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Ep. 3: How Indie Studio Dlala Scored a Licensing Deal with Disney w/ AJ Grand-Scrutton


How did Indie Studio Dlala land a licensing deal with Disney? This week on the licensing in games podcast we talk to the CEO of Dlala studios, AJ Grand-Scrutton to discuss their recent game, Disney illusion Island. AJ talks about how Dlala, an indie studio based out of Essex, UK, landed a collaboration the IP giant that is Disney. He shares his knowledge on how to make a successful IP based game, how to compose an enticing pitch and how licensed IP has worked for Dlala.Join us for this special episode live right now!


Read the episode transcript here

Mitch: 0:03

Welcome to the Licensing in Games Podcast from Layer. My name is Mitch, I’m with Rachit. And today we’re really excited to be speaking with AJ Grand-Scrutton. For the past 10 years, AJ has been the CEO of Dlala Studios, which is an Indie game studio that he also founded. Prior to that, AJ was working for the creator of one of my favorite games, which is RuneScape. And that’s, of course, Jagex. And Dlala is no stranger to working with licensed IP. They’ve created a game called Disney Illusion Island, and also worked with the famous Battletoads IP. So today, AJ is going to be talking to us about some of his motivations for working with IP and some best practices for acquiring an IP license. Thanks for chatting with us, AJ.

AJ: 0:52

No, thank you very much for having me.

Mitch: 0:55

Awesome. So like I said in the intro, you’ve created two IP base games. You’re no stranger to working with IP. So, maybe you could just start with a bit of an intro about your studio, Dlala Studios and a little bit about the games that you’ve created so far.

AJ: 1:12

Yeah, sure. No problem. So, we formed Dlala in 2012. So, it was originally myself and my co-founder, Craig Thomas. We both work together with Jagex. And then I took him over with me when I went to Bossa Studios. And it got to a point, at Bossa, where it felt right to leave. So, we had a chat, and we were like... At the time, we had no mortgage and no kids. So, we’re like, “If we’re going to ever do this, let’s do it now.” In 2012 — you might remember — it was almost like, it was just after the peak of the Indie game movement. Like, the Indie game movement had been building for years. We’d had the stuff like Braid and Super Meatboy. And if an Indie game, the movie had not long come out, which was very influential in the decision, and we kind of formed the studio. And it was very cliché. It was me at my mom’s garage. Craig working from his girlfriend’s mom’s spare bedroom. We had roughly 3,000 pound between the two of us and no plan. So, it wasn’t a game idea or any plan. It was just like, “Hey, we’re two dudes that love working together. Let’s do this week.” Yeah, and kind of over the last 10 years, it’s been absolutely insane. I think, we just about to hire our 37 full-time employee. We’ve worked with some original stuff early on in our career. Our big stuff is, we did Battletoads, as you mentioned, in 2020. And we’re doing Disney Illusion, I don’t now, which is a Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy game. Well, alongside that, we’ve also helped other studios out. So, before Battletoads, we worked with [unclear 2:48]. So, we worked with [unclear 2:50] for about six months before that came out. And it’s just kind of been this amazing roller coaster, to be honest. I don’t think either of us ever predicted. Craig left the studio a few years ago and then came back last year. So yeah, it’s just been this wonderful thing where we have this big phrase on our wall. And it’s very cheesy, but it’s very true. And that the whole mantra of the Dlala Studios is, “Make games we love for people to love with people we love.” That’s the whole point. Like, we want to just make... We spent the first few years of our career not necessarily making games we were passionate about or not necessarily working with people we got on that well with. So, we founded the studio just on this mentality of like, let’s only work with people we like. Let’s only work with people we like. And let’s only make stuff that we really want to make. Like, if we want to make money, we might will quit games and be programmers in the financial industry. So if we’re going to do this, if we’re going to sacrifice a lot of ourselves, we might as well do it for stuff we’re passionate about.

Rachit: 3:52

A beautiful philosophy, I’m sure, in terms of building a team and even coming to work every day. That’s gonna make it easier. And congrats on all the growth. And I guess the story today almost sounds like one of those classic founder, entrepreneurial stories where it’s like, “Hey, like if this is the time we’re gonna try and do something, this is one we’re going to do it, and it kind of naturally forces you to grow on the way that you grow.” And so, I appreciate you sharing that story there. I’m keen to dig into, I guess, the backstory to Disney Illusion Island a little bit. I know online... And I think you’ve spoken about it previously. It sounds like it kind of started cooking up around 2016 or maybe in the past, and I don’t know if it’s the same game or separate, but I’d love to hear, I guess, when did you first start working on and what was the backstory and were there any learnings from that experience over a time to kind of where you’re at now with Illusion Island.

