August’s roundtable sees Big Time Gaming’s NIK ROBINSON, Playtech’s JAMES FRENDO and SIMON HAMMON from Relax Gaming discuss the challenges and considerations of developing titles based on popular brands or intellectual property
Nik Robinson: In terms of IP, I have always sought out the biggest and best brands for our slots, which is why you’ll find that in the BTG stable, we have created timeless classics such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire Megaways, Wheel of Fortune Megaways, and Monopoly Megaways. Other considerations are choosing brands that are relevant to gaming for bringing something out of that brand to the game in a meaningful way. For example, when we built Monopoly, we brought the actual Monopoly board into the base game and dovetailed it with the real estate elements of the classic game. With Wheel of Fortune, we brought the wheel into play, to deliver the Megaways starting position for the free spins. And with Millionaire, we introduced the ladder as a free spins delivery method, creating that exciting atmosphere and tension of the hot seat!
James Frendo: There’s no exact science to what will work as a branded slot, although we do of course consider the demographical appeal of certain brands and how that fits in with our long-term release strategy. Our process usually begins with internal workshops to identify brands we feel would be a good fit and translate to compelling slot content. We may also involve licensees in the later stages to get that vital feedback. If they see the same potential as we do, it’s a great sign.
We’re particularly excited about the launch of The Walking Dead, the first slot game based around that franchise. The show has been the most-watched cable or broadcast TV show in the US among those aged 18-49 – undoubtedly one of the most attractive demographics. But beyond that, the style of the show lends itself to slot development.
Brands don’t necessarily need to be new or current either. Some of our most popular games, such as The Matrix, are built around long-established, classic brands that appeal to a wide audience. Additionally, our studio structure enables us to develop branded games aimed at specific markets; for example, the Torrente games, which are particularly popular in Spain and LatAm markets.
Simon Hammon: This is somewhat easier now than it was a few years ago when external brands such as TV shows, music and film were considerably more restricted. It has now broadened to include the licensing of game mechanics. The business driver used to be about increased acquisition both to operators and studio content, but in a crowded lobby space this rationale has decreased, particularly for the supplier.
Choosing a branded title comes down to a few key factors: price and terms of the IP, asset availability and clearance of key talent needs, uniqueness in the market and audience resonation potential. It’s not especially difficult to get a branded title, but it’s how you work with it and how players will appreciate it that can make a material difference. The word ‘iconic’ is important here. A brand needs to resonate, not just with a specific fan-based demographic, but on a wider, more casual basis as well.
Nik Robinson: Anecdotally, with Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, I worked with Malcolm Graham from the Bernadine Group. It came down to serendipity. On the first day of the ICE 2018 conference, I bumped into Malcolm jumping off a DLR train. He had just secured the licensing of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire and was about to do the rounds at the show. During the five-minute walk from the station to the show, I subtly suggested that Millionaire Megaways could be a pretty cool use for the worldwide exclusive slot rights. Post show, Malcolm got back in touch and, after many interesting conversations, we sealed the deal with Sony. We are now onto our third Millionaire game, Millionaire Rush (out Q1 2022), which will further build on our great business partnership.
James Frendo: If possible, we prefer to work directly with a studio or brand owner to secure a partnership and rights deal. That’s not to say we would never work with a third-party agent where necessary, but direct contact allows us to build relationships and trust – something that can prove vital if a studio or brand owner is to become a long-term partner.
Once we’ve established that both sides are keen to proceed, a key point in terms of the longer negotiating process is exclusivity, and how far that exclusivity stretches. Is the partnership solely based on the rights to produce this particular slot or do the rights extend further? Is there potential to extend the branding cross-vertical to live casino or bingo? Once we have an agreement in place, the property will be assigned to one of our studios, who will put together a concept for the game. We’ll then review this alongside the brand owner for their approval before we begin development.
Simon Hammon: This depends heavily on the IP and its holder. There can be many factors that dictate how it’s used. The types of assets that come with the deal need to be discussed and whether the holder has all the rights, including elements like music. The level of involvement that the holder wants as well as the number of steps in the authorisation process also need to be considered. It’s important that factors like these are tackled early as they can alter a project’s scope and timeline significantly.
Nik Robinson: Brand owners will always provide guidelines and will need to have the right to sign off on their brand within the game. That, however, is where any influence or involvement ends with Big Time Gaming. We have a policy on all our IP agreements that explicitly eliminates the rights holder from having any involvement in the gameplay or engine development. To have the IP owner involved would be the equivalent of going to a Michelin-starred restaurant and asking the chef to boil you an egg. Building great slots is an extremely difficult process and you must be breaking new ground with every game you produce. At BTG, our 15 staff have over 200 years of combined slot development experience and we lean into this expertise with every new game we produce, be it a brand or internal IP such as Megaways™ or Bonanza!
James Frendo: The level of involvement very much depends on that brand. Our partners are rightly protective of their brands and intellectual property – and it’s precisely that investment in building a strong brand that makes us want to work with them. Aside from in-game content, the partner will usually work with us on marketing materials, allowing us to provide pre-approved assets to licensees. Regardless of the level of direct involvement, IP owners will always have the right of final approval before release.
