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Jon Rooke & Adam Roberts: Part Two

THQ UK's marketing and sales chiefs on annual franchises, licenses and Homefront

Last week we published part one of the interview with THQ UK's head of marketing Jon Rooke and head of sales Adam Roberts.

Here in part two the influential pair discuss the challenges of keeping annual franchises fresh, working with partners on licensed products, and why the company's big bet - Homefront - will be "genre-competitive".

Q: There's a big challenge to keep annualised franchises fresh, isn't there?

Jon Rooke: Yes - there's a definite challenge there. When you compare it to other annualised franchises such as FIFA - there's a whole transfer market there, and the football fan wants to buy each version because they want the latest data.

WWE, similarly, there are roster swaps and other changes, so people want to get the latest talent to make sure they're all correct. With UFC it's a bit more difficult - there is no season in UFC, no big roster changes. New talent comes in -

Q: It's a bit like golf in some respects - EA's had a bit of a challenge keeping sales on the Tiger Woods franchise stable.

Jon Rooke: That's been declining year-on-year - and we put another 20-30 new fighters into the product this year, which brought the roster up... but you know, if you wanted to play as the top fighters, they were all in the 2009 product too.

So it's a little bit more difficult to give that clear reason to buy the 2010 edition - we put a phenomenal amount of advancement into the 2010 product, not just in terms of features, but graphically it's so much better as well. But it might just be, for that less engaged consumer - the hit buyer - they're just happy with 2009.

Now, when we get to 2011 - and I know what's in that - it's going to be fantastic. People are going to want to buy it, and that's the step forward. But annualisation is tough.

Q: THQ works with a lot of partners, and towards the end of this we'll see lots of licensed games released. How important a part of the business is that? THQ seems to do that more then most other publishers.

Adam Roberts: I don't know - I think the amount of own IP that we've got looking forward is very tangible, especially with some of the big players like Truth or Lies that we'll be heavily investing in. It belongs to us - so in terms of own IP we've been pretty aggressive... de Blob is another example.

Q: But licenses are a good, solid part of the business?

Jon Rooke: Absolutely - it's a balanced portfolio. There are swings and roundabouts.

Q: And you work with partners on things like transmedia - but also marketing as well.

Jon Rooke: I think a lot of it is actually that the partners want to work with us. We've been doing this for so long - working with the likes of Nickelodeon, WWE, Disney Pixar... for years we were known as the Nick-Wrestling Company. That's kind of what we did.

But we are very good at working with people - we know how to create partnerships, how to get benefit for both THQ and back to the outside licensor as well. There aren't a lot of publishers out there that understand that symbiotic relationship. We do at THQ - and the reason why the likes of Dreamworks are willing to forge multi-year partnerships with us, even though we still have deal with one of their competitors in the form of Disney Pixar.

And looking across some of the others, we've got Warhammer 40,000 - which, looking into the future, that's going to be absolutely huge for us in terms of the stuff we've got coming out there. We're only just scratching the surface with the Dawn of War brand in the last four or five years - and we still sold 4 million units on that brand. Space Marine, the MMO and the other developments coming in that space... It's one of the top two or three sci-fi brands that are out there, alongside the likes of Star Wars. It's a massively engaged community as well.

But all these partnerships are also a part of the team that we have, both locally [in the UK] and globally - knowing how to integrate with the, and get the best out of the relationships. It's very different to working on your own IP, where you have complete freedom and can do what you want.

You have to be respectful - not only of the license, but also of the programmes and the way you approach that license. But there's a massive benefit from it, because those licensors are out there building the potential for you. What you then need to do is go and capitalise on that potential to go and sell the videogame.

In years gone by we've been heavily reliant on licenses, and I don't think we have that reliance any more - because licenses do go up, fluctuate and go down. Particularly theatrical licenses - once the movie is out, that's kind of it.

So we don't have that over-reliance - it's a much more balanced portfolio. We do have great IPs - but on that side we're now in the business of building franchise plans, and turn them into our brands as well as working with other people's brands as well.

