Books, films, TV series, board games, computer games, even famous people – all of them have proved to be great sources for online gaming titles. Just look at the licensed properties you can play on the major online gambling sites…

But it’s important for developers of digital gaming titles to be sure that the IP they are being offered or are looking to work with will resonate with their core target market.

Meanwhile, Intellectual Property assets must be managed properly if they are to have any kind of longevity. That means taking care that any partnerships, licensing deals or joint ventures do not damage the long-term health of their brand. They shouldn’t just jump at every passing opportunity offered to them. For example, while you can make an actual working slot machine out of LEGO and it could be fun, it’s unlikely given that it just doesn’t fit in with the toy brand’s values; Imagination, Creativity, Fun, Learning, Caring and Quality.

Disney is another well-known family brand that seeks to distance itself from any kind of gambling games. Indeed, Disney’s purchase of first Marvel in 2009 and then LucasFilms in 2012 means that Star Wars and Marvel licensed gaming titles will gradually fade away over the next few years, as existing licensing deals run out.

But many IP owners do not have a problem with their property being used by gaming companies, assuming the titles they create and/or operate are well-made, support core brand values and are run responsibly and professionally.

There are two key first steps that gaming operators and developers should take into account before embarking on a project like this.

One is to establish what the property being offered as a potential license is, what its core strengths are, what audiences it appeals to, what its key brand values are and how wide an appeal it has in geographic terms.

This last point is particularly important – game development is now very costly, so it is crucial to be able to spread the costs across as many markets as possible. A global IP franchise is always going to be better than a property which appeals to only one or two countries.

The other key consideration at the outset of any licensing project like this is a brand audit, deciphering all of the licensing deals which an IP owner may have signed in the past. Are they still running? What territories do they cover? Are they platform-specific? What does the exact wording say?

And perhaps most important of all, were they successful? Did they help the brand, for example by bringing in new audiences, or did they harm it?

People don’t actually spend enough time analysing past projects in this way – but they should, otherwise they’ll make the same mistakes and arguably fail to build on their successes. This is something we’ve done when we worked with clients like Endemol – it’s part of the whole process of optimising your IP. Learnings from one product can be carried over to other products.

There’s another reason for conducting a brand/IPM audit, however. You have to understand the rights position because you don’t want to invest time and resources in negotiating a deal, only to discover at the last minute that someone else has a contract which gives them prior and conflicting rights. That can be messy and potentially very expensive. As well as being embarrassing…

We’ve had clients who have discovered that they can’t launch a particular game in a certain territory because of how an old licensing contract was worded.

Unfortunately, many rights owners jumped into the licensing business without necessarily understanding the full implications of what they were doing. There’s a widely used term in the licensing industry – logo slapping. It’s where an IP owner signs deals with anyone and everyone, because all they can see is the dollar signs. It may bring in the cash for a while, but in the medium to long term, it damages core brand values.

You have to take technology, and the rise of new digital media, into account as well. Early contracts giving software houses the right to develop new games based around books, films and TV shows failed to take into account the fragmentation of the computer and online games industry, and how it would evolve. That’s probably because when the original licensing deals were signed, computer games weren’t the multi-billion-dollar industry they are now, so people just lumped them into a generic ‘games’ category which covered a multitude of sins – boardgames, slot machines in pubs, computer games and console games.

As for the idea of playing games on mobile phones on a world-wide network of some description – that would have been seen as pure science fiction back in the 1970s and 1980s!

To be frank, very few of us did see the way the digital world would change, and in such a short period of time – and I’m certainly not going to try and predict where it’s going to go in the next 10 years. But what I do know is that in digital, things can change very quickly indeed.

What that means is that any IP owners looking to sign a licensing deal with a games company should want to be very specific about what rights are being granted, where and for how long – and should want to keep the agreement as narrow as possible.

We call it ‘slicensing’ – the IP owner packages their property into as many discrete bundles as they can, with relatively short expiry dates or obligations, so they can better react to changes in the market.

This is relatively easy as most digital products are in quite discrete areas and target relatively narrow audiences who are, in the main, self-selecting.

Slots, for example, have a heavy female bias, with most players aged between 40 and 55 and they are looking for a casual experience, something they do while watching TV so everything from the graphics to the gameplay needs to be light. From a pure financial perspective, the biggest-spending online slots market is the UK.

For ‘free to play’ or social games, however, it’s the US. Themes and imagery for both physical and online slots machines will tend to appeal to this audience demographic and resonate with them. US players tend to prefer a stronger look and feel; mythical/ fantasy brands because the game play experience itself is more important because there is no money to be won.   

IP owners will want to understand who their potential licensing partners are and what their core strengths are. Different platforms have different demographics. For example, some gaming portals and platforms may appeal to a young male demographic, while others may appeal to an older female demographic. For example, an IP owner is likely to ask any potential partners who their audiences are; who plays their games; and what kind of games do they like?

We’ve done a lot of work helping translate the works of famous British mystery author Agatha Christie into online and mobile games, including skill-based games. We were brought in by IP owner Agatha Christie Limited to help them build relevance with a younger audience by giving them the opportunity to discover, interact and enjoy her works in new, digital media. We developed many different iterations for different demographics over the eight years we worked with them; initially, these titles took the form of online ‘seek and find’ games, and sold tens of millions of copies but we also launched immersive adventure cross-platform games.

More recently, a skill-based online slots game based around the author’s Poirot and Marple brands was launched called MysteryWilds and most recently Murder on the Orient Express to coincide with the release of the new Sir Kenneth Branagh-directed film. Significantly, rights owners ACL were receptive to feedback from the game developers suggesting that the look and feel of the game should be lightened up to reflect the audiences that this kind of game mostly attracts.

Brand values must come to the fore: but there should always be some room for flexibility. It has to be a two-way street, to some extent. IP owners should look to listen to and learn from games companies. And contracts should be structured in such a way that any deal should deliver benefits for all parties – there has to be an incentive for the games company to develop the best possible title, because that’s going to deliver rewards for everyone.

By Megan Goodwin, Joint MD at IRM

Originally published G3 Magazine | May 2018

Photo by Rhett Wesley on Unsplash