- How did Epic get Batman shooting guns in Fortnite?
- What are some of the biggest mistakes licensees make with big IP?
- What do typical IP deal structures look like?
- What are some crazy horror stories of IP gone wrong?
- How do you even get a big IP deal?
Do you want the answers to these questions, plus a lot more, and war stories from some of the most experienced and respected industry veterans in gaming?
I got you! See the incredible discussion below by arguably the three best people (my guests) in the world to speak about IP in games.
- Joseph Kim. CEO at LILA Games
- Ames Kirshen. VP, Studio GM & Creative Director at Atomic Arcade (backed by Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast)
- Pete Wanat. Chief Creative Officer at Nifty Games
- Ed Zobrist. Retired/Lecturer at USC, former Head of Publishing at Epic Games
These guys are the real deal. If you want to watch a real masterclass this is it.
I don’t have enough time to fully characterize the full conversation, however, I will summarize the conversation around four specific topics that we discussed:
- Impact of IP on Games
- Fitting Gameplay to IP
- Big Problems with IP
For the full discussion, you should definitely check out the video or podcast links above. ☝️
1. Impact of IP on Games
Joseph Kim: Currently there are a lot of game studios, desperately seeking IP if they can get it because of IDFA deprecation. And the way that a lot of game studios think about the impact of IP is really around just downloads and revenue. But I was wondering if you guys could talk about the way that you think about it or how game studios should be thinking about how entertainment IP actually impacts games.
Ed Zobrist: On the marketing side an entertainment IP should deliver a superior ROAS. You’re going to get more awareness plus better trial intent because of the familiarity of the IP, your pre-familiarity with gameplay or with the story should ease onboarding because you have a sense of what you’re getting into as you go through it. So that’s going to help with the early part of the funnel.
And it also gives instant depth for updates or for long play content. It gives the dev team a tighter sense of what they can plan around going forward. And many times the IP owner is doing some sort of marketing themselves, and they can do cross-promotions with you.
Ames Kirshen: If nothing else, it gives you an initial world to build, to play in that’s established in terms of the rules, the settings, the characters, and their abilities. In some studios, some people are wired in a way where they want to have constraints going into a project, and some people want to start with a completely blank slate and establish all of those things themselves.
One of the advantages that you get in addition to the popularity and recognizability of the brand name and the characters is that you instantly get a framework for a world to build your game around. It’s just a question of what ingredients do you want to focus on? That’s been the thing for me that I’ve been attracted to in my career is being a fan growing up with these IPs in the seventies and eighties in my formative years.
I couldn’t imagine just the way that I’m wired and how I grew up: somebody handing me a blank slate and expecting in three and a half, four years, I need you to deliver me an 85-rated, triple-A game that’s going to sell five to ten million units. I wouldn’t even know where to start. Right? So I need those constraints.
I want those constraints and a lot of studios appreciate and think that way as well. And then there were some who were like, “No way, I want to do my own thing. I don’t want to touch that.” So it’s really interesting. And also I think that as these IPs have gone from being more fanboy and niche to the explosion and the mass popularity that we’re seeing now over the last 15 years, seeing studios who traditionally would never have done a licensed IP game. I’ll look at Insomniac who’s been one of the best studios in the world for a long time, but they were doing all of their own IPs almost their entire existence up until the point where the Spider-Man opportunity came up and I guess it was something that they couldn’t refuse or they had a personal passion for, or some combination thereof.
And you had the studio have this longstanding reputation of amazing original game-centric IPs touching one of the biggest entertainment IPs in the world. So it’s really interesting to see how that transition has evolved over time and how now these bigger studios who traditionally don’t do those types of games now are clamoring to get their hands on them as well.
There are probably people in those studios like me and Pete who grew up with those IPs, love those IPs, and be like, “Hey, you know what? I can make an amazing game off that if I ever got the opportunity.”
Pete Wanat: Yeah. I think both Ed and Ames hit it, but the last point that Ames made is the center of this, which is if you’re making games, games are a slog.
It’s a really hard job to make product, right? Making games is really, really tough. When I first started, it was nine to 10 months, 11 months to make a game. And then it went from a year and a year and a half. And then now two years or two and a half years, some games go much longer.
If you’re going to go into the salt mine every day and try to make greatness, the thing you have to have at the start of that to make something really good is passion. And when you’re talking about IPs, you heard Ed and Ames talk about some of the games that they had worked on and those IPS are… when Ames talks about working at Marvel, like that stuff is, you know, I grew up on Marvel.
