank account.
The companies that understand that will reap the success of building long-term relationships with their players. Some companies, especially those on this stage, are getting that. We’re starting to see that evolution. We’re seeing multiplatform games that play great on all platforms. There are no hard and fast rules about what works and what won’t. From our perspective, what we’re going after is telling great stories and making great games. That’s consistently been the common denominator of what causes long-term success. If you can do that and be aware of where people consume their experience, you’re looking at success across the board.
Do you have a small window, a long window? If you have a little bit of an experience, you can grab people back with a strong live ops plan. There are lots of ways to succeed. But like you mentioned, there’s a lot of noise. You need a solid strategy. What are you going to do to come through.
McMahon: I came in at the 2.0 phase. I think there was a window where you could experiment with a lot of crazy games. I remember the Predator game we made with a tiny studio in Romania. It was a great little game in itself, but it didn’t address a lot of the issues that you brought up.
One of the things we were struggling with — and games have almost dragged the studios along and forced them to deal with it — is this idea of putting forth — that games are your best live service franchise element. You take a game on a daily basis. Mobile games in particular do that. There’s a compulsion loop. There’s a return loop. It’s all built in so you’re coming back very regularly. You’re not coming back in three years when Ice Age 15 comes out.
You have this ability to do live ops in an intelligent way, to communicate with your community in an intelligent way, to be directly connected with your audience in an intelligent way. At least when I was still at Fox, which was five or six years ago now, this was a cognitive bridge that we were trying to cross. All the game companies were trying to get the studios to cross that bridge. Time and time again we ran into this idea of, “Don’t sweat it. You guys are in the licensing business. It’s a great contribution to the overall company, but it’s in the TV window. It’s in the special edition DVD window. Don’t try and do too much.”
I think that’s come around now where not only are the big studios in Hollywood realizing how lucrative these games can be, but they really can be your first touch point on a daily basis. People are in the games playing 45 minutes a day, an hour a day, on their most personal, intimate devices. If that’s happening all the time, that’s a great franchise management tool and channel.
It feels like games have had to pull Hollywood toward that. They were in a legacy business model that was not focused on direct to consumer. Obviously that’s changed in a big way. They weren’t focused on live ops. That’s changed. They weren’t focused on the way digital can be a franchise management tool.
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.
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.
McMahon: It is really hard. We obviously had conversations about this back in the day when I was at Fox. This is a bit dated again, but I can’t imagine the market has changed that much in four or five years. Part of what drove me to the mobile side of games is it was just very formulaic. It was taking a long time to get everyone’s heads around digital and change it up.
It is a bit about demonstrating value to them. What can you do? Even if it’s a small core audience, you have the ability to push to them directly. The other thing I would say, though — theatrical is the lead bit of it, but then there’s going to be the international piece. There are franchise groups now at most of the studios. There’s going to be a second window, and a third window. How are you going to get to places where the game can have super longevity, and then talk to people later when they’re a little more amenable to it?
That first window of marketing, I was always banging my head against the wall internally trying to get advocates for it, because I knew this was valuable. But aiming a little bit further out for other windows, then you start to get more flexibility. There’s more air for you to breathe.
Fowler: For Marvel Strike Force, my marketing guys do live in Los Angeles. But it depends on what kind of game you have. If you’re running a game as a service like we are, putting on a show every day, you’re always working on what the next content release is. Having a really good partnership with your licensor will give you early information what they have in their pipeline too. You can make informed decisions.
Maybe I don’t have the license to Avengers Endgame, but I have all those characters in my game. I can make sure my live ops calendar is synched for when Endgame promotion starts to go live. I’m re-creating my key art and having Avengers characters on the front end. I know there’s a story that does X, Y, or Z. I’m going to make a legendary event in our game that features that same kind of story.
Also, briefing your licensors — “Hey, we’re going to do these things!” — that might spark their ideas. They could do a social promotion around this character that’s maybe not Captain America, but some smaller character. If you feature him in an event, then they’ll give you Facebook and Twitter mentions. They have millions more followers than we do, so that’s super important.
It doesn’t always have to just be, “We need you to promote our game on the end slates of your TV trailer ads.” You don’t have to think about that. You can think much lower down, all the grass roots efforts that go behind whatever you’re doing.
Costantini: A lot of the studios have fandom teams. They’re a great entry point for it. Also, find the gamers on the theatrical marketing team, because there are starting to be a lot of them. If you find someone who’s passionate about games, they can be your advocate. You have to build that link.
