To Be This Good Takes AGES
Hayes, Dunn and Heaton talk UK success, incubating Aliens and measuring the bottom line
SEGA-owned UK studio The Creative Assembly, best known for the Total War strategy games, last week announced plans to open a new 10,000 square foot studio and expand its head count from 160 to 200 as it embarked on a 'triple-A' new game based on the Alien IP. UK culture minister Ed Vaizey was in attendance to commemorate the announcement, as was president and CEO of SEGA Europe and SEGA of America Mike Hayes
Here, GamesIndustry.biz talks to Hayes, Creative Assembly studio head Tim Heaton and SEGA Europe senior VP of production Gary Dunn about the firms' plans for the new IP, whether it's still possible to launch a big game without a big brand, the UK games industry's links with government and why doom and gloom stories about the industry may be misplaced.
Q: What's the importance of Mr Vaizey visiting for you guys? Is it more a show of faith or direct discussion about how the government can help UK devs?
Tim Heaton: I think it's a show of faith - a senior politician, and clearly someone who is an evangelist for games within government. So it's great to see him, and we did talk about some pertinent issues, so it's good to get on the radar with those. And also to celebrate a successful company at a time when, if you went by the headlines, certainly you would be very, very depressed about the games industry within the UK. There are some real positive spots for sure.
Q: Did you feel that you had, through him, a direct line to the government itself, and the treasury?
Tim Heaton: I don't know how much influence he has, and I don't know how much influence we could ever look for...
Mike Hayes: But it's stage by stage, I mean if you go back years there were governments who weren't even interested, so the fact that a senior minister is here, taking it seriously, listening to us, he's got great relationships with Ian Livingstone and other members of the industry... How much further can we go? So I think it's a good start and great relationship - and a government that seems to be interested in the creative industry. That's good progress actually, and he certainly gets the business, which is enormously helpful for us.
We know a lot of guys there already, and so we certainly will make some recruits from that [Black Rock] team
Tim Heaton, SEGA
Q: Outside of yourselves, how are you feeling about the UK games industry?
Tim Heaton: It could be perceived as doom and gloom, and there are some high profile problems, but there are people doing really well too. We saw the unfortunate Black Rock situation, and we've been to Brighton this week to go and talk to some of the staff, and there are other developers queuing up to see them because they're very well-regarded at Black Rock. Jagex and Codies and whoever are all around that, looking for staff. Where we are now is that the people who've survived, the stronger developers, are looking for hugely experienced, top-quality staff - they are hugely in demand at the moment.
Q: CA must be pretty appealing to the Black Rock guys - you're only 40 minutes away...
Tim Heaton: Absolutely. And it's a small industry - we know a lot of guys there already, and so we certainly will make some recruits from that team. Nearly half [the CA] staff live in Brighton actually, so the games community there is pretty tight, and we're in this sort of triangle with London, Guildford and Brighton with Horsham almost in the middle of that. So we pretty much know what's going on all the time, and who we really would like to be employing if we possibly can.
Q: Are SEGA's UK studios protected from something like what happened to Bizarre?
Mike Hayes: Yeah... You look at it studio by studio, and it's what the output is going to be. Total War we have an intentional brand there, which continually sells well every time we release a major title like Shogun 2 - we have an international brand that we can make even bigger. Football Manager is just incredible, every product sells well. And I've seen that the new [Alien] project we've announced today on console, we know that the theme and what we're doing will have a big appeal in the United States, because we showed that with Aliens vs Predator.
So I would never, ever be foolish enough to say it's absolutely ring-fenced and perfect - you can't say that in our industry - but the brands that we have are international brands, they seem to be evergreen and I think working on the Alien license with what we have from a creativity point of view gives you a pretty good chance that you're going to have a commercial success with the project. It's never a cast iron guarantee. So do we feel extremely optimistic about our two UK studios? We absolutely do, no doubt about it.
Both Sports Interactive and Creative Assembly are outperforming their business plans from a profitability perspective
Gary Dunn, SEGA
Gary Dunn, SEGA Europe senior vice president - Production: Our UK internal studios are probably the bedrock of our business. Certainly, when I was signing off our studio bonus scheme and I was signing of the incentives last week, for the second year both Sports Interactive and Creative Assembly are outperforming their business plans from a profitability perspective. These guys are on top of the game, it's a real testimony to the games they make.
Q: How does the top brass at SEGA in Japan feel about the company having become almost UK-centric?
Mike Hayes: Well, when we continue to hit our revenues and profit targets, they're delighted [laughs]. CA and SI are very integral to that. But we have a spread - let's not underestimate what Sonic does for us, and what we've done with Mario and Sonic. Those are the behemoth titles that have done very well for us. But at the end of the day, regardless of where you are it's the fact that you have to have an internationally appealing game and brand. I think SEGA's fortunate that we've got two excellent UK studios, but the point is the majority of sales, particularly for the Creative Assembly, really have to be outside of the UK. So it needs to have an international appeal - certainly with Total War we get that. I think we're in very, very good shape, actually.
It's interesting: Creative Assembly are seen as the jewel in the crown of SEGA. That's an interesting thing, I don't think that would have been a thought about that fifteen years ago - but probably Creative Assembly has the consistent highest quality in terms of gaming for any studio, so SEGA's very proud of both. But as Gary says, when you break your targets, everyone's happy.
