Playing Dr. Freud to Your Intellectual Property

Sigmund Freud analyzed his patients’ dreams to understand what they were about. You have a similar job as a developer when you are working with an existing IP. As a video game designer, it’s your job to put your Intellectual Property on the couch and coax out its deepest secrets. You need to understand what makes your IP tick – welcome to digital psychology.

Whether it’s an IP from film, television, comics or a cherished video game classic, at some point most game developers will work with existing IP. And when you do, you are signing up for a sacred trust. You are taking someone's baby, the child of another's effort and you are nurturing it in new ways. You have to balance the need to re-invent and innovate against the expectations of the fans. This can lead to triumph or it can be a disaster.

And the essence of delivering a satisfying game based on existing IP is to understand what that IP is truly about.

You might want to repeat that. It’s a concept of deceptively subtle simplicity.

You might ask, is it really necessary to point out you must understand your IP? But then, you might ask what cooking recipes and being the medic droid has to do with Star Wars.

To deliver on the expectations of your IP, you must truly understand what it is about. And then you must make a game of that.

Let's look at three examples torn from the four color pages of comics: Batman, Superman and Iron Man.

Batman has an uneven history with video game adaptations. But the last year was kind to the Dark Knight. Batman: Akham Asylum succeeded because it delivered on a very straight-forward proposition - it felt like you were the Batman.

Batman is a man - a well trained, well armed, tactical genius - but a man never-the-less. He is not bullet proof or unstoppable. He overcomes not because he is a brawny brawler or has a gadget for every occasion. The Batman is thinker and he is fundamentally tactical. He plans his encounters. He uses his wits to overcome his adversaries. And this was how Akham succeeded. You felt like you were using your wits to outthink you opponents - and then delivered a devastating blow with your myriad of skills, deceptions or gadgets. As Batman you always felt a step ahead of your enemies and like you had a range of contingencies available for your encounters. Combine this with well balanced gameplay and a new spin on the iconic character and his opponents and you’ve got a true standout game for the year.

The Superman Returns game had some good ideas. The notion of sandbox game is appealing for Superman. He is a god among men, after all. And the notion that Superman is invulnerable and it is those in his care that matter, that is inspired. Superman's vulnerability is not kryptonite - it is his all-too-human heart which cares deeply for the mere mortals of Metropolis who are far more fragile than he.

The problem with that game (besides good old fashioned bugs) is that the game punishes you for having fun.

If you are Superman, you want to engage in super-human feats. You want to leap tall buildings and all that. What’s the point of being Superman if you cannot be super-human? Super-man as a character probably has to feel terribly restrained every day of his life for fear of destroying everything around him – but that’s not as much fun in a game. When you smash things in the game, you are penalized. The thing you most want to do - to be Super - is actively discouraged by the game systems.

Superman is about with awesome power comes an awesome responsibility. But Superman also always finds a way to succeed. He triumphs over the impossible – because he is Superman. In the classic Superman the Movie dilemma, Superman must choose between saving millions and saving the woman he loves. And in true Superman fashion, he finds a lateral solution to the problem and slices the Gordian Knot. Superman never gives up and always finds a way to triumph, even if it means the ultimate sacrifice for him. 

A Superman game that had you care for Metropolis - but also presented you with plenty of opportunity to stop your opponents with creative use of your power would be appealing. Solving insoluble problems by the application of your super powers, now that would be a game. Super Returns the game represents then an understanding of much of what makes the Superman IP, but it glosses over some of the fundamental aspects of what makes Superman appealing and thereby runs afoul when it translates into gameplay.

Iron Man
What is Iron Man about? Flying, having repulsor blasts and ripping the top off a tank? These are cool, to be sure. Is it techno-wizardry and a protagonist with a smarmy attitude, playboy lifestyle and never-ending supply of quips? Sure, these are qualities of the IP - but they are not what defines Iron Man.

In all of his various incarnations, Tony Stark is a fundamentally flawed man. A very fallible human. Whether it is the literal physical flaw of a perforated heart or some psychological holes in his soul such as alcoholism and delusions of grandeur.

As Iron Man, he is a juggernaut - a man with steel skin and an arsenal of devastating weapons. But inside his iron shell is a very frail and vulnerable human being. Superman’s nature is to be invulnerable whether he’s in his costume or not. But Tony Stark is only invulnerable as long as his technology functions.

