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NZGDC13: the space where screens meet

Returning Kiwi Jeremy Taylor shared some of his knowledge of opportunities for app developers in the current US film and TV environment.

While a small number of Kiwi companies, notably Sidhe/PikPok, have had some success partnering with US companies to create games and apps developed from high-profile existing properties, the opportunities in the US entertainment market have more commonly gone to US-based companies, in particular to larger companies.

Some of those very high-profile entertainment brands created their own game development companies and brands. Recently, some of those larger players have been withdrawn from the market, such as LucasArts following the sale of Lucas’ empire to Disney. Zynga, one of the biggest players in the social games space, last week announced a 10% reduction in its workforce.

As other NZGDC speakers noted, size matters although – in the game industry – there’s a growing perception that smaller can often be better. The slow-moving corporate giants of the entertainment world struggle to move quickly enough in a field that’s constantly evolving.

By a combination of good luck and good judgement, many NZ companies – generally speaking, small to begin with – find themselves well-placed to help fill the gaps appearing. Mostly, they made their moves out of the work-for-hire business for console games and large scale PC games before the bottom fell out of the market.

Their increasing focus on the mobile arena, and a number of notable successes, have helped maintain international awareness of the quality and commercial appeal of work being done here.

Taylor’s pitch was that – for those looking to grow into the US market, or for those looking to parlay independent success into some larger relationships – US entertainment brands were beginning to look towards smaller developers to expand their offer, particularly around TV shows.

Prior to his recent return, Taylor was on the other side of the fence for a little over a decade, working in the US as a brand manager for a number of those larger properties. His clients included EA Sports, Disney and THQ, working with the latter two to develop online and game activity around their cartoon properties.

Here, TV is just beginning to dip its toes in the tech-filled waters beyond broadcast, ondemand and DVD sale/rental.

As Taylor acknowledged, film and TV-related game and app products haven’t always had a good reputation. In fact, “they used to suck”. They were usually a tagged-on consumer product once box office or ratings performance suggested there might be additional ways to make money off content.

That was then, Taylor reckoned. Now, the episodic nature of TV is beginning to be exploited as a way to build, maintain and engage regularly with audiences, constantly offering new content. Last month SPP announced an app to extend viewer engagement with its Almighty Johnsons series, which will release during the season just commencing.

In the US, a former SPP alumnus, Grant Bowler, is the lead of Defiance on NBC’s Syfy channel. The show’s creators have created a game to accompany the series. Between the show and the game, there are crossover events within the story.

US TV occasionally makes cross-over episodes between shows broadcast on the same network, most recently between Hawaii Five-0 and CSI: Los Angeles. Such episodes are intended to expose audiences to shows they might not already be watching and to reward current viewers of both shows. They’re not designed to deliver a richer experience of either show.

The extension into games and apps, which the CSI franchise also explored, is all about engagement by expansion of the story world.

For Defiance, the game offers more of the story world, while also delivering more of the story than the TV episodes contain.

While acknowledging that Defiance was being watched by the US industry as a test case, the networks have good reason to watch closely. In the country’s 18-25 demographic, 73% of TV viewers are also online gamers.

The networks are beginning to take notice of such opportunities, according to Taylor. Admittedly they’re driven by the potential to increase profits. They’re also a lot more open to receiving pitches from smaller independent players than they were five years ago, when any sort of tie-in activity was only going to major players.

Taylor said it had been an important part of his work with Disney and Nickelodeon to take pitches, to see what new people and new ideas were out there. He cautioned, however, that despite networks being mostly driven by the profit motive, that didn’t mean they would contemplate exploiting their product brands in ways they weren’t comfortable with.

“Barbie never frowns,” he said by way example. A more positive facial expression is a core part of the brand, and it’s not up for debate.

From being on the receiving end of a few hundred pitches, Taylor suggested that was where many approaches to those networks failed. It might be basic business sense, and even common courtesy, but he suggested he’d received a good number of pitches where those pitching didn’t necessarily demonstrate sufficient understanding of a show’s brand values.

Demonstrating a deep understanding of a property would certainly increase one’s chances of being invited to work with it.

Taylor ran through some of the basics of pitching, noting that Skype was a perfectly acceptable way to do it from here, and reminded that though networks were becoming increasingly open to expanding their activity into game/apps as part of their offer, that didn’t mean their decision makers were knowledgeable about either the production process or the ways in which people engage through apps or games.

Wrapping up, Taylor acknowledged that he had a lot of knowledge of the US industry, in particular the space where TV and apps meet, and also plenty of contacts there. His contact here is by email.

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