AJ: 4:55

Yeah, definitely. So yeah, we’re working with Disney and we were working on a Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy game in 2015. It wasn’t the same game. So, the only thing in common between the two games was that they were both 2D platform based. And they’ve started Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy. There’s no similarities. And even the character design and art style are completely different from this one. But yeah, I mean, that was insane. Like, in 2015, when we signed that Disney deal. That was a meaty deal. We were six of us. And we had literally just moved out of the garage. And when I mean, literally, we moved into what is now Dlala HQ. We had no desks. We had no chairs. We’d only power in the building, because it was a dance studio for 10 years when we took it over. So, we designed it. We just put power while we were all sitting on the floor for weeks. And that is the state we were in as we finished our previous game overall and started the game in 2015. And yeah, the way that came about, it’ll never let me forget this. So, the very potential sounding thing. We want an agent. So, we signed to an agency out in America, [Unclear] Creative Artists Agency. And our agent Derek is a longtime friend. We’ve been with them now since 2014. By they signed us when we were no ones in the garage, like literally, no one had ever heard of us. And they took a gamble. So I flew out to DICE in Las Vegas, right? I flew to DICE in January 2015. And I had 33 meetings in three days. So, 33 meetings in three days. And we’re pitching an original concept at the time. And out of all 33 meetings, there was one meeting, I turned to Derek and I said, “I think it’d be a waste of time for me to go to this meeting.” And he said, “No, you said you go to every meeting I booked you.” I said, “Yeah, but they’re not going to be interested in us. We’re not good fit. Like, I just don’t think it’s worth going.” So that was Disney. So he forced me to go to that meeting. And that was the only bite we got. And it was only bite we cared about at that point in the end. So, the meeting with Disney went really well. They asked if I could fly to Los Angeles when I was in the State. So, I flew out to LA like two days later. And then the next thing you know, we were going and we were suddenly making this Mickey, Minnie, Doland, Goofy game. And it was incredible. And it was amazing. And we got to work with this great IP and stuff. But in 2016, Disney had to change direction. They decided they no longer wants to be a publisher. They were moving into Licensing. And it meant that we just got kind of caught up in that and our project got cancelled. And I can say now, best thing that ever happened to us. Best thing that ever happened to us was that project getting canceled. We were not ready. Like we were not ready. And we didn’t feel it back then like it wasn’t like, “Oh my God, we’ve signed this and we can’t do it.” But looking back in retrospect, we just weren’t ready. Like, there’s no way we would have been ready to make Illusion Island if we hadn’t made Battletoads. And that’s the easiest way I can put it to you, guys. We were trying to make that first Mickey game with what would it have been 12 full-time staff and five contractors. I mean, it was a small team. We didn’t really know what we were doing. We’ve made games. We only want to make games. It wasn’t any problem with that side of things. And the team’s incredibly talented, but we just hadn’t been through enough and grown enough as individuals, and grown enough as a team. So whilst it was heartbreaking, it was 100% the best thing that ever happened because it meant we got more experience, we worked on some of our own stuff to kind of improve our tools, [unclear 8:47], which is amazing to be a part of. That led to Battletoads, which was an absolute, literally dream come true. So, it meant when the conversation came back around, — when was it — we started talking to Disney again around 2019. Like, we were ready. Like, I was so confident I knew we could make this game. Like, I really knew what this game was. I knew we could make it. And I look at what we’re making now, I am playing the full thing at the moment end to end on loop just to review it and I’m like: “This is 100 times better than anything we could have ever made four or five, six years ago.”

Mitch: 9:25

Yeah, it’s a cool learning that you had to create another IP based game that... The stakes are still really high, but it’s not dizzy, right? And that gave you the confidence that you needed to go and create Illusion Island. So that’s really cool. I guess my next question, and maybe it’s a little bit cynical for me to say, but sometimes it feels like the motivations behind IP based games these days can be a little bit too commercial in nature. And when I had a look at your website, that’s clearly not the case for you and your team. When I read the article in games industry recently, it’s obvious that you guys have a passion for these IPs. So, I’m curious as to what was the motivation to work with licensed IP originally other than chance meetings at DICE that you didn’t want to go through. And why these IPs in particular? Why Battletoads? Why Disney?

AJ: 10:27

Yes, so when we started the studio, zero interest in license. I mean, you guys know well. This is your area of expertise. You think in 2012, connotations around licensed stuff in 2012 were not great, right? We’ve seen the kind of [unclear 10:42] kids market stuff had happened. So yeah, we’ve never really thought about it. We were just like, you know what, we loved Earthworm Jim, we loved all those games. We just wanted to make IP like that people know. When we pitched the Disney, we were pitching in 2015 an original concept. They were the ones that then turned around and went, “Hey, look, we are not going to do anything with Mickey for a while in games as [unclear 11:10]. Epic Mickey was a lot of stuff. Would you guys be interested in that?” And we love Disney. No, we love Disney stuff, right? No, it’s not a gimmick. I mean, my office is full of it. I mean, just on my desk alone, I can literally pull out one Mickey here. I’ve got Oswald over here. I’ve got my Mickey director here. And whoever in their right mind, with what, with 2.5 years, three years into our life as a studio, right? At this point in 2015, I am four or five, six years into my career. Why would it ever have crossed my mind that Disney would give me Mickey. Why would Disney give six dudes in [unclear 11:55]? So, the only time I’d ever considered anything licensed, and it wasn’t even really license, it was Battletoads ironically. So, first bit of public speaking I ever did was the year we formed it. It was 2012. And I was doing a talk about making Jinx, our very first game. And this guy comes up to me while I’m talking to other people and says, “Hey, look, I know you’re busy. Let me know if you want to chat.” And he hands me a card. And it’s Craig Duncan, the studio head of Rare. And I’m looking at a card and I’m like, “Is this real Rare!” And we just formed a really great friendship. And we were instantly chatting about grunge music and stuff. So, what followed was, every time I’d hang out with Craig, I’d always be like, “Can I Battletoads? Can I Battletoads?” So from 2012, I was asking for Battletoads, right? We get to 2015. I’ve still not got Battletoads. But suddenly, I’m getting offered Mickey. So yeah, we just started making a Mickey-Mouse game. And the great thing was, it’s like I mean, I’ve got it. There you go. It feels like I’m set up here. And if you saw my desk. So like, this is my childhood copy of Castle of Illusion in quick short. I still don’t understand why I make a [unclear 13:03] games, I mean, in such good condition. Like, we love these games, my best friend Mark, who’s my IT director here, when we were kids of school, we used to replay world of illusions every year. So, getting a chance to make a spiritual successor was an absolute no brainer. I could not give a flying crap about the money side. All I’ve ever cared about is that I can pay my staff well that we’re safe, we’re secure and we’re doing something we love. So, it was never a cash grab for us. I mean, I can’t even remember what percentage of backend we would have even had on that first deal, probably minimal, if anything. So yeah, it was really coincidence. It was just an off chance meeting and somebody saying to me, “Hey, do you want Mickey Mouse? And be in a lifelong Mickey Mouse’s [Unclear]?” I was like, “Yes!” Who would say no to that question?

