GDC 06: Big Brands on the Small Screen

Sony Pictures game VP pulls back the curtain on how big-name brands get turned into mobile games.

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SAN JOSE, Calif.--Shalom Mann, vice president for the game studio division of Sony Pictures Digital, revealed the inner workings of branding for mobile games at a lecture this afternoon at the 2006 Game Developers Conference. Speaking to an audience of mobile game producers and developers, Mann talked about the potential problems of translating big-name brands into mobile games.

Overall, his talk could be summed up with a question he asked at the beginning of his presentation: "Why create a new mobile brand when there are plenty to choose from already?" His group at Sony produces about 15 games a year and is involved both in licensing Sony's digital property out to others and negotiating with other brand owners to use their intellectual property in Sony-developed games.

Mann pointed out that since Sony acquired MGM, it owns 40 percent of the total library of Hollywood movies, giving his company a huge catalog of brands to turn into new mobile games. However, even though he has a treasure trove of film licenses at his fingertips, he pointed out that "there are a ton of great brands out there--it doesn't just have to be film. Personally, I'd kill for Monopoly, if I could get it." Even PC and console games have powerful brands, he suggested, like Doom, Age of Empires, Ratchet & Crank, and SOCOM US Navy Seals.

Licensing mobile content can be risky for a variety of reasons, a fact Mann demonstrated with both a mock-up budget of a licensing deal and with examples from the industry. Depending on the size and power of the brand in question, a mobile game developer may need to pay up-front "minimum revenue guarantees," as well as hand over some creative control to the brand owners. On top of this, Mann claimed that most brands get between 15 to 30 percent in royalties on mobile sales, far higher than royalty rates for console games.

Aside from the financial complexities of deal structuring, Mann warned that mobile developers also need to think hard about the licensor they're signing up with. Mann provided several examples of mobile games that were essentially doomed because the movies they were based on didn't perform at the box office, such as Stealth, XXX: State of the Union, and Sahara.

He also gave the example of Bode Miller Alpine Racing, a mobile game developed in the run-up to the 2006 Winter Olympics and featuring the name of one of the top US hopefuls. "The problem was that Bode didn't win any medals," said Mann of the game's failure. "He showed an attitude of not caring. If you're working with someone who doesn't care about their own brand, why would the audience care?"

More importantly, with a major brand involved, the audience does care--a lot. Mann argued that when developers adapt a popular film or other fictional universe, "the audience is expecting something from your game before you've written one line of code." Games have to operate within the fictional universe set down by the brand owners, and they have to live up to the ideals of an often demanding fan base.

Nevertheless, Mann had a generally positive message about the benefits of branding in mobile games. Games tied to major theatrical movie releases can ride the marketing wave of the $20 to $40 million a major studio will spend to advertise the new film. Not only does the free publicity help sales, said Mann, it can also spur mobile carriers to market the game as well, as a way of associating themselves with a major publicity event.

Even nonmovie brands can make it big. Mann was full of admiration for Jamdat's $140 million deal to license the Tetris brand for its games. Mann admitted that he and his team had their doubts at first. "We thought, 'Wow, that's an enormous gamble.' But what we all thought was a gamble turns out to have been a great calculated risk."

For more news from the event, check out GameSpot's GDC 2006 page.

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