Additionally, if we want to attract players who are particularly invested in a brand, we have to remember that they understand it very well. Superfans will spot if we get something wrong – and as they’re the very people we want to engage, it’s in our interests to get key details right.
A particularly interesting case is our Sporting Legends suite, where the individual sports stars effectively ARE their brand. It’s vital that we inject that unique personality into the games. For example, we never use stock photography – we always have a dedicated photoshoot, meaning we can capture something unique. Obviously recently that has been a challenge, but we’re pleased to confirm two new legends are joining the suite later this year.
Simon Hammon: There are no hard and fast rules. This very much depends on the IP holder in question. Some brands come as well-defined packages, with clear examples of what you can or can’t do. In other cases, assets can be woefully lacking, turning into a creative collaboration involving the joint creation of required assets.
Any IP holder is going to want to have an influence on the direction of a project. I have worked very closely with holders on certain projects and far less so with others. Both have their positives and negatives – but to create something together can be highly rewarding. On the other hand, having the freedom to develop a casino game with the brand in mind opens up different opportunities.
Nik Robinson: As I mentioned above, it has no knock-on effect as every new title we create, be it a licensed brand or our own internal brand, starts as a cleanskin both mechanically and graphically, and everything is created from the ground up, save our UI and Big Win celebrations. Performance expectations are always high with our slots as we take the time to make each game as good as it can be. Obviously to be a market leader, we strive for as close to perfection as is humanly possible.
James Frendo: The main difference is that we need to consider a brand’s style and personality, as well as any guidelines. With in-house properties, the studio is likely to be working from an existing understanding, or even developing the concept from scratch. With an external brand, the guidelines are key to bringing that brand to life. We very much value our relationships with brand partners – it’s vital they are as happy with the end result as we are.
Selecting the right studio is key. For example, for brands targeted to Spain and/or LatAm markets, our Gibraltar-based team may be able to offer an understanding of and familiarity with that brand. Even something as simple as sharing a native language can help create a smoother process.
Performance expectations are high with any new release, but the work that goes into securing a brand licence does create an extra level. We rigorously test all games, so while we obviously cannot guarantee success, we would never release a branded title unless both we and the brand owner are 100% happy. That’s not to say we don’t bring innovation to branded slots – for example, the unique mix of jackpots across our Sporting Legends suite.
Simon Hammon: The most predictable knock-on effect of working with a third party is the impact on the timeline. When this is the case it’s important to ensure that there is additional production time scripted into the development process – as it can often come with necessary approval and discussion items, which need to be factored for an effective sync. When it comes to internal production, the decision process is predictable, but with an external group there can be a chain of approvals needed from different parties that can slow development.
Nik Robinson: There is a huge audience for big-branded titles but with anything, you have to do it right. You could have the greatest, most popular brand in the world, but this alone means nothing without the skills to bring out the best in that brand, including the team that puts the game together. We’ve seen huge interaction from our casual players on our social media jumping on these branded slots as well as seasoned players who love doing live streams on Twitch and YouTube. There is no place in this industry for compromising on quality, and if you are taking on the responsibility of bringing a brand to market then it’s worth creating something that will become as magnificent as the brand you’re licensing!
James Frendo: There is of course a built-in recognition factor with branded titles, which can spark interest from more casual players who are particularly enthusiastic about a certain brand. That’s why we work closely with the brand owners to bring a property to life; to ensure the game reflects the themes, characters or personalities behind it. We want to create something distinctive that captures the spirit of a brand – players will quickly disengage if they feel a game is simply a generic offering with a logo on it. If we put time and resource into creating a branded game, it is vital to make the most of that opportunity.
Because of that, our key goal is always to create a great game, first and foremost. The fact that it is a great branded game is a secondary point in many ways. A popular brand, strongly executed, will undoubtedly attract players, but it won’t keep them coming back to play again if the gameplay isn’t engaging in its own right. Some of our most consistently popular titles are branded slots; for example, Gladiator, which has become evergreen over the past few years. That simply doesn’t happen if the brand alone is the selling point.
Simon Hammon: The audience can vary hugely depending on the brand. Naturally, a brand can also polarise some opinions, so it’s important when choosing a brand that it has a broad appeal. If a brand is too niche, then you risk putting off casual players or even fans.
A branded game can often attract curiosity to see how it’s been adapted, which, when faced with a lot of choices in a lobby is going to be a key element to player acquisition. While a brand can be enticing, it will ultimately be the features and gameplay that will dictate the game’s level of engagement.
It’s important to remember that a brand doesn’t necessarily yield higher performance. In fact, it can do the complete opposite if the brand itself doesn’t resonate with the audience or if the mechanics of the game have been made less exciting in order to cater to the brand in some way. This can be further exacerbated if fans of the brand feel it could have been done better. Blending a fantastic mechanic with a popular brand is a recipe for success but this can be a tough line to walk.