Rachit: 14:03

Two questions that come out are like, what made them do that IPs? I mean, it sounds like it was almost surprising. And like... Did you pitch to them? Was there something that you did? Did you talk about your passion for the Disney universe and Mickey that got them excited? Like, which way did it go? And the reason I asked is, I know that you’ve previously spoken about kind of a pre-pitch checklist on approaching IP holders. And part of that is, you only pitch for IP you love. Was that part of this or did something else affected? What was important here to make this kind of deal come about it at that time? Because it does sound surprising unless they were impressed by the garage that you’re moving into.

AJ: 14:54

Yeah. Look, the talk I did the other day when I spoke about good ways to pitch for IP is like... AJ 2015 didn’t know any of that stuff. I did not know any of that. So, that was none of that. We pitched an original concept. And I’m trying to remember which one it was. And we spoke about our old games. And we spoke about Overlord. So, Overlord was our very first proper game we made. And we call it like one of the ugliest games ever made, but we love that game. But the core concept of Overlord was the fact, we want you to take a brawler, which we did a really bad job of, because we ended up making Battletoads, I combine it with something like the card game flux. And what we loved about that was like the rules are always changing, but the players control the rules changes. So overall, we ended up this weird rule where you picked up cards and you played them as you were playing, and you could suddenly be in a deathmatch, and you’d play this card and you’d be captured a flag, or you play another card, and it’d be a swag bag. And it was this weird, dynamically, always changing game. And we spoke about that with Disney. Like, they just wanted to check. I would talk about... We love this pitch, but it might not be right for us. Can you tell us about you? And that click with them. Because I think they had internally been having this thing where they were like, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great to have like a really weird dynamic shift in weld for Mickey experience?” And so that was kind of almost pure coincidence. And I think like, it resonated with who I was speaking to so much, so they wanted us to fly to LA to meet this executive producer. So, I flew to Los Angeles to have an Indian meal with a producer from England who lived in America. And, of course, we just got on really well. It was a great conversation. I think the dinner must have lasted three or four hours. And we’re just chatting about games, about how we approach games, or who we are and what we want to do. And that’s when they were like, “Look, we want to do something interesting with Mickey. We don’t want to do with AAA. We don’t want to go to a big studio. We think you guys would be an interesting fit for it. Would you be interested?” So, that’s kind of how it initially came about. They said they like what we had done, and what we spoke about was kind of fit with where they wanted to go philosophy wise in 2015. And a lot of the stuff I talked about, only pitching what you’re passionate on, where that helped in that situation was, when we did the formal pitch. So, when we did the formal pitch to go from pre- production to production in 2015 that was really where the first signs of that really would have shown. Like, I think if you look back through even my early Battletoads decks, I don’t think they’re reflective of kind of what I was saying, I think. I was trying to give Rare and Craig what I felt they wanted rather than what I felt about the product. And I think you can see kind of the early, kind of moving towards what we now have as our pitching philosophy as we will do in the production pitch by the 2015 guy. So yeah, it wasn’t like, I didn’t actively go looking for Mickey, I didn’t actively go... I actively tried to get out a Disney meeting, like genuinely I tried to get out of the Disney meeting originally. And we just got on well and it was nice. And because I think it’s important to remember, like Disney had done a lot of big budget games, right? They did Epic Mickey. Then they bought the studio. And they built Epic Mickey II. And I think they want you to like what does a smaller Mickey title look like. What does Mickey title look like through the lens of just a small creative studio? So yeah, like most of the Dlala entire history, right time at right place and it just aligned.

Mitch: 18:42

Yeah, that’s cool. It’s great to hear like the kind of... I guess it’s refreshing to hear that the IP wanted to take a different approach as well and not just go to an AAA studios. It sounds like things lined up really well. So, in the article — and for anyone who’s not aware of the article we’re talking about — AJ has gave a talk recently, where that ended up being a games industry, this article. And you talk about three things that go into a pitch when you’re pitching, like what you should be trying to accomplish, which is, show an awesome idea, show an awesome team and show an awesome knowledge of the IP. I think those are three really interesting topics. So can you break down a little bit what goes into each of those and then maybe some best practices for any game developers who are aspiring to work with IP?

