A License to Thrill: How Two Mobile Sports Games Approached IP
Whether it’s games based on films or major sports franchises, licenses have historically played a major role in console and PC gaming. Their transition to mobile over the last decade, however, hasn’t been easy.
Most devs wonder whether building a game around an IP is worth the investment. Acquiring licenses can be expensive, particularly considering the relatively short life span of mobile games compared to those console or PC counterparts. Not to mention many mobile games like Clash of Clans, Angry Birds and Candy Crush have dominated the scene with original works.
Two game devs—Sean Salloux and Tim Constant—whose games are based on popular sports (mixed martial arts and soccer respectively) agree that implementing IPs for mobile games is a balancing act. Their experiences taught them to walk the line between creating the coherent experience fans expect without draining their company’s resources.
MMA Federation: Building relationships and its own IP
Salloux is founder of mobile outfit 360 Studios, which has offices both in Manchester, England, and in Los Angeles. He uses a mixture of earned and owned IP for MMA Federation, a card battler game that draws from the sport of MMA. Salloux says his team worked with brands, teams, athletes and promoters worldwide to lend authenticity to the game.
MMA Federation is packed full of licensed sports equipment and clothing recognizable to anyone who follows MMA. While Salloux admits arranging these deals took “two to three years” to complete, they’ve paid off: “These are the things MMA fans see when they watch MMA on TV, and they will see it in our game,” he says. What’s not licensed? The game’s name. While “MMA Federation” seems to refer to a regulatory association like FIFA or IAAF, no “MMA Federation” actually exists beyond the game itself. At the time of MMA Federation‘s creation, MMA had no grand association at its head, meaning there was space aplenty for 360 Studios to make its own psuedo-official body.
“We get asked a lot, ‘Do you have the license to use ‘MMA Federation’? That makes us feel good as we created the brand, and to have others view it as an ‘official’ logo and such means we have achieved our goal,” Salloux explains. “As MMA is a very fragmented industry, we could do this.”
Tika Taka Soccer: Finding familiar work-arounds
Tiki Taka Soccer—though by name a reference to the style of play popularized by the world-beating FC Barcelona—is relatively license-free. The bulk of the players and teams in Tika Taka merely bear names similar to (but crucially not identical to) established stars.
“With the big two—EA and Konami—owning the majority of licenses, it would be practically impossible to expect licensing of football clubs and leagues,” says Tim Constant, founder of Panic Barn, the studio behind Tika Taka. He adds that in his experience, even if devs are lucky enough to find the licenses they’re after are easy to negotiate—unlikely for a small studio—licenses can still create work.
“Work both to fit and respond to creative restrictions, and also make sure the licensing works with the game you are creating,” he says. Instead, Constant and the team at Panic Barn spent time improving gameplay and pursuing other marketing options rather than putting their then-limited resources into securing licenses.
Tiki Taka has also cleverly worked around the need for licenses by launching Tika Taka World Soccer, a new version of the game designed to tap into national team competitions—such as the recent UEFA Euro 2016 championship and the World Cup in Russia in 2018—that don’t require IPs.
The future of license opportunities
As Tiki Taka and MMA Federation prove, the lack of an official license doesn’t stop a game from becoming the de facto favorite for fans of the sport or IP they’re aping. Still, licensing isn’t out of the question for either studio:
“We’ve been approach by IP owners to make fighting games,” says Salloux, asked if the studio plans to make licensed games in the future. “We just concluded a deal with Endemol Shine, owners of the hit cable show “Kingdom,” which is set in the world of MMA. We are doing a console title for them and we are in discussion with other fighting IP holders too.”
And what of Constant? Would he consider tackling a licensed game in the future if approached, even bearing in mind the hurdles you have to overcome? His response is as succinct as it is telling: “Definitely.”