Q: In terms of CA and Alien, whose choice was it to give this game to this studio?
Tim Heaton: Well, the team finished Viking about three years ago now, and that was... flawed when it came out for PS3 and 360. I think it was flawed due to scope and timing issues and whatever, and it just didn't have the time it needed to gestate. So then I came in and we looked at that console team, or at the bare bones of what was left of that console team, and we talked about what we should do. So we developed a demo using some of the technology from Viking, but really quite changed, and we took it to SEGA. We knew the Alien license was part of SEGA's portfolio, so we showed them the demo and that was when everything changed. They got it, and it all became very clear that there was an opportunity there. The team were absolutely obsessed with it - it is the perfect videogame content, is not? It's fantastic and the legacy...
Equally, we are really commercially-minded, and we are that both in the studio and when we talk to SEGA. We only want to do something that's going to be massively successful, so we understand the quality levels that we need to hit in order to sell an awful lot of this game. So we want to make something that's quite different - we're not just wanting to take the license and knock out a licensed game, we want to make something really special out of it. So we've spent three years since Viking working on the technology, really bespoke for this genre of game, for what we're making, and it feels really, really strong now. So this is where we're happy to raise our heads above the parapet and talk about it a touch.
Q: Is there any concern that the Alien/Aliens IP might be losing any appeal to the public? Recent films weren't well-received and now even Ridley Scott's prequel movie is apparently not going to be about Aliens after all...
Tim Heaton: Well, with AvP coming out... maybe you could talk about the quality of AvP but people really, really wanted to play it. There's still a passion there for that, for the license and the property. And then I know what we're doing with that property takes us a little bit into a more interesting place, so we're not knocking a bog-standard space marine shooter.
Mike Hayes: It's going to be a great game in its own right, and it will have the license as well.
Everyone's obsessed and focused on Chart-Track and seeing declines, but actually they're not seeing the huge business underneath that which isn't being audited
Mike Hayes, SEGA
Q: You've only described it so far as 'a console game' - does that lock you into this generation of hardware, given we're hearing all kinds of stuff about new systems impending?
Tim Heaton: We're pragmatic about what those platforms are going to be, given the timing and stuff. Can't say any more than that.
Q: You said earlier that you didn't have enough time on Viking - will you be ensuring this doesn't suffer the same problem?
Tim Heaton: Yes. I can't say when it's out, but absolutely. SEGA have invested the right amount of money in this project so it can absolutely deliver, and now it's down to us to do it.
Q: In terms of the license, how much scope and freedom does SEGA have with it - years, platforms and artistic license?
Mike Hayes: Well, a lot of that is confidential, but in terms of what we can do in the world of Aliens we do have an excellent relationship with Fox. And they understand games - it's incredible how they understand the business. So the creative scope that we have is actually very good. There's always going to be limitations because it's an IP, but from a gaming point of view I think they're a great partner to work with, because they are giving us a lot of freedom to develop that IP in a positive way for gaming. As Tim said earlier, we are trying to create a brilliant game, so we need to be able to do that first and foremost within the world of the IP, rather than "here's the script, go make the script". That, I think, is very important for us on this project. With Aliens vs Predator we had such a big success with that project, so we think if we create interesting and high quality variations upon that world, then I think commercially it could run and run. It's such a powerful license, quite a unique one in that respect.
Q: Is a big license or established brand attached to a game critical to its success these days?
Mike Hayes: Yeah, absolutely. With something like Aliens, because it's so strong it potentially de-risks a project in so far as we don't need to spend so much marketing money. So when you see some of the behemoth new IPs coming out from our competitors and I see the rumoured amounts of money that's being spent on development but also purely on marketing, it begins to make your toes curl. It does show that the risk is so much greater. So having a Football Manager, a Total War, a Monkey Ball, an Alien, a Sonic in the portfolio does give you a degree of stability. Key within all that is how we transition it over to less traditional gaming markets, but with that IP you can definitely have a more sure-footed potential of success. But it's never guaranteed.
Q: Given what's going on with some of the larger publishers, like those toe-curling budgets you mentioned and the way those risks haven't always paid off, is there an opportunity for SEGA to catch up, as it were? You've described yourself as a medium-sized publisher in the past, but how much does a project like this give you the potential to change that?
Mike Hayes: I don't think absolute size and market share in this business is remotely important. What is important is we're a business - these [CA] are the clever guys, the creative ones, but we run the business. At the end of the day, we're in business to make money out of our IP. To do that, we have to have excellence in creativity, and that I think is a discipline that Creative Assembly and Sports Interactive both show. That's the most important thing.
So do we want to be a number one publisher, a number five? I actually don't care. It's just whether we're achieving the financial goals that we have. And a lot of that is now hidden, because a lot of gaming is not audited now - everyone's obsessed and focused on Chart-Track and seeing declines, but actually they're not seeing the huge business underneath that which isn't being audited. Whether that's paid DLC, whether it's digital download, whether it's iOS sales... Gaming is an unbelievably vibrant business, it's just that a certain portion at the moment is not doing as well as it has been. If you can be successful in all of those sectors, then you've got a very, very viable business. Who actually knows how big Activision, EA, Ubi, Sony actually are, because most of it's now not audited? It's quite an interesting conundrum - you can only see it on the bottom-line results these days. For us, that's what counts.