Asmodee Entertainment’s Christian Dunn discusses taking board game IP into interactive spaces

Board games and beyond, with Christian Dunn – Interactive Licensing Manager at Asmodee Entertainment.

Before you were involved with Asmodee Entertainment, Christian, you authored several books. What kind of thing?
Initially, I was writing Warhammer 40,000 fiction – both novels and scripted audio dramas – but later branched out into ghost writing. That led me into other genres and working with much bigger brands and IPs. Warhammer 40,000 is such a melting pot of different genres and influences that although what I was writing could be fairly accurately described as Military Science Fiction, there were also strong elements of space opera, horror – even fantasy – in almost everything I wrote.

Interesting. And if I asked you to explain the enormous appeal of that genre, what would you say?
I think a lot of the appeal is that it isn’t enormous. Warhammer as a brand is very niche, and the tie-in fiction is a smaller niche within that niche… It appeals to a very specific kind of fan. They’re very engaged and dedicated fans who actually pride themselves on the fact that what they do is not very mainstream, and who are very heavily personally invested in the lore and background of the IP.

Right. A niche in a niche that likes being a niche! What got you into that space?
You could say I’m a gamekeeper turned poacher.

Nice turn of phrase! How so?
I began my career in publishing as an editor of comic books, short fiction and novels and was able to channel a lot of what I was learning into developing my skills as a writer. At first, I was very reluctant to make that jump as there’s nothing worse than an editor effectively commissioning themselves for paid freelance work!

I can imagine!
Others around me were already doing that kind of thing, though, and – after some procedures were put in place to ensure that it wasn’t just glorified vanity publishing – I didn’t look back.

Christian Dunn, Asmodee Entertainment
You’ve also had quite a long career at Games Workshop. Tell us about that…

Yes, I was there for almost twenty years, starting out in the Black Library publishing division before spending my final seven years in the licensing team. As I said, I started out as an editor of comic books, a bi-monthly short fiction magazine and novels which I did for my first four years. The comic book I was editing at the time – Warhammer Monthly, later Warhammer Comic – holds the dubious distinction of winning the prestigious Eagle Award for Best British Comic on the Friday and then being cancelled on the Monday morning when I got back into the office!

Is that right? That’s so awful it’s actually brilliant!
It does feel that way now! Anyway, after that, I moved over to the Black Flame imprint which was one of Games Workshop’s short-lived experiments of working with bigger, third party brands. Alongside some of my personal favourites like Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper and Nightmare on Elm Street, I got to work on movie novelisations which needed to be on store shelves in advance of the films being in cinemas.

“One career high was being the editor of the novelisation of Snakes on a Plane…”

Harder work, I understand, than it looks?
Oh, much. It was a real baptism of fire into the world of licensing! One of my career highs was not only being the editor of the novelisation of Snakes on a Plane – and the book is much better than the movie in my opinion – but also getting wind that they had done last-minute reshoots… I had to get the manuscript revised at the eleventh hour to ensure the immortal Samuel L. Jackson line from the movie made it into the novel.

The somewhat Oedipal line?! It wasn’t in the early cuts?
No, it got added very late on. From there, I was the launch editor for Solaris which was another of Games Workshop’s short-lived experiments, this time into the realm of ‘proper’ fantasy and science fiction publishing, acquiring original works from upcoming and established authors and building a market for them.

Not having the safety net of Warhammer, or bigger brands, was particularly daunting – but the editorial team’s instincts served us extremely well and we very quickly had novels that were outselling the main Black Library range by a good distance. We even had a New York Times bestseller which, despite being acquired under the ownership of Games Workshop, saw publication under its new masters after the imprint was quickly sold.

Christian Dunn, Asmodee Entertainment
It must be fascinating to see something like that happen…

Absolutely. And my last dance with the publishing arm of Games Workshop was building the audiobook business alongside editing the various short story anthologies the Black Library were putting out on a regular basis. Both aspects went really well and, during consecutive years, we had the second-bestselling audiobooks in the UK…

Second to whom?
Oh! We were beaten out by Dan Brown and JK Rowling respectively, and – capturing some of the Solaris magic – two of my short-story anthologies made it onto the New York Times bestseller list. However, that success was a double-edged sword as there were very few editors at even the biggest publishers who had got a single anthology onto the NYT bestseller list, let alone two, and without the appreciation at higher levels of just what an achievement that was, it was time to move on.

A shame it didn’t feel appreciated.
Well… As luck would have it, a very rare opportunity had come up in the Games Workshop licensing team, so I packed up my transferable skills – over a decade of experience with the brand at that point – and spent the next seven years expanding Warhammer’s presence in video games, publishing and, at the time, the scary new world of consumer products.

