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Is Bandai Namco on the verge of cracking the West?

"When you have the right game, like Elden Ring, people would buy it on Christmas Eve."

It's one of Japan's biggest games companies, and responsible for globally recognised brands.

And yet Bandai Namco's mission to become a major player in the Western world has been a mixed affair. From the moment it acquired Atari's distribution business and began to establish itself a European presence, the company began signing games and doing some co-publishing deals on Western-developed titles. It's actually 11 years this week since the company published Ninja Theory's excellent Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

In recent years things have accelerated. The firm set out a vision that stated 50% of its catalogue will come from the West, and it's also found its first big Western breakthrough hit in Little Nightmares. Then in August, the firm was picked up numerous accolades - including Best Line-Up - at the Gamescom Awards.

Hervé Hoerdt, Bandai Namco

"That was really gratifying because of our strategy," says Hervé Hoerdt, SVP of Digital, Marketing & Content at Bandai Namco Europe.

"That's a strategy that we started three or four years ago, with some success, especially with Little Nightmares, but also some difficulties with other titles. It takes a lot of time and energy to deliver this.

"You've seen the Reflector acquisition, and some of our signings, and there's more that I could tell you, but our PR director is on the call [laughs]."

Bandai Namco's acquisition of Unknown 9 developer Reflector was one of its more significant moves, but there have been others. The firm took a minority stake in developer Limbic earlier this year, and at Gamescom revealed the first game from that partnership called Park Beyond.

Park Beyond is a theme park game, with over-the-top, gravity-defying rides as its key selling point (they use the word 'impossification'). The construction management genre has proven popular in recent years, through games such Jurassic World: Evolution and Planet Coaster from Frontier, and Two Point Hospital by Sega. So there's a market, but also a fair bit of competition.

"We need to build a portfolio. We needed to look at the gaming landscape, the individual markets and which ones are competitive and so on," Hoerdt explains. "We did a lot of work on this strategy, and the construction management game was one of the segments we wanted to tackle. Because although it is competitive, there is a low barrier to entry. And it fits a lot with what we like.

"When you have the right game, like Elden Ring, people would buy it on Christmas Eve."

"Then we met with these fantastic guys at Limbic. What a team, what leaders... it's a German studio, and they've worked on Tropico. They're super friendly to work with, and it was an instant fit. This project was in the air, and we thought we would go for this one. The idea is new. The 'impossify' position is a real USP. We wanted to make something different.

"I worked at EA 25 years ago when we did Theme Park, and then Theme Hospital. We didn't want to just do Theme Park again, even though it was a huge success for many years. We wanted to bring something new. And this Impossify, and the idea and story behind it... the technology is also great."

Park Beyond is part of Bandai Namco's Western strategy

The other game in this award-winning line-up is the third game in The Dark Pictures Anthology, House of Ashes. This series of games from UK developer Supermassive was a unique proposition from the start. Rather than doing a direct follow-up to its BAFTA-winning PlayStation horror game Until Dawn, the studio decided to do a series of smaller games instead.

Hoerdt said at the time this new concept posed a marketing challenge, but now the series has continued, has the concept become an easier sell?

"The team at Supermassive, and [creative director] Pete Samuels especially... the vision he has for the anthology is really fantastic. You have an accompanying story for each and every volume, and not everyone will be interested in the topic for each one, so there's a variation in the public perception. But overall, we are building this anthology, and we have the vision that one will support the other. If someone enters with volume 2 or volume 3, they will go back to the previous games.

"It has been a challenge. They're shorter games. So people do question that. With the first game, people said it was too short... even though it was €30. People were comparing it to Until Dawn, which was a full priced game. It took us some time and it was tough to show people the benefit. But we are hopeful about House of Ashes, which is premiering very soon."

"It is probably the slowest console transition I've ever seen"

One of the slight challenges for The Dark Pictures series is the arrival of the PS5 and Xbox Series X | S, with the series now straddling two generations of consoles. It requires working out where that audience currently is, and whether people with older machines still have an appetite to buy new games.

Bandai Namco has always been relatively cautious with new consoles. Outside of the occasional Tekken, the firm has rarely rushed from one generation to the other. Hoerdt says that remains true, although the impact of COVID on this transition poses some unique challenges.

"It is probably the slowest transition I've ever seen," he says. "It is what it is. There's the market appetite, but there's the electronics shortage, which goes beyond gaming.