AJ: 19:44

Yeah, sure. I’m glad you I wanted to be what those three points were because I could remember how... I mean, the awesome idea, this is the bit I kind of mentioned in my talk. This is the no brainer that I can’t really help you with. This is a one way, like if you don’t have this, then there’s no point doing anything else. Don’t bother even trying. Most legitimately good IP holders and licensors want to make something awesome with their IP, because it devalues the IP if you don’t. So, you just got to have a really cool strong concept. And this isn’t necessarily why everyone says. But there’s almost myth that you have to have something brand new and completely original. And I don’t think that’s true. And that’s not me saying that I make derivative games. But let’s be honest, games have been around for much longer than any of us have now. So, it’s very hard to not do something which is relatable to other ideas. And in fact, most publishers want you to relate your game pitches to other ideas. The common thing you have is a razor slide, which is free titles that you can point to and say, “Hey, we’re taking influence from or...” I think I showed the Battletoads slide. And that one was God of War for like the free flowing set pieces jumping between. And it had the original Battletoads, which obviously, is an influence on the Battletoads pitch. So, you have to show three titles and usually at least two of them have to be very successful. There’s no point pitching obscure Indie stuff for free of them, because then the publisher goes, google, “Oh, great, 100,000 units,” which is an amazing amount of [unclear 21:22], but your publisher, they’re like. “That’s only gonna get me a 1.75 return on my investment. Why would I bother doing that?” So it’s not about being necessarily fully originals, but having something awesome. So if you’ve got this awesome idea, which is even amalgamation of stuff you’ve loved. But that’s a great starting point. Then you have to demonstrate it, explain that idea, and explain it in a way that people that don’t know games would understand. Like there’s no point going in there using insider terms and trying to look really clever, because the people to sign off on the IP might know nothing about games, like Battletoads. I knew I was pitching to game company. So not necessarily a concern. Even Mickey, like Mickey was Disney games. But still, at some point, we’d to put together some materials for people who were part of wider Disney that aren’t in the games division. So, make sure you can explain what your game is to people that don’t know anything about games. But yeah, I can’t really help with the awesome idea part. The awesome team, so two parts this really breaks into for me. Why this team and why now? That’s what this bit comes down to. So, what is the opportunity currently? And this is something really that was drilled into me by Craig Duncan, when I was pitching them Battletoads. Like, Craig was like, “Look, we’re not just pitching this to Rare to sign off. We’re pitching this to Phil Spencer, like Phil Spencer, who signs the checks, for Halo, for Gears of War, right? So why does it make sense for Phil Spencer to reinvigorate [unclear 22:54] of a century old IP that hasn’t done anything?” So that was about talking about the opportunity. So with Battletoads, the stuff I spoke about there was like, “Hey, this is [unclear 23:04] is really popular right now. You look at Deadpool. You look at Rick and Morty. Like, it’s a really great position for that type of humor.” Battletoads had a lot of cult following, the whole Gamestop meme. All of this stuff is showed it’s relevant. We also know it performed really well. And wherever you play so... Like that was kind of the opportunity, the why now. But then why this team? Okay, well look, the part of why this team breaks down to this. Show why your team is awesome. And to show why your team is awesome, that doesn’t necessarily mean show the stuff you have done together as a team, show that if you’ve got it. If you’ve got an amazing track record as a team, show those games off, but also what have your team done as individuals? Like we’ve got Eric Ciccone, who is our Animation director. Eric’s first job was working on Earthworm Jim. So he worked an Earthworm Jim I, he worked on Earthworm Jim II. He then worked on the Neverhood stuff. He had this amazing career where he did stuff like Marvel games. And he was jumping between 2D and 3D. But Eric is, in my opinion, one of, if not, the best animator in the industry. So, [unclear 24:10] his whole CV in there, I said, “Look, we’re pitching you a 2D hand drawn game. This dude works on some of the best looking games to date that was 2D hand draw. And then show how many team members have gone, right? I was working with one of my studios I mentor, and they were really worried because as a team they specifically done original IPs that were awesome, but they were pitching for licensed staff. But as individuals those guys had worked on like the Lego games and things like this. And I was like that is gold. I put that stuff in there. So, that’s the technical side. Show why you’re the right team for this project. Then, also I’ve explained why you want to do this. Like for me, the big obvious, I put into any pitch I do for an IP is, I put a big heart and I put the Dlala logo and the logo of the game, because we’re only pitching on stuff with facts on. So, what better reason to give us the game then the fact that we are an awesome studio who absolutely loves this IP. You’ll find there’s a lot of awesome studios. There’s a lot of awesome studios. And there is a lot of people that love this IP. But is there a big crossover? How does that Venn diagram actually see it? So, making it very clear that you love the IP and you are the right team for the job is super important. And then what was my last point? What was the last one? It was an awesome idea, awesome team and then?

Mitch: 25:36

Awesome idea, awesome team and awesome knowledge of the IP.

