Tales of IP Licensing in Game Design
In a previous article I described how my initial intention in designing Makiavelia was to use famous themes, such as Dune or Game of Thrones. Although I never got to do that, and developed my own theme instead, I did some research on how to license and shared my findings. Taking you through the basics of IP licensing in game design, the article gave a fair overview, without doesn’t go much into examples.
Here on the other hand, I want to give you concrete stories, as retold by some of the publishers and designers I’ve interviewed. These anecdotes give will give you a picture of what they’ve gone through and provide some interesting lessons and insights to carry with you if you ever choose to go for IP licensing.
Defense Grid: The Boardgame
The first person I approached with my questions was Anthony Hanses. Owner of Forged by Geeks, he first designed a board game inspired from Defense Grid, a tower defense video game he knew and loved.
This game initially lead to an unsuccessful Kickstarter, but far from being deterred, he decided push the idea further and contacted Hidden Path Entertainment (HPE), the producers behind Defense Grid, and asked if they would be interested in licensing their IP to produce a board game. They were open to the idea, but hesitant and required something tangible. And so it took months of discussing, prototyping and negotiating to arrive at a final agreement.
Anthony explains that in his view, the licensor “doesn’t care so much about the licencing process. They are concerned as to whether you—the licensee—are knowledgeable about the brand, will respect it, whether you will be easy to work with and able to deliver.” And with this mindset, he went back to the drawing board to design an upgraded version of his game worthy of the Defense Grid IP, that would “demonstrate his passion for the tower defense genre” and his understanding of the IP as a brand.
He went on to present the game idea, together with a project, with timelines and requirements, which was received positively. At this point, Anthony had already one foot in the door and so the next step was prototyping. It took another two months to produce a white-copy prototype—still focusing on demonstrating his understanding of the brand. HPE loved the initial prototype but it took two more iterations to arrive at the final design.
After three months of hard work, Hidden Path finally said they were comfortable licensing Defense Grid, and that it was time to discuss the terms of the agreement. Anthony negotiated to receive 2D and 3D assets, as well as getting promotional support from Hidden Path, who already had followers on social media and even joined in on two live stream plays with them.
Anthony and his team had to report every two weeks on their progress and let the licensor sign off on all PDF assets before the Kickstarter and manufacturing. “The biggest hang up”, he explained, “was that we needed custom art for each card. In essence we were adding new art to the Defense Grid lore in the process, which took a bit of extra review.”
On 17 January 2017, Forged by Geeks launched Defense Grid: the Board Game launched on Kickstarter, which funded within a day, successfully delivered, and soon to be reprinted.
The case of Defense Grid is quite interesting for several reasons. Forged by Geeks really focused on presenting compelling proposal, and Hidden Path Entertainment really looked in depth at the game before both discussed numbers. The fact that HPE actually played the game and put the game first, is a sign of commitment and passion on both sides. It was also a very smart move from Anthony, to ensure he would be using the marketing channels of HPE, thus significantly increasing the chances of a successful campaign. Another unusual and positive item of the agreement, was that the guarantee, a down payment usually given upon signing the agreement, was contingent on the campaign success. This first exciting example is to show what passion can achieve.
Warehouse 13: The Boardgame
The second story emerging from the interviews was that of Warehouse 13, retold by its designer and CEO of Infinite Dreams Gaming, Shawn Smith. The story began at Dragon Con, 6 years prior to the launch of the game, when Shawn—a fan of the show—met some of the actors at the con and introduced the idea of adapting the series to a board game. “The show lent itself perfectly to a board game format, with its protagonists looking for missing artifacts or investigating new ones in each episode” explained Shawn.
With his background in board game retail, Shawn had a good idea of what good game design meant. However, he had little experience in publishing, and to convince the license owner, NBC, he teamed up with Conquest Gaming, who turned out to live around the corner. Conquest brought invaluable experience to the table, in prototyping, manufacturing and publishing.
Finding the owner of the IP was more difficult than it initially seemed, but Shawn eventually got hold of NBC. He found out that they were quite approachable, compared to what one would expect from Hollywood studios. An interview was scheduled and the response was really positive, and so Shawn began to work on prototyping.
However, during that period of time, a 2013 Kickstarter project based on WB series, Veronica Mars, to produce a movie, received serious backlash from the fan base after raising above 5 million dollars. This in turn had a negative impact on the perception of Kickstarter, which led to NBC desisting from the Warehouse 13 project with Infinite Dreams Gaming.
Shawn initially moved on, trying to find other IPs that could be exploited in a board game, but none at the time were interested licensing—while finding out some IP owners simply do not want to put the energy in licensing their IP and put their brand at risk. But Shawn didn’t give up, and reached out to an IP agent a couple of years later, who approached NBC again. Using the help of an agent, added to NBC being restructured, played in the favor of Shawn and his game idea: he was back in business.
However, all the work had to be done from scratch and this time NBC asked for advance payments on top of the guarantee. As he presented the game prototype designed with Michael Aldridge and Russ Rupe of Conquest Gaming, NBC didn’t look too much in the mechanics, except for addressing few general questions, such as whether the game had player elimination. When it came to design and content, however, they were fine combing all details. Shawn found out that NBC wanted to change a lot more than what he had expected, but he learned to pick his battles, and only showed resistance when the requested changes would affect the game negatively.