I grew up reading Marvel comic books in the early eighties. That was the holy grail of awesome superhero IP. And so when you hear that: those guys got to get together and make a Hulk game. Well, I still remember looking through the Hulk issue where Wolverine makes his first appearance and that stuff ignites passion and you need passion to make great stuff.
And yes, all the other stuff is true. It can be an identifier for players to see that separates from an original product. You see a Hulk game in the store and you see an original game with a big guy who smashes things. The Hulk game has all of that massive nostalgia pull, but you need that kind of emotional boost.
If you want to make something great, sometimes you can get it where somebody has an idea and the studio gets behind it. Well, you’re constantly selling that original idea, but sometimes that blank sheet of paper with no scaffolding or rule set around you, sometimes that’s daunting to get everybody in the studio there. But if you have Spider-Man… Holy shit. Everybody’s excited to work on Spider-Man and then look at the product that they go and make with it.
I begged Ted to do Jurassic Park / Jurassic World, and they didn’t have the passion for that IP when I was at Universal trying to get them to do an action-adventure game set in the Jurassic world done by Insomniac.
And then eventually they did it with Spider-Man. So when they did it, you saw what they had. I would argue that that’s the best game they’ve ever done. And I would also argue it’s one of the best superhero games ever done. And one of the best IP-based games ever done, like it’s an immense amount of people working really hard for a very long time, but because they had a passion and fire to tell those stories and not other stories, not stories that Spider-Man had previously seen, but an original story set in that world.
That’s when real greatness comes out.
2. Fitting Gameplay and IP
Joseph Kim: In some cases, there’s a fit between an IP and a specific type of gameplay.
Kim Kardashian is a good example of a failed game (the original game before the IP), but then you slap Kim Kardashian on it and all of a sudden it becomes a hit game.
How should people be thinking about whether an IP would fit or not?
Pete Wanat: To me, you have to start with, do you have a game concept that makes sense for the actual IP? And if you don’t, if you try to jam something in, that’s not gonna work. It’s gotta be something that naturally fits itself for the IP.
I think one of the biggest problems, that happens so often, is when the IP holder tries to dictate to you what your story is or what the character can do. And often for a long time games were seen as sort of a bitch medium.
Like we’re going to have a character in this film. He could shoot guns. But if you try to shoot guns in a video game, well the actor that portrays that character doesn’t want to do that or be seen as shooting guns in the game. Like, are you fucking kidding me? Why do I have to play by a different set of rules than the other mediums?
So if you’re going to get those types of restrictions you’re entering a bad deal. You shouldn’t do that because they’re not taking the game seriously. Having said that, I think you’ve seen a lot of changes.
If you look at what Fortnite has done… All of these characters are like, oh no, we don’t want that character shooting guns.
Right? All of a sudden, oh, Fortnite?
My son Jackson, it’s amazing how many characters he’s exposed to that he never knew about before. He only learns because they’re in Fortnite. And forever, you had all these, “We’re not gonna let our character shoot guns.”
And then Fortnite comes along and it’s like, “Wait, hold on. It’s the most successful game of all time. And every kid is playing it. It’s all kids talk about it at school. And you can become culturally relevant simply by showing up in their store.”
It works, it’s true. And all of a sudden people now see a chance for exposure. but for, for a long time games we’re not given that same consideration. They were dictated rules about what you could do and couldn’t do all because they didn’t respect games at all. And that they just viewed them as “This is a lunchbox, right? Oh, go out there and make me my ancillary revenue.” Right? “You can do that in the movie version, but can’t do it in the games.”
It’s really taken games like League of Legends and Fortnite. Games that sort of are everywhere all over the world and are the most played and the most viewed mediums to start to really wake people up. And the other big factor is that we’re seeing people who grew up on games and love games are now finally at the executive level and finally take the stance that, “No, games aren’t a little bitch. They should be treated with the same respect.”
Oh yeah, that’s right. Because we’re kicking their ass in terms of revenue. So we understand now how those tables have turned.
Ed Zobrist: Maybe you can weigh in on this Ames, but our number one concern at Fortnite was how we were going to convince DC to allow us to have that inside of our shooting game, we had long discussions.
Donald Mustard was a very huge comic book fan, a huge Batman fan. He had long deep discussions about how we could present it in a way that felt natural and authentic for Batman to be in the game. Hopefully, it worked out, but I’m wondering on the DC side, how much thought went into that before you sort of went along with it?