AJ: 25:40

Awesome knowledge of the IP. How ironic that I forget the knowledge one. So, I think, I mentioned this in that talk. And this is very much a me thing. But the reason I think this is important is that everyone should understand that, all these big license titles we work on, we’ve never made a prototype for. We’ve signed these on the back of pitches, right? So, a big part of that, for me, is that because it’s only stuff I love, I can just immerse myself in it fully. I mean, I’ve got a bookshelf full of Mickey and Disney books over here that I read. God knows how many books. I rewatched every single short that Mickey was basically. It is like, I just reabsorbed all this Mickey stuff. Because what I really believe is that when you get given an IP, you become a gatekeeper. You might not be the gatekeeper, you’re not the final sign off, but you are in charge of this version of this character. There’s a lot of controversy of all the stuff I did with Battletoads in terms of like what I did with Dark Queen and stuff like that. But Rare trusted me to be the gatekeeper for those characters. And so they were my decisions to make. And that is how I felt about Mickey and Friends for Illusion Island. If I’m the gatekeeper, I need to know. Like, if my team come to me, and they’re like, “Oh, we’re thinking of doing this? “And the answer is no. Like, if the answer is no from an IP perspective, I need to be able to eloquently explain to them why. Like, “Mickey wouldn’t do this because...” Or like, “That’s great, but Minnie doesn’t actually talk like this for this reason.” And so it meant, I have to know that stuff. And I have to know their stuff at pitch level. Like, for me to feel confident, I want to walk into a room, and I’ve never had an IP holder test me. You know what I mean. I’ve never had them go. “Okay AJ, so everyone knows that Steamboat Willie came out in 1928. But do you know when...?” And then start giving me random and pop quizzes. But if you’re gonna talk passionately about something, being able to back that up with a really sturdy knowledge. It’s just a great weapon to have in your arsenal, right? Like, I can give these references. I can talk about the stuff we’ve taken from the new wonderful world of Mickey stuff, or the stuff that really goes harks all the way back to the early stuff like Through the Mirro, playing crazy, all those early cartoons and wider stuff in the middle didn’t necessarily sit right for me for what we’re doing, because it appeal to a different audience. So yeah, I truly believe that you need to do homework, you need to put the timing. And if you’re not willing to do that, then there’s just no point doing it. Because you need that knowledge to make the game, because we’ve all paid bad license titles. And yeah, let’s be honest, 9 times out of 10, a lot of them are bad because they could give an eight months to make it to hit a movie date. That was the old way, right? But also there are those 1 out of 10 times where it’s bad because someone just shoved the IP as a skin on top of what they were already doing. Like you said, it was a cash grab, and they didn’t really care about the IP. So like, you play it, and you’re instantly like, “Oh, this is weird. This character probably wouldn’t do that. What I know about this character says they wouldn’t do this.” Yeah, I just think it’s really important to really just know, as much as you possibly can, early on. And also it will tell you very quickly. Like if you struggle to sit there and spend a weekend absorbing this stuff, then how you going to spend the next two years of your life making the game about it?

Mitch: 29:17

For sure! And I think, like you said, it’s a big responsibility being the gatekeeper of the IP. And I think that’s probably one of the big things that an IP owner looks for, as well as, does this person do their stuff and how they’re going to take good care of not just the character but the whole universe and the story as well? So just on the best practices of the guide, I noticed there wasn’t anything in there about demonstrating the possible commercial upside or doing revenue forecasts or any kind of the functional stuff that you tend to see in other IP licensing guides. So, I’m curious... Like, do you think that if you demonstrate an awesome idea, awesome team, awesome knowledge of the IP that commercial discussions just kind of take care of themselves?

AJ: 30:06

So, as always. Disclaimer, I always give. I am talking from my experience, what has worked for us. Why would I tell Disney how commercial Mickey Mouse is? Why would I tell where how commercial Battletoads is? Where am I going to derive the information on that IP? Well, really the only place you can properly get that is from the IP holder. Otherwise, what you’re actually doing is, you’re doing pretty generic market research. And you’re going, “Hey, it’s kind of like these games. These games did these numbers.” That is a conversation, in my opinion. And this is why we always say to a partner, this is a conversation that we should have, this is a conversation that to Dlala, the Licensor or the Dlala, the License publisher, depending on the setup. This is a conversation where you should have, but they know how commercial their properties are. Like, really, the time you need that invoice when you go into a third party, if you then go into a publisher to justify it, that’s something you and the licensor should work with. And I think if the IP holder isn’t necessarily willing to do them or divulge that information, it’s probably a bit of a red flag, to be honest. I’d never in a million years to ask Disney for the numbers for Mickey. I’d never be like, “Can you just give me the commercial breakdowns for that and that?” Well, I also have to face that like, if we will go into someone else to raise some funding that Disney would do everything they could to make it happen, if they wanted it to happen, and they would explain why is commercially aligned, etc. So, yeah, I never put that stuff in the deck. Because all I’m really doing is guessing, let’s be honest. That’s all I’m doing. I’m guessing or I’m deriving it from other things. The closest I will probably do is sometimes in the opportunity, I will go like. “So, I’m trying to think of a good example, one of our pitches.” So, let’s assume I’m doing a [unclear 32:03], a family friendly title, right? Like, easy justification for that, a few years ago, was to go, “Hey, look at Nintendo. Mario is doing really well, again. Sonic is coming back and doing really well. Classic IP that as a family reaches doing well. Here’s some great examples of titles.” But that’s really as far as my commercial deep dive would go with it. Because my expectation is, if I’m talking to an IP holder and I’m trying to pitch on something that is not really that commercially viable, they’re probably telling me pretty rudely because they’re not going to want to waste their time.