Quite a long journey! So now… What’s the appeal of licensing for you?
It comes from the same place as what drove me to work in tie-in fiction and start writing myself… First and foremost, I consider myself to be a fan. Of a lot of things! In the same way that the hardcore Warhammer fan may seek out novels, or audio dramas, or any other extensions of that IP, I want to prolong my time in the worlds and universes that I live and breathe, alongside the characters that I probably know better than some of my friends and family.

It’s that compelling?
It is, yes! I understand that I’m not alone in this. That there are hundreds, thousands, millions of people out there – depending on the IP – who feel the same and want to consume more of what it that they love. Be it writing 100,000 words of fiction that brings something to life that had only previously existed as 34mm lumps of plastic, or pairing up a world-class video game developer with the IP that they’ve waited decades to work on, or even making sure that an obscure character who likely means the world to somebody, somewhere ends up on a t-shirt… I just want to play a part in expanding those worlds and making them feel that little bit more real.

Christian Dunn, Asmodee Entertainment
And now that you’re with Asmodee Entertainment, Christian, for what are you responsible? What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

My role is Interactive Licensing Manager which means it falls to me to make sure that 300+ IPs are properly served in the video game and interactive space. Because of the very diverse nature of those IPs, it’s not a one solution fits all approach.

No, because the range is enormous…
Right. Dobble is about as far removed from a brand like say Tannhauser or Twilight Imperium!

“What we aren’t looking to do is license dozens of games based upon a single IP…”

And what works for one may not work for anything else, let alone all of them, presumably?
Exactly right. Some of those brands are games with very rich and innovative mechanics, but the lore – by necessity – doesn’t dive very deep. They may be limited to a very literal port of the tabletop experience within the digital space. Others may have millions of words of background and lore – along with thousands of pieces of artwork – and have applications beyond just translating the physical gameplay experience. What we aren’t looking to do is license dozens of games based upon a single IP, but instead make sure that a broad spectrum of those brands has a presence in the video game market.

How do you start making sure that happens?
In the first instance, a big part of this is ensuring we work with the right licensees. That means lead generation takes up a good deal of my time but, as more and more partners sign up with us, license management is becoming a bigger factor. Fortunately, I work with an amazing team of creative liaisons who make sure everything runs smoothly once the license is up and running.

Makes sense. And when you’re looking for partners to take IP in an interactive direction, then, what qualities must they show? What values must they hold?
Passion and expertise, in equal measure. I don’t want to work with a video-game developer or publisher that’s only chasing a license because they’ve seen sales numbers, or have heard that there may be a movie in development. I want to work with people who have a genuine affinity for the brand and the expertise, and know how to bring an amazing video game to market.

Christian Dunn, Asmodee Entertainment
What makes that so important? And is there a downside to it?

Well, ultimately, it results in a better, more-authentic end product. But yes, there’s tightrope to walk here…

Go on…
I’ve explored deals with developers in the past who are the absolute experts in their particular genre or style of video game and are longstanding fans of the brand. Unfortunately, they’ve had such a singular vision of how they perceive the world and the lore that anything they create would be their version of the brand, rather than an accurate depiction of most fans’ experience of the IP.

Ah! Got it. I wouldn’t have thought of that; that’s a subtle trap…
Right… Likewise, there may be developers out there who are absolutely at the top of their game, passionate and engaged about the brand – but their business model may be incompatible with our brand values…

Yes – can you give me an example of that?
Anything involving free-to-play mechanics is a good example… For the record, I’m a big fan of them in most cases, but they’re incompatible with child-facing brands, for instance.

Great example, thank you!
Finally, we’re aiming for a realistic alignment of whichever brand we’re looking to license and the scope of the game the licensee wants to develop. Too many brand owners claim they’re only looking for AAA partners to sign licenses with when the brand in question doesn’t have anywhere near the audience to warrant that size of game budget or developer…

Ultimately, that leads to frustration when those deals don’t come off, or – worse – the game gets made but doesn’t shift anywhere near its projected units. Conversely, I’ve seen licensors sign deals with developers who very quickly come to market with a piece of shovelware, reusing existing assets or a skeevy reskinned, free-to-play title which ultimately damages the brand.

Christian Dunn, Asmodee Entertainment
Skeevy! Great word. We don’t use it in the UK, but you’re saying it’s a sort-of squalid, iffy version…

Yes. And all this is a far from an exact science, of course! Sometimes key people at a big publisher or developer may be fans of a brand and the killer deal comes off; other times a smaller developer displays such passion and innovation that the calculated risk you take with them pays off – but having a roadmap for each of the key IPs and the types of video game we have identified as a good fit for each of them has served me well so far.

