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What can the success of HBO’s The Last of Us teach us about IP adaptions?

The best examples of IP licensing in video games, as well as the latest news on collaborations, brand partnerships and in-game events. Who knew Dungeons and Dragons fans could get so angry?! From Wizard of the Coast’s Open Game License fiasco to HBO’s The Last of Us TV series being celebrated as the best video game adaption ever created, here are the biggest licensing stories from the world of video games in January. 

What can the success of HBO’s The Last of Us teach us about IP adaptions?

The Last of Us, an action-adventure game released on the PS3 in 2013, is widely regarded as having one of the best narratives ever written for a video game. As one of PlayStation’s best-selling IPs, it was only a matter of time until the story of Ellie and Joel was adapted for the screen, which is exactly what happened when HBO picked it up and turned it into a TV series. 

The first episode, released in the middle of January, has been met with overwhelmingly positive reviews from TV critics, entertainment journalists and fans of the video game. At the time of writing, it holds a 99% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the highest-rated video game adaption of all time. 

As many journalists have been pointing out in headlines such as ‘The Last of Us breaks video game adaption curse’ (although we’d point them in the direction of the excellent Castlevania and League of Legends TV series), the transition from video game to screen is rarely a smooth one. There’s a long list of critically panned TV and film adaptions, from House of the Dead and Double Dragon to Alone in the Dark and Netflix’s Resident Evil TV series. 

While the simple answer for some of these adaptions flopping is the simple fact that they’re pretty naff, there are important lessons that licensors can learn from the success of The Last of Us. 

Most of this comes down to not straying from the things that fans already love and know about your IP. In the case of The Last of Us, the game’s creator Neil Druckmann has been heavily involved with its production, overseeing the script, general direction of the series and even directing a couple of episodes. 

Most of the cast and production crew have played or are familiar with the game too. Game staff, such as VFX artists and sound designers, have also worked on the TV series. And we even see the game’s original voice actors of protagonists Ellie and Joel, Ashley Jones and Troy Baker, make cameo appearances as actors

The end result is a faithful adaption that stays true to the game’s original story (although it does deviate at some points). That’s in stark contrast to the long list of video game film adaptions featuring scripts, characters and plots that seem completely alien to the original source material and, as such, are usually hated by their biggest fan base: gamers! 

For all the talk about the video game industry being the biggest entertainment market in the world – bigger than film, music and TV combined – it’s remarkable that some producers and directors think the stories in video games need repurposing in adaptions to film and TV so they can appeal to new audiences. How about satisfying the market that’s already there: the millions of gamers that picked up the video game in the first place? 

Whether you’re a licensor or IP holder looking to move into video games or hold a video game license exploring wider entertainment, don’t lose the support of your established primary market and existing fans by pivoting your IP to appeal to new audiences in a new format. Stay true to your brand values and, where relevant, original source material! 

IP integrations are great ways for players to discover new game genres

We really enjoyed reading this excellent opinion piece by John Friscia of The Escapist, which explores why IP games set in weird genres are one of the best things to happen to the video game industry. 

We strongly agree, and wanted to weigh in with some thoughts of our own on why some unexpected IP integrations, no matter how unusual they might seem at first, can end up being a huge success if the audience overlap is carefully considered. And, in the specific case of moving IP into video games, your IP is the right fit for the game genre you’re working with. 

When most people think of IP-based games, they think about the days of licensed platform games in the ‘90s such as A Bug’s Life, Toy Story, and Bugs Bunny: Lost in Time, or major sports games using licenses from FIFA, NFL and PGA. 

But as The Escapist points out, there are plenty of examples of weird and wonderful crossovers in the video game world. Dragon Ball: The Breakers, is an asymmetrical survival game that has more in common with survival horror games such as Dead by Daylight than the typical beat 'em-up style you’d associate with an anime IP like Dragon Ball. 

The reason it works so well is it provides fans of the IP with a route into a lesser-known game genre that allows them to manoeuvre their favourite characters through new experiences. At its most basic level, it provides a massive twist on the Dragon Ball IP, but is still a quintessential Dragon Ball game through and through as it takes all of the aspects that people know and love about Dragon Ball and simply puts them in a new creative environment. 