Mitch: 32:41

I mean, if you demonstrate all those things, it should be pretty obvious that you get to make a successful game, right? So it makes sense.

AJ: 32:46

What we bring? What we bring is an awesome game. We don’t bring a deep dive commercial knowledge. In fact, in a month’s time, we will have, but we’ve never had a market in person in hands. We just made our first marketing, hire the [unclear 33:00] on December. So yeah, I just think that is their conversations, I think, an IP holder or licensor should be hopefully willing to have with you.

Rachit: 33:11

I guess the flip of that is, if your job is not necessarily as much around the commercial side of things, I think you mentioned a couple things previously with... You had to kind of talk about the benefit of how to bring Battletoads back. The kind of IP that’s been kind of less active over the last few years, or even as you mentioned with Disney and how they wanted to kind of work with not the AAA at the time. I think, I guess the question I’m interested there is, how do you show the licensor the benefits that you might have for the IP that are potentially not just evident in dollars or figures as part of your proposals, or how would you recommend other studios to illustrate to the kinds of IP holders that this is what we’re going to do for that IP? This is how am I land for the audience or the fans or like, the benefits that they might receive in that regard?

AJ: 34:09

Yeah, a really awesome deck, like a really awesome deck, and it doesn’t have to be the most beautiful deck in the world. But your pitch has to be on point. Your pitch has to be captivating. You’re telling a story, but every good pitch... And this is why I always... Any of my mentees, this is what I always work with them on, right? Your pitch deck is you telling a story. You are selling a story to person you’re pitching to. If you can’t captivate your audience at that level, then that doesn’t look good for you to captivate an audience when you’re making the game, right? And it’s hard, because... I’m very lucky. I think I inherited the gift of gab from my dad. Like my dad has always been a wonderful talker in terms of like... We’d walk in to buy something and we’d walk out with free freebies as well as the thing we bought. And that has definitely helped me a lot with this. So, I know I’m lucky but I hate public speaking to start with. And I’ve hated this. So, it took a lot of practice. Like, when I first started, I’d rehearse 20-30 times. And now, I don’t. It’s same like interviews like this. I won’t read the questions or have Kim, my personal assistant, read the questions to make sure I’m not gonna get in trouble. But I worry, if I rehearse, then the problem I have is that, if I’m working to a script and somebody asks a question I’m not expecting or I fumble, I lose it, or I have to go completely ad lib improv, right? But that’s once again, where the knowledge stuff comes in. If I know the pitch, I know the team, I know the IP, then I can do it as I’m going. Yeah, I think you just have to sell yourself and sell the idea properly. That’s where the deal is. If you’ve got a gimmick, great! If you are... Our gimmick, now, I guess is like the 2d stuff. It’s a lot easier for me to pitch a 2D title than for 3D title, because... Well, the 2Ds [unclear 36:06], all the hand drawn stuff. So, it’s knowing that. Being just having a deep dive knowledge of you, your team, and the IP. And then yeah, I think the opportunity is the good thing there. It’s not about market viability. It’s about how ready the market is. It’s about like... I always try to avoid games where I can when I’m pitching a game is that stuff like, “Hey, look at this blockbuster movie. Look at this. There is an audience exists here that isn’t necessarily being catered for.” And you could go spend 50 million on a game and you could do it for AAA house who will probably have a percentage of their team that love the IP. Or you could spend a fraction of that money, quicker turn around with a team who really loved this IP. And that is what we will give you. We will give you this unbridled passion or creativity. So, like I said, it’s not going to work every time. I mean, my failure rate is much higher than my success rate. But great thing about this industry is, one success can last you 2-4 years. So, even if my [unclear 37:12] average is absolutely awful, as long as I keep going up there and taking a swing, I am hopefully gonna keep going till then.

Mitch: 37:17

Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the things you spoke about earlier is kind of where the industry was in regards to license IP when you first started thinking about it in 2012, and some of the kind of negative connotations around it. I think it’s really cool. Now, that there are so many opportunities in licensed IP, it’s not just AAA studios anymore, who gets the opportunity to work with it on movie release, or whatever it is. And I guess one of the things we see is a lot of smaller studios, who might not have an even a title in market, much less, one that’s IP based. But one of the things I do have is, they have this really awesome team. It might be like they’ve just launched the studio. They’re really keen to work with licensed IP. I think you’ve kind of already given some good advice here, because you’re an Indie studio yourselves. But what would be some of your advice to small studios just looking to get into licensed IP as a type of game to create?

