Harnessing the power of niche IPs through video game integrations

In our latest podcast, we interviewed Hubert Marczak, Senior Business Development Manager at Techland, about integrating licensed IPs into their games. Inspired by our conversation, it got us thinking about the benefits of incorporating speciality IPs into the video game industry, and why video game studios of all shapes and sizes can benefit from licensing IP correctly. 

After all, we’ve all seen major collaborations that haven’t had the most positive of fan receptions. Soulcalibur's introduction of Yoda as a playable character was met with criticism for breaking the game's balanced mechanics due to Yoda’s height. Call of Duty's crossover with Homelander from Amazon’s TV Show, The Boys, received backlash over the overpowered nature of Homelander as a playable character, while the criticism surrounding Addison Rae’s appearance in Final Fantasy proves that bringing a big influencer into your game doesn’t always lead to positive results. 

That said, the collaborations that miss the mark are not through the want of trying. Rather, it’s often due to a mismatch between the video game and the IP being brought into the game. When developers rush into collaborations without careful consideration, they risk diluting the integrity of both IPs. If you’re looking to understand the basics of how to choose the right IP for your game, then look no further 

While big-name collaborations might seem like the obvious choice, smaller IPs often hold the key to truly meaningful and successful partnerships. With their passionate fan bases and unique appeal, these niche IPs can bring a fresh perspective and a sense of authenticity to a collaboration, allowing connections that resonate with players on a deeper level. 

There are a few things to consider when going for smaller IPs, but here are the top three reasons why you should. 

Maximising niche appeal can lead to higher player engagement

One of the main takeaways from the podcast was Marczak’s view on why the right IP isn’t always the big IP. For example, the tabletop IP Vampire: The Masquerade, isn’t as popular as major IPs they’ve collaborated with such as AMC’s The Walking Dead. Still, the in-game collaboration in Techland’s Dying Light game was a huge success with players. 

“Vampire: The Masquerade has a huge fan base of people that are really passionate. And sometimes it’s better to have a [fewer] very passionate people and fans compared to millions and millions of them that [aren’t as passionate],” Marczak tells us. 

We understand the power of towering franchises like Mario, Pokémon, and Zelda in video games. After all, Hogwarts Legacy is one of the best-selling games of 2023 due to the gargantuan reach of the IP. So, it’s easy to see why smaller IPs are overlooked. While these lesser-known brands may not boast the same global recognition, they have a unique appeal that can resonate with the most die-hard fans in ways even the biggest IPs sometimes struggle to match.

But as suggested by Marczak, smaller, more niche IPs each have their captivating world and unforgettable characters. These hidden gems may lack the widespread recognition of more established IPs, but they hold the potential to capture the hearts and minds of a much wider audience. Their fans are just as passionate, and you may not be hearing how loud they’re shouting because all of that chatter is hidden away in private Discord channels or on Reddit! 

Niche IPs, often created by passionate creators, often ‘possess an inherent authenticity that stems from their creators' unwavering dedication and love for their craft, according to Marczak. 

“I guess it came from us being gamers and being excited, and passionate about games. And you know, we all play different stuff. And while we work, we talk about ideas and what we can do. We say, ‘Hey! It would be cool to have something from these guys in our game.’ That’s why these games aren't bound by the constraints of commercial pressure or the need to appeal to the widest possible audience. They're free to explore experimental concepts, unique storytelling, and art styles that challenge the status quo.”

The experiences you get when you collaborate are more personal, imaginative, and thought-provoking than their mainstream crossovers. Niche IPs can delve into niche genres, address sensitive social issues, or explore philosophical themes that resonate with a specific subset of gamers. They cater to a community of players who crave something different, something that speaks to their unique tastes and interests.

More importantly, niche IPs often foster a strong community among their fans. The smaller, more focused audience provides a tighter-knit bond, enabling developers to connect with their players more personally. This fosters a sense of loyalty and appreciation that can be difficult to replicate in mainstream IPs' larger, more diffused fanbases.

In a world dominated by familiar franchises, niche IPs are a refreshing breath of fresh air. Collaborating with them will also allow developers to tap into new audiences. 

Collaborating with smaller IPs can lead to more creative freedom

While established franchises often follow tried-and-tested formulas, a great crossover often lies in collaborating with smaller IPs, as it can lead to unexpected and innovative gameplay. This is where Dying Light has shone. Although Techland deems the game to be AAA, they’ve not forgotten their roots and have embraced the unique opportunities presented by smaller IPs. Over the years, Techland may have partnered with larger IPs, such as The Walking Dead, Payday, and For Honor, but they’ve also had an eye for lesser-known IPs with the same effectiveness. Unturned, Hellraid, Rust, Call of Juarez, and Vampire: The Masquerade have all appeared in the game.

So, while most of Techland's in-game collaborations have been with other gaming IPs, the same principles can be applied to non-gaming IPs too. Case in point: The iconic Château de Versailles got a nod in the Just Dance video game to celebrate the 2024 Olympics in France. It’s a pretty unconventional move, pardon the pun. 

