Intelligent Games (IG) has been around for the last ten years. About three years ago we deliberately adopted a strategy we called “hit driven, brand led”. We aimed to be the developer of choice for brand owners. This strategy was based partly out of fear – our original plan of developing original products seemed to be failing – and partly out of opportunity – we saw this as the way the whole industry was headed. It has been an enormously successful strategy for IG. This article is an post-mortem, from a brand point of view, of the first two products of this strategy:- Dune 2000 which we developed for Westwood Studios and LEGO Loco which we developed for LEGO Media. These two products, combined, have sold in excess of one million units. My intention is to look at both products’ histories and identify what went well and what went badly to derive some ‘take-home’ lessons for other people attempting a brand-led development strategy.
What is a brand?
Don’t worry this isn’t Marketing 101! We set ourselves some targets to help us identify what ‘brand-led’ actually meant. We had been badly burned by developing a Waterworld game. Clearly that was a famous brand but for the wrong reasons. We wanted to identify brands that would lead to hits. Our definition is quite simple, to be an attractive brand for IG, it must be either 1) a gaming franchise that has had cumulative sales of over a million units (e.g. Tomb Raider, SimCity, Command and Conquer) or 2) a non-games brand with proven throw weight and relevance for the game we were developing. Examples of the later include: celebrity endorsements like Tiger Woods, sports governing bodies like FIFA or NBA, commercial brands like Coke, Fox, Nike and finally cross-overs from other media like books, films, toys and games, such as Dune or Action Man.
Why work with brands?
I think everyone who reads this would like to own a hit-generating brand, so the obvious answer that everyone can relate to is that they make money. But why? I think, in this industry at least, it is because they create confidence in the product with consumers, retailers and – from a third party developer viewpoint – with publishers’ marketing and sales departments. The first major game that IG developed was SimIsle for Maxis with a budget of £120,000. Many of our current projects, only five years later, have budgets ten times that amount or more. This is an industry-wide trend. Even worse, there are many, many more titles on the shelves than can ever recoup that kind of investment. Publishers used to be able to afford to bet on ten SimIsles and hope that one or two would break through, but they can’t afford to bet on ten times ten. With a good branded product, a publisher can more accurately predict sales and justify investments because they know that they work.
This is a fairly cynical, and perhaps depressing, view of the games industry. There are, of course, other very compelling reasons for branded products. They stand out on the shelf to bewildered consumers because they are recognisable. The brand makes a promise to the consumer about the quality, authenticity or content of the game. They help people know what to expect – everybody knows what a Tomb Raider game is going to be like when they buy it. No existential angst at all for the consumer! No wonder EA calls locking in brands ‘winning the air war’.
If any further evidence were necessary, look at the UK charts on the 12th January (the time of writing!): of the top twenty, only four are unbranded or original titles. Alternatively, look at the PC best sellers in 1998 (gleaned from PC Data’s website). Of the top twenty titles, only four were really original. I suppose I should own up and say that I am lumping any deer-hunting game together as a single original title since there are three of them in there. You can do a similar exercise on any recent chart table.
Why shouldn’t you work with Brands?
Some brands don’t add value, don’t increase recognition or confidence and some brands generate an enormous amount of compliance work. For example, any title based on TinTin must only use artwork generated by the author and cannot use any new images that did not appear in the books. This makes it pretty much impossible to do a TinTin game.
From a business point of view, it is possible to argue that owning the IP in a hit game can be enormously profitably and valuable. There are lots of examples of companies being built (and bought) on the back of the creation of a single, strong franchise. Most of them are owned by EA now. However, our view is that your chances of creating a hit in the first place are very limited, and in order to secure the funding needed to do it you probably have to give up ownership in other ways, for example to get venture capital funding.
A last reason not to work with brands is that they are perceived by some developers as being restrictive of their creativity. I think this is only partially true and what they take away in one area, they give in another; but I shall come to that later.
