Intense action. Gripping narratives. Heroic characters.
You’d think this would be a super-simple recipe for creating compelling and popular video games. You’d be wrong.
Consider the poor licensed game category. Invariably, a blockbuster action film–from Batman to Iron Man–is turned into a game, and more often than not, those games suck. To put it nicely.
The game adaption of Batman Begins, arguably the best Batman movie ever, received only a Metascore rating of 61.
When one of the most successful Marvel movies ever–2008’s Iron Man, which launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it–was translated into a video game, it was slammed with a Metascore rating of 47. As for one of the most critically acclaimed television series ever, Game of Thrones, the 2012 game based on the TV series earned a Metascore rating of only 53.
And these aren’t the exceptions–they’re the norms for licensed video games based on live action properties, with almost one-third of the top 50 most negatively received video games of all time based on licensed content. This bothered Teemu Huuhtanen, CEO of the Finland-based Next Games, when he founded the company with four other video game designers from Rovio, Supercell, and Disney in 2013.
“A lot of the bad reputation that licensed games get is from the console AAA space where production cycles easily last two to three years, or even longer, and the teams are scrambling to meet their deadlines from day one,” says Huuhtanen.
But the buck doesn’t stop there. Huuhtanen says license owners also share the blame for the poor quality of games. “License owners previously often saw games, not as their own bespoke medium, but as a marketing extension of the original movie or TV show,” he says. “This puts a lot of pressure to re-create what fans liked about the original product, which is often at odds with what makes for a good game. This is especially true in modern mobile gaming with its short but frequent sessions. This type of gameplay lends itself poorly to overt and verbose narrative and character-centric structures.”
This is exactly why many smaller game developers skip licensed content altogether. After all, if it’s an uphill battle from both directions, why not just create your own game properties, which the game studios would then have full control over? The problem for Huuhtanen and his Next Game cofounders was that they wanted to do both original games and licensed properties–if they could find the right partner.
As it happened, around the same time Next Games had a shortlist of licensed properties they wanted to work on, TV powerhouse AMC, famed for their original storytelling on shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, was looking to expand their most important television property, The Walking Dead, to mobile gaming. Now, they just needed the right partner.
“Next Games came in with great respect for the show, and it seemed every member of their team was a serious character-quoting fan,” says Mac McKean, senior vice president of digital media at AMC & Sundance TV. “They took that enthusiasm and translated it into a level of care and attention to detail that is visible. From the first day, the top priority was to translate the world of the show into the best possible version of a mobile game of this type.”
AMC was so impressed with its early discussions with Next Games, in fact, that the entertainment company took a stake in the Finnish games maker, and after a relatively short development cycle of around a year, this October, they released The Walking Dead: No Man’s Land for iOS and Android.
In what is rare for a licensed content game with a 17+ rating, No Man’s Land proved immediately popular–4 million downloads in just four weeks–and also received a solid five-star rating from more than 80% of the gamers who have rated it on the Android and iOS app stores. And so behold that rarest of animals: A licensed game that people actually seem to like.
“The huge amount of positive reviews within just the first weeks confirms we have succeeded in creating a beautiful, deeply engaging game that resonates with gamers and The Walking Dead fans alike,” says Huuhtanen. “Needless to say, we are extremely happy with how well the game has been received.”
So how did a small game studio and a television network succeed in an area where so many other, much larger game developers and Hollywood studios have failed? Here’s how AMC and Next Games did it.
Huuhtanen says the reason so many licensed content games are sub par is because a deeper mutual understanding needs to exist between a game studio and the original creators.
“Not only do the game developers need to understand what makes the intellectual property tick on a fundamental level, but the IP owner needs to realize what works and what doesn’t work well in a game,” says Huuhtanen. “To this end, AMC has staff that is intimately familiar with game development and already have a vision of how their brand could work in a game. Understanding the iterative nature of mobile games development at both ends has been fundamental to delivering a successful game.”
Huuhtanen says AMC’s vision was never to make a game that repeats the story of the TV show–something most licensed content attempts. Rather, AMC wanted to re-create the themes and feelings of the TV show in another medium.
“Next Games was looking for a partner who understands the medium and potential that mobile games present, in addition to IP,” says Huuhtanen. “This means that we weren’t looking for a deal where we pay for a license, and the license owner ‘hands over the keys to the Ferrari’ and checks back in a year later. We wanted a partner who’s in it for the long term.”
This partnership included a dedicated AMC staffer with game design experience who interacted with Next Game’s development team’s creative and production leads on a weekly–and sometimes daily–basis. “The dialogue wasn’t about filling preplanned checkboxes on an Excel sheet signed at the beginning of the project,” says Huuhtanen, “but rather discussions about the details of features and how to get the most out of them in the context of The Walking Dead brand.”
