RedOctane began life as the first online games rental company in 1999, before manufacturing dance mats and eventually graduating to become a fully-fledged games publisher. Its second release, Guitar Hero, is a highly-praised rhythm action title which comes complete with a replica Gibson SG guitar and a double album's worth of 30 classic rock tracks. Developed by Harmonix, the team responsible for FreQuency and Amplitude, Guitar Hero has picked up five DICE awards including Outstanding Innovation in Gaming, as well as accolades at the recent Game Developers Conference.
A sequel is already in the works, with talk of genre-themed expansion packs and even a possible plug in and play version doing the rounds. It's a similar tale to the success of Sony's SIngStar, EyeToy and Buzz brands, where mainstream appeal and simple control methods expand the idea of a what a 'video game' can be.
Kelly Sumner joined RedOctane as CEO back in February of this year, three months after Guitar Hero's release in the US. He has previously held the CEO role of Take Two Interactive Europe, and at the time of his new appointment stated, "RedOctane's plans have excited me like no other company around. In fact, I've not felt this kind of buzz and excitement since Grand Theft Auto III."
GamesIndustry.biz: Guitar Hero has picked up another award at the GDC this year - are you pleased with the way it has been accepted by the development community and the buying public?
Kelly Sumner: I don't think we could have asked for any better. Rhythm titles have been acclaimed before, if you look at Frequency and Amplitude, but they've never been huge commercial successes. I don't think we could have been more pleased with the way people have reacted to it. I mean we knew it had potential otherwise we wouldn't have done it in the first place, but quite frankly the success as amazed everyone. Currently in the US, the situation is that you can't just go into a Best Buy or GameStop and pick a copy up. Depending on what day it is, it depends on how lucky you are to get a copy of Guitar Hero. That's not such a bad situation for us because it's better to have more demand than stock.
So you must have high expectations for the European release?
We have, but we're limited in terms of sales expectations. We actually haven't got huge amounts of product. It's an authorised game with an authorised peripheral and we have to manufacture it within the constraints of Sony's approved manufacturing guides. We can't just go to twenty different companies in China and ask them to produce as many as we'd like. So everything that has gone into Europe has already been sold as far as retail is concerned. Retailers have ordered more than we have available. So I would think that for the first two months minimum, it's going to be in very, very short supply.
It must be an expensive product to put together too - licensing of music, the official Gibson branded peripheral - which in turn is reflected in the RRP...
Sure. Everyone in the industry understands what the royalties are with a game. We've also got the licence of the guitar and the royalties on the guitar because it's an authorised accessory. I think we've done a good job of getting it out there at a reasonable asking price. No-one has ever really questioned, 'what about the price?' It's understood that the product is going to cost a little extra money. It's important that consumers go into a retail store, pick it up, start playing it and think 'Wow, I need this game' - rather than hesitating and thinking about a purchase. Once the consumer starts thinking about whether they should buy a game or not, you've lost them.
The game's released in April in the UK, but your main marketing campaign is planned for later in the year around September - what's the reasoning behind this?
We've started the marketing already but in a very minimal way. There's no point going into overkill when you haven't got the supply. We've got some interesting things planned which will come to light in the next couple of weeks based around concerts and festivals. But as far as TV and other ads are concerned that's really not going to start until September when we've got much more product availability.
Do you think the industry is too focused on first weekend performance of a new release, at the expense of long term sales?
In a word: yes. It's easier for us, because these kind of games - whether they're focused on dancing or karaoke or something similar - they've always proven themselves to have long legs. But I do think it's the case with more traditional games too. It's a case of the developer and publishers rush to the line, they get the game finished and out on the shelves and leave it there. You know, they've just spent three years developing the thing and they've given it up after four weeks? What is that all about? We need to learn that quality is better than quantity. Just don't give up on your game within a few weeks because that's ridiculous.
What are you plans for RedOctane over the coming 12 months and beyond?
More of the same, I hope. We have got other products in development - obviously I can't tell you what they are and when they're coming. But clearly we think the music genre is a great market. You're not going to see RedOctane bringing out racing games or fighting games, we're going to purely focus on the music sector. It's the same thing Dave Perry was saying at GDC - developers and publishers should be specialising and focusing on what they're good at, rather than trying to be something for everybody.
Do you think there are these gaps within the market, where the big publishers haven't got the entire market sewn up? Are there the opportunities for smaller publishers to take advantage of what the big publishers are missing out on?
Absolutely. We've proved that you don't have to be EA to have a very successful product. Basically, we are the Electronic Arts of the music market - there is nobody else. There are opportunities out there, and there are quite a few. But the trouble is that it does require risk. We basically bet the whole company on Guitar Hero and luckily it's been successful, otherwise we wouldn't be here right now. The problem is that it's easier for some companies to say, 'Let's make this a little faster, or a little bit more violent and we'll put it out'. If you want the rewards you're going to have to take the risks. Sometimes it won't work, but thankfully sometimes it does.
It seems like a race to get a style of game out before the competition, instead of focusing on something more imaginative or creative, or something that isn't already on the market...
Oh yeah. Some of that is probably down to the quality and the imagination of the development community, but a lot of it is down to the publishers. An example of that is that we had trouble getting Guitar Hero into the stores of a major retailer, purely because it didn't fit a formula. They wanted to look at a spreadsheet and see that this type of game usually retails at this price and they've taken X amount of units in the past, but they had nothing to compare it to. I'm sure there are a lot of guys in the development community banging their heads against the wall because of this attitude. But that's the problem of having a creative industry being run by people in suits.
You helped to bring Take 2 from a mid-size company to a global player - is that the plan with RedOctane?
When I joined Take Two it was a $10 million revenue company. When I left we were around $850 million. Clearly it wasn't all down to me, but I did have some impact on it. There's no reason why RedOctane can't be a really significant publisher as well. We're not going to be EA, but we're a publisher that will do well and survive amongst the monolithic corporations that are in the industry at the moment.
Guitar Hero is released in Europe on April 7th.