In October 2013 Disney, following the acquisition of Marvel Entertainment, notified the NY Times that the group would not be renewing any of its licensing deals with Amaya or Playtech for Marvel’s hugely successful superhero content. Licensing of any brand in real-money gaming is a tough because of the industry. Licensing of brands that typically have exposure to children is even tougher. This was a big deal at the time for both companies, although less so for Cyptologic whose Marvel branded video slots are pretty dire really, apart from maybe ‘The Amazing Spiderman’ which is certainly not amazing but okay…-ish… point being, it’s the best of a bad bunch.To labour the point I’ve included a screenshot of their Captain America slot which looks like something my 2 year old son created with crayons.
If you look at some of the best performing slots on Playtech’s casino there are a few that pop up regardless of the country or market you’re focusing on: Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, and the Fantastic 4, along with the secondary 50 Line variants. For me these aren’t exceptional games but they do have very strong brand power, and the production value is high. Which I think is a self fulfilling prophecy, the same way that Kim Kardashian’s iOS game seems unstoppable at the top of the Appstore charts, if you capitalise on a very quick growth (due to the power of the brand), then it’ll automatically stay there ‘front and centre’ for all new players dropping into the casino page. Personally I think that Playtech’s Spiderman is actually a good game and makes very good use of the IP, but then i’m just one person. Anyway, I digress, point I’m making is that the Marvel licence is an extremely valuable asset in Playtech’s portfolio and you can’t argue that a lot of players respond very well to these branded games, yet now the clock is ticking on the expiry of that asset. So what does Playtech et al, and all those millions of slot players look at next?
Branded content is an interesting area, because of course it’s all subjective. What works for one might not work another. The great thing about movie and pop culture is that typically it has a wide reach, not necessarily to those who like the brand, but it’s instantly recognisable to most of your prospective customer base, which is most of the battle when launching a new IP. When looking at comic book or super hero brands, Marvel isn’t the only player in town but it is probably the studio whose IP is most widely recognised from a very strong two decades of movie production and retail merchandising strategy. The other key studio being DC Comics (DC standing for ‘Detective Comics’) who were a bit slow to move on a similar strategy in the past 20 years, and have a smaller array of known brands (ED – characters) but still present a decent opportunity especially as their movie strategy is now catching up to Marvel’s in terms of movie cross-over and TV production. So naturally when the number 1 portfolio is removed from your reach what do you do? Well if you’re Playtech of course you just obtain the rights to the number 2 portfolio.
As expected on 1 February, right before the ICE conference, Playtech announces a deal with Warner Bros/DC Entertainment to licence some of DC’s main movie based brands for casino content. This includes: Batman classic TV series (meh), Man of Steel (meh), the Green Lantern (very meh) and Superman 1 and 2 (mmm’kay). Let’s be honest, that this will not fill the hole that will be left when the Marvel games leave the Playtech Casino, but it’ll certainly help and if Playtech put some decent development budget into them, they can still be a decent player acquisition instrument.
Reading this you may think that they are missing some very key movie brands notably: The Dark Knight Trilogy, the Justice League, V for Vendetta, or the Watchmen. If you take the movies out of it, you also have the wider Batman and Superman canon to draw some amazing content from (mainly the former), alongside the Green Arrow, the Flash, Wonder Woman and Aqua Man. Looking at more obscure IP though, DC also have a number of other high brands perhaps less obvious to Joe Public (see the list below), however if you’re a comic book nut like me, will know that these are very valuable brands in the right hands, especially the Preacher with the new TV series on the way. So why didn’t Playtech get these as well? Possibly because:
- Microgaming already have an ongoing licence agreement for the Batman movies which is exclusive;
- They possibly didn’t appreciate the value of the rest of the portfolio;
- Warner were asking too much; or
- They simply weren’t available for real-money gaming licensing or there are other agreements with rights of first refusal elsewhere.