But Tony’s faults are redeemed by his amazing ingenuity. He is a creative genius and has an awesome talent for improvisation. One of the reason's Iron Man's origin story works so well is that it encapsulates all the most crucial elements of his mythology. A man with deep flaws finds himself hoist literally by own petard. With the mother of all ticking clocks against him, Stark must find a way to save his life and escape his captivity - and he does so through an astonishing act of improvisation. In the most inhospitable of conditions, he forges an instrument of awesome power, turning his imminent defeat into triumph. But there is always the lurking spectre of his technology failing him, leaving him once again terribly vulnerable.

This is what makes Iron Man and it’s a game designer’s job to translate this into a game. A proper Iron Man game should be these core ideas. Clearly, as Iron Man, a player should feel awesome and powerful in the face of daunting firepower. They should feel like a walking tank.

But Iron Man’s armor should feel like a tool at his disposal, an instrument to wield not just a characteristic of the man. The player should be able to adapt and reconfigure their armor for different missions and situations. They should have “all power to forward shields” kind of options.

There should also be the nagging prospect of Iron Man’s armor failing him. Taking enough damage or losing power should shut down systems. And if Iron Man has no armor, he is very vulnerable. But he should also always have Tony’s genius to stave off disaster. A quick re-route of circuitry (perhaps via a mini-game) can restore power or malfunctioning systems. Making novel use of the environment to improvise critical technology or discover novel power sources. 

Ultimately, Iron Man is a technological juggernaut that is powered by the ingenuity of a man – and that’s the experience a player should have playing an Iron Man game.

Some developers see working with an existing IP as a hack or a chore. But it’s a trust. A trust between you, the people who created the IP and the audience who (presumably) loves that IP.

If you understand that trust – then you are on the way to understanding your IP and doing it justice in a game.

Image by PaintMonkey by Creative Commons License


  1. I imagine that for most games of this sort the intent is to make it as broadly appealing as possible. Since they are often tied in with specific films, I can almost see the designers thinking, "what popular game-play can we shoehorn this IP into, while also allowing the character to do that thing he did in the movie..." (Though I've seen some designs that dispensed entirely with having anything to do with the original IP.) Ironically that results in a bland, generic game that disappoints the actual fans who are the core audience for the game, rather than significantly broadening its appeal.
    I think the problem is compounded in that most games based on existing (non-game) IPs seem to be done with especially small budgets and especially short deadlines; that development environment really doesn't lend itself to deep thinking about the IP or development of complex game-play systems.
    I also get the impression that a small number of studios end up doing many of the tie-in games, and IP-based games are seen as money makers to fund "real" projects, so the developers therefore aren't particularly invested in any of the IPs they work with.

  2. It's true, licensed games that are tied in to some event (such as a movie release) are almost always seriously under the gun. Hollywood has very little understanding how long it takes to make a good game.

    For me, if you're a professional on a project, it's important to do the most justice to your IP as you can. There's a host of factors (time, money, technology) that can get in the way of that. But you still gotta try and figure out what makes the IP tick - and in my experience, even if you're not in love with the IP, that can turn the experience into something more rewarding.

  3. You are, of course, completely correct, all those contrary factors just mean we're unlikely to see many devs make the effort for movie tie-ins (which means when developers do, the game shines all the brighter).
    There's another issue that I neglected to mention but experienced first hand - when the IP holder and the publisher have some notions of what the game should be. My own experience went something like this:
    Publisher: We bought the MMO rights for this popular movie. We think the game should be like this...
    Designers: {after listening in stunned silence...} Well, um, there are some problems with your proposed direction. First, the style and gameplay you've just described are the same as a popular Korean MMO... which are completely unrelated to, and totally inappropriate for, this IP. Second, the MMO that you're using as the model for this game is only popular in Korea, but the movie IP is only popular in the U.S., so we're not sure who your targeted audience is. Third, the creators of the IP have (quite correctly, in this case) expressly forbidden the use of certain game elements upon which you've based your entire design. Fourth, all that fighting-based gameplay? Inappropriate both for the IP and the age range of the audience. How about we try this other design, instead, that's more appropriate to the IP?
    Publisher: That sounds more expensive.

    Ultimately, unsurprisingly, the publisher decided it wanted to do it cheap rather than right. The project's development was transferred to Korea, where I'm sure it started to take on a resemblance to a certain popular Korean MMO.,,