That close partnership extended way beyond just a technical development arrangement. Many reasons licensed content is so bad is because often, the game developers have little to no contact with the creatives who write and direct the filmed properties they are basing the game on. Case in point: Screenwriting legend Bob Gale, who penned the Back to the Future films, says the reason the 1989 Back to the Future game for the NES bombed so badly and deserves its criticism is because its maker, LGN, never wanted to hear feedback from the creatives behind the film.
“I should note that the previous BTTF video games have all sucked eggs–particularly the Nintendo 8-bit cartridge made by LJN in 1989–truly one of the worst games ever,” Gale told fans during an online chat. “The LJN people did not want any input from the filmmakers, but they promise to show us the game when ‘it was ready’. I was outraged when they finally showed it to me and had all kinds of things I wanted changed, but of course we were told it was too late to change anything. I actually did interviews telling the fans not to buy it because I was so ashamed that a product this bad would have our brand on it.”
Next Games, on the other hand, took the exact opposite approach with No Man’s Land.
“Next Games checked in with executive producers like Greg Nicotero, who also oversees the special effects and makeup for the series, to make sure details like the way the walkers walk were as true as Next Games could make them,” says McKean.
And then there was direct involvement from one of the major stars of the show, Norman Reedus, who plays fan favorite Daryl Dixon. “[Norman] lent his talent to the game, and Daryl plays a key part in the player’s journey early on,” says McKean.
This inclusion of primary cast and crew give the game an authenticity that bridges the gap between television and gaming.
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for No Man’s Land success was that Next Games and AMC were willing to build on each others’ strengths.
For example, most video games–and virtually all licensed content–feature gameplay that operates on a “temporary death” system. That is, if your character gets into trouble, he or she can die, but you simply need to start over again from the last saved checkpoint to get the character back. Sulka Haro, Next Game’s executive producer of No Man’s Land, wanted to change that. He had the idea of introducing “permadeath” into the game–when your character dies, he or she stays dead.
“This breaks the norm of mobile games where designers are extremely wary of causing any setback to the player,” says Haro. “We felt the opposite–this is a great way to bring the extreme decisions in the show through gameplay mechanics instead of through narrative methods that are limited on the platform.”
In the past, a big problem has been that most licensees don’t want to disrupt those who control the IP. But when Haro approached AMC with his permadeath idea, he found AMC thought differently.
“AMC actually urged us to test this out and be bold about breaking the mold when it fits the brand,” says Haro. “This is clearly a feature that evokes emotions in players exactly in the way we hoped for. The result of your decisions and losses have a long-term positive impact on the players: Every decision counts for so much more when there is more at stake.”
Haro also says there were several areas where he and his team learned from the creatives at AMC. “Our user interface design initially featured character portraits as small thumbnails. AMC saw characters as such a vital part of the brand that through mutual design we shifted direction and started displaying them a lot more prominently. Once this visual change was in, it was immediately obvious it was far easier to get attached to your group of characters. This was not a change in functionality, only presentation, but the effect was significant.”
So many licensed games dumb down content in order to pander to as wide a gamers’ audience as possible, which often aims to attract much younger audiences to the video game than would even necessarily watch the movie or television show. Another classic example of this is the A Nightmare on Elm Street game made by LGN and released in 1990 that had gamers fighting relatively benign and cartoon-like snakes, bats, and ghosts, as well as a comically large human-sized Freddy glove as one level’s boss.
Pandering to a wider, younger audience is a move that could theoretically net greater sales–but the risk is huge, in that this can easily turn off a production’s biggest fans. AMC and Next Games didn’t want to fall into the trap of trying to please an entirely new, younger audience.
“The game was crafted specifically with the show’s audience in mind, which is why it wasn’t a copy of an existing formula,” says Haro. “As such, the game’s audience doesn’t by and large differ from the audience of the show, which includes quite an even distribution of women and men in the 18-49 age bracket. Part of the appeal of the show is its mature take on a post-apocalyptic world and the inherently painful decisions associated with that. Cutting these elements from the game would have destroyed the soul of the brand.
With both critical and user praise for the game–not to mention those 4 million downloads–AMC and Next Games are already eyeing future collaborations.
“We have PVP (player vs. player) launching soon, and we’ll be continually refreshing the game with updates and exclusive behind-the-scenes materials,” says McKean. Beyond that, “We’re always speaking with Next Games to evaluate new features to add to the game, and how to continually improve and evolve it–they’ve been great partners.”
Just as in making the original production, a robust collaborative relationship is essential to translating that creation into a new form–and taking it to the next level.