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It's a Smack Down

CEO Laurent Benadiba on the flooded DS market, and what the PSP needs to give it a kick-start

Smack Down Productions is a Lyon-based developer set up in 2005 that's worked on a number of titles for a variety of platforms, and its CEO is the experienced, well-travelled Laurent Benadiba. met up with Lauren at Game Connection at the end of last year to chat about the economy, the number of titles flooding the DS market, and what the PlayStation Portable needs to lift its presence in Europe. How did the company come about?
Laurent Benadiba

I set up Smack Down in 2005, and for the last year and a half we worked as contractors for Team Bondi - we made a lot of effects, animations systems, cloth effects and next generation stuff.

After a while we decided to make our own games, so we went for the PlayStation Portable, and starting making prototypes. We also had our own concept, called ZTA, which was a very funny concept - I saw the Shaun of the Dead movie, and also worked on The Getaway, so I was inspired to make a GTA-like game on the PSP.

So we made this zombie universe called ZTA, with zombies, open-ended gameplay, and so on. It was a great project for us, but very difficult to sign anything, because we were a small company, and we didn't have a track record.

At that point we decided to go onto the DS, which was a broader market, and we also wanted to talk to every kind of gamer - from six year-olds to sixty year-olds - and we thought that was the best platform.

So we started pitching for the DS and we signed an Asterix game, based on the movie. It was released in early 2007 for Atari, and was pretty successful, and that started us off on other projects, such as Survivor on the Wii and DS. We also released Red Bull One and Build-a-Bear, based on the US license. What do you think the current challenges for the industry are?
Laurent Benadiba

Honestly, I'm not a very good economist, but I have some ideas about the next twelve months. The first thing I think is that we have to face our own challenges as an industry, and currently - even before the crisis - the industry was really reshaping. You saw the Wii and DS, and the amazing success that those platforms have had with a broader audience.

That's one of the first changes, with those kinds of players coming into the game - we'll release games for these people, and we're trying to learn how to seduce them.

At the moment there are a lot of games, and not all of them have high production values, so we're working to make games that are accessible to the growing audience, but that have strong production values - because we want to ensure that the quality always gets us onto the top range of developers.

We don't want to be part of the small crisis I foresee in the next couple of months where there are too many DS and Wii games in the market, and not enough people to buy them. It's not a problem, for me, that's related to the wider economic situation, it's simply related to the market, and the way that some games have been developed too quickly - ropey games. One of the terms I've heard used is "shovelware"...
Laurent Benadiba

Okay, there's a lot of shovelware, exactly. I think this is the biggest crisis we're going to have to face.

Then we also have the economy problems - they are mainly touching the companies that are floated, so the biggest companies like EA, and this is related to the stock market, or private investors that are also related to the wider economy.

But overall the economy of videogames is very healthy - people buy games, and I don't think they've ever bought as many games as they do today. So the fundamentals are great, but now we have problems, because there are too many DS games, and so many platforms.

There's the iPhone, there are downloadable games on XBLA, PSN and WiiWare, we have retail, we have Android... all of them are coming together, and it's very hard for developers to make multi-platform, because they're very different from each other - so you'll have people that specialise in different segments.

And the last problem I see is the next-gen budgets - people have budgets that probably average USD 15 million in Europe, that's probably on the lower end. I think it's very hard for games to recoup that amount, so there will be less of them. There are a lot of developers pitching PlayStation 3 games at the moment - we're one of them - but we try to make sure that our budgets make sense with the economics.

This is something that a lot of people have maybe forgotten in the past twelve months, the fundamentals. You pay for a game, you pay for marketing - you have to make this money back. It seems that some publishers haven't looked at the money, haven't done their homework enough to make sure that they're viable, so some of them lose money. Regarding the broader audiences that have come into gaming - when money is tight, will they stick with games, do you think?
Laurent Benadiba

I would say that Christmas will have answered a lot of questions - that, the next-gen question, are people still going to buy multiple PS3 and Xbox 360 games to allow publishers to recoup budgets? Are people going to buy DS games? I think there are about 300-400 on the shelf, just in France.

