Eric Johnson

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Why Some Videogame Characters Get Toys, and Others Don’t

cut_the_rope_toysContrary to conventional wisdom, games aren’t entirely a hits-driven business. Innumerable games, particularly on mobile and online, do just fine for themselves by attracting and catering to small, passionate audiences.

But if you want to see that favorite game character cross over into the real world, maybe in the form of a toy or stuffed animal? Yeah, you’re gonna need a bigger hit.

That’s the word from Damon Lau, CEO of toy company Round 5. And he should know — Round 5 manufactures merchandise for Cut the Rope, the popular physics puzzler series that started on iOS three years ago. Lau can’t disclose just how much Cut the Rope makes in toy land (other than to say it does “very, very well,” and surpassed retailers’ expectations), but he has some keen insights on the lopsided world of game licensing.

For starters, toys can take a lot longer to develop than the games they’re sprung from. Lau said the typical turnaround time for toys is nine to 12 months. By contrast, the first version of the early mobile hit Pocket God took all of a week to go from idea to published app.

However, Lau said that when apps don’t flare out after a brief hurrah, they make the merchandising guys’ mouths water. To move physical products on store shelves, licensers feed off of brand and IP awareness. And people who game during their gap time at the bus stop, on the toilet or lying in bed are getting a steady, concentrated dose of awareness.

A child may watch “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” for an hour or two a week, Lau said, but TV shows go away, or their seasons end. Unless they get pulled from the App Store, apps are just there, ready to be consumed at all times of day, and in all seasons.

“They can engage with the brand every single day on the bus,” Lau said.

As Samo Login, CEO of Talking Animals app developer Outfit7, said previously, the belief is that engagement is great, but it can’t be everything to everyone. Characters that begin on the phone screen don’t have to stay there, Login said.

So, what sort of a hit is enough to start pitching toy ideas?

For mobile games, Lau pegs the minimum at 200 million downloads, a threshold that Cut the Rope crossed some months after signing on Round 5 in early 2012. To date, it has racked up about 330 million downloads across the three games in the series, Lau said. Meanwhile, the Talking Friends series is up to one billion downloads across its 14 games.

However, the 200-million rule only applies to apps with new IP and new characters. Licensing toys based on characters from other media is different, Lau noted, because consumers’ relationships there are more entrenched.

“TV programming has been researched, tested and proven to create brands since the 1950s,” he said. “When watching TV, consumers are relaxed, they take it in and they accept what they are given because they have no choice. When playing games, the player is engaged as an active participant … they are invested in the characters in a way that they cannot be with TV.”

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