We're not looking at Homefront 1, and then if it's successful we'll come back in a few years with Homefront 2. We're going into Homefront 1 knowing what's going to happen with that franchise for the next seven years.

Similarly with Red Faction, and WWE and all of our big core franchises.

Q: So let's talk about Homefront - there seems to be a lot of confidence internally that it's going to be a world-beating title.

Jon Rooke: We have to be careful - we're very confident about the brand, but we're not going out and saying that it's going to be bigger than Modern Warfare. We're not going to do what maybe some of competitors do, and set themselves up to fail on that stage.

We believe it's an absolutely fantastic product - it's going to be genre-competitive and actually stand out in a number of areas. But we're also very conscious that this is a new IP, and first time in a franchise.

Medal of Honor, Call of Duty... those guys have been building those brands for years. We're not going to do 15 million unit sales overnight with the first game - even if the market potential is there and we spent money on it, we just wouldn't do it. You have to take time to build fans, engage consumers, give them a reason to purchase - and then keep them with it as you go to sequel iterations.

So I wouldn't necessarily use myself the words "It's a world-beater" - because I think that conjures up the idea that we'll be the best-selling first-person shooter game next year. We won't - because there'll be another Call of Duty, which will do that.

But we'll absolutely deliver upon what THQ's goals are for the game - which is to put out that triple-A, high-Metacritic game, to engage consumers in the Homefront universe. I think that's the thing that I'm most focused on.

Because once you're in, you're engaged - once you're in that whole 'fallen America' scenario and you're part of the resistance fighting... it's very much like when you buy into Half-Life, and City 17. You get absorbed by that, and it's the same with Homefront - we want people to be a living and breathing part of that experience.

We know that once they've done that, they'll be ready for the next experience we give them afterwards.

Q: For Homefront next year, would you say it's more important to have a really high Metacritic, or really high sales?

Adam Roberts: Well, you can have great product that's sold next to nothing, while having a poor product that's sold millions. But the key thing about this product is that if we don't believe it's ready, we won't launch it.

We were talking about how good the product is, how good it's going to be - what I measure that on is how many of my customers are coming to me and telling me how good it is. Normally it's the other way around - so to me that's something that very rarely happens in this business. I'm very excited about it.

Q: Obviously we're still very early in that process, but E3 was a big deal in terms of giving the game a profile kick. How excited are you about building up the marketing plans for Homefront in the next 6-9 months, and utilising those retail relationships?

Adam Roberts: Well, to me it started at E3, and we're building on it now. Retailers are now working on their calendar Q4 plans, and while Homefront is coming a bit later, we'll be working well before the end of this year on setting things up. It's looking really good.

Q: And a good, solid marketing budget behind it?

Jon Rooke: We will be genre-competitive to make sure we stand out. Actually I think, more than anything, we'll be creatively different - we'll differentiate within that genre. We don't want to be "Man With Gun" - we're very different to that. Our setting really helps us with that, as does the emotive story - we can play with that, and we will be thought-provoking.

Sometimes we might shock people through the campaign - we probably don't have the intention to do that, but the creative and imagery we'll be using to tell the story may cause some people to be shocked. But we want people to think, because when they think, they're engaged - and they want to find out more.

We have a fantastically rich background and story - there's a document that exists at THQ that set out the timeframe from 2010 - today - all the way to 2027 and beyond. It's about 1000 pages long - we know what this universe is and where we're going to take it.

That's the most important thing - because we then know how deep, rich and engaging that universe is, and consumer will be able to get engaged through the marketing that we do. You'll see a lot more from Homefront very soon.

We'll have a big presence for it at the Eurogamer Expo, and we will be activating our programmes at retail through peak, into New Year - we're not going to wait until January to turn it on. There's a great opportunity, with a number of other major first-person shooters coming out this side of Christmas, to actually engage that consumer as they're purchasing other titles - then retain and harvest them as we come into the launch of Homefront.

Jon Rooke is head of marketing and Adam Roberts is head of sales at THQ UK. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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