The same can be said for the trading card video game, Marvel Snap, and Marvel’s tactical RPG, Midnight Suns. These aren’t the typical game genres you would associate with an action-heavy franchise such as Marvel, but Marvel’s massive line-up of diverse characters makes it a perfect fit for the TCG genre and tactical RPG due to the unique skills and personalities of Marvel characters. 

Crossovers such as these are mutually beneficial. Video game developers can integrate well-known IP to improve the appeal of games in lesser-known genres, while IP holders get to provide fans of their IP with a new experience. 

We see a lot of this happening in the mobile market too, specifically with limited-time IP integrations and crossovers. One of our favourites is the crossover between Neon Genesis Evangelion and PUBG: Mobile, which saw a giant mech from the anime stomping around PUBG: Mobile’s battle royale map. Not the first thing you’d imagine to see in a game like PUBG: Mobile, but it worked! 

Similarly, we’ve seen cute Hello Kitty skins appear in the MOBA, Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, and the cast of AMC’s The Walking Dead make their way into the mobile game, Puzzles and Survival. 

Who knows what we’ll see next? Personally, we’d love to see a rogue-like dungeon crawler with characters from the Bleach anime (someone please make that happen…)

What does Wizard of the Coast’s Open Games License fiasco tell us about their commercial strategy?

It’s been a difficult month for Wizards of the Coast, the American publisher of fantasy and science fiction games best known for Dungeons & Dragons and the TCG Magic: The Gathering, after it announced changes to its Open Game License. The backlash from D&D fans has been significant that the publisher has been forced to backstep, so what was it about the proposed changes that caused so much of an outcry? 

If you’re unfamiliar with the Open Game License, it's a public copyright license by WOTC allowing tabletop RPG game developers and publishers to essentially create homebrew Dungeons and Dragons content, such as new adventures, game scenarios and settings. 

Changes to this license were leaked by Gizmodo at the beginning of January, with the new changes imposing restrictions on companies recreating D&D content under the OGL. Anyone making revenue of over $50k from the license would need to report their figures, while anyone making over $750k (roughly 20 companies) would need to pay a revenue share. 

The community responded with backlash, and WOTC has released a statement apologizing for “getting it wrong” while promising to be more transparent about future changes, sharing new proposed OGL documentation for review and feedback from the community. 

As everything we’re talking about here relates to tabletop gaming, let’s bring this back to video games and look at what the proposed changes might reveal about WOTC’s gaming strategy. 

At the beginning of January, a new report from Bloomberg suggested that WOTC had cancelled the development of five video game projects, scaling back its ambitions in the video game industry. 

The report doesn’t make clear which projects have been cancelled, but this doesn’t mean that WOTC has given up on its digital gaming strategy. As the success of Marvel Snap, Hearthstone, and countless Yu-Gi-Oh games have proven, TCG video games are here to stay and only getting more popular. 

What’s interesting is that, despite the huge brand credibility of Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, WOTC has failed to release a digital game that’s been met with similar levels of success to Marvel Snap. 

As the OGL doesn’t include digital gaming products and we know that an ambitious open-world Dungeons and Dragons game is still in the early stages of development, it’s likely that WOTC has stripped back its video game production so it can focus on creating projects that have the best chances of succeeding in a competitive marketplace. 

We believe there’s a fantastic opportunity in the gaming market for WOTC to create a gaming experience that focuses on user-generated content first and foremost. Earlier this year, we covered the partnership between Lionsgate and the story-telling platform, Dorian, where creators could use the Dorian platform to create their own stories inspired by the Blair Witch franchise universe. 

While we’re not suggesting that WOTC expands its OGL to include full freedom of digital video games (that would be commercial stupidity), we do wonder if there’s a way for the publisher to test the water by pushing its IP into new formats through smaller partnerships (perhaps limited-time collaborations in the mobile space?). 

After all, D&D’s main character is the player itself. The possibilities with this IP are endless and it’ll be exciting to see what can happen if someone finds the perfect formula for a video game – whether that’s WOTC, a partner studio, or an indie.

In brief 

Here are some of our other favourite brand collaborations, licensing deals and partnerships from the last month.

And in other news…