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Mike Hayes - Part Two

Mon 02 Feb 2009 8:00am GMT / 3:00am EST / 12:00am PST
Publishing

The Sega Europe president talks MMO development, Metacritic and second-hand game sales

Following the first part of this interview with Sega Europe president and COO, Mike Hayes, in which he gave his thoughts on the economy in the coming year, the concluding part addresses the challenges of MMO production with Football Manager Live, the role that Metacritic has in the industry and his feelings on retailers utilising the second-hand game market.

Q: As a company, one of your big titles this year is an MMO. Conventional wisdom would imply a huge upfront investment, and a launch window that will tell you immediately whether you'll be successful or not - but Football Manager Live is completely different...

Mike Hayes: Yes, FML is completely different. On the point of upfront cost, there is far less than say something that a company like NCsoft would be involved with, mostly because there are elements that we already had from Football Manager in terms of elements of design and technology that we've brought across - even though Miles [Jacobson, studio director at Sports Interactive] has a different team working on it.

The other thing, and the thing I'm most excited about, is because of the fact that it's football, the fact that we've made the game worlds, you're able to dip in and out across game worlds, I don't think we're looking for that big a day one.

We did a soft launch, because although it was ready when Football Manager cam out, it would be crazy to launch at the same time. We've just done our hard launch, and we would expect - even though we'll be doing campaigns that will bring in several thousand people - that we're going to get several hundred to several hundred thousand per week joining.

Obviously we'll get some that leave, some churn, be we expect there to be a general upward curve. Then we'll release the French version, then the Italian version, and so on. We're in a really good position to manage that, and the good news is that we didn't have to go out and spend a lot of money on server capacity. We have, but not on the scale of a 200,000 rush, and worry about concurrency, because we can release it bit by bit. We're not attacking databases all at once.

What number will we get to? I have absolutely no idea. Will it be a couple of thousand, one hundred thousand, two hundred thousand? The point is we can take that journey gently and arrive there at our own pace.

Obviously we've got our own ambitions, we want to take it across Europe, to Korea, to South America... and every time we can roll that programme out. So it's actually quite a nice business model as well. And everybody knows the Football Manager brand as well, so you're not going to have to spend a lot of money on brand marketing.

Q: We recently heard from Splash Damage's Paul Wedgwood, and his opinion on the Metacritic discussion - what are your thoughts on how it should be used to inform internal targets, and developer bonuses?

Mike Hayes: There's quite a long answer. The first thing is that we're always trying to put objectivity into the business. We're a creative business, and how do you put objectivity into it? But at the end of the day publishers will always want to do that, particularly if you're spending USD 20 million - you have to try and find that objectivity, and it's going to come from how much it costs, when it's coming out, and how good the game is.

I don't think you can get away from that, and Metacritic provides a service that gives you a part of that. However, it's horses for courses. If you're going for a high-end PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 game and you want to break out in the genre, or something like that, you have to target that quality - because otherwise you don't have a hope in Hell. There's too much evidence that shows games which score below a certain level in certain genres are not going to cut through.

However, there are other genres and other platforms where we wouldn't put a developer against that score, because it's more about the brand, the license, the release timing - it's probably something that in the Metacritic basket of reviews, they're not going to look at the same things that we're going to look for when making a game.

Look at something like Ghost Squad - it doesn't have a lot of hours of gameplay, and it's an arcade port, but its replayability value is immense, and that's what's helped the word of mouth aspect for the game.

So when we're doing developer contracts, we won't say to every developer we work with that there's a target in there. But where we're spending a lot of money, and the score is essential to the success of the product, absolutely I think there's a value in it.

We value the scores that we're given by the media - it's a very good way of measuring it - and I don't think it's unreasonable for publishers spending that much money to have certain expectations of quality levels. But to demand it on absolutely everything wouldn't be right at all.

Q: Is the specialist gaming press across the board professional enough for you to be basing big-money decisions on things like that?

Mike Hayes: I think if you take a basket, then the answer is yes. The only thing with Metacritic is that you can get one rogue score - if you've got your basket of 75s, and then somebody gives you a 3, it pulls the average down.

So it's not as simple as taking a mathematical mean, we'll actually take a basket and put parameters on it. We won't just blindly take that number, there'll be support behind it.

But if you're taking an average, I think reviewers are highly professional people, and probably know the business as well, if not better, than certain developers and publishers. I think it's one of the best steers you can get.

Q: Retailers seem to be doing well out of the second-hand game sales business at the moment, and now there's a movement towards rental as well - certain sections of the industry haven't reacted well to that move, what are your thoughts?

Mike Hayes: It's a very interesting one, because of the recent announcement from GAME. We've always embraced it, notably via Blockbuster, but the debate's been raging since even back when I was at Nintendo.

It's something we keep an eye on - particularly now our business is so mature, and we're in so many markets, I think ownership of hard copy is still something that the consumer wants. So the rental try and buy, I wouldn't say we fully embrace it, be we certainly understand there's a market for it, and we don't think it's overly damaging our sell-through business.

But we keep an eye on it - it's not like a big green light. The whole second-hand games market is one of those very, very sensitive areas that I've got to say Sega keeps a pretty low profile on - and I'll tell you why.

I know that there are publishers that are vehemently, aggressively against it. My reluctant view is that while I can understand that, if publishers were to try and enforce a non-second-hand market to the consumer, I think there would be relationship damage with the consumer.

Of course, commercially, do I support it? Of course not, and I have to think here of the 650 people we employ at Sega Europe. However, do we have a successful business working with the retailers that offer that service? Yes, we do.

So would I ever join a campaign to get it stopped? The answer is no. Do I like it? The answer is no. I may be sitting on the fence here, but there needs to be a bit of reality on the market.

Q: Do you see a situation where the industry makes specific rental copies of games?

Mike Hayes: It's been suggested, but I think that's harder to do. With DVD companies they will go and sell the software at highly-inflated prices under rental agreements. The industry's not doing that. If more retailers want to come into that, then an initiative might be looked at. At the moment I think rental is a relatively small part, unlike DVD.

We'll keep a watching brief on it and see if it takes off, and what others like HMV do, and see what happens. But right now it's probably not on our top ten list of things that we need to take action and be concerned about.

Mike Hayes is president and COO of Sega Europe. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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