IncGamers: Tolkien IP License

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I think it’s fair to say that the last Lord of the Rings game offering wasn’t met with much enthusiasm.  Conquest, released on the PS3, Xbox 360, PC and the DS, failed to impress and we tried it on two platforms.  After many discussions about whether EA had failed the IP (and whether Conquest was a shameless cash-in before the license ran out), we decided to speak to the company in charge of the LOTR video game license. We had to, of course, bear in mind that there are games out there that really do the IP justice, such as LotRO. 

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We got hold of Fredrica Drotos from Saul Zaentz Company, one of three people on the licensing team for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit IP for videogames and other bits and pieces.  It’s important to note, however, that even though the Tolkien estate isn’t directly involved with the licensing of videogames, Drotos and her team are considered the protectors of the IP.

Combined, Fredrica Drotos, Sam Benson and Joe Mandragona either approve or fail games which eventually make it to our consoles and PCs.

So how does licensing work and how is the licensing team (of three people) split?

I [Fredrica Drotos] deal a lot with the contractual side of things, as well as the licensing issues.  Joe and Sam do a lot of the production services, especially for electronic gaming and Games Workshop.  They make sure what’s coming out is true to the lore.  They make sure that the final product is accurate and something we can proudly present to the Tolkien Estate.

If I’m not wrong, the Tolkien Estate isn’t involved much in the gaming side of things.  How much of a free reign do you have with this?  And to what extent can you influence a final product?

I think that we have pretty much free reign.  We have an idea of what the Tolkien Estate likes and our opinion coincides with theirs.  We feel that we have a good understanding because we’ve had a long relationship with the estate, over 30 years now.  We know there are certain aspects of storytelling that would not be appropriate for this fiction.  Given that our license allows for there to be some creativity, some expansion of what already exists.  But we do have to be mindful that it’s consistent.  It’s actually quite challenging, as you can imagine.  You have to get into the mind of a great author like Tolkien, and then imagine where it may have gone and what places he wouldn’t have been comfortable with.

How difficult is it to please both the estate and the hardcore fans, because I can imagine if you get it slightly wrong, the repercussions from both sides would be nasty?

[Chuckles] Yes.  Erm, yes. That’s why I think the three of us would all agree that we are thrilled with what Turbine has been able to accomplish.  They are very, well insanely, true to how the lore as it’s written now, but are somehow able to catapult it into a new place.

Well, you’re happy with Turbine, but the question is really are you happy with EA’s latest offering?  I know its license period has run out, and we have our own thoughts here at IncGamers why the game wasn’t as good as we’d hoped it to be, but the real question is if you’re unhappy with a product which has been in development for some time, can you turn around and just pull the plug on it?

You’ve hit on a really sore spot.  We were happy with a lot of what EA did and they’re a great company but it’s difficult when something comes down for our review and we have issues with it.

So did you have issues with the game?

We are not videogame experts.  Our job is to make sure that nothing in these games are objectionable.  I don’t think there was anything in the final product of Conquest that was actually objectionable.  It may not be the best game in some people’s opinion, but I don’t think the Tolkien Estate or anyone else could say it was inappropriate as a representation of the Lord of the Rings lore.

So if it doesn’t clash with the lore, the background or the story, it’s not as important because it’s not conflicting with Tolkien’s original idea?

It’s not that it doesn’t matter, it’s that we’re not a videogame company.  I don’t think we’d feel comfortable telling someone like EA that they’re not making a good videogame.  They’re the experts.  It would be similar to us telling a film company that the movie they’re making isn’t good.

Because the lore is really important, would it be worth getting someone in-house in the licensing department to play the videogames to make sure that they satisfy, not only the lore, but also the gamer as an end product and how a game should play?

We love videogames.  When we said we’re not videogame experts, the point is while we play videogames quite a lot, we’re not the designers.  We’re not developers, but we do enjoy playing the games.

So all joking aside then, what did you think of the game [Lord of the Ring: Conquest] as gamers?

As gamers, well we’ve played the Star Wars Battlefront game, so were familiar with that format of a game.  We were initially very excited about Conquest and frankly I still think it’s a decent game.

Do you only deal with video game licenses?

No, we do some other licenses.  So we do more board games and jewelry and goblets and things that appear in the lore which manifest in some other way.  We need to check that they fit the expectations of the lore and the estate, but we even have to go through the legal lines and all the other mundane things like that.  So another example, if lore is quoted, it should be quoted accurately and appropriately.

Is there anything that you look back and wish you hadn’t licensed in hindsight?

Tough question.  You have to understand we’ve been not been here working in this capacity for more than five years.

OK, well, how about if I open it up and say do you wish your predecessors hadn’t licensed anything, what would it be?

[Laughter]  This is a great question, you’ve really stumped us…{PAGE TITLE=Tolkien IP License Page 2}
We know EA’s license time has run out now, Conquest being its last game.  What happens now?  Are you talking to anyone about the license and what are the procedures that need to be taken to secure a license as big as this?

We’re in negotiation right now, and we’ve spoken to a lot of videogame developers and publishers over the last few years including EA.  This is something we’ve done with our colleagues at New Line Cinema, who are now Warner Bros. and weighed up the pros and cons.  Obviously some of it was financial, but a great part of it was who could do the best job with the lore.  It’s interesting that most of the companies have someone who will blow your mind when they talk to you about the trilogy and The Hobbit, so that’s a passage we’ve gone through over the last couple of years and we’re now in negotiations, but we haven’t finalised a deal but we’re very close. There are going to be Lord of the Rings games of course, but there will also be The Hobbit games too, based on the films.