Brilliant. And away from video games, what do you hope to achieve with any interactive experiences?
I’m looking for interactive experiences that enhance and expand on the tabletop versions of the game. In the case of a direct adaptation of a board or card game, I’m looking for something that feels like a video-game experience and takes advantage of the benefits that medium brings, while still being recognisable as something that’s based on the boxed version…

And a less direct adaption?
With a game that uses the IP as the basis of telling a new story and offering a different kind of experience from the tabletop, I want something that brings the world to life and offers a unique narrative while still staying true to the source material. Regardless of the game or the IP, I want players with no exposure to the brand to become fans – and those who are already fans to be given an authentic experience that augments their enthusiasm.

“It all starts with making sure we pick the right partner to work with.”

What’s your process to make sure that happens?
It sounds obvious but – again – it all starts with making sure we pick the right partner to work with. Have they worked on similar games to the one they’re pitching in the past? If not, what makes them think they can make a success of it? What’s their level of passion for and knowledge of the brand? Does their vision of the IP and lore match ours? And how will that be conveyed in the game?

Great questions!
Although we have a lot of experience working on licensed video games within the Asmodee Entertainment team, we don’t try to be armchair experts when it comes to the finer details of gameplay and implementation. We need to be able to trust a partner to make a great video game, and they need to trust us to ensure they make a game that stays true to the brand.

Christian Dunn, Asmodee Entertainment

You work closely with them then, presumably?
Yes, very closely… Because of the nature of an interactive game, projects can take many, many years to develop… It’s not a case of handing over assets, and the developer coming back to you with a finished product. Instead, it’s a collaborative relationship that requires clear and regular communication. We are with them every step of the way, feeding them new material as the tabletop product lines and lore expand. We also offer feedback on the implementation and application of the IP. Our goal is to never reject anything as part of the formal approvals process because – through ongoing dialogue and feedback – whatever is submitted should be an instant sign off.

Brilliant answer, Christian. We need to start wrapping this up but – before we do – what’s the one question I should’ve asked you today but didn’t?
Video games is a fast-moving industry with new technologies, games genres and business models emerging all the time. What have been the biggest changes you’ve experienced over the last 10 years?

And what’s the answer?
When I first got into licensing, video games licensing was already extremely difficult and that has only got harder over time. Back in the glory days of 8- and 16-bit computers, every other game was based on some license or other, be it a movie/TV tie-in or a port of a popular arcade machine. As the video-games industry grew and the technology became more advanced, development times became longer and it became increasingly difficult to get a movie tie-in game to market alongside the cinema release. Alongside that, arcade games saw a sharp decrease in popularity as the consoles and computers people now had in their own homes were as good as, if not better, than the machines in the local video shop or chippy.

As a result, more and more original games were produced, many of which went on to become franchises in their own right and spawn merchandise programmes and media spin offs. And this wasn’t restricted to big-budget games from large studios… Some of the biggest video-game brands started out as humble projects from small-to-medium sized indie studios, Minecraft and Roblox being the most notable. In much the same way as – back in the 1980s – any kid with a computer could potentially code the next big hit video game, any small developer could now potentially be sitting on the next big franchise.

Christian Dunn, Asmodee Entertainment
When it comes down to a choice of paying a license fee for access to a brand, or the potential for extra revenue generation from licensing out your own original IP, more and more publishers and developers are now opting for the latter. The silver lining here is that because of the inexorable rise in popularity of video games during this time, there are far more video-game developers out there than ever before – and a lot of decision makers and creatives within those businesses have grown up playing board and card games, many of which are Asmodee IPs. There may not be the same appetite for bringing in external IP as the basis for a video game, but in terms of finding the right partners who are passionate and engaged, it’s almost impossible to walk into any video-game studio in the world without finding a copy of Ticket to Ride, an Arkham Horror card-game deck, or some other trace of Asmodee products on shelves or desks.

Is that right? They’re staples in that industry?
Yes. For me personally, the most exciting innovation has been the change in approach to how brands and IPs are utilised within the video game space. Instead of developing a standalone game based on an IP, developers and brand owners have become far more relaxed about allowing co-mingling of content and characters in existing games. What was once solely the preserve of companies with a lot of their own IP – like Nintendo with Super Smash Bros or Disney with their fantastic Infinity product – has now become an accepted part of the video-game landscape with regular takeovers and content drops commonplace in games of all sizes and budgets. As this is relatively quick and easy for developers as they’re only creating content, it allows for time-sensitive tie-ins to happen with little risk…

Again, can you give me an example of that?
Sure! Think Fortnite, maybe, adding new Marvel skins whenever they have a new movie or TV series coming out. At the same time, they keep the player base engaged by giving them a reason to log in. It’s also a fantastic reward for fans who, for years, have been able to create these kinds of collaborations at home with their action figures, or in fan fiction, fan art or even through cosplay, and are now seeing the kinds of mashups they never dreamed possible given the official seal of approval.

Absolutely fantastic! Thank you, Christian.

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