EA, Ubisoft, Microsoft tune in to tie-ins

MI6 2010: Marketing reps explain the speed bumps and benefits when taking projects like Dead Space, Assassin's Creed, and Halo from the small screen to the big screen and beyond.

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Who was there: Frank O'Connor, franchise development director for Microsoft's Halo publishing label 343 Industries; Dan Morris, director of strategy and development for Electronic Arts; and Andy Swanson, senior director of consumer products for Ubisoft.

What they talked about: Swanson began the session by explaining the difference between entertainment brands and game brands. He said entertainment brands like Spider-Man, Transformers, and Pokemon all expanded well beyond their original medium. Swanson was particularly impressed by Lego Star Wars, which is actually a combination of two existing entertainment brands that is in itself a unique, third brand.

Two great tastes that taste great together! And form a third great taste!
Two great tastes that taste great together! And form a third great taste!

Swanson said what makes something an entertainment brand is that fans can interact with it in a variety of ways, from books and movies to theme parks and games. As for what makes for a good entertainment brand, Swanson said they need to have fleshed-out characters that consumers like and some storytelling potential, as well as be a shareable experience to foster discussion.

Swanson said he looks to Marvel as an example of doing the brand-building task right. The company narrowly avoided going under entirely in 2000, in large part because it took a more active role in licensing and putting its characters in as many different forms as possible. While game companies dabble in this, Swanson said it could be done better. At the moment, he said gaming brand extensions are largely limited to book and comic publishing, apparel, toys, and higher-end collector's items.

Morris took over to explain a change in EA's approach to brands in recent years. He said the publisher basically spent two decades creating original intellectual properties but never gave a second thought to extending those brands beyond the world of games. While there was a comic book here or a tie-in there, Morris said there was no coordinated effort and no opportunity for the company to learn from its past mistakes.

At least Dead Space's character design leaves casting decisions wide open.
At least Dead Space's character design leaves casting decisions wide open.

To remedy that, EA centralized its brand-extension efforts. One small team now works with all of the developers to coordinate their project's leaps beyond the gaming screen. The publisher's slogan, as articulated by John Riccitiello, is IP Cubed: Create, Sequel, Extend. Morris is focused on the "extend" part of that equation and started going over the publisher's attempts to break onto the big screen.

To get into movies, EA allied itself with people that knew how to make movies better than EA did. The publisher has an exclusive deal with United Talent Agency to set up motion picture deals for a variety of its key properties. Morris said the good news is that with UTA and the original IP EA owns, the publisher has been able to land a few deals, specifically Dante's Inferno, Dead Space, Spore, and Army of Two. Morris said EA is hands-on with all of those projects because the worst thing for the company would be for these films to get made--but get made poorly.

While Hollywood film production is riddled with pitfalls, EA isn't waiting for those projects to get made before establishing itself in films. Morris pointed to the Dante's Inferno and Dead Space: Downfall animated features created with Film Roman as efforts to push their brands into different aisles of the local department store while the company waits for its Hollywood projects to come together. The company is also planning to release further animated projects to tide fans over and "act as the glue" between major releases of a series.

Swanson discussed Ubisoft's recent experiments with short films, saying the publisher wants to keep control of its own IP but also learn about the process of filmmaking in the process. The effort started in 2008, when Ubisoft purchased Montreal-based Hybride Technologies to collaborate with its game makers on new projects. The first product of that union was Assassin's Creed: Lineage, an episodic series of short films created to promote Assassin's Creed II (the full film was also aired on Spike TV around the game's launch).

Ubisoft tested the filmmaking waters with its marketing of Assassin's Creed II.
Ubisoft tested the filmmaking waters with its marketing of Assassin's Creed II.

The next step for Ubisoft is to bring in some filmmaking talent, Swanson said. The upcoming Ghost Recon: Future Soldier short film will be the test for that, as the company has Oscar-winning short film directors Francois Alaux and Herve de Crecy helming the 30-minute film. Ubisoft has also teamed with Ridley Scott's Little Minx to produce the project. The Future Soldier project will set the stage for the game, which is scheduled for a fall release. A trailer for the short showed Ghost Recon troops equipped with an abundance of high-tech toys, including remote-controlled mobile artillery pieces, shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, and light-bending active camouflage equipment.

For his part of the presentation, O'Connor shared some of the lessons Microsoft has picked up after a decade of working on the Halo franchise. He said the most important thing for any franchise in any medium is that, "You have to own your own universe." He said Call of Duty is a bigger franchise than Halo at this point, but Activision doesn't "own" the universe. A Hummer appearing in anything Call of Duty would still need to be licensed, and there's no monopoly on historical events.

Publishers need to be careful about extending their brands only into areas that make sense, given the game in question.
Publishers need to be careful about extending their brands only into areas that make sense, given the game in question.

Once a company has its own universe, O'Connor said it needs to understand that universe, as well as the audience for it. Nothing can stay the same forever, but knowing what the heart of the universe is and why people like it helps shape good decisions about what to change.

O'Connor said that Microsoft has a long-term plan for the Halo franchise, but it has changed over time. While O'Connor said an opportunistic strategy is bad, it behooves a publisher to dabble in areas where it isn't an expert as it can pay dividends. In particular, O'Connor said Halo toys and pajamas turned out better than expected.

At the same time, O'Connor stressed that "You have to do what's right for your franchise." Microsoft approved a version of the board game Risk for Halo Wars because the basic gameplay of Risk could be fairly easily mapped to the Halo universe. However, the company passed on Halo Monopoly because it just didn't make sense with the license. Another hurdle to clear is the ESRB age gate. Since the ratings board mandates that M-rated games not be marketed to children, O'Connor said Microsoft has to be very careful about what ancillary products it tries to sell and how it tries to sell it.

Quote: "It's not the same as the video game industry in any way. They are not necessarily about selling things."--O'Connor, on the lessons learned from dabbling in the film industry with Halo Legends.

Takeaway: Gaming is still at the tip of the iceberg as an entertainment medium. Examples of massive entertainment brands that sprung from games may be limited today (Pokemon, for instance) but should be significantly more common in the future.

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