Tobold's Blog
Monday, March 25, 2024
An evolution in brands and IP

Imagine you are a huge fan of Baldur's Gate 3. It is 2028, and you see two new games advertised: A game called Baldur's Gate 4, licensed by Hasbro to a new game developing studio you don't know, and a game with a completely new name, made by Larian Studios. Which one do you buy?

This scenario has been getting more likely after Larian announced they wouldn't do DLCs for BG3 or a BG4 game. But one has to do a little bit of reading between the lines here. Big companies in the general business of entertainment, whether that is movies or games or something else, put a lot of emphasis on intellectual property rights, IP. Thus when Hasbro talks to its investors, it will claim that the success of BG3 has a lot to do with the strength of the Dungeons & Dragons brand, and the "Baldur's Gate" IP. That claim is debatable. On the one hand, it is possible that the exactly same game would have sold a lot less if it had been called Divinity Original Sin 3. On the other hand BG3 is clearly a completely different game than Baldur's Gate 1 and 2, and not really a linear evolution of these previous games, but rather an evolution of Divinity Original Sin 1 and 2. Larian Studios is betting that they can make a game as good or better that is in some way an evolution of BG3, but won't be called that. The D&D / Baldur's Gate IP, and the owner of that IP, are considered more of an obstacle to make the next game great, rather than a condition for success.

Let's look at a very different example. In November of last year, The Escapist got into a fight with the employees that did their Youtube videos. The Escapist fired an editor-in-chief, and the rest of the employees in his team basically said "If he goes, I'll go". While The Escapist held the IP rights to a lot of the popular video series brands these people made, like Zero Punctuation, they didn't own the people behind those brands. So the same old team simply created a new brand, somewhat sarcastically called Second Wind, and continued to make the same sort of videos under new names. There is now a video series called Fully Ramblomatic, which is basically just a reskinned, rebranded Zero Punctuation. And it turns out that viewers just care more about Ben 'Yahtzee' Croshaw reviewing games in his peculiar style than they care about the "Escapist" or "Zero Punctuation" brand or IP. The Youtube channel of The Escapist is basically dead, while Second Wind is doing fine.

Third example, and much discussed of course this year, is Palworld. A game studio that didn't hold any IP rights to Pokemon basically made a Pokemon game that people liked a lot more than the Pokemon games of the company that did hold the IP rights. And because IP rights are actually a lot more limited than many people imagine, beyond lots of spilled ink and a "we will look into it" press release from Nintendo, absolutely nothing happened.

And there are a lot of other examples, maybe less prominent. Ubisoft ran "The Settlers" brand into the ground, and people previously working on that series now launched Pioneers of Pagonia in early access, a game that if sold by Ubisoft would be a "The Settlers" game. And some of the "sequels" released recently are from games that are over a decade old; are people buying Outcast because they liked the 1999 prequel, or do they simply not care how the game is called? How important is Dragon's Dogma from 2012 for the success of Dragon's Dogma 2? It didn't shield the game from review bombing when players were disappointed by bad performance, questionable game design decisions, and greedy microtransactions.

Warner Brothers made one of the best-selling games of 2023 with single-player Hogwart's Legacy, and one of the worst flops of 2024 with live-service Suicide Squad. Their conclusion? Harry Potter is simply the better IP than Suicide Squad, and they should make a live-service Harry Potter game. The alternative explanation is simply that players care a bit less about IP than big companies think, and instead care more about the actual quality of games. Between Steam user ratings and refund options, Metacritic, and video streaming sometimes even before release, it has become increasingly easy for players to judge how good a game actually is. We don't have to rely on the name of the game to give us a rough estimate of the quality of the game. We learned that sequels can be a lot better, a lot worse, or totally different than previous games of the same name, and therefore lost trust in these names. I don't think that brands and IP have no importance, or will go away; but there seems to be an evolution that makes them somewhat less important today, and it seems that some managers of big companies haven't gotten the memo yet.

I think people care a fair bit about IP, but they just care more about the game(movie/show) being good.

Sadly enough, companies rarely want to admit their game(movie/show) was bad, and prefer to blame it on everything else. (IP, wokeness, people hating trans, racism, etc etc)
It's hard to know. 'Live service' seems in some ways the worst of both worlds - neither single-player nor MMO. I guess companies see it as more profitable than hoping to sell DLC in big chunks, but maybe that's not the case. I wonder how a Hogwarts expansion would sell? Players might be up for another foray by now. Of course they may not have designed it with 'hooks' for a potential expansion. (Note: I haven't played either game.)

I think the BG4/LarianX issue is less of an issue. Big genre enthusiasts will buy both, if they're good - and they could presumably manage to release a year apart.
I'd have thought it was pretty straightforward: given a choice between a good production based on a strong IP and a better production based on an unknown property, the good-known will usually do better than the better-unknown. The IP gives the production a huge advantage that then has to be squandered to fail whereas the unknown property has first to draw attention to itself before anyone can decide whether it's good or bad.

Personally, having played BG 1+2 and D:OS 2, I am only interested in BG3 because of the IP. I loved the first two BG games but found D:OS2 mildly annoying. I would have preferred a different developer to have produced the sequel and I'm pleased to hear Larian won't be doing it. (There inevitably will be a BG4 by someone, at some point.) For me, the brand/IP is the starting point of my interest, although nevitably every IP/Brand is an unknown quantity at some stage so I'm always open to discovering a potential new major IP.

Then again, an IP/brand can be a turn-off ,too. I would be very unlikely to try any product on the basis it uses the bland, tedious Harry Potter franchise. Anything with that label would need to be considerably better than its competition to get my attention.
IP is a powerful tool to get people's feet in the door and start playing. The gameplay is what keeps them playing.
If I was cynical I would say that publishers only care about people getting in the door (ie: the initial purchase), and less about long term players, although in reality, the gameplay is what affects the game scores and reviews.

If they only wanted to get people in the door long enough that there is no more refund, they shouldn’t be making all those live service games. You can’t have both a bait and switch scam *and* continued monetization.
If managed well brands and IP still carry lots of weight to me. If I'm invested in an IP, like I now am in Cyberpunk I am immediately interested in the next game based on that IP. However, strong execution is necessary for me to stay interested in it. I still give Final Fantasy a chance (that ended with 15) because of my time playing it when I was young - that's a strong pull for an IP.

The big problem that I see with your post is that the people running some game companies really don't understand what they are building or what their audience wants. Trying to compare IP between the harry potter universe and the DC universe is stupid to me. Both are very strong so it comes down to execution and ideas.
Brands and IPs definitely matter. I firmly believe Hogwarts wouldn't have sold even half as well as it did if it weren't attached to the Hogwarts IP. It was a fairly formulaic action adventure that was well made and attached to an IP fans of have been starved for a videogame for years now.

That being said IP matters less when a game is just really, really good.
This is an amazing post! Very interesting... I kind of suspect that Larian's next game might not receive a lot of attention from casual players compared to a theoretical BG4, until/unless it comes out and everyone is talking about it and they say to each other "yeah, this is the same company that did BG3! it's just as good, or better!" Because "Baldur's Gate" still has way better recognition than Larian.

It seems like borrowing IPs is a great way for game companies to get attention and prove themselves. This is true of many things in business and life; you often have to give someone a cut to make it big, but once you make it big, if you go independent, you might suffer a bit without their support but it makes more sense financially, especially in the long term. And well, in Larian's case, I believe them when they say they don't want to be limited by the IP either.
Post a Comment

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

  Powered by Blogger   Free Page Rank Tool