People may have less money, although I think it's more about the psychology of it - but if you excite them enough, I think they'll buy just as well as they used to. If we have a problem as an industry, I don't think it will come from the worldwide economic problems, it will come from our own problems of managing business models. We haven't done the proper homework on that. Some business models fall into place by themselves - but there is no proper model for this industry at the moment, and it's what we need to work on as an industry. There's a concern from developers and publishers that it's too difficult to compete with first party - do you find that?
Laurent Benadiba

I'm a developer, and I can't blame Nintendo for being great. What they do is make great games, and they mostly sell these games for that reason. Usually they sold the Mario and Zelda games because they were great, but also because they had the IP that people knew, and they'd buy them on the back of that.

But in the last two years they've proven they can create new IP, like Brain Training, Nintendogs and Animal Crossing, and they've sold to people because of the quality, and moderate marketing. If Nintendo is successful at the moment, it's because they are good, and I cannot blame them for that. What we should do is try to be just as good. You mention marketing - Nintendo has a very clear understanding of who it is trying to reach, and acts accordingly. How much difference does it make in selling its products.
Laurent Benadiba

Yes, I call it Ikea marketing - because to me the Nintendo marketing resembles the Ikea marketing, even the couches they use in the TV ads... So they're trying to appeal to everyone, and they're genius at doing that. I think people have tried in the past - the EyeToy was a successful attempt, but Sony dipped into that pool, and maybe felt the water was too cold, and maybe went on to something else... but they actually opened a door.

Nintendo had some difficulties with the GameCube and N64, and - I'm just trying to guess here - probably wondered how they could expand the market, then went about trying to make a product with a very clear mindset, that's targeting the wider audience. Even the design of the Wii console - it looks like an Apple product to me, and Apple already has a high brand recognition for everyone.

So that, plus the Ikea-style marketing, the grandmother playing games, sending the message that games are for everyone - they're genius at creating the market, and now everybody is following that trend.

But I think they've been instrumental in the casual market - we can't blame them for selling too many units. You've developed a title for the PlayStation Portable -
Laurent Benadiba

Which was never released, but yes. What does it need to stimulate the platform in Europe, do you think?
Laurent Benadiba

I worked for two years on the PSP, as one of the only developers then, and I really believed in the platform at the time. I still believe there's potential, but it's like self-confidence - if you trust yourself, maybe others will trust you. If you don't trust yourself, nobody will trust you.

I think that's what's happened with the PSP - Sony released the product, but they never put enough of a push behind it. Games, ads, better shelf placement - trying to make an effort. I think it was also released at a time when they were still very focused on the PlayStation 3, trying to get it out of the door, that they slightly forgot about it.

But look at it - it's so much more powerful that the DS, and it's a beautiful object, it's like an iPhone. Amazing, and the technology behind it is great. I think they expected the platform to just work on its own - but if they want to get it back on track... well, it's a tough one. First they need games - the Wii has Zelda, or Wii Fit, or Wii Sports, it's got triple A games that bring the platform forward. I think the PSP is lacking this - it's got Grand Theft Auto titles, Daxter, but they need more of those platform-specific ground-breaking games. The PSP is a platform for core gamers, so it needs titles that appeal to core gamers - whereas the DS has multiple audiences, from Brain Training to Final Fantasy.
Laurent Benadiba

Exactly. I can't remember the last time I saw a TV ad for the PSP, I just can't remember.

Also, the second problem that I have - and this is pretty bad, what I'm going to say - but I think the piracy level is much higher. There's a lot of piracy on the PSP I think. I don't have numbers, but you see people playing on the train, they have empty carts, and this is a big problem.

If it's pretty easy to crack it down, then people won't buy the games, and if people don't buy the games, publishers won't make them - so it doesn't encourage publishers to make games.

The other day we were with a publisher, and trying to figure out a business model for a PSP game. It was a big IP, a big license, a top five racing game, and we couldn't work it out, how we could break even. Because there are so few sales on the PSP in Europe now that you have to make a huge title on a small budget just to break even.

It's discouraging publishers from making PSP games - maybe they could do what Nintendo did, and make lots of first party games? Push the level up...

Laurent Benadiba is CEO of Smack Down Productions. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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