Trouble was far from over, as Shawn worked on design elements including cast members, and discovered that NBC didn’t have the rights to their image. As he realised he would not get further help from the studio, Shawn had to secure the rights for two cast members directly. One of these actors had unfortunately passed away, and so rights had to be acquired from their estate. This was a very difficult moment for Shawn, as he had very little experience in the matter and little information as to what percentages usually go for using actor images. On top of all, the process took time, as it took months for people to respond to emails.
Eventually, the project was closer to its goal and in August 2017, Infinite Dreams Gaming launched the Kickstarter, successfully securing 85,167 USD from 1,605 backers. However, the struggle wasn’t over. The final graphic assets were delivered later than expected, delaying the production, and the manufacturing didn’t meet the standards, which they were contractually obligated to meet. As the manufacturing is reaching its final stages, fans are soon going to be able to unbox the fruit of all this hard work. Shawn only wished things would have been wrapped up on time to bring copies to the next Dragon Con and close the loop where it first started.
The story of Warehouse 13: The Board Game is quite thrilling and exemplifies the difficulties publishers will face producing games with IPs. It is quite difficult to succeed in the board game industry as it is, and using and IP only adds more difficulties to manage and increases risks. But then Shawn’s story shows what perseverance and resilience can achieve and it’s both remarkable and inspiring to see how he succeeded, with it being his first game design.
In 2016, Michael Knight, together with Jeff Arbough and Dave Ploense, launched VENOM Assault a cooperative deck building game with dice-based combat, inspired by 1980’s comics. The game, published under Michael’s own publishing company, Spyglass Games, sold out the same year and scored a 7.5 on BGG.
To Michael’s surprise, in 2017, Evil Beagle Games, an RPG publisher, contacted Spyglass, requesting the rights to use VENOM Assault to create an RPG. The Spyglass team felt both very enthusiastic and also very concerned about the request. On the one hand, it came as an unexpected by-product of the game design and a confirmation of its quality and appeal. On the other hand, lending the IP to a third party, raised concerns as to the possible negative impact on the brand.
However, the passion of Evil Beagle, combined with the excitement and the hope of creating brand awareness, convinced Spyglass that licensing their IP would be a positive move. Both parties had never done this before and did not hire an IP lawyer to produce the licensing agreement, which means they had very little knowledge of royalties and other terms of negotiation. Nevertheless, they settled for what seemed appropriate at the time. One particular—and unusual—aspect of their agreement, is that Spyglass agreed to run the Kickstarter on behalf of Evil Beagle Games. Also worth noting, was the fact that in spite of using the VENOM Assault IP, the RPG would use a different name, receiving the title of Freedom Squadron instead. The main reason for this was that Evil Beagle Games wanted to set themselves apart.
After signing the contract, it took about a full year to develop the RPG. Michael met Evil Beagles few times but mostly worked via email and Skype to grant approvals as they submitted developments. Spyglass took a natural interest in the RPG which they play-tested, but RPG mechanics were the domain of Evil Beagle, in whose expertise they put their trust. Michael’s focus was on the use of graphics and copy-write material, related to the world of VENOM Assault. In the process additional world building elements were created for the RPG, and so this collaboration contributed to the growth of the VENOM lore, adding value to the property of Spyglass.
In March 2018, Spyglass launched the Freedom Squadron Kickstarter, which funded in six hours and collected more than 35,000 USD. The licensing of the IP to a third party wasn’t necessarily a huge financial success for Spyglass, but it had a positive impact on brand awareness and delivered a great set of lessons. More importantly, a creative and synergistic relationship was established between Spyglass and Evil Beagle who became “part of the family” in the process.
Using new lore elements created for the the RPG, Spyglass is working on a new Kickstarter for an expansion, VENOM Assault: Villains & Valor, launching on 6th May 2019. What’s more, in a reversal of roles, Spyglass is planning to issue a board-game version of Prowlers & Paragons, an RPG of the same genre created by Evil Beagle Games.
This last story is particularly inspiring because it gives some insights from the perspective of the IP owner. It is also interesting to see the licensing take place between two niches of the same industry, and even more so because of the reciprocity of the relationship between licensor and licensee. Again it shows that passion is the main driver behind such leaps of creativity.
I’ve chose these three stories in particular, because they defy the common perception, which is often to be read online. When asking about IP, The general answer one gets, is that it is the domain of large and experienced publishers, and that small or first-time designers are nobodies with zero chance of success. It is true: I haven’t gone after IP licensing stories gone wrong, and it may be a correct statement in most cases, especially when dealing with major IPs like LOTR, Star Wars or GoT. However, it’s not impossible. And it goes to show how much passion matters, driving designers and publishers to face unknowns, setbacks, and risks. It’s also raising my hopes to one day work with some IP, perhaps with a new version of Makiavelia.
As a consumer, we often buy a box off of the shelf and play, without knowing what hidden stories lay underneath. Hearing about the hurdles these publishers went through, and risk they have taken, deepens my appreciation of game designing and publishing, and adds value to what’s already in the box.