Having a famous brand attached to your game does not guarantee success.
That’s the warning from Simon Hade, co-founder and COO of Space Ape Games, the UK studio behind recently launched Transformers: Earth Wars. While the firm’s first branded title may seem similar to its previous hits such as Samurai Siege and Rival Kingdoms, Hade stressed how seriously the team took the Transformers IP.
“You have to put in the effort to justify the brand," he tells Develop. "Games developers have a long heritage of thinking you can just slap a brand on a game and it’ll work. You can make a business out of that, I guess, but when you’re working with an IP the game should stand on its own and the brand should just help. The best branded titles are where the gameplay stands on its own and it’s really relevant to the brand.
"We were never going to take one of our existing games and just swap out the assets. We probably could have made a game like that, but we’re not interested in doing so. It was very important for us to look at potential IPs we could work with and the potential directions we could take our engine in.
"There are plenty of genres where the Transformers brand just wouldn’t work, and there are plenty of great IPs that wouldn’t make for a good build-and-battle game. Finding that overlap is really important."
Countless developers are looking for ways to improve the visibility of their games, and having a popular brand or celebrity associated with your title is constantly proving to be a winning option.
Games developers have a long heritage of thinking you can just slap a brand on a game and it’ll work. When you’re working with an IP the game should stand on its own.
However, the Space Ape exec urges devs to think carefully about what they can bring to that partnership. Passion for the IP in question certainly helps – many of the Space Ape team are avid Transformers collectors – but a willingness to work closely with the IP holder, and even the fans, is also important.
"Best advice I could offer is to make the most of the brand," says Hade. "Don’t take the approach that you can just write a cheque of the brand and get some exposure or users. Make a game that is something that will truly appeal to fans of the brand. That means you should be talking to fans of the brand and fans of the genre.
"Sometimes the IP owner might have a fixed view of what the brand is and isn’t about – don’t be afraid to challenge that, but accept that they’re probably right. At the start of this project, we assumed we wanted to appeal to fans of the ‘80s TV show and focus on nostalgia, but working with the IP owner and fans, we realised that wasn’t quite the direction we wanted to go with.
"Instead we wanted to invoke the nostalgia of growing up with the toys themselves, as well as the TV show and the comic books. That didn’t necessarily mean sticking to the G1 cel-shaded art style, so when you look at the game, the characters all look like the toys you remember but they’re subtly different, modernised and updated to be relevant today.
"Work with the IP owner to figure out exactly what the right treatment is. It might not be necessarily what either of you expect going in."
Brands are the way to scale up your marketing, but the mobile platforms do a great job of allowing games without a big IP to break out.
In the case of Earth Wars, Space Ape was keen to shake up the increasinfly crowded ‘build-and-battle’ genre with the IP’s biggest strength: the Transformers themselves.
"It’s all about the characters," says Hade. "We knew this had to be a heroes-based game from the beginning, because a lot of these mobile strategy games have you sending hundreds of troops into the field who die all of the time – you don’t really get attached to the individual characters. In Rival Kingdoms we have squads, so it’s fewer people but they’re still disposable. With Transformers, we wanted people to be collecting the bots, investing in them.
"That’s the biggest difference between Earth Wars and the rest of the genre: you have three to eight bots in the field and you can use their abilities. It’s a very different play pattern to spamming 100 troops indiscriminately."
With the likes of Kim Kardashian and Arnold Schwarzenegger dominating the mobile charts, not to mention many of the ad spaces available to mobile devs, it’s easy to think devs without a celebrity of brand behind them will find it nigh on impossible to enter the charts – and multiple experts have told Develop as much.
But Hades disagrees.
"I don’t think it’s impossible at all," he says. "If you look at the free charts, there are more games without international brands than with. On the grossing charts, yes, the majority of the Top 50 are branded games – and I’m including Candy Crush and the Supercell games because they are brands in their own right.
"So the vast majority of revenue is going to games that are using brands, whether working with IP like Transformers or building your own brand. That’s the way to scale up your marketing and sustain a position in the Top Grossing charts, but I think in terms of getting out there, the platforms do a great job of allowing games without a big brand to break out. The free charts are a testament to that."