McMahon: When I worked with TV properties, there was always so much more interaction with the writers’ work and the production, and so much more territory for promotion. Compared to working on the TV side of Fox, film is still seen as just art. When we started working with the Marvel and Lightstorm folks, they were much more forward-thinking. But on a regular movie, it’s sometimes quite tough. It’s already been planned by the time you get any sense of what you can do. With TV there’s a lot more flexibility and a lot more assets you can use.
Audience: Both Hollywood and games as industries have been pretty punishing to underrepresented communities. What are you and your partners doing to reach out to those markets?
Fowler: I don’t know if this exactly answers your question, but we worked with Marvel around Pride week about eight months ago. We said, “Hey, we’d like to do something around this,” and they have a character — because they have a character around everything — named America Chavez. She was a pretty obscure comic character, a recent comic character. We loved her, and we said, “We want to build her and put her in the game. We’ll have a blitz event around her. What can you do for us?”
Jointly we went together to Apple and we pitched it to their editorial staff. If you open up the App Store now you don’t see game lists anymore. You see a bunch of editorial stories. They loved the idea, and featured an editorial piece for us when we put the character in the game. Marvel also promoted it during Pride week. It ended up being the most successful, from a KPI perspective — it drove the most installs we’ve ever seen from an editorial piece on Apple. It was a really successful collaboration.
Dorf: Nothing to do with Hollywood and games, but Amazon sends out an email every day to its employees on diversity and inclusion, including links to articles, videos, book suggestions, everything else. There’s an internal system for badges and stuff, so the more you participate and interact with that, the more you get. It’s been truly uplifting for the company. 800,000 employees get this every day.
Costantini: If you look at the films we’re putting out, the games we’re putting out, the characters we’re highlighting, I think we’ll see a strong shift in that direction. We’re not the only ones. It should have happened decades ago, but we’re starting to see more and more of a shift.
Audience: One of the biggest challenges I face as an ad creative using IP-based characters, how long does it take to get this approved? Major League Baseball takes three months. Hollywood can take a very long time. What’s the restriction? What’s the play here for advertising people? With all this data and transparency in our networks, what can we do to work with you guys on this?
Fowler: Marvel might be unique, because they have 15 people where that’s their job. They have software developed. They have their own proprietary approval software we use. They’re really good at it.
It can be challenging. It depends on the licensing partner.
I’ll give you a little funny case study here. In our game Storyscape, we have Titanic stories. You don’t actually play Rose and Jack. You play a woman who’s on the same ship. But guess what, it sinks. No matter what choice you make, it always ends up going down. Anyway, the game has multiple IP. It has Titanic in there. It has X-Files in there. It has original stuff.
We have this very racy story called Life 2.0. It’s thirtysomethings in San Francisco who all sleep with each other and blah blah blah. We put together this trailer, a compilation trailer that we wanted to have as the sizzle trailer on the app stores. We brought it to Landau to get approval for Titanic, and all he commented on was the Life 2.0 stuff. “I can’t approve this because there’s too many risque scenes.” Uh, you don’t own that license. But what do you do in that case? You have to still maintain a partnership and mutual respect.
Building it all into the licensing rights to make sure you get approval rights and quick turnaround in there still doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, they have power. Even if the agreement says this is automatically approved, if I have a picture of Rose or Jack and the artist themselves doesn’t approve it, even if the time window goes by, I probably won’t ship it anyway. The partnership’s going to erode. You need to feel out your licensing partner and get a sense of what matters to them, how involved they want to be, and so on.
Costantini: If you’re ever feeling bad, just thank God you’re not doing a racing game.
Fowler: No damage. I was at Microsoft, and that was the big deal with Project Gotham Racing. All the car manufacturers making these exotic cars, none of them wanted to see their cars get scratched. That was what they wrote into all the contracts. You can have the license to Ferrari or Lamborghini so long as there’s never, ever any body damage. You can drive through mud and it comes out perfectly shiny.
Dorf: You had the early versions of Madden where the ambulance came out on the field to pick up players, and it ran over players as it went. The NFLPA didn’t know this was going in the game. We shipped that, and it was not in the game next year. [laughs]
GamesBeat: There was a very good talk yesterday by Aaron Loeb from FoxNext. One thing he highlighted was that developers should be inspired to be creative. He mentioned that your fear is not useful as a way to motivate developers to do their best work. Some of this Hollywood and games stuff is very scary, but when it works out right, it gets very creative. Hopefully everyone remembers that you can do wonderful things with Hollywood and games.
Disclosure: The organizers of GameDaily Connect paid my way to Anaheim. Our coverage remains objective.
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