Stepping away from renowned landmarks and into the world of fashion, the Ghost Trick x Dat Cravat collaboration saw Capcom team up with the artist to inject her unique spin on the IP, resulting in a collection of captivating artwork that embodies Dat Cravat's signature style.

Also, music and gaming is taking an exciting turn with the rise of music artists collaborating with video games in unexpected ways. Sega’s mobile rhythm game, Hatsune Miku, launched a three-month-long collaboration in partnership with The Pokemon Company at the beginning of September to bring Pokemon-themed music into the game. While the Pokemon IP is one of the biggest entertainment IPs in the world, the artists singing this music are all fairly unknown Vocaloid (singing voice synthesiser) artists. 

In an interview with PCGamesN, Techland stated they’re looking for collaborations and partners who are “either very close” to Dying Light’s gameplay feel or IPs that they’re “excited about”, and this was the case with their collaboration with Vampire: The Masquerade, for example. As part of the collaboration, Dying Light 2 had a set of new missions and new weapons (including polearms) and even introduced the name game mode ‘co-op Tower Raids’.

Let’s say you take a random IP, that may be extremely famous, there will be restrictions on what is allowed regarding the gameplay or features. After all, a collaboration is to showcase both IPs, and you don’t want one overpowering the other. Marczak reiterated this in our chat.

“We want to have interest in the collaboration, not only from our players, but also internally from people that will work on the collaboration. Because then we know that they can bring something of value. If they are excited to work on it, you can be sure they will deliver the highest quality installer and whatever you want.” 

In 2023, we’ve seen this work well in various collabs. The Airship Knights x Guardians of the Video Game collaboration was a smashing success, showcasing the power of smaller IPs when they collaborate. By seamlessly blending their worlds, the developers unlocked opportunities for both IPs by introducing fresh mechanics and captivating gameplay. Through this crossover, they were able to nurture a vibrant community and generate revenue through limited-edition merchandise. 

Muse Dash collaboration with maimai DX, was a symphony of success. This crossover event, currently running until 2026, has captivated the hearts of rhythm game enthusiasts worldwide, again showcasing the power of merging two distinct IPs to create an unforgettable gaming experience.

AFK Arena's partnership with the anime series Re:Zero is a further example of the power of combining smaller IPs. The game's gacha-like nature made this crossover pairing a natural fit, catering to fans of both AFK Arena and Re:Zero. Additionally, AFK Arena's willingness to collaborate with other IPs, as seen in their character based on YouTube star Markiplier, further highlights their ability to provide creative freedom with the IP, to cater to their unique audience. 

Image via PocketGamer

Data-driven integrations are important but not the be-all and end-all 

In our chat, Marczak dropped some wisdom on us, highlighting how often creators forget the most crucial question when integrating IP into games: "Will players have fun?”. This seemingly simple yet often overlooked question holds the key to success or failure. If developers fail to prioritize player enjoyment, they risk creating collaborations that fall flat with audiences.

Of course, analytics plays a role in any decision-making when it comes to collaborations; after all, it is a major investment, but the primary focus should be on delivering engaging content. Collaborations must resonate with the gaming community's tastes, age groups, and gaming habits. Otherwise, they’ll ultimately fail. 

Metrics should be there to guide and help you refine decisions and tailor collaborations to specific audience segments. But they shouldn't be the driving force behind our choices. And this metric-driven process is the reason why the collaborations that make the most sense often get overlooked, and smaller IPs are left in the gaming wilderness. 

When you consider collaborating with IP, ask yourself, "Does this make sense for both our current players and the ones we're trying to attract?" For example, if you're a multiplayer game, you don't want to alienate either fanbase. You also want to stay within the source material that fans of the IP dislike both the game and the collaboration.

And let's not forget, sometimes, as we alluded to previously, IPs can ‘break the game’. You don't want to introduce elements that disrupt the overall experience or make the game too overwhelming for players outside the genre, so that you can horseshoe an IP into a game because the metrics say so. 

If we collaborate with a well-known IP, you should ask yourself, does it make sense for the current and newer players? For example, if you have a multiplayer game, you risk alienating both fan bases and being so detached from the source material that fans will ultimately have a negative opinion of both the game and the integrating IP. As highlighted earlier, sometimes, the IP can ‘break the game’ and lead to an unpleasant experience for gamers.

The importance of using smaller IPs for collaborations in video games

In a world dominated by familiar franchises, smaller IPs offer a refreshing alternative, providing a platform for creativity, experimentation, and authentic connections with players. By prioritizing player enjoyment over data-driven trends, developers can leverage these hidden gems to create truly memorable collaborations that elevate their games and expand their audience.

It’s important to remember that sometimes, the smallest IPs hold the key to the most powerful and memorable experiences. 

Embrace the unconventional, collaborate with passion, and let the power of smaller IPs shine through.

So our advice is: Don't be afraid to look beyond the mainstream and explore the hidden gems that could elevate your game. Sometimes, the most powerful collaborations are those that make the most sense.