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A Rare Glimpse - Part One

Studio manager Mark Betteridge on the future of Rare, and how the industry needs to embrace new gamers

Rare, as part of Microsoft Game Studios, was under the spotlight recently when the latter announced that another of its owned studios, Ensemble, would be closing. However, MGS chief Phil Spencer was quick to play down suggestions that Rare could be next, instead pointing to a strong work ethic and ability to create products for a wide variety of people.

Last week met with Mark Betteridge, studio manager at Rare, to get his perspective on the studio's future, and what the industry needs to focus on going forward. Part two of this interview will follow next week. Phil Spencer was pretty clear that Rare's future as part of Microsoft Game Studios was safe - are you pretty confident about that future?
Mark Betteridge

Absolutely - in terms of the Xbox 360 or Xbox as a brand it's really now coming into what people would see as our forte in terms of product, in terms of where the price point would be.

It's been somewhat of a struggle at times - we did Kameo and Viva Pinata, and people often ask me if VP was a success, and I point out that it sold a million units for a game in which you're gardening, hunting and attracting animals on a box that people would see - if you ask the general public, they'll see it as a shooter box, or a hardcore box.

It's about changing that perception, and Microsoft is very committed to doing that, because that's a great market to have. The core market is finite, and it's probably reaching saturation point with a lot of those customers, so I'd see our future within Microsoft as very much about helping to expand that, as we've been doing in the past, but the advantage we've got now is price point I suppose - the recent cut in Europe has been dramatic in terms of sales.

It's more about what we will do to change conventional thinking of games and entertainment. I don't see us fighting the same battles as everybody else, I think some of the products we'll do going forward will surprise a lot of people, both in terms of what they are and the different styles. I think that will be good.

But I'd agree with what Phil Spencer said in that interview, which I read - and I speak to Phil regularly - so we're definitely on the same page here, on where the business needs to go. If you're moving to different types of products, will Banjo this year be the last of the big conventional games you'll produce? Is Banjo itself conventional, or more transitional in your eyes?
Mark Betteridge

I see it as fairly conventional, but it's a twist on an established genre. When we built that Banjo we didn't just want to build another high-def platform game in the same style as before, we wanted to do something new in terms of what the gameplay would be.

That theme of doing something new with gameplay runs through everything we're doing going forward - whether that's how you play the game, how you interface with the game.

Banjo was about not building these walls around certain ways of playing a level - "You're going to do it this way, and if you're not good enough then that's as far as you're going to go."

It's about giving the player to have fun, in a sandbox experience. A lot of work and infrastructure of Banjo, the technology behind that, we will be using going forward. So it's a fairly conventional game, but a twist on an established genre. It was a character that we thought the 360 should have as a mascot character, and would fit well in the current portfolio.

Would we build another Banjo title on that scale? I'm not sure really, we'll see which parts people like out of this product and then we'll go from there. Obviously the way we've built the game makes it very easy to add content to that design. Do you foresee expansion packs or downloadable content in the future for the game?
Mark Betteridge

Yeah - we're at a crossroads in terms of which route to go with new content. Would we go that route, or would we take another spin on the game and build a brand new game built on the infrastructure we've got there, because it was all brand new code?

Banjo aside, I think the other products are the ones you'll see a real difference from what we've done in the past, and what there is in the current market. That's the most exciting bit, and where we fit in with MGS.

The Xbox 360 has got a great deal of support. In the early days people were a bit sceptical about third party support, but the one thing you wouldn't doubt now is the third party support that it has.

In our view, first party's job is to define the platform, to define the unique experiences on that platform, and that's something we're very excited about - and set up and geared to do, to do multiple products at the same time.

The trouble with the business now is that we've got this sort of hamster-wheel mentality. If you look at the chart you'll see a lot of sequels in there, and people re-spinning those ideas for new sequels as fast as possible for next year.

We'll never really attract any new audiences from doing that, and that's my problem with it. The box comes down cheaper, we'll get a few more people who were waiting on the sidelines, but the lady that showed us to our table today - I bet she's not got a 360, and has no intention of buying one.

So to me, games are still somewhat of a niche experience compared with music, television and most art forms. What are the changes that need to be made to alter that situation?
Mark Betteridge

It's the content and it's the interface, and they're both stunningly important. Price point is key when you come through these first two transitions of content - you'll get the early-adopters that will buy anything to play the latest games. You'll get people who will upgrade their PCs to play the latest titles too, but that's a limited number.

Then you'll get a lot more people who would really like one, but don't feel they can justify a certain amount, and they're the people that have been coming in through the last 12-18 months.

Now we're at the stage where... if you look at the Nintendo DS, a lot of people will buy that and just Brain Training or Nintendogs, and be very happy with it as an entertainment device because of the price point. You can buy it in Tesco, and it's ready to go straight from the box, and you've never really had that with consoles.

To me it's price point, interface, content. They're the three pillars I suppose. And this generation of hardware is perfectly suited to having a very long tail on it - and a much longer life than the previous consoles, because the amount of rendering and processing you can do, nobody's going to rush out and buy better than 1080p TVs at the moment, if you can find one.

I think the industry is sometimes too insular in thinking that people want the best graphics, they want this, they want that. Whereas something like Wii has shown that it's not just graphics that new players want - more casual players are perfectly happy with what a lot of industry players wouldn't even call last generation, never mind current generation.

So it's expanding what entertainment can be, because there's no doubt that the Xbox 360 is a very capable piece of hardware in terms of processing and rendering, the bandwidth of the Live network - in essence you've got a very powerful processing box that's connected, millions of people connected together.

But you look at it through the games industry's eyes and it's all about squad-based shooting games - whereas you could look at it from a PC point of view and something like Facebook, it's just a framework to link people together and post photos and messages.

But look at the community aspect around that - it's about expanding what games can be, and I think that's what we're most excited about, rather than fighting in genres that everybody is already fighting about. And that's the inspiration you're taking to future projects?
Mark Betteridge

Definitely. We've been around for a long time, so we've come through all sorts of genres. I like to think we've got a worldwide skill set, a wide range of abilities in what we can do.

So we'll probably have one large game in the traditional sense on the roster at any one time, but the stuff that's most exciting to us are the ones where we can bring in the new players in, the ones where we can break new traditions, the ones where we don't have 100 people working for them, so we don't need millions of units to build decent revenue streams.

That's the future of the business, to me. What happens is that you get a genre that becomes apparent as a great revenue stream. You get the first game in there, other competitors come in there and get better and better, and you generally tend to end up with two or three products that fight over that same space with increasing production costs, increasing art costs... it's like a Cold War in one area, and ultimately your cost of building that product is increasing at a much faster rate than your revenues received are.

At the point at which they cross over, you're in trouble - and there's a lot of titles you can put into that area. As an example, Nintendo stepped out of that area and went into Miyamoto' famous 'blue ocean' phrase - and I totally agree with it. You build your own business, your own rules, and that's how you define the rules of that - because you make that business.

Mark Betteridge is studio manager at Rare. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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