Founded in 1990 by twin brothers Philip and Andrew Oliver, Blitz Games has worked with some of the biggest kids licenses on the market, as well as recently expanding by developing mature titles, serious games and the newly announced Blitz Arcade division.
GamesIndustry.biz caught up with CEO Philip Oliver to discuss its biggest licensing deal to date - to develop three titles for Xbox 360 based around the brand of fast food retailer Burger King.
Here, Philip talks openly about how the project evolved from its original idea and how the deal with Burger King takes the concept of advertising in games to the next level. He also reveals that Blitz has put the development of next-gen zombie title Possession on hold, and discusses the intentions behind Blitz Arcade.
GamesIndustry.biz: Can you begin by talking about the recent games you've made for Burger King? Because it sounds like an interesting example of how one intended project has evolved into another thing entirely...
Philip Oliver: Well you're probably aware we did Fuzion Frenzy a few years ago, which we thought was the epitome of gameplay and fun. So we'd always wanted to do another Fuzion Frenzy with Microsoft. About two years ago we got fairly close to actually buying the rights. Microsoft has an internal directive that states if a game doesn't sell a million units then they can't book a sequel. Fusion Frenzy actually sold around 850,000.
So Microsoft suggested licensing the game to us, which we would develop and then sell to another publisher. We thought that idea was going to go ahead but then all of a sudden we got outbid by Hudson Soft, who basically came in and offered an awful lot more for the license than we could ever afford. I don't know what the figure was but we were told it wasn't even worth competing.
At that point we were all very disappointed. Microsoft was very apologetic and they began telling us about how they were going to set up the Xbox Live Arcade division. We thought it sounded brilliant and something we really wanted to do - very much in the vain of Fuzion Frenzy, lots of small games.
Arcade titles almost take you back to your roots - smaller games released at low prices...
Exactly. At the same time as discussing Xbox Live Arcade we were also talking about advertising in games, and we thought surely there's advertisers out there who would be willing to pay for Live Arcade games development. Because as a small independent developer we don't have access to a lot of money. At this point Burger King had also approached Microsoft to do some games with its characters and it mentioned Fuzion Frenzy as an example, so Microsoft introduced us both last summer.
By November and December last year things had moved on and were getting pretty serious. We were looking at three mini-games for the Live Arcade service, and they were to launch this November, so time was already pretty tight. We rounded up the team but entered January with no real agreement, so it wasn't until the middle of February that we got started properly. Which pretty much left us with six months to produce six games, but we were still keen because we really wanted to work on Xbox Live Arcade.
Anyway, Burger King then turned around and told us it wanted to appeal to the original Xbox users as well, because of the size of the market - it's obviously still bigger than the Xbox 360 market. Burger King didn't want to ignore these potential customers. And because of that format, Burger King decided it wanted to do boxed products. So there's an evolution. Then the minute they knew the games were going to be boxed and so on a disc, they got very excited with their requests. The games grew considerably. So in seven months we ended up developing three games for Xbox 360, and then independently for the original Xbox, with around 55 people in the team.
So, it's fair to say it's a project that has evolved and been labour intensive. These aren't quick cash-ins games.
It's been very intensive and very top secret. It's just changed out of all proportion and there were times we wanted to pull out of the project. But the changes were exciting - the games were getting bigger and better with each turn. At times it got a bit scary, because to produce that volume of work in that space of time is bloody tough. The guys at Blitz did an incredible job.
Does a company like Burger King understand the way the games industry works and operates?
It learns fast and we've been educating them. We're used to dealing with a lot of licences because Blitz makes a lot of titles based on characters. Burger King were new to the games market, and they were also one of the most enthusiastic. That enthusiasm had to be curbed and handled right. There were conference calls almost everyday between Burger King and the project leaders. It was always incredibly enthusiastic and full of ideas, which is great. The one thing you learn is to never say no to a client. You have to listen to their requests and let them know the implications of those requests.
A lot of execs at lectures or event like to praise the idea of advertising in games, and a lot of deals are currently being drawn up for in-game dynamic advertising. But your deal with Burger King sort of pisses all over those...
We were at a lecture discussing advertising in games where developers were saying that big brands are never going to put any decent money into videogames, they're all talk and no action. And this was the same time we were signing the Burger King deal, when we had to remain completely tight-lipped.
This is a first, this is huge. We happen to know that Burger King is spending a multi-million dollar budget on the production of the games alone, and that excludes all the marketing and TV advertising they have lined-up. The promotion is going to be huge. And it's great for the consumer too, who is going to be getting three decent games for US$ 3.99 - and if we're lucky we'll see them in this country as well.
So the games are coming to Europe?
It's not confirmed yet, it's in discussion. For all territories, Burger King marketing works independently in all regions, so it's being evaluated.
Would you say these games stand up in their own right? You must have encountered a certain amount of cynicism when you announce titles based on a fast food mascot?
