I remember when I figured out Santa wasn’t entirely on the up and up. I happened upon a stash of toys in my parents’ closet, and I noted with glee the presence of a Super Mario plush toy. I was so excited, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Super Mario was something of a major influence on my youth, so his likeness evoked a certain raw mania in my little heart. Then I remember on Christmas morning, tearing open the wrapping paper and seeing the toy. But wait, the tag said it was from Santa, why had it been in my parents’ closet? That was the day my innocence died.
Nowadays, I watch with some interest the rise of merchandising as a viable “cross platform” opportunity for video games.
Leaving the Niche Behind
I’m consistently amazed at how few video game intellectual properties have made the transition into broader cultural phenomena. Heck, even books are having more success at capturing the public imagination (the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series being notable recent examples). I suppose this is a result of video games long occupying a smaller niche of society, a gated garden of mayhem, wizards and awesomeness. Few stories escaped this garden, and the rare attempts at translation resulted in creative monstrosities like the movie BloodRayne. On occasion, we get something interesting (Resident Evil), but mostly video games kept to themselves.
But times are a changing.
Angry Birds seems to be a return to the heyday of times past. It reminds me of when Mario burst upon the scene in a flurry of knickknacks, toys, t-shirts, and flavored beverages. The accessibility of the mobile phone combined with the market penetration has created an opportunity for video game intellectual properties to enter the mainstream in a way Call of Duty never could. Angry Birds inundates our existence. I’ve seen it in everything from pistachio commercials to plushies to episodes of 30 Rock. Rovio has moved beyond a video game company into an intellectual property company of the Disney ilk.
There are probably lessons to be learned from Rovio. There is something to be said for contemplating a broader licensing approach rather than focusing purely on the business of games. Naturally Rovio had certain advantages by having a hit game, but there have been many games that have risen and fallen with nary a peep on the plushie front. Where are my Farmville crops toys? Game developers often suffer from a desire to make games, which can be very distracting from the broader business opportunities that can come from an effective licensing effort.
A wisely diversified intellectual property has far greater value and significantly long life expectancy. Mickey Mouse doesn’t exist in the modern era because of Steamboat Willy, he’s constantly rejuvenated by consistent reintroduction into the American psyche through licensing efforts. Star Wars is much the same – a good idea backed by a great effort to expand the intellectual property. Angry Birds is a simple physics game with no story, yet it expands and persists. We are retargeted to the game by the fabric of society itself. Powerful stuff.
That’s why I’m not surprised to see others following Rovio’s lead. The recent announcement by PopCap of its intention to roll out a line of merchandise exploiting its Plants v. Zombies franchise is welcome news. Mobile games are an enormous opportunity, but transitioning great games into deeper/broader intellectual property is an unparalleled value proposition. I expect far more companies to begin leveraging their success on the new gaming platforms into these different directions. The development of games is a wonderful hamster wheel, but an entrenched intellectual property is the gift that keeps on giving.
JM: I was thrilled to see this news too. I have some of the action figures, but plushies are perfect for PvZ. Sewing patterns have been created by adoring fans, but nothing nicely ready-made for me to get. For my daughter, of course. But just imagine. You could set up a whole game board in your living room. Fend off zombies on Halloween. Think of the possibilities!