Working with Outside IP, Part 1

Working with Outside IP, Part 1

In October 2010, Georgia-based Hi-Rez Studios purchased the Tribes franchise from InstantAction. This article is the first in a multipart series analyzing why the company made its decision and how it plans to incorporate this externally created intellectual property (IP). Part II examines the studio’s plans for utilizing fan suggestions, existing technology, and other aspects of their new IP. Part III, after the new Tribes game is released, will address how reality met (or did not meet) intentions.

There is no shortage of video game ideas in the world. It seems that everyone in the industry has at least a dozen of their own, and everyone we meet at parties insists on telling us their own great idea for a can’t-miss game. With this plethora of readily available inspiration, why would game studios ever go out of house for material?

Hi-Rez Studios, developers of the Global Agenda FPS MMO, recently did exactly that by purchasing the venerable Tribes franchise. For those who were not into 2 am bleary-eyed fragfests in the late ’90s, Tribes was an innovative FPS that allowed for high-quality team battles. I remember one of our programmers at Holistic Design desperately prying us away from our after-hours Quake-athon to experience the Tribes’ revelation, and the whole office converted en masse once we did.

Several more versions of Tribes came into being over the next few years, usually focusing on team battles, wide-open levels, and fun ways of moving as well as fragging – jet packs, skiing, vehicles, etc. The engine behind it became the Torque engine, and the original developers went onto other projects.

Fast forward to 2006, when Hi-Rez studios began working on Global Agenda. While the studio always admitted that Tribes influenced its work, Global Agenda focused much more on massively multiplayer online aspects, character development and a persistent world. The game shipped at the beginning of 2010, the company has already released the first expansion, Sandstorm, and it recently began working on a new title.

“Hi-Rez was working on a new title before the final acquisition [of Tribes],” said Hi-Rez product marketing manager Michal Adam. “A lot of what the title reached to do was in line with the vision we see Tribes going today. The acquisition is icing on the cake. It allowed us a world to work within, but the groundwork for what is now becoming [the Hi-Rez Tribes game] was starting to be worked on as a new version for a new game for Hi-Rez.”

Part I: The Whys

With an established team in place, with lessons under its belt from its first title, why seek an outside franchise? Why run the risk of alienating the existing fan bases of both games by changing an older one and diverting resources from your own?

1. Common Vision

All games draw comparisons to their predecessors, and Global Agenda has been likened to Tribes, Team Fortress (partially because of the unique roles of the character classes), Counter Strike (the team tactics) and so on. Hi-Rez has never denied being influenced by other titles. Instead it talked about building on existing conventions and combining them in new ways.

“We have a lot of fans out in the Hi-Rez Studio of the Tribes IP (intellectual property), and that’s very obvious with Global Agenda,” said Mick Larkins, technical artist on Global Agenda and a programmer on the new Tribes game.

Discussions on the company’s new game, however, kept veering closer to Tribes. “When we started talking about directions of this new project… we essentially had it displayed to us in two columns: ‘If this is not Tribes, we’re gonna have this column,’ and it was the same stuff as if we got Tribes,” Larkins said.

For many game companies, vision is a problematic issue, and the more people who get involved, the more directions in which it can be pulled. Designers, programmers, marketers, licensors, producers, and other stakeholders may all want to see it go in different directions. Some of these differences are minute, and others are dramatic. Some developers get around this issue by having one person be responsible for the vision. Hi-Rez owner Erez Goren filled this role for Global Agenda. However, it is easier to maintain a consistent vision when something already exists for stakeholders to focus upon, rather than when it has to be created whole cloth.

This impacts every aspect of game production, from initial design, to art, to programming, to audio, to marketing and so on. While the team still needs to actually design and create the game, so many aspects that can create confusion come predetermined with an existing IP – look/feel, storyline, and even genre.

2. Clarifying the End Result

That vision thing is important for a number of reasons, but none are more critical than for generating a clear idea of what the team is trying to create. In this era of agile development and iterative design, a complaint among some designers is that they start without a clear idea of what the game should be like when finished.

“The beauty is that you have a blueprint to work off of,” said Sean McBride, lead character artist on both Global Agenda and the new Tribes game. “You know, or should know, what the formula of the game is before you embellish upon it. You have to know what made Tribes [the game it was] before you change anything.”

This does not mean doing exactly what came before. “We know what makes Tribes fun. It’s the nitty gritty details,” McBride stressed. “We are not reskinning Tribes.” Areas that they plan to emulate from the older Tribes games include broad factors like the wide-open terrain of early fights that changed to tight-corridor base battles at the end of the mission and much more specific details like the algorithms that handled skiing and grenade trajectories.

A clear end goal also makes it easier for the new Tribes game to reach alpha and be ready for more widespread playtesting in early 2011. “It’s great for us to have that template,” Adam said.

About Andrew Greenberg
Andrew Greenberg, games designer, co-created the “Fading Suns” titles and was the original developer of White Wolf’s “Vampire: The Masquerade.” The co-founder of Holistic Design, he’s also director of the Southern Interactive Entertainment and Games Expo and is currently working on a new Tycoon game that will be announced in 2011.


  1. Hi-Rez purchased the rights for Tribes from InstantAction, not Activision

  2. Thanks, I had been told wrong

  3. I don’t think those high up in the gaming world understand the impact of Tribes and its following. Ask Irrational Games what happened when they tried their interpretation of tribes. The loins of that IP go back way before Halo or Battlefield. You may have co-workers who are adults now that are rabid fans of that game.

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