For a long time, there was singular sort of game that brands would have to go publishers to make into a retail. It’s because everything, whether it was a blockbuster movie or a soft-drink mascot, was going to come out in some sort of physical format. Digital has changed many things now, and it’s also opened up different avenues for brands to get messaging out. We talked with Patrick Sweeney, head of Reed Smith’s Video Game Practice and a member of the Video Game Bar Association’s board, about this new trend.

[a]list: Talk to me about this approach by brands to directly produce games and potentially bypass game publishers – should publishers be worried?

Patrick Sweeney: In some cases, yes….These are potential revenue-generating opportunities that publishers may not have a chance to profit from. But, realistically, a lot of publishers would not have wanted to invest in many of these projects anyway. That being said, this is symptomatic of a larger issue that should be concerning to some. Regardless of whether the game is brand-based, the ability to bring a game to market without a publisher ought to be concerning to many publishers.

[a]list: Why bypass publishers?

Patrick Sweeney: I think every brand is going to have a different perspective, but the major factor is the relatively lower production cost and barrier to entry to reach the consumer. Games like these are not $50 million investments and there is not the risk of dealing with a warehouse full of inventory. Independent games have to manage the process with digital platforms, but its a much different level of commitment.

The Sour Patch Kids game split things a little bit – Kraft managed development through a client of mine (Beefy Media), but they didn’t completely bypass the traditional publisher. There was still an important role for Capcom on the marketing side. It’s not accurate to say that a publisher has no value in a situation like this….they just have a different value proposition for this type of opportunity.

[a]list: Why are things like Facebook games increasingly popular in your opinion for brands

Patrick Sweeney: I think it’s a similar thought process. The barrier to entry for Facecbook games is lower – you can get wide exposure to a mainstream audience for a lower production cost. And you don’t NEED a publisher to launch a game on Facebook. Because of the lower amount of development time, it’s easier for the brand to wrap its arms around the development process and the cost associated with it. It appears less daunting and easier to put together for an entity that may not have a lot of game development experience.

[a]list: Social games can also be more directly reactive to consumer reactions and demands. How does that factor into these opportunities?

Patrick Sweeney: You’re exactly right. Social games can iterate quickly based on consumer feedback. It’s not like a traditional boxed product, where that content is static.

[a]list: What else about mobile and social game opportunities are appealing to a brand?

Patrick Sweeney: The shorter development time is attractive. Showtime might say, “The next season of Dexter in 9 months…it would be great if we had a game associated with the launch.” Well, of course, you can’t launch a console game in that time (at least not a good one), but it’s likely that you can do something on Facebook. So if a licensor hasn’t been thinking far enough ahead, there still may be an opportunity for some game based on the brand.

[a]list: It seems like many brands are retreating from the AAA games field. Take something like Hunger Games – a decade ago, that would have gotten a PS2 game, now it’s just on Facebook.

Patrick Sweeney: I don’t think that the brands are retreating. I think the publishers are. The brand likely would welcome a large license fee for a big AAA console release. Publishers are not going to take the risk on just ANY license. But I think the top end licenses will always have an opportunity to partner with publishers. There’s some licenses/brands where a AAA cross-platform commitment is justified, whether it be Spider-Man, Batman or the sports leagues or whatever the next mass-appeal franchise may be. But it’s at this next level of license that I think publishers have retreated from the AAA-level of investment. Not to single out Dexter (it’s one of my favorite shows). But, it’s unlikely that there’s a good console, AAA publishing opportunity out there today. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a different games avenue for that license.

[a]list: It also means more opportunities for independent developers.

Patrick Sweeney: Absolutely…and not just for the developers. I think that new ways to bring games to market (whether branded or otherwise) is great for the industry in general. For example, Beefy Media was helping Kraft to craft the Sour Patch Kids games. Developers like Icarus studios and Three Rings found an opportunity to develop the Dexter and Dr. Who games, respectively. It goes beyond developers. Companies like [a]list games that are working on marketing campaigns for mobile and social games as well as tech/middleware companies like Havok all benefit from having more potential customers. All of a sudden, there’s an ecosystem of marketers.

Independently-funded games might not be good for all companies, but it’s definitely good for the industry as a whole. This goes above and beyond branded games. Traditional Publishers all recognize that things are changing. They all have to adjust and each approach it differently. Some companies will adjust through acquisition of mobile/social companies. Some will phase out of retail console and gradually change their portfolio of release.

The ability to publish and develop games without the traditional publishers is opening up new opportunities for commercializing content. This is not just limited to brands/licenses, but I think that brands are certainly taking advantage of this new world. I expect it to continue.

[a]list: Patrick, thanks.

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