GDC Austin 2009: Leo Olebe, Jean Marcel Nicolai, Feargus Urquhart discuss benefits and dangers of working with someone else's world to keep the lights on during tough times.
Who Was There: The panel consisted of Obsidian Entertainment CEO Feargus Urquhart, Disney Interactive Studios senior vice president of global production Jean Marcel Nicolai, and Bioware Austin director of marketing Leo Olebe. The group was moderated by EA Mythic senior director of marketing Eugene Evans.
What They Talked About: The topic of the session was "Developing Licensed Games: Do It Successfully In These Tough Economic Times."
Urquhart started the panel off by explaining the way Obsidian varies its pitching process depending on the economic atmosphere. When things are going well, Obsidian pitches its own original products, half expecting the publisher to say, "That's great, but we'd like you to do this product using our license." But when times are tight, Urquhart said the developer skips the first couple of steps of that dance and just proposes its own projects using the publisher's IP that it would like to do.
If they don't propose their own ideas, Urquhart said they risk the publisher suggesting the role-playing game specialist do an RPG using some character in its catalog that simply doesn't make sense. He gave a Donkey Kong RPG as a hypothetical example of that sort of project.
Urquhart has experience working with Dungeons & Dragons, Star Trek, and more, and told developers the best things they can do is ask lots of questions about the license. In working with Forgotten Realms, he said the developers made sure to ask about everything they could do with the world, from blowing up a city to having specific characters use one weapon or another.
Nicolai followed up on that point by urging developers of licensed games to still be creative, to try to do something new in the universe or push boundaries no matter how firmly established it is.
Urquhart said working on licensed games is more comfortable for him in a negative economic climate, especially in the way marketing treats the title. Marketing people often aren't gamers, and he said it's easier for them to wrap their heads around and get behind a project if it has a known license attached. He also said not to underestimate the power of a license, saying one of his developers wanted to make a "Sock Monkey and the Quest for Pants" game, which sounds odd but could stand a chance of success if only because people know the Sock Monkey license.
Not everything about licensed games is a move to safety. Evans pointed out the problems of having a movie-based game and the necessity to finish it in time for the theatrical release, a problem aggravated as development times on games get longer and longer.
Urquhart said he's noticed a greater acceptance of games as a whole by the general public, and they've become a more crucial part of extending a brand. When he gets approached about movie games these days, he said the release dates are getting further out, so even if he were to sign on, he would have two or more years to make the game. On top of that, studios are increasingly likely to encourage developers to diverge from the movie storyline and create a complementary product rather than a straight adaptation.
Nicolai echoed those sentiments, saying developers and publishers need to seek better synergy with filmmakers on movie-based games. The problem, he said, is that in the past, publishers and developers were struggling with the different lead times on movies, which are created on a shorter timeline than games.
Olebe said it's often a balancing act for developers, having to choose between driving for a critical success with an adult-oriented product or a commercial hit that adapts something like a Hannah Montana movie.
Although the panelists deal with licensed games, they aren't perfect when it comes to judging them in advance. When Evans asked about great and unexpected licensed games, Olebe talked about the Enter the Matrix game, where the title sold more than 5 million units despite a tepid critical reaction. Urquhart similarly said the problem is that all the panelists were going through the failures in their heads (specifying recent Superman and Iron Man games), which is telling in and of itself.
Nicolai mentioned Kingdom Hearts as a particularly unusual success, while Evans offered Lego Star Wars as another unlikely licensed hit. The Disney Interactive Studios executive said those two games not only benefited all the brands involved, but created with their crossover nature a new crack in the business that developers can more easily explore.
Urquhart referenced his days at Black Isle making Dungeons & Dragons games, cautioning that the chance to work with a personally enamored license can skew proper business decisions. The benefits of working on something the team loves might justify some belt-tightening, Urquhart stressed.
Quote: "You can let your passion drive quality, but you can let your passion drive insanity, also."--Olebe, saying developers should be cautious when it comes to the business decisions of working with licenses they love.
Takeaway: Working on licensed games can be a conservative way to keep a development studio alive during tough times, but that doesn't mean it needs to be bad, rushed, or unsuccessful.
Id much prefer a premium DLC version of New Vegas for Fallout 3 instead of having to buy a whole new game- the Fallout 3 DLC is top-notch (well so far, im a PS3 player, so i've only gotten through Broken Steel) and if they can add post-apocalyptic Pittsburgh, pre-apocalyptic Anchorage and the (presumably) vast marsh of point lookout, why let Obsidian take their time and make a $30 DLC pack of epic proportions....maybe raise the level cap to 50? I love my Fallout 3 character and im not ready to part with him :( but at least i have another two weeks of DLC to looks forward to!
when you think of it making a video game into a movie might be awesome but delays the game developing so bad :P
Well I guess they definitely are only talking the current market, because liscense games(no matter how bad they are) are usually a gold mine. But now when people are buying less, they aren't willing to shell out for a mediocre-terrible game just to play as a recognizable character. The trick, make quality license games like Arkham Asylum, which is lighting up the sales charts. If it was another terrible Batman game, then no one would have bought it. A good game is a good game, but a good game with brand name will print money.
It would only be fair to judge Obsidian on their new game Alpha Protocol, as this appears to be the first game, in which their publisher isn't hounding them to release all ready. Polish and bug finding be damned. As was the case with their previously two released games. That does tend to make a difference, probably a big enough difference that Bethesda is willing to work with them on Fallout: New Vegas, which considering how protective the former is of their acquired Fallout license should really say enough about the sense of trust that they do have in Obsidian's abilities. Something to consider, ne?
