Pillar Talk

Sierra's Martin Tremblay and Al Simone on how they plan to take the company forward.

Former Ubisoft COO Martin Tremblay left the company to become head of Sierra Entertainment, a division of Vivendi Games, in April 2006. Here, he and senior marketing exec Al Simone discuss the company's forward-looking strategy and reveal how they plan to move up the third-party publisher rankings.

Q: How would you describe your current strategy for product development?

Martin Tremblay: I think that we have to build on the four pillars we have. RTS games, for example - we're pretty good at them, and we're showing it with World in Conflict this year. We're doing the same with Empire Earth; those are two very big games that redefine what RTS is.

Another pillar is first and third person shooters, like F.E.A.R. and Timeshift, the new Bourne game. Then there are kids' games - Crash and Spyro are very important brands for us, and every year we're selling a lot of those games.

The fourth pillar is open world games. Scarface was a phenomenal success for us last year. Radical own that technology, they developed it, and it's very strong.

On top of these four pillars of genres we're going to create original IP, and I would say we're pretty solid in that direction compared to any other publisher. We're going to be up there with the big guys with regard to creating new franchises.

Today we're developing 80 per cent of our games externally and 20 per cent internally, and we want to continue to develop our internal capacity. In two or three years we'd like to be more balanced in terms of development, but our commitment to external development will remain.

Q: Where do you think Sierra stands in the marketplace right now?

Martin Tremblay: Compared to any other publisher at the moment, we're the new one coming up in the console world. We will surprise a lot of people because our commitment to quality is absolutely there, and we're taking a real step forward in terms of the balance of licensed titles, original IP and strong sequels.

Al Simone: The third party space is dominated by the big player, EA, and then there's everybody else - maybe Activision has broken out of that pack a little bit - competing to be the number three.

I see us nipping at the heels of the EA and Activisions of the world, and our formula for success is going to be one that's tried and true to us - which is a commitment to original IP, bringing licenses to the space in a way that's unique to us and leveraging the franchises we have.

Q: You say nipping at the heels - is your ultimate goal to become the biggest player?

Al Simone: That's a lofty one, isn't it? We have great respect for what EA's been able to accomplish. The formula's pretty straightforward - if you come up with compelling gameplay that gamers can rally behind...

Do we expect our third party share to grow? Absolutely. It's going to come on the back of innovation, very fresh product experiences, covering all the platforms. Will we be number one? It's always going to be our goal, but that's one that's off in the distance future.

Q: So what's the balance in your portfolio right now between original IP and licensed titles?

Al Simone: Within the entire organisation, there's an over-commitment to original IP which we fully embrace, even though there's risk associated with that. Next year, we're looking to bring original IPs probably at a pace that most third parties haven't in the past few years. We expect to have an over-investment in original IPs versus what we've seen other publishers put out.

Q: Surely that's a risky strategy, when you consider that it's often the Harry Potters and the Spider-Mans which top the charts these days...

Al Simone: We agree, but we balance the portfolio with licenses and franchises. Candidly, we're part of a larger group - Vivendi Games - and Blizzard does some phenomenal things. We have some franchises and licenses we can lean on, and based on that strength we can probably take some original IP risks that maybe other publishers can't.

Q: What about the balance between PC and console?

Al Simone: I wouldn't describe our appetite as being over-committed to either console or PC. Both platforms are viable and are a big part of what we do. It's like a 60-20-20 split between consoles, handheld and PC.

Q: At Microsoft's E3 conference, Peter Moore said holiday 2007 will be huge for games, and that it will be very important in determining which hardware platform is the market leader. Do you agree?

Al Simone: When you have franchises like GTA, Halo 3, Madden come to the space, it's going to expand the audience. You heard some interesting news on price from Sony, there might be more things coming down the pipe.

This holiday will be a holiday of mega franchises, so we absolutely see this as a seismic shift. Everyone's looking to see, coming out of January, where the installed bases are.

Q: With such big franchises coming out, are you worrrying that some of your titles will be overshadowed by the likes of Halo 3?

Al Simone: Without question. It puts pressure on innovation. The good news is, the original IPs we're bringing to market have something very fresh for the genres they compete in. We have to work a little harder than the Halo 3s, but it's a battle that we relish.

Q: Martin, before joining Sierra you were COO of Ubisoft. What would you say are the differences in company culture and strategy between the two?

Martin Tremblay: We're in the same business, so we're looking to win. Each publisher wants to have a strong position in the marketplace, so there's no big difference in that sense.

I would say that Vivendi, by having a head office here in Los Angeles, is way closer to licensors - they're all around, and we just have to make a call to get things done.

Vivendi is a real entertainment company more than just a videogames company. We take advantage of the Universal Music group, NBC Universal... So the differentiation is probably how we are positioned in the entertainment industry.

Q: Where do you see Sierra in five years' time, and how do you plan to get there?

Martin Tremblay: I would like us to be recognised as a diverse company and a quality company; a company that delivers quality games.

Q: Do you think that perception is lacking at the moment?

Al Simone: It's inconsistent. We have many examples of bringing very high quality products to market, and what Martin and his team are bringing is a discipline to do that consistently, in a world where product investment has escalated versus the previous generation.

Martin Tremblay: We want to grow our business from the pillars we have. We will suprise a lot of people with our original IP, and we hope that by creating this balance of quality games and original IP, we will redefine our company. The most important thing is to ensure that we are adding value to the franchises - so that's where we're going at the moment.

Martin Tremblay is president of Sierra Worldwide Studios and Al Simone is senior vice president of marketing. Interview by Ellie Gibson.

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