We were originally asked by Westwood to pitch for the opportunity to ‘bring Dune 2 up to Red Alert standards’ as a kind of data disk or ‘gold’ release. We started work in September 1997 with a target release date ten months later. As the design and prototyping progressed, it became clear that we weren’t going to be able to reuse the original Dune code which was long past its sell-by date and we weren’t going to get our hands on the Red Alert source code which Westwood (rightly) considered to be their crown jewels, so we set about writing the game from scratch. Along the way, we (meaning mainly Westwood!) decided to add new features to the game like 4-way Internet gaming, sixteen bit graphics and a host of other small feature improvements. In any case, although the original request was for an update, there were a host of expectations within Westwood. Most of them were to do with making the game a worthy Westwood title, reaching Westwood’s standards in the art, being an honest addition to the Dune franchise (explained always as ‘being true to the fans’) and applying the lessons of Westwood’s enormous experience with C&C and Red Alert. In some ways it was the weight of C&C and not the Dune brand that bore down on us the most. It resulted in a lot of compliance work and much reworking, and reworking and reworking of art, features, and balance issues.
Westwood were used to dealing with internal teams where the level of quality could be absolute and the resources and schedule could be made elastic to fit. This is not the way of IG, where budgets and hence schedules are fixed. We must have seemed quite inflexible to them and they seemed unreasonably demanding to us (especially to the more put-upon team members). However, we worked out the practicalities of the schedule and budget (and added resources and money of our own) so that we could respond to their requirements. And so that I am not misunderstood, their unrelenting quest for quality was also an inspiration and a compliment to us and stood in complete contrast to the benign (and occasionally malign) neglect we had experienced on our previous, non-branded titles.
The original concept of LEGO Loco was a simple, 2D desktop LEGO railway set. It was aimed at the screensaver and ‘dogz’ end of the market as a simple, constructive toy. We had had the benefit of doing another design for LEGO in Denmark earlier in 1997 and, in doing so, had been exposed to, or perhaps more accurately, indoctrinated in, LEGO values as part of that project. LEGO Loco embodied these values: it offered endless play, it was fun for boys and girls, it was a system of play without any victory conditions etc. etc.
At the same time we were designing the game for LEGO Denmark, LEGO Media in London were working out a strategy for LEGO interactive entertainment that went in a very different direction. It was 3D, it was multi-player and it was games. When they came to the project they grafted on their own ambitions and agendas. At their request, we added a print studio feature, the ability to link train layouts over a LAN and the ability to send postcards by train over the Internet. This doubled the size and cost of the project, without, in my view, adding a single sale. Suddenly, Loco had a more complicated LAN / Internet component than Dune 2000! Apart from this, we had almost no other input from LEGO and the design we released in November 1998 was almost exactly the design we had written up in September 1997. This was a result of completely understanding and buying into the brand values of the original toy. We didn’t need to be told, for example, what colours we could and could not use or that LEGO trains don’t actually kill people when they crash. It was also, in part, because the development went very smoothly and the product was not overly complicated (outside the communications elements).
Lesson One: Live the Brand
The first step is to get the right team on the project. There’s no point having people who want to develop first person shooters work on a kids title like LEGO. The good news is that there are very excellent developers – some of IG’s finest – that genuinely want to work on these kinds of projects. Equally, don’t put them on a cutting-edge real-time strategy game.
Secondly, manage the communications within the team and to the client so that they embody the brand values. This adds to the client’s confidence and helps reinforce the brand within the project. On our LEGO pitch we enclosed a picture of the team where their faces had been mapped onto LEGO Minifig bodies – silly but it made a point. On our more recent Action Man title for Hasbro we prepared our proposal as if it were a mission brief for Action Man himself, complete with bullet holes and camouflage. We deluged the LEGO team with LEGO bricks and models and LEGO posters and our Action Man team room looks like a shrine to Action Man (or should that be an aisle in Toys ‘R Us).