AJ: 38:25

Yeah, it’s a great question. And I think, first thing is, what IP you love? First question you asked yourself and your team, what IP do you love that you could spend years living in? And make a list. Just make a list and go wild. Because at first you sit there and you go, “I’d kind of like to do this or that.” But I think once you actually sit down a bit of paper, “Oh God [unclear 38:48], those lists have been 2020 IPs long, right?” And also remember that IP doesn’t just mean film or a TV show. It can mean the book. It can mean an old title with games, like Battletoads wasn’t an established media IP. It was this game I loved it in 90s. So make that list and then try and figure out who owns those. 90% of the time — I’m not gonna lie to you — is probably Disney. It could probably be Disney. Because they own so many of the big IPs now. But I figured out and then look at who else is doing anything with this IP. For instance, pitching [unclear 39:30] is not a great idea. Because we know Insomniac making a Wolverine game, unless you can bring something very different to the table. Like very, very different. Or if you’re pitching on something where there’s been a title in the last five years, how were you separating yourself from that title? And then just take a gamble. Like, you need to reach out. Make sure you’ve got an awesome idea that works for it. We’ve been through that. We’ve been through my three awesome points. But start trying to find a way in to have those conversations and that is really hard to start with. Go to Expo’s, go to Develop, go to DICE, if you can. That’s where you will need to spend a little amount of money you have when you’re a startup. It is the networking side of things. And it’s always swing for the stars, right? If you’re just starting, it’s going to be very hard to go out there and get StarWars. Let’s be honest, it’s going to be very hard to start up and instantly go for StarWars, especially if you’re a small startup who has not got a track record. Let’s be honest. Like, we got Mickey by Fluke in 2015. Absolute fluke! If we’d gone for it six months earlier, six months later, probably wouldn’t happen, why? It’s just time place coincidence. But figure out your different tiers of stuff. Like, have StarWars and your Mickey’s on that list at the top. And what’s the stuff below that? What’s the stuff that’s a little bit more quirky? Is there a comic book you really love? And what is your motivation? Are you trying to get an IP that you license, you pay a license fee for, you pay an MG for? Or are you trying to find something where you’ll get paid to make the game, like paid up front. And now your [unclear 41:20] are narrowing down your list almost naturally by doing all of that. But all it matters is that the thing you’re pitching on is something you think you could do a better job on than anyone else. And make sure...

Mitch: 41:33

I think that’s a really good point to around the tiers, right? Because I think, you might get fixated on a specific IP, but not realize that, like there’s multiple other IPs that you might actually love that are in the same genre or the same as seen that are still going to... Like, you still enjoy them, you can still create a similar kind of game with similar mechanics. So, I think it’s a really good point. You don’t have to shoot for the stars, but you should also kind of have a tiered list.

AJ: 42:06

Yeah, we do. We’re 10 years down the line. We’ve still got a tiered list where we’re kinda like, “This is the stuff that like...” I mean, Mickey was top of that list. After 2016 and it all went away, we never thought it would happen, but it still stayed there. But we still have a tiered list of like, “Oh my God, how fun would this been be?” Like, we could do a quick little waiting 24 month turn around on this [unclear 42:30].” And then we’ve got the stuff where it’s like four years... We want to four years big title, this is the thing where it takes us to the top of this new AA kind of breakdown for studio. So, we still think about that to this day. But everything on that list, it’s that old thing where you don’t pitch something, you don’t want someone to say yes to. Don’t just pad out your list. Only pitch something you want to do. And that’s kind of what all this is.

Rachit: 42:57

What’s the flip here? What do you see going wrong most often? Or what do you think studios do that potentially aren’t exposed to licensing or haven’t done this as much like... Even, what did you get wrong the first few times? Is it reaching for stuff that’s out of your reach? Or is it having the expectations wrong? Or leaning into it the wrong way? And just kind of working with anything that’s up there? Like, where do you think developers and studios can hurt themselves the most?

AJ: 43:30

Yeah. Well, first of all... And this is a conversation I’ve had. I think it’s very hard to do damage that you can’t come back from, with the exception of being a bad person and being actively a bad person and rude. I think... Like a bad pitch doesn’t tarnish you, because I’ve done bad pitches. I’ve definitely done bad pitches. But I think where small studios go wrong, it’s actually the question you asked me earlier, where small studios go wrong is, when they try and pitch to big IP holders how they’re going to monetize their IP in ways outside of the game. Like, could you imagine...? Let’s say Lucas. I just go from Lucas film. Could you imagine if I went to Lucas film and I pitched them a StarWars game, and one of my slides in that was telling them how I feel I’m going to drive revenue into their consumer produce? I think I’m going to sell StarWars toys. They will look at me and be like, “We’re still paying royalties on StarWars toys from 1970. Why are you telling me how you...?” And I think that’s sometimes where small studios go wrong, because there’s a lot of guides out there. And there’s a lot of talks where people tell you to do that. Show IP holders how you’re going to drive revenue to the rest of their business. Okay, well look, that’s great if it’s a small IP. If it is an independent comic who doesn’t have an existing consumer product or business, and you’re telling them, we will help you to create a consumer product business by driving a fan base to other areas, brilliant, but don’t tell Lucas, Marvel, Disney, [unclear 45:07] Brothers, don’t tell those people how you’re going to drive money to other parts of their business. Also, don’t try and be smarter than the other people in the room. Like, don’t think because you are the game developer in a room of business people that you are the smartest person there, because, let’s be honest, most of them will [unclear 45:25] for breakfast. Most of them see 400 pitches a year and just go, “No, thank you, that’s fine. We’ll just stay over here and carry on making eight-figure passive revenue every month.” It’s just about being respectful for the people, respect for the pitch, and know your target audience, who is it you are talking to. And I don’t mean the game. It is the pitch. Who are you talking to? Do your research as well. Every time I go into a meeting, and there’s a new name, I look them up on LinkedIn, I look them up on Google, I’m like, “Okay, this is who I’m dealing with. This is how I need to make sure I present myself.” So, yeah, I think we have a lot of people go wrong with this pitching side of things. It’s like going broad with the commercial, just trying to pitch to everything. It is, pitching a game that doesn’t feel achievable for that team. Like, the awesome idea, awesome team has to work together. Like if you’ve just started, you’re in year two of your development life as a studio, and you go in and you pitch to Marvel that you’re going to make an MMO, they’re going to look at you and go, “How 6-7 people are gonna make us an MMO?” This is a ridiculous pitch for you to be given. And you could turn around and be like, “Oh yeah, but we’re going to upscale to 120.” And they’ll be like, “So you want us to provide you our IP while you’re upscaling our rate of 150% every month.” So, it’s knowing who you’re talking to, knowing what you bring, and making sure you can do. At least, know you can figure out how to do it. I don’t think I ever pitch anything I always know how I’m gonna make, but I always have faith that the team will do it. So, I always pitch something I’m confident we will figure out how to make, which is what I did with Illusion Island. We’ve never made a seamless wild game with no loading. But I knew the team could do it. Like, I knew we’d figure it out. So, I pitch that and I was like, “No idea how we’re ever going to make this, but I could justify, I could explain why this is the team that could pull this off.”

