Mobile gaming apps face some of the toughest competition of all times. As the industry matures, developers need to get more creative to put their games in the spotlight, and to grab and hold players’ attention. In this highly competitive scenario, adopting a licensing IP strategy (Intellectual Property) to release games based on famous movies, books and brands can give publishers an edge that has become increasingly popular in mobile gaming.

But licensing negotiations can take years to complete, and the hard work doesn’t stop once publishers and IP holders have all the details squared away. Forgetting about style/art guides and revenue splits for now, developers seem to think that licensing will attract tons of players organically and will lower the cost of user acquisition. Wrong.

According to Eric Seufert, Mobile Marketing, Analytics and User Acquisition expert and author at Mobile Dev Memo, in order to succeed with licensing IP, mobile F2P game developers need to have in mind 3 things: that the IP will not generate installs out of thin air, that the purpose of their IP licensing is not a strategy to reduce UA costs, and that they can regain their marketing spend before gross receipts are split.

Recently, there has been a rise in the success of licensed IP games. Especially with companies like Zynga snagging licensing deals for IPs like Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and Star Wars. While it certainly seems that this connection between mobile games and Hollywood has been causing an upset, brands alone aren’t a guarantee of success.

Think about the licensing negotiations we mentioned earlier. This is the most critical stage of any agreement, because this is when you can determine how involved the holder will be in the marketing and promoting of the app.

When the IP owner complements publishers’ UA efforts by reaching out to their loyal fans to encourage them to download the game, it can really help them spike downloads and reduce UA budgets.

Our customers at Jam City and Next Games have two of the most popular licensed IP games out there right now. Jam City partnered with Warner Bros Studios to bring the world Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery this past April, while Next Games has been working with AMC for years to bring two games of The Walking Dead to the mobile world: The Walking Dead: No Man’s Land and The Walking Dead: Our World.

A magical match

Let’s look at Harry Potter for a second. JK Rowling has created a world through 7 books that turned into a movie franchise with 8 initial movies and now a spin off that will contain 3 more movies.

In the years since the final movie was released, a generation of Harry Potter kids have become adults but never truly lost their love for the story. With smart phones in their pockets, Jam City has offered them a modern and fun mobile app that quickly became “the most downloaded game in all key markets on the Apple App Store and Google Play store” in its first week. It also hit the “top five grossing game in the likes of Australia, Canada, the UK and the US.”

Jam City Licensed IP


Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mysterygenerated $55 million in revenue” in its first 4 months alone and even saw a spike in downloads between June and July, almost 2 months after it launched. In those first few months the game solely monetized with in-app purchases and then slowly introduced rewarded video ads into the mix.

So what caused people of all ages across the world to stick with it? It all comes down to game play. While it is clear that the IP itself drove a large amount of the downloads from a generation of wannabe Muggles and their kids, Jam City really brought the story alive. Taking place years before Harry Potter even enters the halls of that infamous castle, the players receive a role-playing experience that literally made their magical dreams come true.

Players are able to create their own character, control the storyline and go through the game as a Hogwarts student. “Avatar creation can be fun and additive to gameplay, by creating parameters that allow the player to feel a connection to the avatar and that it is a representation of them” said Andrew Green, the companies Head of Marketing and Business Development at Jam City.

The company is no stranger to addictive gameplay either. Green also told PocketGamer that “years and years of experience in publishing casual mobile games that have driven hundreds of millions of downloads,” helped Warner Bros choose them for the project.

They have worked with creatives like Marvel and Fox in the past to create engaging games for their licensed IPs. The trick, according to Green, is authenticity. Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery certainly has that. While the storyline is completely different from the books or movies, Jam City has worked with Warner Bros to create an authentic experience that is unique to each user.  

Licensed IPs coming to life

This style of gameplay isn’t always how licensed IPs are created however, Next Games decided on something completely different for their The Walking Dead (TWD) games.

“We made the decision early on that we didn’t want a relationship where [the rights holder] hands over the license like the key to a Ferrari and checks back in a year to see how the game is going,” Saara Bergström, CMO of Next Games said in an interview. “We wanted a close collaboration [with the rights holder] because we saw that it was the only way to create bespoke experiences around the brand that really resonate with the fans.”

They got their wish with AMC. The first game for the series, The Walking Dead: No Man’s Land puts the player directly into the storyline and trains them how to defeat zombies (or walkers, as the franchise calls them). Instead of creating their own avatars, players can pick the character they chose to play as.

Since the popular television show is still airing, Next Games releases new content for their games the day after new episodes air. This enhances the player experience in this world where they can watch what is happening on the show and then go through it themselves in the game.

They include video content from the series in the game as well. Players can view exclusive content in a rundown theater inside the game. The same theater offers rewarded ads as well. Bergström told AdExchanger that 75-80% their 12 million players opt in to watch reward ads, generating “hundreds of thousands of ad views each day.”

This is very different from Next Games second TWD game, The Walking Dead: Our World, which allows players to navigate the game as an AR experience. Similar to Pokemon Go or Jurassic World Alive, The Walking Dead: Our World gets their players up and moving by placing the game virtually around them. Each game is extremely successful in its own right.

However, you never really know how well a licensed IP is going to succeed, if at all.

Not so happy celebrity

Mobile game company Glu has made a series of licensed celebrity IP games ranging from Kim Kardashian to Katy Perry. However, the game Kim Kardashian: Hollywood has been extremely successful over the years where Katy Perry Pop failed to take off.

Much like Jurassic World and TWD, the game mechanics in both of these games are pretty much the same. The user navigates through the game trying to rise to fame with the help of the games namesake. So why is it that Katy Perry Pop did so badly? Glu was extremely optimistic after the success of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, and given that Katy Perry has twice the amount of online followers as Kim Kardashian, they thought Katy Perry Pop would be even more successful. The opposite happened.

In this case, it looks like it all comes down to marketing. Kim Kardashian spoke about her new game on social media as well as featuring her time making the app on her popular TV show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

If we know anything about the Kardashians, it is that they are brilliant brand marketers. Kim spent a lot of time thinking about how to improve her game. If she was going to be wearing a specific outfit, she would send a picture of it to the developers at Glu so they could add it to the game.

However, not every IP holder is going to give you this amount of attention and marketing. It all comes down to the negotiations that take place before development even begins.

In the end, you’ll never know how an IP is going to perform until its game launches. The best thing that publishers can do is to try and work with the IP holder as much as possible before and after the game has begun development and make the game play as unique as possible to the players. Licensing IPs could just be a risk worth taking.