Slot licensing and branding

In their lifetimes, savvy people seize the moment when they recognize professional and personal opportunities. Over 40 years, Chicago-based Roger Sharpe, CEO/President of Sharpe Communications, did just that. He combined his love of knowledge with personal tenacity, parlaying them into work prospects in the amusement, gaming and publishing industries. Sharpe served as Director of Marketing and Licensing for Chicago’s Williams Bally/Midway coin-operated amusements manufacturer and WMS Gaming from 1988 to 2014. He led the company’s branding and licensing programs. Sharpe’s career expertise also includes editorial positions for multiple magazines and writing or contributing to 14 books about pinball, self-help and other subjects. When Williams successfully launched WMS Gaming in the early 1990s, Sharpe helped ease that transition. He became the industry pioneer by introducing licensed, branded themes to both gaming and amusement machines. Sharpe rose to great prominence, acquiring properties from powerful movie/television studios, recording artists, sporting giants and other cultural icons. At the same time, his Sharpe Communications – launched in 2000 as a creative services company – specialized in brand licensing, specifically focusing on both gaming and coin-operated amusement games. Today, Sharpe’s company continues to counsel clients with their advertising, marketing, public relations, promotions, product design and development. WHAT LAUNCHED HIS CAREER? With the goal of becoming a patent attorney, Sharpe majored in business at the University of Wisconsin. The pre-law requirements changed his mind, but college confirmed his feeling of “being in a living library.” He says, “I could take any course, learn anything and feed my insatiable appetite for knowledge. I loved studying advertising and considered my professor magnificent. My marketing coursework convinced me that this was my future.” After graduation, Sharpe immediately joined a New York City advertising firm, expanding his portfolio at various agencies over the next few years. He soon sought a different, more permanent direction. Sharpe says, “I was tired of losing touch with people after a headline and a paragraph.” In 1974, Sharpe was hired as associate editor of Gentleman’s Quarterly (GQ) magazine. He revamped and transformed it from being strictly a men’s fashion to a “true” men’s lifestyle magazine. Sharpe included articles on specific topics – like pinball machines – that he could also write himself. He grew up without pinball in Chicago because it was illegal, but became a huge pinball fan during his Wisconsin college days. He says, “I analyzed the skill elements and taught myself to become proficient. After moving to New York City, which also outlawed pinball, I went from ignorance to feast to famine about the game.” Sharpe aimed to write about pinball and earn enough to buy a machine for his studio apartment. Calling himself “research-centric,” Sharpe investigated his topic at the public library. He wrote about amusements and pinball in the Winter 1975 GQ and then for the New York Times. Sharpe later testified for legalizing pinball before the New York City Council in April 1976. Sharpe remained with GQ until 1982. He then worked as founding editor for two additional magazines, helped design pinball and video games and contributed to several books until he joined Williams in 1988. Only a few months prior, in 1987, Sharpe attended his first licensing show in New York City and immediately realized that there was a new world of opportunity. When Williams debuted its WMS slot machine division in the early 1990s, and attempted to begin manufacturing licensed brands, Sharpe coordinated what evolved into the WMS cornerstone brand. He approached Hasbro Games to secure the slot machine rights that honored Monopoly, its beloved American board game. The original 1903 version of Monopoly was developed to prove the “evil” of land ownership. Parker Brothers introduced its present form in 1935, using Atlantic City real estate streets and landmarks, and continued production through 1991, when Hasbro acquired the business. Hasbro still manufactures Monopoly today. “The huge exposure from Hasbro benefitted both sides. I was proud to be a part of this important first game,” Sharpe states. HOW IS IT DONE? Sharpe defines slot licensing as an overall umbrella, encompassing jurisdictional and legal requirements as they apply to gaming. Branding deals with personalities, movies, television programming and many other themes. There can be a delicate balance between the both licensor and licensee. Companies may be uncertain as to whether they even want to go that route of expanding their brand out. Sharpe says the role of brand licensing is to help consumers differentiate between particular products on the casino floor as well as in the online space for the growing category of social slots. Customers choose a machine because of their past play patterns or a fond personal memory of a theme or color. Two players can react differently to the same game on the gaming floor. Securing and creating a successful brand licensed slot machine involves a complex series of steps, plus intricate negotiations and personal relationships. For Sharpe, personal involvement is critical to success. “I always remained a key liaison in the process, whether it was with the business people, the external and internal legal teams or the creative team. How else could I do it? There were no models or formal guidelines 30 years ago when I first began doing licensing. I felt that I needed to remain involved, from start to completion, and build relationships that ensured a smooth process,” says Sharpe. He has legions of fans at dozens of companies. Vice President, North America Licensing, 20th Century Fox’s Stacey Kerr claims, “Roger was a fantastic licensee contact, who had deep industry knowledge and a willingness to explore partnerships on a variety of brands.“ Executive Director, Global Gaming & Licensing Business Develop Kristin Calzada, Warner Bros. Consumer Products, echoes that sentiment. She states, “I have the utmost respect for Roger Sharpe and have worked with him for years now. In fact, he is one of my favorite people – not just in the industry.