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Rod Cousens - Part One

The Codemasters CEO on 2009 success, new IP and never compromising quality

Q: You've had a couple of good successes this year - overall, how pleased are you with 2009's performance?

Rod Cousens: Well, for us the calendar year for 2009 was really all in the second half, so I suppose if you ask me to analyse it as a year there was some initial disappointment that came about in the first stage - which was obviously the movement of Operation Flashpoint.

The only reason I raise that is that we moved the product for all the right reasons - because we were not prepared to compromise on quality. It's a flagship brand for this company - out of our CodeM database it was one of the most sought-after products - and the impact in the second half of the year, and the response from retail, consumers and general take-up in the market has justified the decision.

So if you then look at us and look at Ashes, DiRT 2, Flashpoint and then Formula 1, it's a bit of a purple patch right now and we'll take it while we can.

Q: Delaying the release of a game to get the quality right has always been in the interest of consumers, but not always a decision that some companies have taken, with the influence of financial results and so on. That does seem to be happening more now, though - why that change, do you think?

Rod Cousens: I think everyone's slightly better educated in terms of what happens in the market, where the conflicts of satisfying all the constituent parts - investors, year-on-year or quarter-on-quarter growth, and so on - has often got in the way of those decisions.

But ironically where there's been an economic meltdown, there's been a sense of realism that's come through the financial markets, and when you take that into perspective for a company like ours - which isn't one of the largest companies on a global scale, but we can certainly compete on quality. So if we were to give that up, then what are we?

My view was that the reputation of Codemasters over many years - far more than I've been here - has always been focused on quality. When you've got an internal brand - a tent pole brand for us - there's no area for compromise. We've gone for quality, and we also believe this is just the start - for us there will be further Flashpoints, and it would do the series damage if we were to go with a premature product just to make certain financial criteria.

Now, we're certainly not fiscally irresponsible, so there is a balance here, but I believe the shareholders of the company recognise that as much as anybody else, and however bitter the pill was at the time, the actual results... and let's not lose sight that we've done this in what's generally seen as a fiercely contested time frame when there's been a blood bath at retail on pricing, and a lot of strong product with great heritage - FIFA, first party releases, and so on.

The product has stood tall against the best of them, and to me that demonstrates what we're capable of, but also what is going to come out of this franchise... which is only going to get stronger. If you look at some of the more high profile franchises over the years, they're on their third, fourth (or sometimes more) renditions, and they build momentum with the release of each one. Obviously Call of Duty is the obvious one this year, but with Grand Theft Auto it was really number three onwards.

So I'd say what we've done is set Operation Flashpoint up in a way that the best is yeat to come.

Q: Has Codemasters been a leader on not compromising on quality, do you think?

Rod Cousens: I'd like to think so. The heritage of this company... it's hobbyist, it's a pure gaming company, and that's its DNA. We should stand tall on that - I don't know anyone else out there that would do that, and certainly there's no one else in the UK.

Q: You mentioned a couple of titles - DiRT 2 was also well-received, and that franchise seems to have found its own place in the market?

Rod Cousens: Yes - again, if you step back, none of this happens overnight. If you go back to the first one, and the evolution really of Colin McRae Rally into DiRT, we took a position then on approaching that market with DiRT and GriD - and we've added to that with Formula 1 - but what we've managed to do is move off of a position of novelty appeal with the first game and strengthened it with the second.

That goes back to the point I was making with Flashpoint - we set out on a path to launch these every other year on the basis we weren't prepared to compromise quality. You play to your strengths, and one of our strengths is racing - and we're establishing a foothold in that particular segment which I believe is going to be very difficult to beat.

Yes, people will outspend us in terms of development and marketing, yes, some of our competition comes from the platform holders (where clearly there are benefits to being a platform holder versus a third party), but we stand up against them. If you measure us against them, we stack up with the best - and I think that's been recognised throughout the industry. A statement would be: "Yes, we do good racing."

Q: Both DiRT and GRiD have benefited from being focused on what they want to achieve - and with some of the other titles around, recently or in the next six months... Forza, Need for Speed, Gran Turismo... it must be satisfying to see it evolve?

Rod Cousens: Yes, because ideally what you get down to... I don't say this flippantly, but one of the easiest approaches to the market if you're sat in that position is to throw money at it. We haven't got that luxury.

But what we do is get back to the core DNA. We've listened to consumers, to our fanbase, and hopefully we respond to them and give them what they want. Yes, we love racing within the studios and there's a great feel for it in the company, but we do a lot of research - and there's a lot of connection with the consumers, both the established Codie fans and those who we're trying to add to that list.

