Working with Licenses: How to Train Your Dragon

As Ludia’s Lead Game Designer on DreamWorks Dragons: Titan Uprising for nearly 3 years, I’ve seen first-hand how working with a beloved franchise empowers game development.

There’s a common misconception that working with established licenses stifles creativity and results in mediocre products. While the early days of games are littered with half-baked movie cash grabs, things have changed dramatically over the years. From 2018’s Spider-Man on PS4 to Jurassic World: Alive on mobile, gamers have more options than ever to dive deep into their favorite franchises. Licensors now understand the value of high-quality titles supporting their brands, and Ludia has become a mobile expert in licensed gaming.

Written by Kevin Messer

You Already Have an Audience

Let’s face it—getting people excited about a mobile game and forming a community is really hard. There’s more competition every day, and mobile still carries a stigma with old-school gamers. Building around a known franchise not only helps with marketing, but you already have an answer to “who’s our audience?” Knowing your audience helps in all stages of game development, allowing the team to focus on what really matters to people who already care.

In the case of How to Train Your Dragon (HTTYD), I’m constantly amazed by the passion and civility of the fans. The inherent optimism in the franchise attracts some wonderful people who treat others with respect. Even when they find bugs, they often let us know with a tone of “I want to help improve the game” instead of “the devs are terrible!” This creates a collaborative atmosphere with the community and motivates teams to constantly improve.

Work with Strong Partners

When you work with a popular license, you’re also working with powerful partners in the entertainment industry. While some licensors are more specific with their guidelines, you tend to get more leeway when you’ve built trust across several games. Ludia has a strong track record of respecting the essence of brands, so that affords more freedom within those brands and attracts more potential projects.

NBCUniversal has been a particularly supportive partner. From Jurassic World to How to Train Your Dragon, we’ve built some of the most successful licensed mobile games together. Through this partnership, NBCUniversal has maintained an excellent balance of ensuring brand integrity and giving feedback without being prescriptive. We trust that they know the franchises better than anyone, and they trust that we know how to make compelling mobile games.

Of course, working with NBCUniversal also comes with some perks. The first thing I did after joining Ludia was to visit the stunning DreamWorks campus. With HTTYD: The Hidden World in mid-production, our core team was treated to an early script read by the franchise director himself, Dean DeBlois. Not a bad first day!

The Value of Constraints

It’s well-known in creative endeavors that a lack of constraints can be terrifying. Whether it’s a writer with a blank page or a painter with a white canvas, it can be hard to know where to start if anything is possible. Working with a license provides those boundaries from the beginning. Similar to knowing the audience, the constraints of the brand help in answering a variety of questions throughout development. Sometimes they even open new opportunities that you may not have considered.

Working with Dragons in DreamWorks Dragons: Titan Uprising provided some unique possibilities. Whereas it would seem strange to pet human characters in a standard Puzzle RPG, petting and forming an emotional connection with Dragons is central to the HTTYD franchise. This nurturing view was the first thing we prototyped, and we knew immediately that it added a special quality to the game that fans would appreciate. 

Live Out Your Childhood Fantasies

I’ve had the opportunity to work with a variety of licenses throughout my career. In most cases, it’s a unique way to revisit the worlds and characters you loved as a child. When I worked on X-Men: Battle of the Atom in 2014, I was eager to revisit the comics and cartoons that shaped my youth. Now that I’m working with HTTYD, I’ve been able to fully understand the themes of adventure and friendship that encompass the series. The sense of nostalgia and opportunity to expand these franchises is something that you can’t fully achieve without licensing.

One of the best opportunities we’ve had is creating the Crossbreed Dragons. HTTYD has a ton of iconic Dragons, and we knew early on that Crossbreeding had immense potential from both gameplay and creative perspectives. Luckily NBCUniversal agreed, and now we know what it looks like when you breed a Rumblehorn with a Skrill (hint: it’s awesome).

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