Nov 18

Working with IP


Today the question of working with IP came up and, as with any good topic, you walk away and then think of something else on the topic. Below you’ll find a condensed version of my views on working with IP. As with everything there are always caveats, and YMMV, and this isn’t attempting to be a fully comprehensive PhD on the topic, just some perspectives to be going away with.


Intellectual Property, or IP, is a casual term often misused in the games industry or relating to games. What it actually means is the everything of a project. To cite an example the IP of the Colin McRae Rally franchise included the top man himself, the proprietary level editor system, the patents, the fictional worlds created, the animation of the spectators, each front end screen and audio sample. Basically Everything created at Codemasters for the product.

It’s misused in sentences such as ‘there’s a new IP from studio X and it looks awesome’. This usually refers more to the unique fusion of key elements in a highly distinctive manner, but who would say ‘there’s a new unique fusion of key elements in a highly distinctive manner from studio X and it looks awesome’! :)

Coke, Zelda, Mickey Mouse, Marble Slab, Hamlet, Rainbow 6, Justin Timberlake, ILM, and so on. IP contained within them all. The general thought is of the main recognizable aspects of that consumable or universe.

I make this clear now so going onwards know that we’re talking about the general definition of IP rather than the exacting and wider definition relating to the games industry.


Understand the IP

Coming into any project midway or beginning work on a game under license means working with IP. With any project, be it new idea 6 months in or an established juggernaut with global name recognition, you’re going to need to find your bearings.

Your initial first blush will give you some impressions of the IP that consumers are going to also be hit with. The aspects you have query with are similarly going to be the ones that players will likely have too, keep note of these as they will be areas of the game where you’ll likely need to work to improve acceptance of concept.

A simple example would be the regenerative health in many “modern” FPS games (assume for a second this wasn’t the norm), where upon hearing this feature was key to the IP’s evolution and difference you’d be thinking ‘how are we going to do magical healing in a realistic war game?’. Yet, through removal of visible hit points, vignettes, audio and other effects, the feature is conveyed to the point where the concept is accepted.

It’s important to understand why the IP is as it is. Look at the key elements of an IP and how they are used in a distinctive manner; characters, interplay, story, visual style, etc and go beyond accepting that’s how it is and understand why that works for this IP. Is it vital to the fusion of X and Y? Are A and B in juxtaposition? Why did this franchise appeal although franchise Z did not although seems to contain many of the same key elements?

Understanding these allows to work within, to and possibly extend them.

When it comes to IP a ‘Bible’ is a central repository of approved, or ‘canon’ content. With larger IPs such as Pirates of the Carribbean and Star Wars for example, there is often an additional body of officially licensed work created by secondary parties that is considered non-canon or as yet unapproved canon. Which is to say if the primary IP owner was to create work that contradicts it then they could and it wouldn’t harm the IP. (Says the man awaiting the Thrawn trilogy he isn’t going to get :)

Grading elements

Whether creating original or working with existing IP, each aspect can be thought of and intentionally described as sitting in the below grades:

  • Primary grade are elements that people primarily/instantly associate with the IP: the Mickey Mouse, the Golden Arches, the red soles, the bombastic front man, etc. etc.
  • Secondary grade elements are support aspects, aspects that would quickly be mentioned after the primary in a conversation with Joe/Jane Public. Secondary characters, catchphrases, colors.
  • Tertiary grade covers aspects that are important but assumed elements. The fictional world, the minutiae, the background underlying primary an secondary.

The higher the on this scale an element or aspect sits the more critical it is to the identification of the IP amongst the developers and in turn the consumers. Ensuring a clear grading of each element pays forward as it further defines the property and strengthens it’s growth.

Respect the IP

Working with the Pirates of the Caribbean IP was a joy. Such an incredibly lush universe with concept, back-story, characters and places delivered (through canon and non-canon) films, games, audio books, novels, comics, and more.

With such a successful IP you have to respect that fusion of key elements because to not would be to risk producing a game that didn’t feel worthy of the IP and worse, upset and annoy fans of the IP. These people may be consumers of your game and feel discontented and unhappy at the use of the property or, worse, you risk diluting or even destroying the quality of the IP.

With the Pirates IP we began as fans of the universe ourselves, and stepped extra carefully with the property lest we do it a disservice.


Grow the IP

Identifying an IP’s key elements and how they are used distinctly and applying this to the game you are trying to make is step 1 and understanding that fusion is step 2. Growing an IP relies considerably on that bedrock.

To grow within an IP you look at the foundation and develop additional subtle elements into the mix. This is a hit and miss process and where fortunes are made and lost. Whilst this can be down to the new fusion of elements, how it is executed upon will vary greatly depending on the people you have and the quality they bring. Bottom line, have a good fusion and great people (but you knew that) apply budget and cook until golden.

Successful growth from original IP means taking some of the foundational pillars:

  • Standout characters
  • Interesting and deep universe
  • Holistic direction
  • Over-arching question
  • Exemplified mechanic
  • Renowned audio signature
  • Etc. Etc.

Thus, it’s tweaking one or two of them to provide enough variance so the offshoot stands by itself that leads to success. Whilst wild offshoots from established IP can be successful it’s usually when they keep close to this theory. The Dr Who IP, amongst its various growths from the original IP did produce not 1 but 2 successful offshoot shows (recently) by following this process. The initial show itself still aims to scare kids with monster-of-the-week, have a continuing canon and series or multi-series arcs, add adventure, action, fantasy, humor, romance and courage. It’s two child shows Torchwood and Adventures of Sarah Jane capitalized on the successes of Dr Who’s 21st century return to television by aiming at a more adult audience and a much younger audience respectively whilst maintaining the core pillars of the parent.


Stakeholders play a large part in developing an IP, whether from scratch or not and it’s vital to get buy-in on major aspects and to ensure access to these stakeholders is frequent. The importance of knowing what you are and aren’t allowed to create, alter and destroy from the moment you start on the project cannot be understated.


Creating an IP

New worlds, characters, mechanics and universes are a joy to create. One of the luxuries of a design role is that you get a part in defining an IP. This is of course a weighty responsibility too. In the past I’ve created new IP and begun work on projects that still had hazily defined direction for their IP and found the following helpful.

  • Identify and establish the pillars; (parkour solutions. Clean but real world, hero vs. corporation, player is never armed, etc.)
  • Derive the pillars into useable key elements (fluid and physical control design, highly focused first person audio, Faceless mega-corporations etc.)
  • Drive and encourage a distinctive manner of execution. (innovative hero, a real world in 3 main colors, simple cut-scenes, each main corporation’s branding, uniform and figureheads, etc.)

Staying aware of development team [member] excitement over parts of the project is recommended. This is a development of a process and whilst much is planned for up front ideas will be executed upon and produce results that are unexpected and shine – and can be taken further for the betterment of the project.

A highly important aspect of IP creation is to have faith in yourself (no pun intended) but also understand that good things are built on strong foundations and will deviate in execution but shouldn’t in direction. I’ve recently been watching documentaries on behind the scenes of various films and often listen to director/actor commentaries and it’s fascinating to hear that even the biggest names still run a little loose with their execution or expression of a movie only to cut, ADR or reshoot later in order to return the flow to the original direction of the pillars.


Final words

This was a longer post than unusual so I hope enjoyed it. Obviously there is more than can be discussed on pillars, elements and execution and its impact on IP, but perhaps for another post. As a fun experiment pick a recent or current game or TV serial and try to work out their pillars, boil it down to its core.

Thanks for reading!