Licensed IP In Mobile Gaming: A Discovery Shortcut Or A Production Nightmare?

Marina Sapunova
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In 2007, I was leading the production of Herod’s Lost Tomb game; a PC hidden object game based on the documentary IP belonging to National Geographic. It was quite a challenging but eye-opening development that eventually led to a top-10 product and a handful of useful insights.

The gaming industry today is witnessing a mad rush into brands in search of gold. A recent report from Newzoo titled One in Four Americans Plays Games Based On Known IP, inspired me to look at the current mobile games market where the popularity of major IPs is being leveraged by many publishers to generate a shortcut to discovery and drive faster revenues.

So is IP licensing the remedy for challenging and highly expensive user acquisition?
According to Newzoo, 88 million US gamers, or 27% of the total US population in 2015, play IP branded games. But is it really the brand itself that helps them discover the game; and what’s more important, maintaining player engagement and the spending of money in it?

To answer the above, let’s try and see what brands are all about and where the challenges lie.


As a game developer, you need to know that your game will first capture the audience that loves the brand, not your game. It’s your hard work, talent, and a deep understanding of this audience that is required to make them love your game and thus enhance the love for the brand as well. The stakes are very high when you’re using other people’s IP, especially if it’s a well-known and beloved brand.


Make sure you understand which audience the IP is targeting. It influences everything from game genre and mechanics to app economy and sounds effects. Know the answers to the main questions: what’s the size of the target user group; what’s their spending capability; pay rate, ARPU? This knowledge should be fundamental for your game and should lead development and marketing from end to end. For example, when KABAM decided to create a game based on the movie Fast and Furious, the user research showed that they should not target racing cars fans but rather movie fans who want to experience car racing.


An IP license is not easy to attain (even though we’re not going into business and legal issues, focusing on production and marketing mostly). During the whole production cycle, the IP holder will most likely monitor and assure the quality of the product. It’s a great success if you can work under conditions where the licensor is your co-development partner. A good example is EA’s The Simpson’s: Tapped Out where Gracie actually took part in the development, having their real writers help create the scenarios and narrative for the game.


Unlike with your own IP, be prepared for on-going and non-stop pitching, feedback, approvals etc. It touches every asset from design, to game mechanics, in-game graphical elements and the smallest animations. This is something that needs to be foreseen, reflected in the development schedule and milestones, and carefully weighed against the production cost. It’s especially important given the current insane “go-to-market-fast” approach. But with branded IP you need to do it right from the first attempt, otherwise you’re wasting your money.


Licensed IP does offer a key benefit on the player acquisition side as the brand awareness and popularity of the IP will bring much more organic traffic and better ASO results, helping to foster the discovery. But at the end of the day, it’s the game experience that makes the product (with licensed IP or original) either a success or failure. Working closely with the licensor on every game aspect is highly important in ensuring a better game, even if it does lengthen your dev cycle. After all, you’re building the game as a service, with years (hopefully) of life. Having a brand upfront will help you at launch, but you need to put all the effort required into original IP to show lasting power and turn the brand fans into your true game fans.

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