Street Fighting Man
Capcom's Christian Svensson on handhelds, DLC and the future of free-to-play
Capcom has weathered the storm of recent years with a deep catalogue of well-respected core IP, kept in just regular enough rotation to please fans without exhausting them, but is that something which can continue?
Christian Svensson, Capcom's US vice president certainly thinks it can, and hints at some interesting new developments in this interview from GDC last week.
Q: I wanted to start by talking a little about the success of Case Zero, the prelude DLC for Dead Rising 2. Has that set a precedent for similar outings on other Capcom IP?
Christian Svensson: Inevitably. It's something that we're evaluating for all of our titles. It's kinda funny - it could just of easily gone the other way, it worked out to be a massively successful effort for us.
For a while we were a little worried, because as with any sort of play experience a negative experience instantly becomes - 'oh, hell I'm not buying the full game.' A bad trial experience or a bad brand experience can do more harm than a really good brand experience. So you've really got to get everything lined up well.
We did a whole bunch of mock reviews first, just trying to say - well, what have we got here? Getting some outside opinions on what we had.
It's not something I know whether...actually I do know. It's not something we're going to be doing on every title, but it's something we're looking at on a title by title basis. Can we provide a compelling, self-contained pre-amble with persistence that links to a full product that helps people to upsell? That's really being thought out on a case-by-case basis.
The learnings that come from this are that it's something you have to plan from the beginning. It's not something you can do mid-development. It was hard enough even when we planned it from the beginning, just time-wise, the co-ordination of the Vancouver studio finalling practically three pieces of content at once - that's hard. That's really hard to do, logistically.
Q: Is it something you'd consider doing as standalone product, on a smaller instalment-based model, rather than attaching to a console release?
Christian Svensson: It's something we noodle about. We have no plans exactly for digital only introductions, there have been conversations about trying certain brands out on a digital only approach to see, to test the market out a little bit for risk and grow from there. But there's nothing that we're pursuing right now in the current pipeline.
Q: We're seeing the current trend for restructuring being shadowed by a winnowing of IP by many publishers. As a company with a broad catalogue of IP lines, is that something Capcom has looked at?
Christian Svensson: We have loads of things which we're still noodling which we haven't touched in years and years and years. We really still think there's value in trying some stuff with them. Obviously we're heavily reliant right now on a narrower range of core brands. We're looking at ways to not over-saturate the market with them.
I think that care has to be taken to avoid brand fatigue. Not to name names, I think some people are better or worse at that. We have some concerns internally about, are we doing too much of something?
You may see some other stuff, which we we've been quite prolific with, take a little rest for a while whilst we update some stuff that hasn't been looked at for a while.
Q: How has the operational balance shifted between the US and Japanese offices shifted recently?
Christian Svensson: It's largely the same as it's been for the last 18-24 months. After Inafune-san's departure there are some process challenges which I think we're still trying to figure out internally - and I'm speaking mostly from a product development standpoint - but what form that takes is still a bit unknown.
We're still largely doing what we call work-for-hire work. As far as our general publishing operations go I work very closely with Ichi-san, who is our global head of everything, effectively, both product development and publishing.
Q: Do you think you'll ever get back to the point where you're producing new IP again in the US?
Christian Svensson: I think we're a ways away from that. The remit at the moment is still to leverage existing classic Capcom brands - I think you see that in bigger ways than perhaps you've seen from us before. New IP for the near term? No go.
Q: How heavily influenced is that by the coming to the end of the console cycle?
Christian Svensson: Well, to clarify a bit - when I say no more new IP, I mean no new IP in the West. I think you will see us actually taking some major new IP risks.
Q: Capcom is big player in the handheld market, particularly in Japan. There are obviously some very exciting new prospects in that arena at the minute. How exciting is it to have that new hardware to work on?
Christian Svensson: Absolutely thrilling. We have a lot of projects that are in the works for handheld platforms. Stationary consoles, if you will, have migrated down to the portables. There's some really exciting content that we're talking about. I think if you look at 3DS as an example of what can be done, it's extremely robust.
