To Brand or Not to Brand Your Next Video Game

Adding a famous brand like Harry Potter could be just the thing for Niantic’s next game, coming on the heels of Pokémon Go. But sometimes it results in oversaturation and consumer exhaustion.

January 10, 2018

We discussed these topics at a panel moderated by Dean Takahashi, from Gamebeat, at the recent Montreal International Game Summit. Brands in games are cyclical. Sometimes they work in the early stage of a platform, and sometimes they do better amid an explosion of titles, like with the mobile game ecosystem.

Expert panelists included Caglar Eger, head of strategic partnerships at Goodgame Studios; Matthew Leopold, director of global business development at Yodo1; and Louis-René Auclair, co-founder of RocketJump Games and former chief marketing officer at Hibernum Creations.

Below an edited transcript of the panel.

Caglar Eger: I work at Goodgame Studios, which recently merged with the Stillfront Group. Now we’re a listed company in Sweden. We’re about 250 people, based in Hamburg. We’ve been developing games since 2009. We jumped into mobile games, originally coming from web games, in 2013. Our best-known game is Empire: Four Kingdoms on both web and mobile. The franchise generated more than $800 million in the last five years. I’ve been doing business development for Goodgame Studios since 2012.

Matthew Leopold: I head up Yodo1’s business development and marketing team. Yodo1 is a Chinese publisher. We recently moved into the global spotlight with a couple of titles called Crossy Road and Rodeo Stampede on the mobile side. We’ve also started publishing on the PC in China, working with a bunch of developers from all over the world. We were founded in 2011, and we’ve been bringing games to the Chinese market ever since. I’ve been working in China for the past six years. I just moved back to the states a month ago. It’s still pretty new to me.

Louis-René Auclair: I head RocketJump Games in Montreal. I used to be the chief marketing or business or branding officer at Hibernum here in Montreal as well. Unfortunately, they closed down last summer. I’ve been working with IP almost all my career, in video games and toys, most recently with Beauty and the Beast and the Bruce Lee IP as well.

GamesBeat: One good thing to start with is, what is a brand? I wrote about Jam City, a mobile game publisher. They announced that they’re making a Harry Potter game. The Harry Potter brand has a lot behind it. It has 450 million books sold and $7.7 billion generated by the films. You can figure that’s pretty well imprinted on billions of people around the world. That’s a brand.

A lot of indie developers start out thinking they’ll make their brand. There’s a scale issue around how you get started with a brand and where you can go with it. How would you tackle the subject?

Auclair: Creating a brand or using a brand comes down to what your goal is with your game, with whatever you’re creating. Obviously using an already existing brand costs you money. That money should go toward getting more users for your game. Hopefully using a brand generates more downloads. So then you have to do the math and evaluate. If I create my brand, how much marketing do I have to spend to get people notice my IP and make it a well-known brand?

We talk about Harry Potter being a brand. Yes, it generates billions of dollars, but it also cost billions of dollars to make the movies, to make this brand. There’s a lot of money involved on all fronts. If you don’t have the ability to spend up front, to create your brand and get eyeballs on it, you should go with an existing IP. But the IP is going to cost you money. It’s all about, I believe, your creativity and your focus, how you want to approach your game and your IP.

Leopold: It’s important to consider where the brand is regarding geography and what you’re going for concerning marketing. Some brands, like Marvel, do very well universally, but some brands don’t exist in China. A lot of the Fox brands don’t make it in China. You have to think about the markets you’re targeting with a brand. A brand is only considered a brand if it’s known in the region you’re going for.

Eger: The main question for game developers—do you need a brand to create a successful game? This is something that’s becoming, these days, pretty common. People are using existing IP, whether it’s big or small. It doesn’t matter, so long as there’s an IP because the hope is to reduce your marketing cost. Three or four years ago, you had a CPI cost of 50 to 80 cents. Now you’re paying $15-20. That’s one of the biggest reasons game developers are moving to IP. The question, again, is, do you need to do this to have a successful game?