Absolutely. Are the games good fun? Yes. And they are extremely good value for money. They're not going to be Halo or Gotham-beaters, let's be honest. Are we just taking the advertisers money? They get a bargain, I'll tell you.
These big companies coming into the games market with a load of money have an aspiration to touch the gamers with a good experience that will leave them feeling their brand is cool. Burger King could have so easily done this wrong - it could have gone to a poor developer, got the politics wrong or come up with bad ideas, but luckily, it's all come together absolutely perfectly. These games are much better than anybody will expect.
So the titles are comparable with the best Xbox Live Arcade titles?
I would actually say that our games are a step up from that. They're half way between Live Arcade titles and fully boxed games. In fact, if they were retail boxed products they should retail at around US$ 20.
Is this something you're looking at with other companies now - to bring non-gaming brands into the games market?
We're always trying to be on the cutting edge whenever we talk about any game initiative. About a year ago we were talking about advertising in games and there's a very big market there. Basically this gives us an absolutely massive profile in that market. Advertising is an excepted part of media. Magazines, websites, TV, films - they have product placement all over the place. And why not?
It wouldn't be possible to sell a game for US $3.99 if you didn't have that kind of deal in place...
Burger King are effectively giving you the games at cost. And they're writing off the cost of development as part of their marketing.
How are the rest of your products coming along? Have they suffered because of the Burger King deal?
Well first of all, the Burger King developers got stolen from our next-gen title Possession. Because all of a sudden you need 55 staff plus a large number of external contractors. We've got about 175 people in-house but even so, when ramping up for a project like this, it was a bit of a problem for us. So unfortunately, we put Possession on hold to nick all the staff from it. It is now turning into something else, but we still get enquiries about Possession, and still like to think the game will happen, but at the minute the Burger King deal kicked off we had to put the project on hold.
So you're not going to carry on with Possession as it is now?
Well, we want to. There are a couple of publishers we're talking to, especially in the wake of Dead Rising doing so well. One of the problems we had was with publishers saying that zombies aren't cool, which we adamantly argued against.
But gamers lover zombies, surely?
I know, you don't have to tell me, I was in the boardrooms trying to tell these people to trust me. Unfortunately, these games have big, big budgets, we're talking something like US $15 million to do something like Possession. And the publisher argument was that there's no evidence in the marketplace that gamers will like zombie games on next-gen. Well, the evidence is there now. So we have had a few enquiries and we may be putting the team back together, although that team is now working on other projects.
You've recently announced a new division to work purely on arcade titles. Can you expand on your intentions in that area, and how the decision came about?
One of the things that the Xbox Live and Burger King deal opened up was that at the time we were also looking at electronic distribution of videogames. This is an absolute winner, for the public and the developers. One of the massive problems that independent developers have is balancing work flow. Sometimes you have too little, sometimes you have too much and you've always got pressing deadlines.
Trying to sort out the peaks and troughs in relation to your man power is a nightmare. But if you can actually control the games you do a little bit more then you don't encounter so may problems. Obviously, publishers are able to do this more than developers because they have a series of games and regular franchises that they know they can roll their teams onto as needed. But for independent developers its never easy.
So one of the things we were saying was that we really need to get into Live Arcade because that will allow us to control our work flow a little bit more. If we've got a dip in the system were we don't have enough contract work from the big games or we're working through a slow period, then we can develop some of our own arcade games. Which is a very good business model on its own. When a publisher turns around and asks us if we've got 50 people available for a big project we can just pull them out of the arcade teams. So what we've done with the team that worked on the Burger King project is we've set up a new division called Blitz Arcade. We intend to make lots of arcade games for direct download.
Do you think this is the future for Blitz? To go back to your roots almost and work again on smaller games?
I personally really, really like the idea. If you look at my background this sort of model worked years ago and it should work again. We are really keen on this, but we also like working on epic games too.
But the epic games must be quite daunting - they take years and cost millions to make?
Absoultely, but luckily I don't have to code them anymore! The epic titles are very good from a prestige point of view, and a profile point of view. The point is that we decided at Blitz that we want to actually diversify in several different directions, hence the reason we do these divisions. We have twelve people looking at serious games under the label TruSim, and they've got two contracts with the Ministry Of Defence. We've got Volatile which concentrates on mature games and has just released Reservoir Dogs. And we've got Blitz itself which does family entertainment and the licensed games, and now Blitz Arcade.
What do you think to the direct download system for the PlayStation 3 in comparison to Xbox Live?
It's a very similar system but Sony is not going to go the retro route, in fact they say they want their games to be around the same price, but they want them to be higher quality.
From what we've seen so far, they've got less product and less available and it is obviously 18 months to two years behind where Xbox is currently, but everyone knows and accepts that. But it will come out as a pretty good service with some pretty good games, and we hope to be there as soon as we can.
Philip Oliver is CEO of Blitz Games. Interview by Matt Martin. Tomorrow, GamesIndustry.biz will publish the second part of our Blitz Games interview, where we talk to Philip's twin brother Andrew.