Editor’s note: Jameel Khalfan oversees IP deals at Pocket Gems, a mobile-first games and entertainment developer.
When Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, the world was immediately changed forever and the web gave way to apps as the leading way people absorbed content. As with most emerging mediums, Hollywood was one of the first forces to take notice of mobile and tap its potential to reach fans. Unfortunately, a lot of these attempts have historically ranged from confusing to ridiculous.
All of the sudden, we had Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed lending his name to an app that helped zoom in on text. Later, William Shatner brought us an app where you could create poetry for him to recite.
Not to disparage any of these apps, but they were the wobbly first steps of a child, Hollywood’s first foray into mobile. They were fun to play with but didn’t offer users a deep experience that would keep them interested beyond the initial novelty factor.
Now, we’re beginning to see the second wave of Hollywood on mobile, specifically in gaming. This is marked by the power of celebrity, film and television properties looking to amplify the in-theater experience with a branded game meant to engage fans before and after opening night. It’s no coincidence that Katy Perry announced plans to make a mobile game the week after her Super Bowl halftime performance.
Movie and celebrity companion games are a dime a dozen these days. The difference in the second wave of branded apps lies in the quality, brand-significance, and ultimately success of the game or app. As Kim Kardashian has shown us, if you make a mobile game that can stand on its own legs while still being true to your brand, you can make one of the most successful apps of the year.
So how does a studio, celebrity or talent agency get involved? Should they pitch a game idea? Should they wait for a developer to approach them? Should they re-skin an existing game? Mobile game development is a very different landscape than Hollywood. Here are four tips on how to create a successful licensed mobile game.
Don’t Expect a Good Brand to Support a Bad Game
If the coolest thing about your app or game is that it has a celebrity or movie characters in it, you have already failed.
The game concept needs to inherently match the idea and feel of the movie or celebrity brand while being entertaining in its own right. Much of this entails determining who exactly the audience of the brand is and figuring out what kinds of games or experiences speak to those people. If Sesame Street were making a new mobile game, it probably wouldn’t be a Clash-of-Clans-style battle game (as cool as it would be to see Big Bird charging into battle).
The closer the brand fits the game, the less work you’ll have finding an audience. Fast and Furious 6 makes a lot of sense as a racing game just as RoboCop makes a lot sense as a shooter. Both those mobile games had incredible 2014 performances.
A solid companion game also shouldn’t be a re-skin of an existing game made to match the brand. Even if some of the core game mechanics exist, the IP should bring something new to the table.
For example when Disney made a Brave mobile game, they took the proven endless runner concept from Temple Run but added in an arrow-shooting mechanism to better match the movie. The bottom line is, the game should be a fun concept that can stand on its own legs. Having the brand will get people in the door, but making the game fun is what keeps them there.
Don’t Expect to be Done Once the Game Launches
One of the great myths of mobile is that you can spend some time developing a game, launch it then sit back and become a millionaire.
Modern mobile games are a service and the majority of the developer’s work often begins after the game launches. Games need to consistently bring players fun new content in order to thrive, which is a tall order that puts huge demands on a team. This demand becomes even greater when you include brands in the equation.
You shouldn’t expect to launch a mobile game and then be finished. If the game is good, it will have a lifespan that lasts many months (years, if it’s great) and you should plan to work with a developer to constantly be funneling fresh content into it. Cars: Fast as Lightning was one of the top-performing IP games of 2014 and it was constantly updating for events like the holidays. Kim Kardashian: Hollywood had Kris Jenner join her daughter as a character in the game last November. These are both good examples of ways brands can help keep content fresh in their games.
Don’t Depend on Mobile Developers to Guard Your Brand
In a perfect world, the brand (studio, celebrity, talent agency, etc.) and the developer will work closely together to make a great game.
At minimum the representative of the IP needs to be the brand guardian. Just as it wouldn’t make sense to create a battle game with children’s characters, the IP should fit with a game in a way that makes sense. The game needs to be honest to the brand in a way that developers just can’t recreate on their own. This requires someone from the brand side closely overseeing how the brand is being utilized in the app experience.
For example, when Pocket Gems partnered with Comedy Central to make an Ugly Americans mobile app, the original writers of the show penned the scripts directly. When we partnered with Fox on Night at the Museum: Hidden Treasures, they worked very closely with us to ensure we were true to the spirit of the movie. TinyCo’s Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff and EA’s The Simpsons: Tapped Out are also both examples of successful mobile games with writers from the original shows.
Conversely, the developer should be the one who has final say on things like game mechanics and monetization. Especially in the highly nuanced world of free-to-play, developers have a deeper understanding of what players want and what will be successful on mobile.
Don’t Plan on Controlling the Marketing
Marketing a movie or TV show and marketing a mobile game are entirely different beasts.
While huge marketing budgets that entail billboards, TV commercials and publicity blitzes can do wonders for a movie, mobile game marketing takes a more direct approach. The best place to get new players for your game is to target people who already playing on mobile. This means efficient paid installs, cross-promotion and a strong focus on mobile marketing channels.
Any developer worth their salt will have mastered their mobile marketing strategy years ago and you should depend on them to market the game.
That’s not to say that commercials, billboards and the rest shouldn’t be considered. As the Super Bowl showed us, many mobile games today use TV commercials to broaden their audience- but usually after they’ve already made a ton of money through other means.
You should expect the majority of your valuable players to come directly from mobile marketing; this means you should probably leave it in the mobile developer’s hands. There are some exceptions to this. For example, if the game features a celebrity with a strong existing mobile presence, like on Vine or Instagram, they should have more control over the strategy.
As the second wave of branded apps continues to take off, we are going to see more successful mobile games that offer players much deeper experiences. For these to happen, studios need to create strong, lasting relationships with mobile developers that they can work with on multiple projects. Studios and celebrities need to trust developers to deliver on awesome games while ensuring they stay true to the brand.