The Brand Radar: Talking video games with Bits and Pixels’ Sandra Arcan

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes chats with Bits and Pixels co-owner Sandra Arcan to discuss the agency, its approach to licensing and how video game brands can thrive in consumer products.

Gaming is arguably the fastest growing area of licensing.

While not an entirely new category for licensing, SEGA and Nintendo have been in the licensing game for a while. Recent years have seen a rapid growth in the uptake and interest in video game properties.

Bits and Pixels is a specialist licensing agency that focuses on licensing properties from the gaming industry. Start Licensing’s Ian Downes caught up with co-owner Sandra Arcan to discuss the agency, its approach to licensing and how gaming brands can thrive in consumer products.

Sandra Arcan, Bits and Pixels

Can you tell us a little bit more about the history of Bits and Pixels? What was the thinking behind the agency and how have things evolved?
Working for Konami on their licensing business reignited my love of video games and I knew pretty quickly that I always wanted to stay in the industry in some way, shape or form. That coupled with – at the time – 15 years of retail and licensing experience led me to have that ‘Aha!’ moment in late 2015… ‘Why don’t I offer a specialised licensing service to video game developers and publishers? ‘

It was clear that the games category within licensing, already enjoying considerable momentum at the time, was only going to go from strength to strength. So I joined forces with my business partner Su-Yina Farmer, also an ex-Konami colleague, to make it happen.

The thinking behind it was to give licensors a genuine sense of an extension of the team, where our love for gaming and understanding of what makes it so special is something that made them feel confident about outsourcing this very important aspect of fan engagement.

Since its inception in early 2016, the agency has evolved to offer what we see as complimentary services of event production and gaming influencer recruitment. It means we now work with clients both inside and outside of the industry; their common goal being that they want to engage the highly sought-after gamer consumer.

It has been widely reported that gaming is an area of growth for licensing. Beyond the obvious that games sell well and have a loyal following, why do you think gaming properties are now finding success in licensing?
The universes created in gaming franchises are often expansive and filled with seriously stunning art, character and world design. So, just from an aesthetic perspective, you have some standout material to work with to make product appeal to consumers – even if they’re not die-hard fans of that title.

Gaming brands also have a particularly active dialogue with their audience and multiple channels to communicate about the latest in consumer products, not least social media, conventions and livestreams. So you have a really diverse and effective set of ways to get the word out there and make a licensed collection a success, outside of the traction generated by retail partners.

It’s also been something new and exciting for licensees and retailers to focus on in recent years, beyond the traditional successful entertainment and movie franchises.

Sandra Arcan, Bits and Pixels

How much of a challenge is it to take a game property from the screen and into licensed products, from a design point of view in particular?
As mentioned, the artwork can be some of the most gorgeous you would wish to find. That said, the availability of said artwork and assets is where the challenges can begin.

Translating video game art into a really strong consumer products collection is very doable, with assistance in understanding what fans love about a particular franchise. The tricky part is doing all this in time to launch simultaneously with a key game or expansion launch.

Final in-game assets are often locked rather close to the launch of the game. However, we’ve found a number of ways to work around that with the brands we represent. This includes pre-order sales mechanics and having the ‘canvas’ for a product pre-approved so the final approval can be somewhat fast-tracked when the assets are ready.

Drawing from evergreen aspects of games is also a great way to keep a steady stream of product development going.

Are there some genres of gaming that won’t work for licensing? Or do you feel there is potential for all genres?
I believe there is potential for all genres, so long as there are usable assets and demand from the audience. Some genres do lend themselves particularly well to specific product categories though.

An immersive MMORPG is likely to work perfectly as a coffee table ‘Art & Universe’ book for example. An epic shooter will be great in the replica collectibles category. A RTS (real-time strategy) title invariably leads to strong ideas for a tabletop gaming experience.

You have been involved in some very successful and high-profile licensed products in recent times. Can you tell us about a few and give us some insight into what made them a success?
We’ve had two tremendously successful launches of the Destiny x Palladium brand collaboration. The hype train went into overdrive very quickly as soon as the partnership was teased on social media, and when launched, the collection led to websites going down due to the extent of the traffic generated!