I don't know if you've had any time with it, but it's the console experience in you hand, plus, plus, plus more.
I think that if you look at RE: Mercenaries, and a bit later at RE: Revolutions, people are going to be just blown away. Nothing I can talk about right now though.
Q: I wanted to touch briefly on the arcade business. Capcom is in an interesting position as one of the few remaining players in that space, alongside companies like SEGA, Namco and Taito. Street Fighter IV was released first in the arcade, for example. It's not something we see much of in Europe - is it going to continue to be an ongoing concern for Capcom?
Christian Svensson: Technically it's a different business unit than ours. But judging from our roadmap I think that there's still some business to be done. It's predominantly focused in Japan and some outer Asian territories. It's not something we get a lot of questions about: 'why isn't Street Fighter IV available in the arcade in the West?'
The answer is that the economics are a bit different over here. That said there are some things afoot that might change things.
Q: There's been a lot of acquisitions in the last few months. Would you say that Capcom's not a company which grows in that way?
Christian Svensson: Not at a publisher level, we haven't really participated in any consolidation. Our chairman, Tsujimoto-san has said repeatedly that we're not interested in acquisitions and mergers that don't allow us to make gains.
Where we have actually done a couple of acquisitions is on the developer side, such as Capcom Game Development Vancouver. I'm usually not an advocate of it unless we've done something with the company, we have good rapport, the corporate cultures mesh appropriately. If they don't, and people leave, well, what have you bought?
So we're very careful when it comes to acquisitions.
Q: A lot of people have been arguing that the platform holders need to evolve and embrace a freemium or microtransaction model soon. Is that something Capcom would be on board with?
Christian Svensson: I would argue it's something that's definitely going to happen. It's not if, it's when. There's a lot of benefits to that model. I won't say there's going to be a wholesale migration to that model, but I'd definitely say it's going to emerge and become viable once the first parties embrace it. It's gonna happen.
Q: Why do you think the platform holders have resisted so far?
Christian Svensson: I think a lot of it has to be that any drastic change in an ecosytem has to be done in a really gradual way - otherwise you can really upset the apple cart. I think there are measured steps and certain features and certain policies that are going to change and soften. It's not going to be - flick a switch and ta-da! Free to play is here. It'll slowly migrate towards that.
It might be really more emergent in the next generation of hardware.
Q: You're quite a core developer, a market which appears to be shrinking globally, with social and casual on the rise. Do you think that's something you'll eventually need to adapt to?
Christian Svensson: Let me try and make you think a little differently. Let's talk about what's shrinking.
What's shrinking is retail. Total spend is increasing, but it's not being represented well. NPD actually put out recently a total spend summary. And it's a combination of their point of sale and consumer data. To try and accurately measure what's really happening.
So while we are seeing, maybe, what you're calling core platforms declining in revenue or becoming flat at retail, if you were to include DLC, digital purchases, you'd actually see that it is increasing. So we're not even, as I see it, at the real back of the normal life cycle curve yet.
As far as focus on social, I would argue that the evolution is all games.
One of my pet peeves is that we talk about social gaming. Quite frankly, social gaming is - in the future you're going to see Xbox LIVE, PSN and whatever Nintendo has, eventually morph into social networks. You're going to see networks of networks where those networks are interfacing with Facebook and Mixxi and QQ - take your pick. All games, whether they're Street Fighter, Devil May Cry or Frontierville, will all be social.
What we deem social gaming today, five years from now, will just be gaming. There won't be a distinction. In that regard I think that we don't necessarily need to adapt, or go for some sort of lowest common denominator experience with our brands. We have an audience that isn't going away, that is growing and a lot of those easier to get into experiences eventually do migrate people up into more serious, or eventually core experiences.
In a lot of ways they can be a gateway drug for future core players. So I don't know that we necessarily need to be all things to all people. In matter of fact, I think if we lose focus too much we may lose everybody.
We know who our customer is today and I think we serve them pretty well.
Christian Svensson is vice president of Capcom US. Interview by Dan Pearson.