The highs and lows of licensed toy and game design

The creative constraints, pitfalls to avoid and how the best brands bring toys to life.

The world of licensed toys and games has never been as exciting as it is right now. At Brand Licensing Europe, a panel of experts gathered to talk licensed toy and game design, including creative constraints, pitfalls to avoid and how the best brands bring toys to life.

Billy Langsworthy, co-founder of Mojo Nation chaired the Playing with Brands panel discussion on the second day of the show.

The panel of experts included: Simon Skelton, director of Big Ideas Product Development; Luc Hudson, creative director of Triclops Studio; Chris Birch, publisher and founder of Modiphius Entertainment and Richard Heayes, founder of Heayes Design.

How do you deal with the design restrictions of a licence?

Richard: “It doesn’t actually need to be restrictive. It can help you think outside the box and can help build the creative story. People want innovation.”
Simon: “You also need to look at play patterns in different countries and just be aware of your target audience.”
Luc: “But it should always be a great toy at heart, no matter what the licence.”

Is it easier or more difficult to make licensed product?
Chris: “It is easier for us a publishing agency as there have been a lot of licensing successes. The doors are more open now for the type of products we want to do.”
Luc: “The competition is getting tougher. There are more licences, but on the plus side, people we talk to are now more familiar with licensing and merchandising.”
Richard: “I don’t think much has changed over the years. You still have to come up with a great core idea. If anything, bringing the concept to life is easier with technology. The leaps we’ve made in technology means you can make your initial concept look good quicker.”
Simon: “There are more routes to market than there used to be. In the past licensors would give blanket licences, but now there seems to be more flexibility in licensing agreements.”

Toys are a huge part of licensing, are we too reliant on toys to sell brands?
Richard: “Non-licensed product is hard to sell unless you’re doing TV adverts. That product needs to sell on the shelf. A licensed product cuts through that noise in the toy shop. The licence sells that product. Non-licensed toy needs to emotionally connect, and that is hard.”

In terms of brands with passionate communities, do you need to worry about fan service?
Chris: “Yes, for the product we do, we are steered by the community. We gauge interest in our products and get feedback. For us, the community is the life blood of the business.”
Luc: “But you also need to strike a balance with community and brand needs.”
Richard: “Fandom starts at a young age. Detail is important. Kids notice everything and you constantly need to compromise on what is important and what isn’t.”
Simon: “You’ve got to be loyal to the brand, but not a slave to the style guide. Go onto social media, look at what people are making on Pinterest. It won’t necessarily be what is in the style guide. You need to challenge the style guide.”

Some toy brands are becoming licences in their own right. What are your thoughts on this?
Simon: “If you’re building something into a brand from the outset, it has to be correct. It has to flow through the whole story. It’s important to stay true to the brand with whatever you do after the toy.”
Luc: “We see quite a few brands with animation, toy and games all designed into the brand at the outset. This is all good, but the toy has to be good. It’s important not to sacrifice this for the sake of the brand.”

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