Sandra Arcan, Bits and Pixels

We feel that this partnership worked perfectly, not least because of the shared celebration of exploration that is present both in the Destiny experience and in the DNA of the Palladium brand. Fans totally got it and loved the designs as well as how natural the partnership felt.

Another one we loved working on was the collaboration between Capcom’s Resident Evil and cosmetics brand, Mehron. Mehron, being the leader in professional special effects makeup, were able to bring their expertise from working on Broadway, Hollywood sets and Cirque de Soleil, to making a super fun Resident Evil Zombie Cop make-up kit. The video tutorial content and influencer engagement helped make this a great success.

Are gaming companies more tuned into licensing these days? How do you persuade them about the benefits licensing can bring them?
They definitely are. Many AAA game studios and publishers have a licensing operation, whether that’s in-house or outsourced. Many indie games have invested in licensing too, especially those that have been breakout hits. Gaming companies’ vision and intention for it can vary wildly though…

Some want to keep it very limited and work with handpicked partners to make specific products that they already know they want. Then, at the other end of the scale, there are brands that want a truly wide range of products, spanning all price points, with a view to be inclusive and offer something to all within the fanbase.

If persuasion is required when speaking to gaming companies, it’s normally borne out of concern about having the time and resources to do it all well, rather than a hesitation about the value of licensing per se. Ultimately, it’s difficult to compete with revenue that actual game sales generate, but companies understand that the key value is providing a compelling engagement point outside of the game experience, with the added bonus that it drives incremental revenue.

Have you found licensees more receptive to working with gaming brands? Are there still some categories that you would like to see more welcoming to gaming brands?
Yes, absolutely. Many are not just receptive to, but proactively seeking gaming brands for their portfolio. That said, attention is often on the top four or five brands that are identified as ‘must-have’. That is, quite understandably, driven by retail buyers also asking for those brands.

While we’re definitely seeing some fashion and mass market retailers growing their gaming proposition quite considerably – especially for their online offering – we’d love to see that go even further. As more retailers look to expand their gaming proposition so that it includes a selection that makes core gamers sit up and take notice – with an unexpected but cool mix of trending brands, indie games and long-running franchises – that’s where it gets even more interesting.

The more that happens, the more you’ll see additional product categories getting involved, including things like beauty and toiletries.

What advice would you give a designer who wants to understand more about the gaming sector and design trends within it?
I would suggest doing some research into what some of the biggest pop culture licensees in categories like high-end collectibles are doing, as a starting point. Here you can see the adaptation of gaming worlds at their finest, not just in the product itself but in the packaging design that comes with it.

Attending and researching some of the big gaming and pop culture conventions such as Comic Con is also very useful, as you can see everything from keychains and pins to collectibles worth several hundreds of pounds.

I’d also advise a designer to ask for a deep-dive session with any gaming brand they’re working with. It’s a very valuable thing for the developers to see a desire to get a more comprehensive understanding of the worlds they’ve spent years creating. And the more you know, the better the design result is likely to be!

Sandra Arcan, Bits and Pixels

Finally, are there any licensing trends and developments that you would highlight for the next 12 months?
Brands have been looking to talented artists and fan artists outside of their studios to help bring even more beautiful artwork to life. I think we’ll see that even more in the next 12 months and it injects new life into the way a brand is interpreted and adapted to consumer products.

We also think the experimentation within the fashion category will be more noticeable. Gaming brands want to offer more garment shapes and fashion detailing, especially if collaborating with a fashion brand – collabs being another specific trend.

We’ve seen a great reaction to the Destiny collections that our licensee Ark/8 have brought to the table, and this is great as it further dispels the myth about gamers only wearing t-shirts and hoodies.

There’s a lot of style in the gaming community and we’ll be seeing that being demonstrated even more in the year ahead.

Sandra Arcan, Bits and Pixels

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