Thirdly, the best brands have these attributes: they are grounded in their own history, they take themselves seriously (in most case without being sanctimonious about it), they have a distinct philosophy and their own sense of identity. The best brands say something about you if you choose to buy into them. I went on a seminar given by Charles Carney of Warner Brothers at the end of 1998 when we were working on a design for a Looney Tunes game and he gave me the best example of this when he talked (humorously and with great respect to both sides of the debate) about the difference between Disney people and Looney Tunes people.
|Disney People||Looney Tunes People|
|“And they all lived happily ever after”||“Of course you know this means war!”|
|“When you wish upon a star”||“That’s all folks”|
I could go on – the list was long and exhaustive. However, you can use the values and identity that the brand creates to build a team identity and project loyalty as well as ensuring that the game itself embodies them. Carney also showed that to make it work, you have to make it fun.
Finally, you have to share the business realities. Otherwise, it all seems like pap. Developers aren’t dumb – they know we’re here to make money and they know that making hits is better than not making hits. However, you need to give them data that support this.
Lesson Two: Be Canonical
Our objective is to know the brand as well as we know our code – to be more royalist than the king. If you don’t get any feedback, you know you’re doing it right. For instance, for Dune, we all played the original game extensively, watched the movie about a zillion times, read the books and – as Westwood’s expectations became clear – the team also studied C&C and Red Alert. Several times we were able to tell Westwood how a particular feature worked when they had forgotten or got it wrong. By the way of practical advice, this needs to be done diplomatically if you don’t want to practice holding a rattlesnake by the tail! On the Looney Tunes project the entire team watched about 600 Looney Tunes cartoons to make a list of what characters could and could not do.
Lesson Three: Creativity within Boundaries
While working with a brand can constrain the scope for originality on a large scale, yet it provides many opportunities – or challenges – for developers. When we were told that Yosemite Sam isn’t allowed to shoot his guns anymore (I guess this is a kind of displacement gun control), we came up with the solution that he would draw his gun and pull the trigger, but when nothing happened he would get so frustrated that he would throw his gun at his opponent instead. This seemed to be very in keeping with his enraged character and much funnier at the same time. Another, similar example is in SimIsle where you could fire your employees by clicking on a gun cursor and shooting their onscreen icon. Maxis, like LEGO and like the new, PC Looney Tunes, don’t have guns; so we changed this to a Monty Python-like ten-tonne weight falling on the hapless employee instead. Again, acceptable and funnier.
As an aside, there is an example of this not working very well. In LEGO Loco, most of the buildings have easter eggs of various kinds. One simple one was that if you clicked on the statue of a Viking Brunhilda warrior maiden she turned round and did a moony (is that an Anglicism? It means flashing your buttocks). Anyhow, the boss of LEGO – being a relaxed Scandanavian – thought this was hilarious and loved the feature, but when the sales people saw it they made us take it out immediately. So there are limits to creativity after all!
On a more serious note, working with brands which have established art styles presents a major artistic challenge. For example, recreating famous images like LEGO, Action Man, Bugs Bunny in a different medium (be it 2D or 3D art, with or without animation). It may not be as much ‘fun’ as animating your own creation but it is every bit as professionally demanding, and probably more so. In our experience, Westwood had higher art standards than we thought were humanly possible. It was a challenge meeting their expectations – like training for the marathon – but a huge satisfaction when we finally won the race.
There is also the opportunity to re-interpret the form of the game, even if you can’t change the content. Westwood’s Monopoly product allows you to do things with Monopoly that you can’t do with the paper game – such as play against people across the world with different languages or play the game very quickly. There is no great art without constraints. I expect that Michangelo would have been happier if he had painted the Sistine entrance hall and if he hadn’t had to lie on his back with paint dripping in his eyes for three years but without the agony, there would have been no ecstasy.
I believe that there is a seismic shift coming in the games business. Developers need to become trusted service providers and developer value will come from consistent, high quality service. Working with external IP is just part of the job. In most other areas of software people either don’t own the IP they generate – any bespoke database or business engineering software house, for example, pretty much does work for hire – or they can’t wait to give it away for nothing, like Linux, Internet Explorer or Star Office. Value and profit come from fees, services, support, licensing, online and, of course, explosive P/E ratio growth.
From our own, more local, perspective, a brand-led philosophy has been a great success for IG. I respect anyone and everyone who rejects it and tries to plough their own furrow, but our experience is that, given the right conditions, people and management, brands work.