Designing For An IP

The past few days I’ve been helping prepare a pitch for a roleplaying game based on a kid’s cartoon. I can’t say the cartoon is my favorite, but I really have enjoyed diving into the IP — watching the episodes, reading the story notes the writers sent over, figuring out how things work, and trying to form a cohesive game experience around it all. I love this part — making a design fit into an existing universe — and it turns out it doesn’t really matter what the IP is. It’s always fun! The extra restrictions force you to focus on the goal of your project and keep you from meandering into random territories, plus the IP gives you a clearer view of your audience.

There are some things to keep in mind, though.

Games Are Not Mainstream Media

Remember, games are not a mainstream media like TV shows and movies are. (At least not yet! We’re getting closer… maybe in a decade we will be.) We have to keep our “semi-niche” status in mind.

A movie might take a tiny IP based on a book and literally reinvent it for a completely new audience. A video game cannot do that. Video games must take an already-mainstream IP and play off of it to make something that appeals to existing fans of the IP. Don’t ever forget that, because it means two things:

  1. You must use an already-successful IP or you aren’t getting much out of using an IP, and
  2. You cannot reinvent the IP to suit a different audience; you must work with the IP’s existing audience.

The IP Defines The Audience

One of the key reasons to work with an IP is that it helps to solve the most important design question: “who’s the target audience of this game?” The audience is: people who play games and also enjoy the IP you’re using. With that in mind, you can much more quickly figure out what sort of game to make.

For example, the average Star Trek fan is older (25 to 65) and typically middle class with decent incomes. The fact that these are older individuals means that a reflex-intensive game like a first-person shooter won’t be super appealing. (There have been some fun Star Trek FPSes, but they weren’t particularly monetarily successful because they didn’t take the audience into account.)

It doesn’t make sense to homogenize your audience too much, though — Star Trek fans enjoy the show for very different reasons. Some fans love the notion of exploring space; others are enchanted by the Utopian universe where mankind has overcome its petty problems. Still others watched Voyager primarily because Seven of Nine was hot.

When we polled the broader Star Trek audience we found that the average Star Trek fan that also plays video games tends to be male, skew a bit younger (late 20s), and enjoy certain elements of Star Trek more than other parts. They like the over-the-top races, starship battles, and the sexy aliens. The Utopian universe wasn’t that important, and most of them would only play the game if they got to be a ship captain (as opposed to a crew member). That helped define what sort of game to make.

So an IP isn’t a magic solution to defining your audience. You still need to poll your audience to find out what they want in a game. (Remember, polling consultants are your friend, and will pay for themselves many times over!) But your IP will narrow the problem down dramatically. Use this advantage. Don’t fight to escape your IP! Work with the IP to deliver something the target audience wants. 

Turbine’s Dungeons and Dragons Online is a great example of a game that didn’t let itself be defined by its IP, and suffered as a result. It’s a fun game on its own merit, but it was not inherently attractive to D&D players. Turbine would have been better off inventing their own IP for this game, and they would have saved money, too.

Your Game Isn’t Canon

As I mentioned, games aren’t mainstream media. But there’s an up side to this: for most IPs, the things that happen in your game are not going to be part of the IP’s canon.  That means you can take modest liberties with the universe in order to make the game more fun. Do this.

People will tell you that some IPs can’t be altered in any way or the fans will get angry. That’s not true. Well, it’s true that most IPs have some very hardcore fans that will resent any deviation, but unless you’re creating a very niche game, they are only a tiny part of your audience.

Star Trek’s most hardcore fans would be unhappy with a game that took any liberties with the IP — even something as simple as letting every player have their own ship makes them angry — but that’s irrelevant, because you can’t make a AAA game just for Star Trek’s most hardcore fanbase; it’s much too small. When you extend your reach to the entire spectrum of people who like Star Trek and also like games, you find that the audience is okay with some pretty dramatic liberties. And here’s the surprising bit: even the hardcore fanbase can become pretty understanding, if you explain and justify why you need to take liberties to make the game more fun.

On the other hand, sometimes the least maleable party is the IP holder. The Tolkein estate famously screws over game designers by forcing them to stick too close to the original IP. They don’t understand the point or audience of video games, and that’s their loss. You should think twice about working with an IP if you have to slavishly follow the canon.

There’s a Game For Every IP, But…

Technically, every IP can be turned into a fun game. It’s an entertaining design exercise: start with a tricky IP (let’s take, I dunno… “Night Court”). Inject action or intrigue elements (how about a post-apocalyptic setting?) and voila… you have a game. You’ve made Nightmare Court, a simulation game set in the year 2130 AD, where only the tough-as-nails (yet very funny) judge can keep the peace, all the while managing the courthouse’s food and electricity levels. Sell guilty criminals into slavery in exchange for water and grain. Make sure your bailiffs can subdue the laser-cannon-wielding mad men who break into court to rescue their friends … okay, that’s terrible, and I’m sure you can do a better job turning Night Court into a game, but the point is that most game approaches are going to ruin this IP, even if the resulting game is fun.

I remember a pitch session for an MMO based on HBO’s “Deadwood”. That would have been a hard IP to make into an MMO, so they pitched a secret ingredient: zombies. “Deadwood with Zombies will make an amazingly fun MMO.” And you know what? It’s true. A zombie game set in the grim, gritty world of Deadwood would be atmospheric, intense, innovative, and fun.

But HBO didn’t buy it, and they made the right choice. If you’re going to make a game based on a TV show, you need to be able to sell the game to people who watch the TV show. Deadwood plus Zombies worked for only a limited subset of the Deadwood-watching audience, so the IP wouldn’t have helped much at all.

Just for the record, though, you often can make an IP better by adding complementary gameplay elements. The Travel Channel’s “Lonely Planet”  TV show chronicled adventurers who explored remote countries. This could make a great game for the explorer crowd (which fits the TV show’s demographic pretty well) with just a few additions. Add some ancient treasures for the explorers to find, maybe a gang of bandits or two, and you’ve got yourself a fun exploration game. (However, Lonely Planet fails the “is it mainstream enough?” test, so it’s not much use.)

If you have the luxury of picking an IP to work with, make sure it’s one that can actually be turned into a fun game without breaking the soul of the IP.  Tweaks and adjustments are okay, but over-the-top alterations sap the IP’s strength and make it useless.

Designing For IPs Is Fun

Although a few types of designers will chafe against an IP, most designers find the restrictions liberating. That may sound weird, but it’s not. If you use someone else’s IP, they’ve already answered a bunch of hard questions for you, and now all you have to do is make a fun game within those restrictions.

Picking the right IP is obviously pretty crucial, but it’s just as crucial to work with the IP, allowing its natural boundaries to define your game, rather than hacking the IP to bits.

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4 Responses to Designing For An IP

  1. Pingback: I.P. Freely « Bio Break

  2. Mike Darga says:

    Great post. This applies in interesting ways to sequels as well, I think.

    I had an interesting experience when I used to work on the Sims, when EA had decided to start making more spinoff games, but everyone was trying to figure out what that IP was exactly. Can it be a Sims game without motives? Do you always have to control multiple characters? Is directing each sim on a per-social level the required level of granularity?

    It was interesting to see an original IP become so codified that the company almost felt like it was licensing the IP from itself.

    I’m glad to see a design blog that is about the actual process of designing. I’ve started my own recently and I was surprised to realize how few there really were to look to for inspiration. Check it out if you have a chance.

    Mike Darga

  3. Tesh says:

    Good article. What do you think of Fusion Fall, in light of these concerns?

  4. Pingback: Handcuffs or sure win? :How To Play Warhammer Online