Ames Kirshen: Yeah, I mean, the good news is Jim Lee was the chief creative officer of DC at the time and he’s a huge gamer and he really embraces and understands the importance of games. He’s worked on a few game projects himself directly over the years, so he gets it and understands that in addition to being a gamer, I mean, he’s literally a lifelong MMO guy.
Understanding that basically, Fortnite is not the real DC universe, right? Fortnite is its own universe. It’s a virtual universe, right? And you’re not necessarily playing Batman. You are your character who’s equipping the Batman skin and living out of Batman fantasy as opposed to a game like Arkham, which is more canonical and you’re actually in Gotham city and you are Batman.
So we try to find ways that embrace the fact that people wanted to have these characters in the game. But, again, Fortnite is a different kind of universe in a different virtual world from the canonical DC universe where these rules…
Ed Zobrist: Donald’s pitch was essentially that it’s a version of cosplay. It’s like wearing a Halloween costume. It’s not actually that character because a player is putting the skin on and going on and playing in it. And therefore just like cosplay or probably more akin to Halloween, you don’t have to actually follow the actual rules when you get the player, that kind of agency.
Pete Wanat: Whatever you have to tell yourself to get it done!
Thanks to you and Ames though Batman ended up in Fortnite, right? Like to me, it’s just a Crisis on Infinite Earth, right? I used to argue that all the time. In the rules of DC, if Superman can be Russian in one universe, why can’t Batman shoot a gun in another, right? It’s not the same Batman, it’s just a different shard.
Even the notion that you’d have to make up some like, “Oh, it’s a costume.” All true, by the way. But even the notion that you had to do that, like, come on, it’s ridiculous. Stop disrespecting video games and making them second-class citizens.
But thank God you guys found a way to figure it out. Because my son cares more about Batman because he sees the Batman skin in the Fortnite store
Ed Zobrist: That also opened the flood gates. Once we had Batman, it was much easier to explain to other licensees. Because it was the one shining example of someone who would never touch a gun was now using weapons inside of Fortnite.
3. Big Problems with IP
Joseph Kim: IP restrictions are an example of a potential issue or problem when working with IP. But in terms of other things that some of the folks in our audience should be looking out for when working with IP, what are some of the potential problems that can arise that you guys have experienced?
Ames Kirshen: It’s not the case so much anymore. But, back in the day, if a publisher would get the rights to an IP. Sometimes they’d try to find an external developer to develop the game. But a lot of times they had an ecosystem of developers under their umbrella: internal studios. And they would just say, “Okay, this studio is available. We have this license, we need to deliver a game for Marvel. We’re going to assign it to this studio.”
But is that the right studio to make that game? Like, is their DNA, the right studio to make that kind of game, given the mechanics and the features you would need to do to do that character. In addition, do they have the right technology and engine and does that studio love and have the passion for making that IP?
And a lot of times two or three of those things would be no if not all three. So that’s a big reason why some of these games came out and they were not up to par.
Some of it might’ve been budget and time, but a lot of it might’ve just been fit and passion wasn’t there. So you have to make sure that especially in today’s day and age the game itself has to stand alone. You’re not going to sell the units and make your return on the name of the IP and pretty box art.
The studio has to be the right fit, the studio has to have the passion for it. And if you don’t have it, then, like Pete said, these things are a three, four year… If you’re talking about AAA, whether it’s free to play mobile or even AAA console both of them are three to four-year commitments to come to market.
So if you’re not passionate about it and you don’t have a unique take on it and you’re not the right fit for it, then it’s not for you. And, I think that’s one of the things where we flipped up before, but I think that generally speaking, that’s evolved and changed over time, and that’s why you’re seeing the Arkhams and you’re seeing the Insomniac Spider-Man’s of the world getting those kind of reviews and sales numbers.
Pete Wanat: And a lot of those times nobody skimped on them financially. You don’t look at that Spider-Man game or that Batman game and think “Oh, the budget was significantly smaller.” Oftentimes, and I don’t know if this is still as true today, but it certainly has been true.
And I’m guessing it’s true in a number of areas, particularly on games that don’t get as much love, but you saw the cost to license the IP to make the game come out of the development budget. And so inherently IP-based games always had smaller development budgets.
And guess what? The budget matters. How much time you have, how much team size you have, the quality of the team and people. How much you spend on making the game makes the game better or worse. So when you start with a lesser budget, you’re saying right off the bat, we’re making a trade. The value of the IP, we’re going to spend money to get it. And we’re gonna take that money out of the amount it costs to make the game. So the game is inherently lesser than a non-IP-based game.
