If the relationship between publishers and developers is collaborative, what about other license owners they base their games or content on like Disney, Universal Studios, or even other game company owners? Aren’t they also driving forces to a dev’s decision for everything involving them as I hear?

You are correct - license owners are another set of requirements and approvals that developers must appease in order to ship a game. While the developer’s goal is to make the best game they can, the licensor’s ultimate duty is to make the most out of their intellectual property. There is usually significant overlap with these goals, but they are not fully congruent with each other. These differences can manifest in a number of different ways.

One such way is being tight-fisted with their IP and information. They may refuse to allow the appearance of requested characters, character costumes and looks, or be extremely picky and demanding about specific details and wording. They might require certain characters be included. This might not necessarily be for the sake of the game specifically, but for the sake of the overall IP. The licensor might have another product or group of products coming out that they wish to promote by using the licensed game.

Another common cause of issues is that the licensor is the foremost expert on the intellectual property, but really don’t understand game development. They might have unreasonable expectations, ignore the objections of the dev team, or micromanage the development process. It isn’t necessarily because the licensor actively wants to harm the game, but they believe they know better what the fans want. This can lead to a frustrating development process and a game that doesn’t feel particularly fun.

You need to realize that there is no “standard” relationship between a developer and a licensor. Every licensor is different, just like every dev studio is different. Some developers and licensors are able to establish mutual trust and understanding can result in some really great games. Some are able to make it work despite a rocky relationship with the licensor. Sometimes a bad relationship causes the game to crash and burn. Even so, there’s still no guarantee that a good collaboration between developer and licensor will result in a good game. One licensed title I worked on had a great relationship with the licensor - they gave us a lot of design freedom and provided us a ton of reference data to use in the game. The resulting game still ended up fairly mid because making games is still hard.

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