How Eutechnyx Sealed the BMW Deal
How a small studio from Newcastle engaged with one of the world's biggest luxury brands
BMW is a company which exudes brand confidence. Synonymous with sleek professionalism, precision engineering and performance, it's a marque which has carefully nurtured an image of quality, executive cachet and classy, understated style. BMW is a very, very grown up brand.
Even in one of the harshest periods of economic adversity in living memory, the car manufacturer is reporting record quarterly sales, moving its brands, including the fully owned Mini and Rolls Royce, into hungry new markets like China.
Forward thinking and meticulously well prepared, BMW are the brand which, as Eutechnyx COO Darren Jobling tells me, "everyone wants to know what they're up to, so they can follow."
Everyone wants to know what they're up to, so they can follow
Eutechnyx COO Darren Jobling on BMW
So it's telling that they're taking games seriously. And not just the AAA boxed racers which have been showcasing its road and race vehicles for many years, but Eutechnyx's forthcoming free-to-play, browser-based title, Auto Club Revolution.
Which brings us to the M Studio, the roaring V6 at the heart of BMW's Munich production plant and design facility. Here, amongst the heavily camouflaged and tarpaulined vehicles which chief engineer Frank Isenberg tells us represent the "next 15 years of BMW", and the impossibly shiny sports, family and executive cars already available to the public, we find a beaming Jobling.
He's obviously in his automotive element - flushed with pride after sharing a podium with Isenberg, BMW's brand manager Andreas-Christoph Hofmann and several members of his own team.
He's here to announce the BMW Experience, a standalone portal to Auto Club Revolution which has brought a mutually beneficial brand awareness to both companies, without a single penny changing hands.
ACR is still in open beta, but, as of Tuesday 24 April, visitors to BMW's main website will be encouraged to download and enjoy what is essentially a gateway app for the game, in which they'll drive the 1 Series M Coupe, a high-performance limited edition machine, around a specially constructed track.
Crucially, once they've completed the Experience, they'll be forwarded to the full ACR portal, gifted the 1 Series M Coupe in game and set loose upon the full range of races, vehicles and social features which ACR offers.
Given that BMW's Facebook group alone has over 10 million Likes, traffic is likely to be significant.
That explains what Eutechnyx gets from the deal, but why has such a prestigious brand decided to partner with a relatively small Newcastle studio with a history of niche sim racing games?
Games are a great way to increase brand interaction. We can reach a younger demographic which is becoming harder to approach through traditional means
Andreas-Christoph Hofmann, BMW Brand head
"Games are a great way to increase brand interaction," Hofmann tells the assembled journalists. "We can reach a younger demographic which is becoming harder to approach through traditional means.
"Especially for a young target audience, there are so many other opportunities for them to spend their time," Hofmann tells me later.
"Cars are not as important to them as they may have been historically, they have so many alternatives. They might not go to show rooms to view or try cars, and we can't sit and wait, so we have to go where they are.
"Of course gaming is one such opportunity. We want to expand brand awareness, and of course position new cars as soon as possible. Plus, it's not just one way. We can really start an exchange with them."
Darren Jobling sees that two way exchange, of being able to watch what BMW fans are buying, how they're painting their cars, and where they're driving them, as a key part of ACR's appeal. Add to that the extensive lobbies and forums attached to the game, where Jobling sees enthused conversations, livery comparisons and knowledge one-upmanship happening every day, and the synergy of game and community is complete.
"We got a big investment from Prime ventures in the North West development fund, that was specifically to do this project," a relaxed Jobling tells me after the presentation is over.
"Currently a lot of the big players in the marketplace licence cars from the manufacturers, but there's no real two way interaction. In the average console game, a car is a vehicle to the next car, to the next car, to the next car. We wanted to do something really different.
We're trying to broaden the appeal away from just the hardcore sim. Obviously we've still got a big community of hardcore sim racers, but we really want to broaden that whilst also keeping those guys
"It's all about social, all about communities. Really about ownership. You've got an online car collection, it's a virtual garage, basically - you've got online, you can customise your car however you want it, you can gift it to your mates, all that sort of thing. We're trying to broaden the appeal away from just the hardcore sim. Obviously we've still got a big community of hardcore sim racers, but we really want to broaden that whilst also keeping those guys."
