Hot Property

A licence to print money, or a permit to kill gaming stone dead? Just how clever is intellectual property?

Kids will do anything for Dairylea and game publishers will do anything for a licence - two compulsions that from an outside standpoint could sometimes be seen as fairly misguided, but two compulsions that create huge piles of cash nevertheless. With licensing price tags rising to one million dollars, and with the popularity of licensed games leading to millions more, it's hardly surprising that some publishers are willing to sell their mothers for the sake of some hot IP.

"One games company approached us and said, 'if you give us the licence, we'll give you a nice big fat cheque so you can go off and play golf in the Caribbean,'" recalls Raymond Goldsmith of International Sports Multimedia (ISM), the exclusive licensee for the Olympic Games. (He went on to turn down the offer because he doesn't like golf and was already going to the Caribbean.)

ET: The Extra Terrestrial (1982): Looking like a space turtle's penis, ET was so appalling that nearly all five million copies were left rotting in an Atari warehouse - then promptly buried in a New Mexico land fill.

ISM rents out the Olympic ring logo to developers, as well as "all the content within individual events and stadiums," Goldsmith goes on to explain. "We have plans detailing where the television cameras are positioned around the swimming pool. We know the precise positions of each sun umbrella, table and chair. We even know what the judges and assistants are wearing. It's as credible as watching the Olympics on TV." Now as it turns out, Torino 2006 (the game) was more than a little bit shit - but the value of knowing that when your skier prepares for the downhill event, every tree, building and flag is as it is in real life and on telly is vital. The logo funnels a message direct to the shopper in Woolworths that 'this game is from the Olympics and certainly not from a dry-ski slope in Chatham'. Success can then be assured.

Fact: licensed property sells. Take a glance at the Top 10, stocked with such hippo poo as Harry Potter and Narnia, while works of genius like Beyond Good & Evil are left convulsing in the gutter. It's not difficult to see where publishers' preferences lie. Ubisoft, chuffed by the success of ape simulator King Kong, has announced that 25 per cent of its turnover will soon come from movie licences: great if there are more giant monkeys, not so great if we're faced with Bridget Jones: The Game. Meanwhile, EA and Activision are stockpiling their dungeons with enough exclusive property rights to withstand a nuclear attack - Shrek Superslam Wrestling anyone?

But all is not lost. If a licence is in the right hands, then we're treated to a far more authentic experience. For example, Funcom is currently adding the finishing touches to Age Of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, a MMOG based on the famous loin-clothed barbarian (now Governor of California). "We have access to all content related to the Conan universe," raves Funcom's product director, Jørgen Tharaldsen. "We're supported by the immensity of a 70-year legacy, including comics, novels and movies, and we're trying to be as true as possible to the original works of author Robert E Howard."

Back in gaming's wonder years, no-one gave a rat's arse about licensing. Developers used the names of real-life sport stars without asking permission, and racing games included posh motors without paying a penny. "It was wonderful," grins Toby Heap, licensing director for Codemasters. "You'd put anything you wanted into a game and you didn't have to worry." These days, render David Beckham's head without paying him zillions, or create a Batman game without signing a deal with the Caped Crusader's landlord, and you're likely to feel the strong arm of the law.

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