In the first part of our interview with Microsoft Game Studios, Peter Zetterberg, business development manager for Europe, detailed the publisher's dedication to the European region, the differences between publishing in the US and Europe, and its criteria for working with local independent and internal studios.
In the second part of the interview, Zetterberg is joined by Matthew White, creative director of MGS Europe, and the two discuss the difference between publishing on the PC and Xbox 360 platforms, adopting new business models in the PC space and the regions they are keeping their eyes on to spot future talent.
Q: Which format is your priority in Europe? You have these big Xbox 360 titles such as Mass Effect, but they don't see release on the PC until six months after the console release. Why don't you go for a simulataneous treatment on these titles?
Peter Zetterberg: On a global scale the Windows Vista business is as important as our Xbox 360 business. But in Germany for example, we want more gamers to buy our Xbox 360. If we launch a game that is on 360 and PC simultaneously, we basically shoot ourselves in the foot by allowing the German market to choose to play the PC version – because they are more likely to buy that than spend their money on the Xbox 360. On a global scale the PC is very relevant to us. And I would say that 90 per cent of the games that are pitched to us are on console. We're strongly perceived as a console publisher because we're the first-party publisher even though the Windows operating system is equally important to us. If we launched a Halo game on PC and 360 in Germany simultaneously, 80 per cent of sales would be on the PC. So we need to pick and choose our formats.
Q: So you're admitting that the Xbox 360 is the priority, because you don't want to lose console sales.
Peter Zetterberg: No, they're equally important. The PC has a much wider use, it's so established, it's so dominating already so in some territories we need to make the games for the 360 to increase the sales there.
Matthew White: It also depends on the game concept. A lot of games work on both platforms, but when you're working on a game from a creative point of view it helps to envisage people playing the game on one platform. When you're working on a game for multiple platforms that vision isn't quite the same. When you're working on a game you can imagine people playing solo or co-op in their living rooms, but it's a different picture when you imagine them playing on a PC. When I'm working on a game that's what I'm thinking about – the end result. How is a gamer going to be feeling playing through this experience? When we think about the games we want to make we have to bear in mind that end result because it's played in an end environment that we don't control.
Peter Zetterberg: And developers want to make games that they want to make, not necessarily games that they think will sell. It's a great, charming way of doing things and great games come out of that mindset. But then you can get developers picking what they think is the coolest platform to develop on. So maybe in their eyes the PC is not as exciting as getting a dev kit for the Xbox 360 and getting a licence from Microsoft. And that's why we see more titles pitched at more platforms rather than PC only.
Q: Would you like to receive more pitches for PC projects?
Matthew White: It's very much the taste of the developers. When they come and pitch to us, I'd be very surprised if a team that loves playing PC games had an idea for a console title. Making games is an emotional experience because you want to make games that make you feel the same as when you're playing the games you love. That's why developers are in the business. There's always a very strong connection between what developers are playing and what they want to make.
Q: Do you ever sit through a console pitch and try to convince the developer that it would make a better PC title, or vice-versa?
Peter Zetterberg: I've had an RTS game pitched to me on the 360. Every time this happens developers say, “right, this time we've solved the RTS problem on console.” It was an ambitious game from new developers with a smaller team. And we were one of the first that they had pitched to so they hadn't turned cynical yet. And as they pitch, clearly this is not a good idea to do it on the Xbox 360. But their argument was that they could potentially sell more on the console because it's more of a mass market machine than the PC. And it was a German developer so they had that very strong RTS heritage in the region. But we suggested that they came back with a PC pitch.
Q: Did they come back?
Peter Zetterberg: No, not yet [laughs]. It's tricky because control mechanics and control methods in a game have such an impact on the overall game experience and sometimes developers get it wrong – they over complicate things or they completely mismatch game styles or genres with the target platform. I remember when I used to pitch ideas to a publisher with my old company, we'd go into a pitch with five different ideas and we'd go in like we were selling shoes or vacuum cleaners. We'd offer to make it for the PSone, the Saturn, the PC, every format going. Because developers want to keep their options open but it's actually killing your own pitch because you show no backbone. You might have the passion but you're giving too much to choose from. It's confusing.
Q: How aware of you of the shift in PC gaming, where the most popular PC titles aren't these epic blockbusters. There's real shift towards Flash games, casual experiences – and I don't just mean stuff like Peggle – browser-based games, free-to-play titles and these other business models?
Peter Zetterberg: That's a question that's very relevant to us here, in Europe. We need to not only do the big budget, big production value, global titles like Gears of War, but we also need to go with titles like World of Goo or Crayon Physics. Those are games that are made with an almost anarchistic approach to a business model. We talk to those independent games teams. It's harder to go back to Microsoft Games Studios management and show them a smaller game and say “we should do this.” But if you can find a business model that allows for a multitude of these independent games under and MGS flag, that's very interesting for us. The social networks are something that we are very, very interested in. If there's a gaming experience that you buy in a shop and through that you log in to a universe, not an MMO but a social network, where you play games, you meet, and interact – that's definitely something we're looking at.
Q: How are these emerging business models more relevant to Europe?
Peter Zetterberg: It's very closely related to us here in Europe because there's 25 countries and 15 languages. You need to zoom in on the market. Those kind of games allow for that. Its also about decision making. The bigger games such as Gears of War and Halo, I would imagine the acquisition process for that – to go from identifying the game to signing it – is a long, very slow and detailed process of six to twelve months of negotiation. You can't afford to do that with smaller titles like Crayon Physics and World of Goo. You need to be quick and proactive and pick them up. That actually goes against the kind of classic publishing model that were doing, but it's something we need to do to secure position here in Europe. We can do things big, but we also need to zoom in on smaller markets.
Q: Are there any particularly business models that stand out?
Peter Zetterberg: I can't say what we're dong exactly, but we understand that we need to add those type of business ideas to what we've done traditionally.
Matthew White: Purely from a creative point of view, I would love to see something episodic. What I love about watching TV shows with something like Heroes or 24 is that feeling of wanting to find out what happens next. I've never really felt that in a videogame.
Q: That's not just about the mechanics of the game being built to leave the player with a cliffhanger either, but also the ritual of the experience. Tuesday nights, at 9pm, I'm sitting down for CSI. Part of my day is structured around that. The closest I've seen to that in terms of videogames is a trailer for Grand Theft Auto IV – everyone knew it was coming out, the internet stopped...
Matthew White: Yes, part of the experience is watching it with other people, coming in to work the next day and talking about it. That also helps to make the episodic idea so compelling. That's a good example for me of the creative medium of games that hasn't been explored yet.
Q: This next question is off on a tangent to the rest of this interview, but you've mentioned before a growth in the South African market. What are you seeing from that region right now? Is there new talent there which is beginning to get recognised?
Peter Zetterberg: I think that the South African region is perceived in a similar way to former Eastern block territories year's go. We're looking at the business case for companies in the region seriously, but I think the general perception is that it's a region that isn't really taken seriously. Spain could also become a digital Hollywood – Canary Islands, Madrid. Ubisoft, Sony are out there, we have Mercury Steam in Madrid, Virtual Toys in Madrid. The Middle East too, has a strong economy, and that attracts talent.
Q: For Microsoft Game Studios, is it important to get in there early while the market is still immature?
Peter Zetterberg: It can be dangerous to get in there early, but it's a risk worth taking. That entrepreneurial, proactive mindset is good. Microsoft Game Studios needs that. It's easy to be become complacent when people knock on your doors all the time. You have that luxury where you don't have to stand up and jump and scream to get attention from developers. We're not going to do that, we're absolutely out there.