The problem with most games is that they are of inferior quality, rushed, lack creativity, or are not first generation games now. Even with these three power house developers will their games let their "passions" evolve in something superb.
hmm i wonder if they will be working on project mickey together? that'd be interesting to see how dark thye could go with zombie apocalytic disneyland
@ Ethel Obsidian didn't ruin KOTOR 2, Lucasarts did because they wanted a holiday release and rushed production. Anyone who knows anything about the series, knows that.
@arcsquad12 Obsidian? Good Games? SRSLY? Leave my Bioware alone, "In Bioware we Trust"... obsidian ruined KOTOR.
and since everyone's in Austin, it's a good time for merger talks with Retro Studios if Disney really wants it done right...or better yet Nintendo and make the conglomerate a world power of its own.
iove D&D. Interesting that Disney will make its recent purchase of Marvel characters into games than into films as thought. The ca$h cow is mooing.
I'm reading these comments below me and I like how, out of this whole article which I found interesting and informative about the business side of gaming development, all that anyone seemed to get from it is "OMG KOTOR/Mickey Mouse!" Kotor wasn't even mentioned in the article and Disney was not the subject either. Did everyone just read the title, look at the picture and then scroll straight down to the comment box to post their love of Star Wars and make bad jokes about Disney crossovers?
Bioware and Obsidian working on KOTOR 3 together?? Just for fun throw Mickey Mouse Jedi style in the mix
I love the original dark, gritty, underdog rebels taking on the dark evil empire Star Wars universe but I have no love for the "new" Star Wars. KOTOR is my opinion is the best Star Wars game ever made. The story was better than Episode I, II and III. With all due respect, I think that George Lucas has lost his creative vision and is now more interested in the royalties than in actually making sure that the Star Wars universe is represented well on film and in games. A man's character is often shaped by the hardships he faces and George had one hell of a time making the first three Star Wars films. His marriage fell apart, his life took extraordinary turns but his work was amazing. Now, he is old and wealthy, comfortable and his passion is not the same. Bioware's writing is ten times better than anything George has ever written since the original trilogy. Take notes George.
I think the Jedi Knight series serves as proof that you can release games within a particular movie universe, without having to tie it to a movie's release date. I've never seen the sense of trying to tie a game's release to the movie's release date. If a movie is good, and you make a good game related to that movie in some way, then people will buy and play it no matter when it is released. Star Wars certainly wasn't 'fresh' in people's minds when Dark Forces and Jedi Knight came along.
Some of you guys are pretty dim about the whole subject that revolves around KotOR2 they were rushed, they had tons of extra things they wanted to add in (practically had all the models and textures for a HK-50 Factory) but they were rushed. They promised a lot of great things but in the end they had to finish the game FAST. So thats why we got a half finished game. Do some research before bashing that game.
I miss being Darth Revan :( My heart broke when I heard they were going to develop the old republic instead.
@dreadedsniper: obsidian made kotor 2 NOT bioware. if anyone was going to make a 3rd one it would have been them. Besides, it would have hurt what they wanted to do with the ME series, and KOTOR 2 was awful from a technical and story standpoint. There was no closure and it really didn't carry out a story from the original game that closely, if at all. I think we star wars fans tend to be too lenient when it comes to anything from that universe. am i the only one who remembers that KOTOR 2 had huge chunks of dialogue just flash past the screen without being able to read it? am i the only one who remembers a broken ebon hawk flying off without half of its crew and the game ending with no hint at all as to what was going to happen next or even giving me a reason to care about it at all?
@warmaster670 Im not saying i like that there making TOR and i wont even be playing it and i wish they would have just made kotor 3 like the 2 previous games im just telling you what the developers said and they said TOR will be the new kotor go watch the video yourself if you dont believe me.
As SerOlmy stated Obsidian trashes franchises they didn't bother finishing the ending for Kotor 2 and NWN2 is so horrid it's not even worth playing. They also did the same with NWN2 by making some really lame ending. Of course that says something about Bioware for allowing them to make sequels to some of the best games they had made.
Considering Obsidian trashes any franchise they pick up, I really don't think I care what they have to say. Point of evidence - NWN2, KotOR2, AvP, etc...
I'm of the opinion that movie studios shouldn't allow game publishers to buy the licenses to any particular film IPs so they can dominate them, instead negotiate so that publishers can make the games they want of the IP, but also keep it available for any other publisher to do with what they want. When I think of how SEGA has horded the Alien franchise IP, they've been pretty selfish. We've had some good Alien games through the years. Alien 3 on the SNES was one of my favorite games on that system. I pumped lots of quarters into the Alien 3 gun game, and years earlier I loved the Aliens arcade side scrolling shooter, oh and I almost forgot about the AVP arcade beat em up, that was fun too. I was one of the few lucky people that got to try AVP on the Jaguar, and I loved the AVP games on the PC, especially AVP2. Alien Trilogy on the PS1 was also really cool. I'm finally glad that Colonial Marines is coming next year, as well as the next AVP; both look great so I hope the wait will be worth it. But there's been a big dry spell for the last 7 years, all because SEGA has been rather selfish saying who can and who can't make an Aliens game, and there were so many great games that came throughout the years before SEGA started calling all the shots.
I like Obsidian, they make good RPGs. If they could collaborate with Bioware and make a Knights of the Old Republic 3, I would be very happy. TOR looks good, but I want the KOTOR Trilogy to be completed!
Yeah movie-based games can sometimes veer off from the storyline of the movie, but is also a way to sneak things that didn't make it into the movie in. Still, even if the development team on these games doesn't receive a cast list when they start the work on the game, they should work on the most important aspect, the gameplay and physics. Oh well, they are what they are and I hope they can get better.
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