There is an ongoing discussion within the game development community on whether the core of a gameplay experience is the mechanics the player interacts with or the narrative the experience creates. Narratologists side with the story as an experience whereas ludologists (ludology being the study of games and / or play in general) state that gameplay is what defines a game from all other media.
In games mechanics and theme can be created independently of each other and brought together as independent pieces of the creative project. For example a game that begins as being about making neural connections can end up as being a game about plants growing towards the sun. Although the theme went through a drastic revision, changes were made due to iterations on the mechanical systems which required a shift in how gameplay was framed through narrative.
Since games have the ability to shift their narrative or be “reskinned” to better fit a mechanical system there are many games that take a proven model and simply apply a brand to it. However, therein lies the danger of relying on an intellectual property to do the heavy lifting of a gameplay experience.
Sadly this has been seen time and time again with the developers rushing to release a product tied to an IP such as a movie. One memorably tragic IP to encounter this fate was the title James Cameron’s Avatar, which released a title of the same name. The problem was not that the game was bad, rather, that it was merely mediocre. With all of the inspired moments within the film there was certainly room to make a deep and meaningful game within the same universe. However, almost forgetting that the spirit of the film was in the bold technological risks needed to make the movie; the game developer took little to no risk in their design. They followed a series of safe gameplay elements and skinned it with Avatar art assets.
In contrast to that let’s take the phenomenal success story of LEGO games which brilliantly blends IP and solid mechanics. The extensive list of hits includes: Lego Harry Potter, Lego Batman, Lego Star Wars, Lego Indiana Jones, Lego Pirates of the Caribbean Lego The Lord of the Rings, Lego Marvel Super Heroes, Lego The Hobbit, and Lego Jurassic World. All culminating with the intellectual property bonanza, Lego Dimensions, which features characters spanning from IPs such as: Scooby-Doo, The Ghostbusters, The Powerpuff Girls, The Simpsons, Sonic The Hedgehog, Doctor Who, and Adventure Time to name a few.
LEGO succeeded where others failed by focusing on making a foundational gameplay experience that celebrates how players feel about their toys and then applying their various brand partners to said experience. This created a market for their games because players realized that the experience from game to game would be a consistent marriage of LEGO gameplay and a brand they liked.
Although it could be argued that LEGO was able to tap into powerful IPs for their success, it should be noted that simply having the strong brand does not guarantee continued success. As was the case for James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game which was still able to exceed financial goals, but was panned as being uninventive. LEGO’s harmonious union between the LEGO experience and their outside IPs has been the key to their success. In the debate between narratologists and ludologists, it appears that when it comes to IP and brands applied to games it is, as ludologists argue, more important to create a solid game and to then find the complimentary brand.