If asked to name the best-selling game of 2006, you could probably come up with Madden 07. However, it’s unlikely that many people would be able to come up with the second best-selling game. What was it, you wonder? How about Cars, a licensed title based on Pixar’s most popular film of the year.

It’s a fact not often recognized by the gaming community: Licensed games often sell well. Of course, it’s easy to be dismissive. These games are not designed or marketed to us, the gamer. We might even take umbrage with their success, as if developers and publishers can simply slide around us, their loyal fan base, to make a quick buck off of impressionable, young gamers and their willfully ignorant parents.

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But there it is at No. 2, Cars. And it’s certainly not alone. Games like Over the Hedge, Ice Age 2: The Meltdown, Happy Feet, Hannah Montana and SpongeBob SquarePants: Creature from Krusty Krab also sold well in 2006. And we have no reason to think 2007 was any different, what with another Hannah Montana game (can anyone stop her?!), a Zoey 101 game (no, it doesn’t involve teenage pregnancy) and a second Cars game featuring the Larry the Cable Guy voiced tow-truck, Mater.

Ramiro Corbetta, a 25-year-old game designer working with the independent developer Powerhead Games, never had any strong attachment to licensed games. Sure, like most gamers of his generation, he played Aladdin on the Genesis, and he played bad ports like Back to the Future on the NES before that. But growing up in Brazil, Corbetta also imagined the games he might play; games built around his favorite cartoon shows.

His was part of the first generation to grow up with this possibility. By the mid ’80s younger gamers rarely, if ever, had to wait to play as their favorite franchise properties. If you liked Ghostbusters, there was a game for that. If you liked RoboCop, there was a game for that. And if you liked Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, well, you were out of luck, because there was a game, but it was pretty much impossible.

Corbetta now has the opportunity to make his dream come true for today’s cartoon and franchise fans. Having interned at the New York City-based Powerhead Games while still an undergrad at Columbia University, Corbetta joined the company fulltime as a designer after graduation. The first game he worked on was a Konami-published DS game based on the children’s cartoon Winx Club. Konami was pleased enough with Powerhead’s first excursion into the Winx universe that they ordered up a second game, for which Corbettta is currently serving as lead designer.

I first tried to meet with Mr. Corbetta to discuss his experiences making, as he described them, “little girl games,” just over a month ago. Unfortunately, that meeting got slightly derailed when a roommate of Corbetta’s suggested we start with some Rock Band. While he spends a good deal of his work day thinking about a game starring a team of teenage fairies, Corbetta’s videogame tastes don’t differ much from your average 25-year-old. His apartment is home to a 360 as well as a Wii, and he’s an avid DS player.

As I would learn later, after failing miserably to match Mick Jagger’s falsetto on “Gimme Shelter,” designing licensed games for a show targeted at 8-year-old girls isn’t all that different from designing the next World War II-based FPS. Powerhead, who doesn’t only develop games for “little girls,” employs staff at every level of development – from artists and designers to programmers and debuggers. They have to worry about building a game that will hold players’ interest and keep them coming back. And just as in original titles, developers are always concerned about avoiding that pernicious buyer’s remorse.

The overarching difference is that licensed games have a preexisting set of boundaries and guidelines that must be incorporated into development. On the surface, this may seem simple and even self-explanatory, but in practice this gives rise to any number of issues that can turn development into a minefield. These games also come with a built-in audience, very often a loyal fan base with expectations about what a game should be like.

The flipside of that coin, though, is that same audience will likely be buying a game no matter what. For licensed titles marketed to younger players, oftentimes the gamer isn’t even making the purchase himself. Instead, a parent or other family member is standing in a Toys ‘R’ Us, thinking to himself, “Well, Sarah sure does like that Winx Club. I better buy her the game.”

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As Corbetta explained, though, these foregone conclusions really don’t affect the way a game gets made. “A game with the brand name on it is going to sell, but you don’t want to sell a s—-y product to people. You don’t want the kids to open their gift on Christmas and be like, ‘Wow, this sucks.’ You don’t want to make a game that makes a kid sad. If you’re in [the business of game design,] you’re hopefully in it because you want people to have fun.”

Ultimately, for a developer like Powerhead, working on licensed titles like Winx Club can often be a difficult balancing act between meeting the demands of the publisher and stretching their creative wings to make a game the developers are happy with. This balancing act must also draw in considerations of form vs. function. Both publisher and developer must decide if the gameplay will evolve from the intellectual property, or if the IP will be made to fit a preexisting model of gameplay. These decisions can come from both ends, but other aspects, like target market and other games based on the IP, come into play.

“If we were to copy and paste [from a first licensed title to a second], you know what, that game would probably still sell,” Corbetta said. “But seriously, could you really go home and sleep knowing that you just slacked off and [ruined the experience] of thousands and thousands of little girls?”

Instead, for each licensed title, all parties involved must agree on what type of game best suits the IP. In the case of Winx Club, Konami was especially pleased with the replay value of the mini-games Powerhead created for the first go around. So in the second title, Powerhead put more effort into building out new and interesting mini-games. Likewise, during market research, they discovered girls enjoyed the dress-up and design element that had only been added as an afterthought in the first Winx game. So during development for the second game, this feature has been greatly expanded.

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It’s easy to see how these kinds of elements might get overlooked by a development team comprised primarily of young men. But as Corbetta explained, one of the first things he learned in working on licensed titles is you’re not making a game for yourself.

“You have to realize that the game you’re making, you’re making this game for people who like the franchise. So you want to make a good game regardless, but you also can’t forget the franchise. If you forget the franchise, you’re basically f—-d,” he said. “If you forget the franchise, then you’re just making the game that you want to make for yourself.” The developer must always keep in mind that the real draw of a licensed title is the chance to experience and control an IP that the gamer is familiar with.

Corbetta continued: “It’s about them feeling like they’re the character. If I make a game where there’s a flying, shooting thing, I want to make Ikaruga. It’s insane, and it’s too hard, even for me. So you have to be able to pull away and say, ‘These kids don’t want Ikaruga.’ Ikaruga is not a game made for 8-year-olds. Maybe if you’re a hardcore 8-year-old, you’d play Ikaruga. But if you’re [that hardcore,] you’re probably not buying [a licensed] game.”

In the universe of gaming, licensed titles will always inhabit a nether realm: rarely challenging enough to be considered hardcore fare, but usually deeper than a typical casual game. Developers like Powerhead must tread between both worlds. They need to appeal to and appease a dedicated fan base, but also offer something new and innovative for other gamers who may stumble upon the game. For firms like Powerhead, licensed games provide a challenge but also a steady stream of income that allows the company, and designers like Corbetta, the chance to develop original games.

Licensed games will likely continue to play the role of the black sheep: rarely taken seriously and often simply ignored. But these games have a role and a place, not only in the business of selling games, but also in the art of game design. Somewhere out there is a little girl with a Winx Club game that could grow up to be the next David Jaffe, Will Wright or Shigeru Miyamoto. And the things she learns from that game’s success, as well as its failures, will help inform her future career.

Jon Schnaars is a freelance writer with interests in genre and representation in gaming. He blogs full-time about issues in psychology and mental health for Treatment Online.

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