We listen, and we respond - so as a company we try to be extremely agile, responsive to our consumers, and give them what they want. That's the experience.

Q: The Formula 1 title recently placed in the top ten - just behind Assassin's Creed II - for Eurogamer readers' most wanted November releases. But the license has had a troubled time in the past few years, and really fizzled out - is some of the renewed interest down to a good season in real life, and will that help sales?

Rod Cousens: Obviously, that helps. I think there's a number of factors - if you look at what's gone on in Formula 1 there's been some interesting activity. Just first of all, let's take the shift in broadcaster to the BBC, and the position of Formula 1 within that where they've tried to broaden the audience to a younger range - even down to the presenter of the show itself, the whole marketing of it, and so on. You have to give credit where credit is due, and the BBC has done a tremendous job.

The second is the market expansion - this past weekend was the Abu Dhabi grand prix, they're going into areas now where if you look at the future potential of it (and don't forget this is the second largest sport behind football/soccer) and some of the more emerging markets - whether it's India, China, the Middle East and so on - there's a lot of groundwork going on behind the scenes to broaden the sport itself. That can benefit us.

Then if you go back to Codemasters and the game itself, what we're not prepared to do and what we will not do as a company is more of the same. When you have a series of games... and the one thing that slightly troubles me in the market today is if we as an industry do not continue to innovate in games, we will turn off our consumer.

While there may be a view that you can't publish new IP with any great success, I don't buy off on that. If all you're going to do is more of the same, then we'll face all the hurdles and obstacles that the music and movie businesses have faced before. If we don't learn from that, then shame on us.

Rod Cousens: So - what we want to do with Formula 1, a) it's not on a single format, b) we're not prepared to compromise, because we've gone out this year on just the Wii and PlayStation Portable because we didn't feel we could do justice to the capabilities of next-gen formats in that time frame.

The quality of the Wii game is going to be great, and equally, the quality of the subsequent releases on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC next year will also be great. So it's multi-format, and it's an experience - there will be a lot more in the game itself, the experience of racing, the whole pit scene... and the sexiness that goes with Formula 1 - it's rock 'n' roll in may ways. It is literally 'live the life'.

You look at the drivers, Hamilton, Button - they're great for the UK - but you look at up-and-coming drivers like Vettel and Alonso... these guys are rock stars in their own countries, so the game itself is going to be everything you'd expect from us in terms of a racing experience, but in terms of Formula 1 the event, it's also going to put that out there too

And we'll continue to expand that through each rendition, which is why we don't believe we're going to have jaded consumers which then turn off of the category.

Q: It does seem particularly hard to launch new IP at the moment though - is that because of the market conditions, or the sort of economy in which consumers tend to edge towards familiarity?

Rod Cousens: I don't buy off on that argument. Yes, the economy is a constraint and videogames are not recession-proof, contrary to popular belief - but it's all about stimulating the consumer. I've been in this business for a long time, but one of the most exciting things about our industry - and I pray to God that we never move off this - but from day one since we walked in the door we've always tried to be experimental, to be innovative, to take things into new areas and to make it interesting.

That, as a software-creator - a developer, publisher, or whatever - that has to be part of our charter. If we don't do that, the consumer has a lot of choice now - we're in time-based entertainment and there's pressure on that time - if we stagnate, or it falls, we as an industry will simply drive them elsewhere.

The issue is, you get back to a bigger debate which is that we're all fighting for a piece of shelf space here, and it's very easy - and I understand it from a retailer's point of view - to go down a safer route because they'll take another FIFA, another Tiger Woods, another Call of Duty.

But after a while that wears a bit thin, and I believe there's an element of that shelf space that has to be put over to new IP - there has to be an element within the software publisher's remit to create awareness - but there's also an element that within the ownership of the content creator is the ability to go direct to consumer via online.

That's both to promote the catalogue of products - otherwise where do you get that? If sales approaches top twenty... which is what the music industry has done in the past, the movie industry, the book industry and is able to do again through people like Amazon - how do you exploit your catalogue?

Shelf space is the equivalent to air play for music, so you work it by establishing direct-to-consumer links, and then through those links start to create new IP and give them what they want.

If you ask me on a future vision I think what you then do is involve the consumer with user-generated content, you start to create a whole new universe... and then it really does get exciting.

Rod Cousens is CEO of Codemasters. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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