Mitch: 47:33

It makes a lot of sense. Yeah, cool. I mean, curious just to finish on where do you see the world of IP based games going in the next few years?

AJ: 47:45

I mean, IP stuff is awesome now. Like, oh my God, we got Spider-Man. Like, nothing else matters. That’s Spider-Man game, man. That changed everything. And let’s be honest, [unclear 47:58], so spider man could run. I don’t think really... The Batman games. I think if we hadn’t had those. I think we’d all have not been making the stuff we’re making. But Spider-Man suddenly turned around and winter a whale like, “Hey, you know, those blockbusters you see at the cinema, we can bring that home to you with the stuff you loves.” Because all we’ve all clamored for is a good Spider-Man game for years. We’ve had, God knows, how many Spider-Man games and we’ve had one or two good ones since the 90s. And so, I think my piece starts really strong. And not just at that end of the spectrum, I think you’ve seen some really creative stuff like the Okay-Go game by Cappy. Cappy, a fantastic studio, known for their original stuff, at no way they do this license title when it’s brilliant and is so much fun. And I think that I’m hoping this is what we see. We see studios like Dlala and [unclear 48:55] games, doing whole creative things with the IP at smaller scale. And then we still have you Insomniacs and your [unclear 49:04] at ease driving the bigger stuff as well. And actually, why I hope and what I feel is gonna happen is, as the people of our size grow, we suddenly get a spectrum. We don’t just get two ends. We don’t just get here’s an Indie IP title, here the AAA title. We get, “Hey, look at this really cool thing that was made with an IP with free people. Look at this cool thing that was 50, 100, 1,000 people.” And that’s really what I hope is going to happen over the next few years is, we’re no longer making these cheap cash ins. And I’m sure they still exist, but they don’t really get the press anymore. You don’t really hear about like this stuff. You hear about the cool games. And I think that what’s really interesting and I think what’s exciting is, you think about the cool IP we’ve grown up with. Well, people that grew up with that stuff are my age and older now, and they run the studios and they do bring that passion. It isn’t a bunch of studios just run by businessmen. It is a bunch of studios by comic book nerds. That’s why we’re seeing cool comic book games. And I think you look at what Rocksteady did with the Arkham stuff. I bet DC look at that stuff and go, “Man, I wish we could replicate that with the movies. Like I wish we could replicate that Rabid fan base who will go out and buy those titles.” So, yeah, I think, what we’re going to see with license stuff is this, we’re gonna see the spectrum expand and be a real spectrum, not just a binary. I think it’s going to continue to get pushed. I think there’ll be people that come in and try and do the cash grab thing and quickly fall out, because you could drop 100 million and it still won’t be as good as that 30 million Spider-Man game. Like, that game is made on passion and power and creativity and talent. You watch those GDC talks and that team did. And they loved it. They loved making that game. They love the IP. So, I think we’re going to be shielded, at least, for a while from the bad cash ins and stuff. I think it’ll just drop off very quickly. And what I hope is that, as well as the big IP’s getting supported with [unclear 51:17] titles, maybe we start seeing some independent IPs really benefiting off the back a bit. It’d be wonderful to see some quirky comics and TV shows and films that, maybe, don’t have 100 million profit a year, that suddenly get a boom in audience, because somebody loved their stuff and made a game out of it. So yeah, it’s less of a crystal ball prediction, and more just what my hope is, but that’s really where I’d love to see the IP side of things go in the next five years.

Mitch: 51:48

Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s pretty good crystal ball because some of that stuff, the smaller IPs kind of already getting some play particularly in mobile. It’s really cool to see. You can find these kind of really niche audiences, the non-AAA IPs. So, fingers crossed that Wolverine is just as good and it will have a happy AJ.

AJ: 52:13

When Insomniac ever done anything that isn’t awesome.

Mitch: 52:19

Awesome. Well, thanks for joining us today, AJ. I really appreciate all the insights. Great to chat.

AJ: 52:26

Thank you very much. 

Mitch: 52:28

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