"It's a challenge, to be honest. With our studio Reflector that we acquired in Montreal... you either go fully on the new generation, but then can you provide a good experience on the old generation? Working with such a technological gap, and all the tools that go with it... it comes with a cost, with risk and with complexities.

"We are a COVID resistant business. We've been hit, of course, with most people still at home. But we can't complain. We are dealing with it. All of the content is being delayed because of COVID. It will be a while before the market gets going. There may be some games that won't find their audience at that time, because then the big guys will come with their big games. That's my main concern."

The third Dark Pictures game launches this month

Bandai Namco has a big AAA game of its own. Although not part of the Western portfolio, the launch of Elden Ring -- a game that combines the talents of Dark Souls creators From Software with Game of Thrones author George RR Martin -- is a huge focus for the European division.

"With Dark Souls, it went from a very competitive niche audience to something that went really broad. I wouldn't say mainstream, but it wasn't far from that," explains Hoerdt.

"And the idea for Elden Ring is to bring an even bigger audience. It is super big for us. It is super big for From Software. We are working very closely with Japan. We have three people dedicated to the franchise over here across Europe."

The three people in Europe are entirely dedicated to the game's marketing, which Hoerdt says is a first for the company.

"From Software and Bandai Namco has this desire to broaden the fanbase, so we have big ambitions. But I feel what we are making is going to please a lot of people, and that's the most important thing. That is what we want. We're not just business people. We want to bring something fun and unique that will please millions of people."

The game launches in January next year, which is not a traditionally big sales window for games. Yet increasingly we're starting to see the likes of Capcom and Nintendo release titles during that month.

"We've gone in January in the past, and we've seen it work for us," Hoerdt says. "I feel more confident in January than publishing at Christmas, or at the end of the fiscal year in March, when everyone is trying to push product. I wouldn't go early January, post-christmas and post-New Year. But end of January is fine. And when you have the right game, like Elden Ring, people would buy it on Christmas Eve."

Elden Ring has three dedicated people in Europe working on promoting it

Hoerdt is careful not to get too excited. There's no hyperbole in his talk around what to expect from Bandai Namco in the West. But he says that the success of Little Nightmares has made the company more attractive to Western studios, and it's given the Japanese HQ confidence in what can be achieved in Europe and the US.

Little Nightmares developer Tarsier has since been acquired by Embracer group, although it continues to work with Bandai Namco. A year ago, Hoerdt was concerned about the level of acquisitions going on in the market and the impact that might have on Bandai Namco's ability to grow in the West. But he is less concerned now, especially with the company making its own moves to bring in talent.

"We are still working on this [acquisition] strategy, and the result of it has been more than the Japanese company has done in the last ten years.

"To go from Tekken to Dark Souls to Elden Ring to Peppa Pig... that's fantastic"

"But if your question is: are you ready to compete with bigger guys? Do you want to participate in the present bubble? No. Japanese companies are a bit slower. We want to do something solid. I'm not an economist, but COVID has changed a lot of things. We are a COVID-resistant business, and outside investors are pouring money into gaming, because they can see the growth. They expect growth.

"This doesn't mean that we as professionals of this industry need to follow this. As far as we are concerned, we are making assessments on a regular basis, but we're not going to go crazy."

The formation of new independent teams has reassured Hoerdt that there's no need to rush in.

"I have seen more and more articles from you and others about that. Almost every week or so. That is interesting from a creative point-of-view. If what comes out of all this is more creativity, different games and so on, then that is fantastic."

Bandai Namco has been investing in its line-up across the board, and its publishing organisation has now moved into big new offices based in Lyon, which Hoerdt says shows the level of ambition at the company.

And yet, we shouldn't expect the business to radically transform itself. This is an organisation that likes releasing lots of different games -- niche horror titles, mass market RPGs, kids games, fighting games and construction management sims -- and it has no intention of stopping.

"This varied portfolio is our strength," Hoerdt concludes. "When you turn to the fewer bigger model, you might be working on three franchises, like certain companies I won't mention. And that's not what we want to do.

"We have a different strategy. We are building the company. Like the Reflector acquisition. And then you have the luxury to distribute certain games. To go from Tekken to Dark Souls to Elden Ring to Peppa Pig... that's fantastic. Those are different audiences with different challenges, and this is very interesting. Sometimes there are a lot of games that we're working on in different ways. This is a strength and great for the team."

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Christopher Dring avatar

Christopher Dring

Head of Games B2B

Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who