“ Every branded gaming license has terms, usually about five years, and built-in conditions for potential renewals and/or extensions. And, what Sharpe instituted within all his negotiations was the assurance that the clock actually began with the product introduction, not the contract signing. “The process includes many variables, including lab submissions, testing and regulatory approvals. The actual timing of bringing a product to market can increase above and beyond the typical development time of anywhere from nine to 18 months. My commitment was, and still is, a common courtesy and obligation to keep our partners involved in every step so there are never any unwarranted surprises, “ says Sharpe. What elements are necessary to consider a specific property? Sharpe says he has always had a talent for identifying potential trends. A lifelong voracious reader, even while working at WMS, he produced his “Roger Report” as a way to personally track and identify trends in music, literature, television, entertainment and other cultural areas. It has been an invaluable tool and point of reference. Sharpe states, “A successful licensed slot machine is the perfect blend of affixing a wonderful math model with a great integration of assets into a cohesive and compelling design. Ideally, the net result is a total package, offering the player a truly extraordinary game experience while capturing the essence of a given licensed theme. “It is not enough to acquire content without the necessary depth and dimensionality to bring it to life. We must entertain the audience and pay tribute to those signature musical or visual elements. A successful game must eliminate potential boredom by having enough film or concert footage for us to use different elements for subsequent sequels. For example, we used dozens of versions of content from The Wizard of Oz and Monopoly.” In addition to Monopoly, some of Sharpe’s best known titles include The Wizard of Oz, Lord of the Rings, Willie Wonka, the Godfather, Austin Powers and the rock group KISS, just to name a few. What are his favorites? Sharpe states, “I always had a love affair with The Wizard of Oz and persuaded WMS to believe in its viability and endurance. This project was like pulling back the curtain on a brand, similar to pulling back the curtain on the Wizard. “Another favorite is Lord of the Rings, a storyline rich in mythology.” NOT ALL GOES WELL There are always challenges to successful brand licensing trends. Sharpe describes years of peaks and valleys when only dominant brands thrived. There is currently an upsurge – regardless of a company’s size – to having a brand. While reviving a former brand may be appealing, Sharpe recommends objectively analyzing its potential. How was the brand previously treated? Was it successful and does some ‘life’ remain to create exciting games? However, a slot manufacturer‘s desire to undertake a project, even with mutual cooperation between the studio and manufacturer, does not always work. Sharpe says that while anyone can invest, successful licensing is often a “marathon and not a sprint.” For example, Sharpe claims that WMS considered exploring the “Sound of Music” as a theme for a machine, but confronted a major obstacle when movie superstar Julie Andrews refused to permit her likeness to be used. Sharpe says that decision was a “non-starter.” Some U.S. jurisdictions or international countries may also reject the themes. To be successful, manufacturers must adapt their products to diverse cultures. SCORING THAT NEXT LICENSED PROJECT Sharpe claims the world‘s attitudes have changed from decades ago. He admires those who “fought” with him to overcome the frequent reluctance to launch a project due to negative perceptions about gaming. “I always questioned how we could turn ‘no’ into ‘yes’ when negotiating. I only accepted two reasons to walk away. The first was when financial expectations exceeded reality; the second when a misconception prevailed that gaming ‘stole’ from the people,” Sharpe says. Now that licensed branding seems to be everywhere, how does a slot company find that next project? Today’s “sellers” are more aggressive and will shop around for competing proposals. Sharpe states, “The studios, talent agencies, managers and lawyers now contact manufacturers to give their clients and properties exposure. It is problematic if it evolves into a bidding war among developers. “Without a personal relationship, cost may be key and some licensors may not consider the quality and repercussions of choosing one manufacturer over another. I always did my homework, rejecting unrealistic deals or those where the license‘s value wasn’t strong enough to work with.” Luckily, after decades filled with dozens of successes, Sharpe had “first dibs” on specific projects, enabling him to direct the bidding elements. Many companies made financial compromises to work with Sharpe. Although potential licensed properties seems limitless, both slot and amusement game manufacturers should selectively choose properties to avoid oversaturation. Over-production of licensed games undermines a manufacturer’s reputation. “Some themes become tired, so branding should occasionally be avoided or at least chosen with a greater degree of selectivity. I understand why some amusement and gaming manufacturers may want to brand their products. But, depending on different factors, it can be risky and negatively impact a company’s uniqueness and creativity, especially when all of the licensed themes might blend together,” says Sharpe. As content is often generational, the introduction and popularity of social gaming may change the platform for greater diversity. Home play opens up endless options. Sharpe advises, “Game developers must understand and recognize modern concepts such as rap music. While adults may not approve, today’s teens will be players within 10 years and designers would be well served to keep all of their options open moving forward. Today’s fad may well become tomorrow’s trend.” LOOKING BACK ON HIS ACHIEVEMENTS Sharpe helped create a movement that mixed the pop culture of an era with casino gaming equipment. After coordinating hundreds of licensed projects, he views 98% of them as positive, memorable experiences. “The role of licensing has been under appreciated. Although some were not as successful as we’d hoped, many more were. I wouldn’t change a thing and have no regrets,” says Sharpe.