Based in Copenhagen, Denmark, IO Interactive is best known for its mature titles in the Hitman and Kane & Lynch franchises - and for a brief foray into the family entertainment genre with Mini Ninjas. After laying off staff earlier this year it recently released Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, the second title the series, which enjoyed first week chart success despite a mixed bag of review scores.
GamesIndustry.biz recently spoke with IO General Manager, Niels Jørgensen, about the effect of review scores and advertising on consumers, development budgets and why creating a love-it-or-hate-it title is okay by him.
Q: Congratulations on the release of Kane & Lynch 2. It debuted at the top of the UK multi-format chart but the critical reception was mixed to say the least, how did the reviews match up with your expectations and what effect do you think they had on sales?
Niels Jørgensen: I can't talk too much about the commercial reception to the game at this stage but I was interested in how it was received by the critics and journalists. Firstly, it was always our aim to create a shooter that would stand out from the crowd.
We looked at a lot of other media and trends when were inspired to do Kane & Lynch 2, so we were looking at the YouTube-style videos that are filmed with a handheld camera and we also looked at Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, they have a more polished finish than You Tube but the same handheld aesthetic. We wanted a style through which we could communicate authenticity and be able to draw the player in to the experience and that was the style that we chose.
I also think that the characters of Kane & Lynch capture the consumer's imagination as they are more like middle-aged anti-heroes than the buff superheroes that you see in a lot of games. Part of the legacy of IO is to make games and stories that stand out and I think we achieved that with Kane & Lynch 2.
Q: It sounds like you achieved your goals, then, so to what would you attribute the discrepancy in review scores?
Niels Jørgensen: I think it's a game that you either love or hate. It's interesting that we have scores ranging from 1/10 to 9/10, so we have critics that really loved it and those that didn't really get it.
Q: Does is bother you that some people didn't get it?
Niels Jørgensen: Actually, I think that's fine. I actually like the approach that you take some chances to reach out to an audience. People have different tastes in all kinds of media and we see that with music, films, books and also with videogames. It's about choosing an approach to give people entertainment and variety and I think we've been able to produce something that's a bit different, if not to everyone's taste.
Q: 'Not being able to please everyone' is quite a magnanimous approach to take to such a mixed bag of review scores. Was it more important for IO to create a title with a distinct personality?
Niels Jørgensen: Yeah, I think so. I'd say that the most important thing for people to do is to try out the things that we've done by trying out our games. I'd encourage people to try the demo, always. I think it's important to form your own opinion about these products and Kane & Lynch is no exception to that.
It's difficult to get everything that you need to know from a review or article as it's difficult for words to convey how you might experience a game and so I think people should try it for themselves and decide based on their own tastes.
Q: Do you think that prominent advertising is more important to a game's success than review scores?
Niels Jørgensen: Well, of course marketing is very important. The reviews are important for some people but others will just browse through the games available in a store or online and pick up whatever they think is exciting. If you look at some of the charts you'll find plenty of games in there that don't score so well on Metacritic so arguably that's a mixed thing.
Obviously you try to incentivise consumers to buy your product and advertising can help with that, especially when a purchase can be very much an impulse thing. Reviews and advertising can often reach very different people.
Q: According to the Gfk Chart-Track data the proportion of sales has so far been almost 50% each for 360 and PS3 and around 2% on PC. Does PC continue to be a viable market for IO?
Niels Jørgensen: Well, I think as consumers become more diverse there's going to be the hardcore PC players and also the very causal PC players and so I certainly don't think that the PC will ever die. We deliver entertainment products and we can be available to deliver those products on whatever platform we think will be the right place to be.
The PC market is quite interesting because there's this whole discussion about the box product Vs the download, much more so that there is on the consoles. There are the suppliers like Steam and the new guys like OnLive coming up and it's going to be interesting to follow that over the coming years.
I think that there will be a market for PC but it'll be interesting to see whether that'll be boxed or download and really that's down to what the consumer is going to choose. At the end of the day the content is the most important thing and I believe that people will make their choice based on the content and not the distribution model.
Q: How invested in DLC is IO? Is it a big part of IO's strategy?
Niels Jørgensen: It's interesting to look at trends like DLC. DLC can play a number of roles throughout a product's lifecycle: it can hopefully prevent second-hand sales and it can also continue to provide new experiences to the consumer and maybe incentivise them to go back for another play-through.
My personal opinion is that we'll continue to see more and more of this. I think that the long time between major releases will begin to reduce over time and DLC can certainly help keep consumers interested in the meantime.
Q: Some of those long waits between major releases can be attributed to financial reasons, with capital needing to be raised to fund the next project. EA Partners' David DeMartini recently told GamesIndustry.biz that he believes that game budgets have peaked and may actually be moving in the reverse direction. What's your take on that?
Niels Jørgensen: I think it's quite difficult to generalise on that subject. Of course, there's a natural limit to budgets: you can only spend so much and it still be possible to recoup your investment on a product. There are some interesting trends that we're seeing with more casual titles and I think as the target audience of PC and especially consoles diversifies, I think we're going to continue to see game budgets that skew in both directions.
Some will be very expensive and some will be very cheap, so I think it's going to be a spreading in two different directions for different types of title, I don't think game budgets are going to move in just one direction.
Q: With regard to the higher end of the budget scale, will we get to the stage where it's not possible to make a triple-A game without the backing of a platform holder?
Niels Jørgensen: I think it'll always be possible [to create triple-A titles] but it's always going to be a huge investment if you set out to create these products. You need to make sure you have strong financial backing in order to undertake these projects but that could come from 1st parties or from the big publishers, I think either will work.
Q: With the Hitman and Kane & Lynch franchises IO has established a reputation as a 'mature' brand. Do you think that IO fans were confused by the more family friendly release of Mini Ninjas and is there a danger in not producing what the consumer is expecting from you?
Niels Jørgensen: I think that the graphical style and characters really showed what [Mini Ninjas] was all about. For us it was interesting to try to break out of that mature genre and explore a new world and create something that could be enjoyed by the whole family. This perhaps reflects the fact that the guys at the studio are getting a bit older and many of them have children now and they wanted to have something that they could play with their family.
With regard to our more mature titles, we've learned a lot from trying to entertain a different audience and I think we've been able to take some of those lessons and apply them to our other franchises. Many people at the studio are very fond of the more casual genre so it may be something that we look at again, you never know.
Q: Has IO considered establishing a separate studio for development of less mature titles? Do you think that could help with brand identity? I'm thinking along the lines of Disney creating Touchstone Pictures to release more mature films.
Niels Jørgensen: I think that it's possible but I wonder how necessary that is. Studios can certainly come out with different genres or titles aimed at different demographics and I think that consumers are intelligent enough to know what titles are aimed at what audiences.
It's more important for a company like Disney to have those different labels because people expect very specific, child friendly products from Disney and I think that consumers of videogames don't have those same expectations so with the rating system and proper marketing and positioning we can reach the right audience.
Q: Looking forward, how important is it to IO to have the stability of strong franchises such as Hitman and Kayne & Lynch?
Niels Jørgensen: I feel that the market is polarising a bit and we need to make sure that the titles that we produce have flair and a certain level of quality in order to stand out from all the good titles out there.
Having established, strong IP is a help in standing out but it's certainly not the only way because there will always continue to be new IPs. However, as we get towards the end of the hardware cycle the more well-known you are, the more competitive advantage you have.
Niels Jørgensen is general manager at IO Interactive. Interview by Stace Harman