Ed Zobrist: That should have been shared with marketing, right? Because like a lot of the value of the IP is its awareness. It’s not just marketing. Some of it is product development. It’s not a blank slate. So you are helping the dev side as well, but shouldn’t entirely come out of the dev side of the budget. I agree with that completely.
One of the other issues is around someone new who has never done an IP game before. Particularly these mobile companies are new to them. They need to understand that, Pete alluded to creative constraints, but you’re going to have a lot more approvers in the process.
It’s going to slow it down. It’s meant to make certain that it’s on brand and not violating the IP, but that means you just need to be prepared for a lot more steps involved with the process. There are more cooks involved with the process. You just can’t go as quickly as you can with your own game.
Ames Kirshen: Another variable I just throw in there that was an artifact of what we saw in terms of lower quality games during the period of time, let’s say in the PS2 and early PS3 era was a lot of the games were based on the movie version. Right? And the whole, “See the movie, then play the game” equation was usually successful in some cases, but in a lot of cases, it wasn’t.
And a lot of times going back to what Pete was saying in terms of time and budget, Like hitting the movie date, superseded the quality and the investment in the game. Right? Because if you weren’t there day-and-date with the movie to sell that fantasy of, see the movie, play the game, run out of the theater and go to Best Buy and go buy the game and the play the game.
That only worked in very few occasions, but that became the model for a period of time. And again, to hit that movie date means you were sacrificing a lot of quality and more time that the game needed to bake and iterate, be innovative, and be polished. That just was thrown out the window because of the dates and that constraint.
Pete Wanat: I was just going to say spoiler alert, the person who came up with that concept, wasn’t on the creative development team. That was not the person trying to make the game better. That was the person who didn’t give a fuck about the game and just cared about trying to make a big marketing date and didn’t care if the game was good or not, because they were using the game to help sell the movie.
Because the game wasn’t seen as an artistic medium, the game was seen as a lunchbox to help sell the film.
Joseph Kim: How often are you guys seeing exclusivity?
I mean, we’re certainly seeing a lot of Marvel RPGs, for example, but then in terms of also tying it back to the deal, if you can get an exclusive, does that significantly jack up the MG or the royalty rate of the deal?
Ed Zobrist: I want to jump on this because this is what started this whole idea of doing this podcast. I was listening to a broadcast, where they made some knee-jerk response to a mobile game company doing an IP [and they suggested] that they always had to have an exclusive deal and they didn’t have one. So they screwed up.
You don’t always have to do an exclusive deal. It depends on the circumstances.
And it also depends on the category definition of what is exclusivity and there’s a broad range for how you can interpret this. So I think you need to be really careful about trying to apply cookie-cutter recipes to this approach. And every situation is different.
Pete Wanat: I mean, if that was the same for Marvel you could have a set of Avengers characters. And you’re going to say, okay, all those characters that were in the Avengers game now are exclusive to that one game. That’s a terrible idea that robs people of a standalone game for any one of those individual characters or there’s plenty of different types of games.
Avengers can have a number of different types of games that are all very, very different. A mobile free-to-play Avengers game versus a AAA console. Like I think more today what we’re seeing is lane protection. I want to make this type of game. I want to make a puzzle or a shooter or an RTS or whatever it is, whatever those different genres are.
It’s protection of lanes so that you’re not having two Star Wars shooters against each other and that they’re coming out at a similar time, right?
Right now we’re, we’re doing a deal with the NFL. And obviously, there’s another very wonderful, very big, gigantic NFL game that comes out every year.
We’re not trying to be that and they do that better than anyone has ever done it. Every year that other company is making the single best console football game that’s ever been made. And they do it year after year. We’re trying to make a very different game. Our games are all mobile-first. So we’re trying to make a different experience.
Ours are for a much broader range of consumer. Maybe people are not quite into the NFL and they don’t know all the playbooks yet. They don’t know all of the intricacies, right? So you’re robbing players of different experiences by putting exclusivity deals in place. If you’re going to do a big deal, you could spend a ton of money.
Then as a developer, you’re going to do that. But remember, whenever you put up that MG, that MG is coming directly out of the development budget more times than not.
Joseph Kim: And I think people forget the advantage of seeing same IP. We’ve seen, whether it’s with Harry Potter or Marvel or other games, when the next game comes in and that new game spends a ton of marketing, your existing game with the same IP benefits as well.
So, it’s not always bad that there there are multiple games on the market with the same IP.