Whichever option, there is still a great amount of value left on the table at DC. Regardless, that’s number 1 and number 2. What else is left for supplies who can’t front six figure revenue guarantees? Well pop culture has changed consumer tastes dramatically over the last 10 years and thanks to media companies like HBO, AMC, Starz, Cinemax, AMC and Sky Atlantic, all sorts of comic books and graphic novels, previously seen as niche, are becoming main stream.
So from DC’s own first party IP you have the following key ‘stables’:
- Storm Watch
- Justice League
- Suicide Squad
- Super Girl
- Green Arrow
- Wonder Woman
- Aqua Man
- Swamp Thing
- Cat Woman
- The Watchmen
- Jonna Hex
You then have Vertigo Comics which is owned under DC which includes both ongoing comics but also one-off graphic novels:
- The Preacher
- The Sandman
- 100 Bullets
- V for Vendetta
and finally Storm Watch from Wild Storm comics.
Now, if you’re a games developer looking at this article you should be chasing down the agents for all these IPs if the big boys haven’t snapped them up as yet. I’ve not done a full investigative journalism piece here, but I can’t find any information of any new licensing deals for any of these.
I would say the next key group to snap up would be Image Comics who have some great franchises like: Spawn; Witchblade; the Darkness’ Outcast (also coming to a TV near you soon – thank you Cinemax!) and The Walking Dead. Let’s be fair, even if you don’t know much about comics or novels, these names should definitely be familiar to you. Some of these I think have been licensed for land based machines but, again I can’t seem to find anything for online licensing.
Dark Horse would be another good business to speak to as they represent a number of classic movie adaptations such as Aliens, Predator, Army of Darkness (which is essentially Evil Dead which just finished a fantastic opening TV series under control of Starz), Sin City, Hellboy, Grendel, and the Mask. Again all present fantastic source material for any game whether it be regulated or otherwise. Looking more to the European side of the pond, you also have Rebellion who holds the IP in 2000 AD although NextGen managed to snap up Judge Dredd for online in 2014, which doesn’t leave much on the table here.
If however you look a bit further a field from comics you also have more general gaming brands and franchises which are being snapped us, especially when there is a good crossover from gaming, video gaming, comics and graphic novels. Foxium recently announced that they had acquired the rights to White Wolf Publishing‘s World of Darkness for online real-money gaming. Not a huge IP for the general public but really rich and deep source material none-the-less, and with a team like Foxium behind the games, you can be sure that the games will be high quality. Dynamite Entertainment have also an existing deal with Aristocrat for licensing the Phantom brand although I can’t seem to find either the article or the link for the VLT, which makes me think that licence may be available for online real-money still.
The other option is that developers create original IP within the same style. As a quick sample this is certainly true of some studios like NetEnt who have a successful video slot (ED – two actually) entitled ‘Jack Hammer’ which has a vintage comic style and art style. Revolver Gaming have a new video slot called ‘Multiplier Man’ which is nicely produced if not highly clichéd and archetypal in the way it fulfills its comic book theme. Lost World Games’ first release late last year was ‘Rampage Riches’ which is a brilliant union of a number of highly stylised themes including graphic novels and Toho monster movies (ED – check out motion comic intro as it’s fantastic). The issue being that you’re investing in something that you’re not sure will resonate with your customers, and even then unless it’s positioned front and centre may not work as an acquisition tool that you need it to to drive the throughput; although that is an issue with all games these days. And no doubt there will loads more as the comic book land grab continues.
So really, when you look at how consumer tastes are changing, how pop culture is changing and the variety of awesome brands and licences still available for the taking, rest assured, there should be a steady stream of decent comic book inspired content coming through. The key will be to ensure the licences are acquired by the right studio who has a game producer who both understands the value of brand, and has visionary inspiration to utilise the licence in a novel or exciting way in this sector. So far such a convergence has not been consistently achieved, as the current crop of games shows.