Well if New Line Cinema, the guys responsible of the trilogy, has joined Warner Bros. and with Warner Bros.’ new gaming division now doing some big film titles as games in, like Terminator and Wanted, wouldn’t it make sense that they were the next license holders?

Warner Bros. is definitely a player, and yes they’re new into the field, but as you pointed out, they’re working with some good people.  We’ve had a relationship with Warner Bros. not only through the New Line experience, but for our film library.  We’re a small film company here too, and they’ve handled a lot of our film distribution in the past.

Well, it would make sense I suppose now they’re publishers, distributors and now developers.  It seems like a great package.

That’s right.

So when can we expect the next LotR title to be out and what platforms it’ll be on?

We’re hoping that something will be out by Christmas this year, but we’re not sure.  There have been a lot of changes in the last two years which have been unforeseen so that has a bearing.  But we’re hoping for Christmas.  We’ll keep you posted on that one.

OK, if I’m a small developer and I wanted to apply for the IP, what would I need to do as a small fish?  And would I get the license for years and multiple titles, or would I be restricted to a short time frame?

Well we’ve gone both ways with that with some licenses being granted for years while others have gone for one game with the condition of expanding if the game meets our expectation for quality.  Sometimes there is a financial component to that and there would be room for an expansion or a second game and we’d be open to negotiations on that.  All the applications have been a little different even though the licensing hasn’t been around for that long.  About 20 years or so.  We’ve had several different t licensees and they’ve all had different agreements.  As for application: we’re a pretty open company and you can come to us and say, “I have an idea” and if you could legitimately follow through with the idea, we’ll talk to you.

We met Turbine, for example, through our relationship with Vivendi.  They were pitching something that they hadn’t really done before.  They had done Dungeons and Dragons, sure, but we didn’t know who they were.  Over a period of time you meet and talk and you see how committed they are, and then there’s a little leap of faith.  It’s kind of like a marriage.

It’s interesting really because an MMO is no small undertaking.  LotRO is one of the biggest MMOs out there.  It’s true to the books and it looks like how you’d expect it to in your head, especially the mines.  You must have been very happy with they way they’ve done it.

Yes, I mean happy isn’t the word.  We’re ecstatic.  It’s stuck to the lore and ticked all the boxes. 

Are there any personal stories you’d like to influence in your position, you know something that you wish someone would expand on?  Or do you just let people get on with their ideas? 

There have been times when we’ve said and noted [to Turbine] that we’d like to see something going in that direction or the other, but we pretty much leave them to do their own thing.
There are times when something will come in for us to look at months in advance of when it’s going to make it into the game and our comments are minimal, but there is a little area to tweak which seems huge to us, but very minimal compared to what they’ve gone through to get there.

So no major blow-ups with anyone?  You’ve not had anyone turn to you and just say “we’re going to go with what we have” to which you’ve stopped it in its tracks and withdrawn the license?

Yeah, we have had that happen, but mostly not on our watch.  We’ve had some experiences with some licensees where we’ve had to persuade them from going down a certain path and have had to stick firm with that.  For example, places a videogamer might want to go somewhere that isn’t appropriate for the Tolkien license.  I don’t really want to go into it.  But those are rough times because you feel like the bad person or the bad licensor and you know that it’s just not appropriate and you know why they want to go there, and as we said earlier, they’re the experts and know their market.  Then you have the fanatical fans of the lore who would just freak out if we allowed certain things to happen.

Have you had any problems with people that haven’t actually come to you for a license?  If so, what happens then?

[Laughter] This happens frequently and is a good part of our every-day.  A lot of the problems come from the people who believe they have some ownership of the lore and feel like they can do whatever they want with it.  It falls upon us to explain to them that they can’t.  Sometimes that really hurts because it’s not an easy thing to do.

Where would you find most of the unofficial and unlicensed stuff?  Is it on the web, or on shop fronts and places like that for example?

It’s anything.  It can be from somebody opening up a restaurant to a mountaineering store, to games to fan films.  The list is endless really.  If you can imagine a product, a thing or creation, someone is doing it and calling Arwen, or Legolas or Erestor.  Every once in a while we like what people are doing and set up a license for them!  We would prefer it if people came to us first though.

So where do you draw the line with things like fan fiction, as mentioned before, some people feel like they have a right of ownership almost of the lore?  Do you let fan fiction go, and chase the people that are making money out of it, or doesn’t it matter?

You’ve hit the nail on the head there.  If people are doing it out of love and there is no commercial exploitation out of it, we support it I suppose you could say.  We understand it and appreciate it and would hope to allow it to co-exist.  When it goes into the commercial world it becomes more complicated because a lot of that is down to trademark laws and how much exploitation you can allow on your mark before you give up on it, so to speak.

If you had one thing that you guys could push through as the license holders that would keep a little bit of you in that world of Tolkien, what would it be?  I know you’re massive fans, so it can be anything from a sword to a game to a Gandalf staff!

Sam:  Personally, I’m looking forward to a game on the Wii.  I think there’s not a LotR game or The Hobbit game on the Wii right now, and that’s something that needs to be exploited sooner rather than later.

Joe:  You know, that is a tough question.  I’d have to kick my LotRO addiction before I can think clearly about that.  I am completely happy with what Turbine have done.  Yeah.  Personally and professionally I am completely happy with LotRO.  I think they demonstrated that they know the lore really well and they care about preserving its quality as much as we do.

Fredrica:  I love the Wii.  I am a little bit of a dope when it comes to videogames, but I’d love to see what somebody would do with that because it would be right up my alley.  I have played LotRO, and it’s really hard to leave at the end of the day.

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Paul Younger
Founder and Editor of PC Invasion. Founder of the world's first gaming cafe and Veteran PC gamer of over 22 years.