What now feels like forever ago, back in the earliest days of our former Weekender title, we wrote a piece on brand licensing, under the fairly obvious headline ‘Licensed to Print Money’ and featuring no less a figure than James Bond (Sean Connery) on the front cover. It was in fact the fifth ever issue, and perhaps we were getting ideas above what was then a modest station.
With much learned, the benefits of brilliant branding are worthy of further review. Across most walks of consumer marketing, the value of attachment to a powerful brand is accepted. But despite the easily understood benefits, is it now becoming the case that in the area of gaming, and specifically online slots, the lustre of licensed brands is fading?
Familiarity and credibility add value
Branded titles have always had a key role to play in attracting new and casual players. The easy association with a known asset provides both familiarity and credibility. The veneer of trust – by association – that licensed branding can provide can mean the difference between playing and not playing.
The core player will always be invested in the mechanics of games, and whether the theme is Irish leprechauns, Egyptian artefacts or seafaring pirates will be largely irrelevant. But the new player needs to be drawn in, have a reason to experiment, and if that means the familiar sight of the Deal or No Deal boxes, or Tommy Lee hitting his skins, then the value of the brand is duly justified.
Game quality will always be King
But today, of the two key question marks over branded games, one has existed forever but the other is a more recent phenomenon.
In the first case, the most frequently repeated development mistake has been to invest in a powerful brand and then marry it to a substandard game mechanic. There have been numerous examples of this, with developers forgetting that strong game design must come first, with an appealing theme serving as the icing on the cake. Failure to embrace this necessity will generally lead to a game enjoying very brief success, as its shortcomings are soon discovered.
It is true to say that this error has wrongly caused many – usually those who sign the cheques – to become prejudiced against investing in brand licenses, failing to grasp that the reasons for their lack of success may actually lie in-house.
An ever-shrinking product lifespan
The second question mark surrounding branded games is more recent and is a consequence of the way our industry now operates. Back in the day, before online games existed, the land-based sector welcomed brand licensing. The effective lifespan of a slot machine was measured in years. Furthermore, a machine could be moved on, to another location where it would appear to be ‘new’. This meant that the investment required to secure a license was more easily justifiable, as the payback period was spread over a lengthy contract term.
This was also true in the early days of iGaming. However, as the genre has accelerated and the market become more crowded, the effective lifespan of the majority of online slots has shrunk, almost to the point where with each individual operator, it can be a mere heartbeat. Unless a developer can introduce a game concept that radically alters the paradigm of popularity, a true ‘game-changer’, then the chances of remaining near the top of any game menu are Slim and None. And of course, in the real world, Slim left town a long time ago.
David & Goliath was a myth
Where this leaves us is where all business sectors ultimately end up, with the biggest and strongest surviving and thriving. It is no longer viable for an independent developer to invest in brand licensing, because the ‘churn’ of games has become too rapid.
Brand licensing has only become profitable, or even viable, for those with the largest channels of distribution. If a game is only going to be strong on each site for a handful of weeks then the obvious answer is to supply hundreds of sites. And this requires infrastructure.
To make things even more difficult, these mega-developers have the resources to be able to relentlessly release content. One game release per week is not uncommon in several cases and the fact that almost all of these games are reskins of a previous proven format is academic, as their expected lifespan is brief anyway. We all know what they say about throwing stuff at the wall… throw enough and some will stick.
Now just a marketing loss-leader
Sadly, for those of an aesthetically creative mindset, this also means that even though the biggest hitters can afford to invest in brand licensing, many have realised that it may not be worth it, for the reasons given above. I tend towards the view that those that still do invest may be attaching a loss-leader marketing approach to these concepts. Branded games will always attach profile to a product, giving the company added kudos in the eyes of the wider market. This may well be where these concepts will now sit within the overall strategy of these big corporate beasts.
A metaphor for the entire sector
This evolution of branded games is actually a metaphor for the evolution of the entire sector. The pathway open to hungry developers whose ideal team quite rightly combines the conceptual skills of a software genius with the creativity of a designer who can match themes to demographics has changed. Mass consolidation is inevitable and online gaming will be no different to any other business sector in history in this regard. It arrived and it is growing and ultimately, the biggest and strongest will acquire the majority of those smaller guys who impact upon their market share. Such is life.
So if you have an idea that you believe is truly great, do as much as you can to prove that it is and then map out your exit plan. And if it is a truly great idea, spend your money protecting it because some of these people will only buy it if they can’t get away with stealing it. This is also a fact of life.