Eutechnyx aren't new to the game. They have a 25 year history, from the company's origins as Zeppelin Games in 1988, with Jobling and his brother Brian guiding the company through every moment. When Eutechnyx was born from Zeppelin Games, after a brief stint as Merit, it became a pure racing studio, running the gamut from F1 and Le Mans licences to 007 Racing and Big Mutha Truckers.
In many ways, ACR's balance of sim realism and arcade accessibility seems like the ultimate product of all that experience. But the switch to free-to-play must have been a difficult pill to swallow.
"It's no revelation that the games industry is changing," Jobling tells me when I ask him what the secret is to surviving a period which saw the demise of both Black Rock and Bizarre, two of the cornerstones of British racing development.
"Part of the the reason Eutechnyx is still around, after 25 years this year, is because we've sort of got a knack of knowing where the market is going. We'll look at what's happening and say, oh this is changing, we're going to have to change again. So if you don't like change, Eutechnyx is not the place for you because we're always changing, always looking at what's going on.
"As a games player, I love racing and driving games, I just thought there was something missing," Jobling says of his original concept of ACR, back in 2005. "But it was very revolutionary, at that time the consoles just weren't set up to handle it. We were just looking for a way to do it. F2P was huge in Asia, but it wasn't here, yet.
"We were so convinced that this was the way to go that we took external investment. We sold a slice of the company to be able to get this off the ground. With what's happened consequently, with retail suffering in the way it has, I'm glad we did it. Looks like we might be here another 25 years."
It always seems really appealing, and flattering, when someone like Disney comes round and wants to buy your company
Jobling on independence
Don't expect to see Eutechnyx announcing that they're being acquired, however. Jobling is of a very singular mind on the importance of independence.
"It always seems really appealing, and flattering, when someone like Disney comes round and wants to buy your company," Jobling explains, after revealing that he was heartbroken by the closures of Bizarre and Black Rock.
"We sort of see independent game development as not being synced up to the needs of a big publisher. You end up finding that you're producing a product that appeals to a publisher's wishes, and then when it's not successful, you carry the can.
"If we're independent, we're deciding our own destiny. If we make a mistake, we make a mistake. We've been in it 25 years and we've got a pretty good idea of where the market is going."
Securing ongoing industry partner like BMW is obviously a pretty good way to ensure that, and Jobling is convinced that the mutually beneficial agreement with appeal to other manufacturers as well.
"Historically, you used to get the cars for free," he says of licensing marques. "When we first started doing it 12 years ago, we didn't pay anything to get the cars. Licensing was promoting their cars, within the game - they were really quite into that. Then, the big boys started appearing with their cheque books.
"You then got to the stage where if you wanted a licence you had to pay for it. With ACR, no money has changed hands either way. We didn't want it to be seen as an advergame or anything like that, that's not what we're about. It's basically co-promotion. We're obviously getting the access to the car, to the expertise, access to the traffic from BMW.com and their Facebook group.
"It's more like the way it should be done in the future, not just turning up with a cheque book. Really, the car manufacturers don't want that either."
The levels commitment and trust are even more surprising for BMW than Eutechnyx. In order to ensure the accuracy of the car in-game, and to meet the exacting standards of BMW's engineers, a real life 1 Series M Coupe was loaned to Eutechnyx, so that the studio's physics guru could spend "hours" learning its peccadilloes and character.
All of our relationships are long term partnerships. We're not interested in jumping in and jumping out
Engine sounds were recorded directly from the car on a rolling road and an entire new lighting model was developed to accurately recreate the 1 Series M Coupe's trademark pearlescent Valencia Orange paintwork. The result was precise enough to earn the personal seal of approval from Isenberg himself, a man who refers to the 1 Series M Coupe as 'my baby'.
As Hofmann says, this is no opportunist one night branding stand - "all of our relationships are long term partnerships," he reiterates. "We're not interested in jumping in and jumping out. We really want to develop something with our partners, sharing experience to find new solutions."
So it's no surprise that Jobling see the relationship flourishing to the point where we'll have new cars in ACR on the day they're first made public.
"When I first envisaged ACR, the whole idea was virtual car launches, so the day and date that they reveal something somewhere like the Geneva car show, it would be revealed online in ACR, except in ACR you can take it out and drive it. Own it. That'll take a ballsy move from a car manufacturer, but watch this space, you've really only seen the tip of the iceberg."