GamesBeat: So the point of advertising is to get people familiar with your brand, but if they already know the brand, that’s a step that’s out of the way for you. You can just start selling.

Electronic Arts used to be nothing but Hollywood brands. They had James Bond. They had great success with Harry Potter. And then at some point, they hit a wall. These brands in games stopped resonating with people. Why did that happen? Harry Potter is as strong today as it ever was, generally, but at some point, EA gave up making Harry Potter games. Why not make one every year?

Eger: I think that’s something EA needs to answer. [laughs] But is overexposure a problem? You look at Marvel, for instance. There are so many Marvel games these days. What is a brand’s value if you create a new game alongside so many other people using that same IP? This is something you need to ask yourself.

Besides that, some developers also think—this is maybe something EA recognized. You don’t need an IP to make a good game. If you have an IP, you won’t automatically have a successful game. You need a great game first, and then maybe you can put an IP on it if you think that will lower your CPI costs. But nothing else works if you have a bad game.

Auclair: Yeah, I think EA fell victim to the brand-slapping strategy. People saw a lot of success, other studios started doing IP games as well, and they did what we call “brand slaps.” Take a brand and put it in the box, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with the lore of the IP.

It’s about treatment. It’s about the maturity of game-makers and the maturity of the public. At some point, you get sophisticated enough to go looking for better entertainment, better games, better gameplay. If you buy a game about King Kong and it doesn’t do anything with the brand, doesn’t explore that world, doesn’t deepen your love for the world, it’s useless. It’s a bad strategy to take IP and just make crap with it, and that’s what happened on the console front. To this day it’s difficult to get good console games from Hollywood.

In mobile, because of the cost of user acquisition and marketing in free-to-play, it’s still pretty relevant. But you see that the games coming out are much more sophisticated. They use the brand properly. They promote the brand.

GamesBeat: There’s another creative issue here as well. Do developers want to make their own game with their IP? Do they resist the idea of making a game with someone else’s brand on it?

Leopold: That depends on the developer. I’ve spoken to some developers who are either trying to build their IPs or have entertained these conversations with big IP owners. It depends on what the developer’s trying to accomplish.

When our team’s looking at games for the global publishing side, we’re specifically trying to find that next IP, an original IP that we can make into a brand. We were able to do that with Crossy Road. We partnered up with bigger brands to promote that game, like PS-Y from Korea. It’s about identifying what defines that brand.

If the developer wants to go after a bigger brand, that is an investment on their side, regarding game design and background story. It can be worth it in the end. But it’s much more difficult to push that.

Eger: We’ve never published an external IP. It was always important for us to create our IP. We know it’s difficult, but you’re super flexible with what you can do. When you hit a success, then you can leverage that. You can make another game based on your IP. Especially when you have in-game seasonal events or whatever, you’re completely independent. You can decide for yourself what you want to do with the game. Once you make it with your IP, there are lots of ways to leverage that.

GamesBeat: Matt, what do you think about what there is from the west that works in China, and why?

Leopold: There’s this perception that a lot of the big brands automatically make it in the Chinese market, just because there has to be a market there for them. The truth is that there aren’t many big IPs appearing in the top-grossing charts. You see games like Marvel up there. Marvel does well all over the world. But if you look at the IP itself, it started with the movies. The comics never resonated with Chinese readers. The IP only works in China when it draws from the movies. Looking at a game like Marvel Puzzle Quest, where it uses a lot of the art style from the comic books and old cartoons, that doesn’t resonate very well with Chinese players. You have to dissect a brand and find out what aspects of the brand work in what region.

An IP that works very well in both China and western countries is Transformers, where the cartoons in the ‘80s—those were dubbed into Chinese and shown on TV. They were able to penetrate the market early on and get traction. Now it’s grown into a bigger IP since the movies have come out. These generations are getting older. There’s a massive audience in China for Transformers compared to smaller IPs that haven’t had time to become known in the market.


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