BioWare, Disney, Obsidian talk creative license

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.

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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.

Obsidian's license to make Aliens games could have ended better...
Obsidian's license to make Aliens games could have ended better...

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.

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