This year's E3 was an unusually strong one for third-party publishers. Activision, EA, and Ubisoft made a lot of noise with their expected assortment of hit brands and annualized franchises, while Square Enix and Bethesda used particularly packed lineups as a reason to hold their own press conferences at the event. With a stable of titles including Batman: Arkham Knight, Mad Max, Lego Dimensions (and its many Lego-licensed crossover kin), Lord of the Rings: Shadow of Mordor, and Mortal Kombat, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment has emerged as another third-party publisher that could conceivably pull off its own E3 event. But as WBIE executive VP and general manager David Haddad told GamesIndustry.biz at the show, if the company took that route, it wouldn't want it to be a one-time thing.
"I also don't think gamers wake up and say, 'I want to buy a WBIE game today.'"
"I'm not sure it's right to do it one year and not do it another year," Haddad said. "So we think about that a little bit. I also don't think gamers wake up and say, 'I want to buy a WBIE game today.' So that portion of the story wouldn't be the reason we would do it. We'd be doing it to showcase our content. That might be a strategy for us, and it seems like more publishers have used that as part of their storytelling and way of reaching gamers. So certainly we'd consider it."
Haddad is apparently just fine having his customers consider themselves Batman fans and Mortal Kombat fans rather than WBIE fans.
"There's crossover among those, but all of our research suggests that gamers care about the studio that's making it," Haddad said. "They want a lot of information leading up to it. These tend to be fairly big investments versus watching a TV show or buying a movie ticket, and the track record of the developer and that intellectual property seem far more important to their decision-making than the publisher behind it."
Even if WBIE isn't concerned so much with pushing its own label, brands are key for the company. Almost all of its efforts are tied to big names with existing fanbases, but Haddad insists the company is especially careful about which ones it uses, when, and why. For example, WBIE's acquisition of Midway some years ago has given it a considerable back catalog of known gaming IP. However, the publisher has used that assortment of brands sparingly outside of Mortal Kombat (though it will be tapped for Lego Dimensions toys-to-life sets.
"We don't sit around saying 'Let's make a great Midway game,'" Haddad said. "We tend to do it when we find a developer and an idea that's innovative enough and creative enough, that it makes a great game that can go onto the market. But we continue to view that Midway library as very valuable for us, particularly with moving into the branded or franchise mobile business, free-to-play. We see potential applications for that library there in the future, as well as the way we're applying it to Lego Dimensions."
"We don't start with, 'We're making a movie on this so let's make a game.' That's not our greenlighting logic."
That approach can be extrapolated to the company's other assets, as Haddad explained when asked if a successful Mad Max launch would have the company looking to bring more of Warner Bros.' vast catalog of movie franchises into the world of games.
"I think commercial success of any of our games influences our choices around the portfolio, for sure," Haddad said. "I think the notion that because we're a movie studio and we have a games publishing business, we think about movies and then make games. That's not the way we think about it. We think about, 'Can this world, these characters, whether they come from movies or somewhere else, will they end up making a great game? And do we have a studio that's inspired to make something?' And in the case of Shadow of Mordor, we found a mechanic in the Nemesis System that was so fresh and unique and innovative in the marketplace. That's the way we start, finding the great game first from a world and characters. Because we are a movie studio or we own the DC library, we have access to that. But we don't start from that. We don't start with, 'We're making a movie on this so let's make a game.' That's not our greenlighting logic."
Sometimes that approach of finding the game first yields surprising results. For example, Batman: Arkham Knight and Lord of the Rings: Shadow of Mordor are both rated M for Mature, an unusual approach for two brands driven by incredibly successful movie franchises that sported more family-friendly PG-13 ratings.
"We think a lot about the marketplace and who we attract," Haddad said. "We think about what content makes the best game. We are members of the ESA and the ESRB so we respect the ratings process, but in this sense, we thought this was the best content for this IP that made the best game experience. And that's what really drove our decision. We don't really think about the commercialization through that lens of 'M will sell better than another [rating] or not.' We really look at it through the lens of 'What's the best content for the intellectual property?'"
The company has also shown a willingness to skirt conventional wisdom when it comes to release dates. While its Lego titles frequently launch in the crowded year-end release window, WBIE hasn't been shy about scheduling Arkham Knight, Mortal Kombat X, Shadow of Mordor, and Mad Max outside the holiday quarter.
"[T]he notion that gamers only buy content in the fourth quarter is just not true. We had a release in January that did very well in Dying Light. Mortal Kombat did very well in its window in April."
"I think every publisher considers windows and competitive windows when they release," Haddad said. "So it's not that we never think about that. In the case of these schedules, this was when we thought these games had enough time and enough focus from the development to make them as good as we needed to have them go into the market. So that's what dictated it. I think the notion that gamers only buy content in the fourth quarter is just not true. We had a release in January that did very well in Dying Light. Mortal Kombat did very well in its window in April. I think we can find gamers for great content when we choose to release it."
Of course, not everything has gone perfectly for the publisher. Last month, it announced that it would be pulling the plug on its DC Comics-branded entry into the free-to-play PC MOBA market, Infinite Crisis, just two months after the game's official launch. The company offered refunds to those who had already spent money on the game, but nothing in the way of an explanation.
"We did try to move into that category," Haddad said. "We thought the combination of our DC library and our experience building PC online games would give us a way to success in that market. And we just frankly didn't find an audience that was large enough to sustain that over the long term, so we had to make the difficult decision to move to sunsetting that game."
When asked if the MOBA market was already spoken for by giants like Riot, Valve, and Blizzard, Haddad merely reiterated, "We found it very hard to enter that market successfully."
As for the de facto topic of conversation at the show, virtual reality and augmented reality, Haddad echoed the cautious optimism of many of his fellow publishers.
"Simply doing [VR and AR] to be 'me-too' in the space, or doing it to have a single interesting experience isn't where we ultimately want to land on this."
"We love being able to innovate interactive experiences, storytelling, character, and character development," Haddad said. "And we think ultimately this is going to be another tool to do that in the future. We have our R&D efforts in that area. We still need to get to a place where there's an installed base to really commercialize it. So it's too early to talk about anything specific, but I think anytime you see this much creativity, this much energy, this much attention, and you see such interesting experiences coming out of it... We think it will be a great thing for gaming over the long term."
Clearly nobody wants to be left behind when it comes to the next big thing, but the big third-party publishers in the industry seem to be letting the platform holders and their indie developer partners take point on this particular endeavor. Haddad said that just speaks to the lack of a clear path to commercialization in the field so far.
"In some sense, you have to get to a stage where you have an installed base of these devices where you can attach the experience to that," Haddad said. "It does make investing in it at a very early stage something that has to be carefully considered. And the lens that I personally look at it through, as well as my senior team, we're still looking for that defining, must-have piece of content. Simply doing it to be 'me-too' in the space, or doing it to have a single interesting experience isn't where we ultimately want to land on this. And we're still working on that and trying to find those ideas."