Sega remains one of the most recognisable names in the video game business. That’s still largely thanks to its days as a platform holder, though since then the company has diversified into every area of publishing, utilising its immense back catalogue to great effect and working with top-end developers on new titles.
This year alone, the company will have published such titles as Sonic Mania, Total War: Warhammer II, Yakuza 0, Football Manager 2017 and Vanquish.
With a retro-remake, a licensed RTS heavyweight, a console adventure, a sporting sim, and a classic console to PC conversion, Sega is covering a lot of bases in that eclectic bunch.
With Sonic Mania out in the next couple of weeks, it seems a logical place to start when we sit down with Sega Europe's executive vice president of publishing John Clark (pictured top) at E3. The title is steeped in the kind of retro nostalgia that has proven so popular recently – most notably in SNES Mini pre-orders and Crash Bandicoot sales. The new Sonic, though, has something of an unusual release strategy.
“It’s digital only, apart from a collector’s edition,” says Clark: “[It's a] splendid looking collector’s edition, which has a big Sonic standing on top of a Mega Drive with a digital code for the game.”
The PS4 and Switch versions of the collector's edition are currently sold out, too, so the strategy looks to be working for Sega. Hopefully, we’ll see more retro special editions with digital codes in future. It gives consumers something to hold and cherish, while a digital copy gives easy access to these more 'casual' titles that gamers are likely to drop in and out of.
Sonic Mania sits somewhere between a remaster and a sequel. It retains the look of a classic Sonic – though fully updated with high-resolution graphics – but it combines both reworked versions of classic levels and entirely new designs. It also has an unusual production background, as Clark explains.
“Sonic Mania is coming from Christian Whitehead, a community developer, so that’s the first time we’ve worked down that avenue. [His work] really, really impressed us, and we wanted to make sure that we brought it to market.” What's more, hiring enthusiast development talent truly takes engaging with the community to the next level.
While Sonic will always be the first brand you think of if you say 'retro' and 'Sega', the company has seen great success in recent months with PC releases of its critically acclaimed console titles. Clark explains Sega’s success:
“We recognise what it takes to make a quality PC release; we recognise the value within our catalogue as well, so putting them altogether just makes sense. We’re really pleased with the release of Bayonetta and Vanquish. It’s not just making the games available on Steam, though. We’re making sure they’re high quality, technical conversions as well. We’re making sure it delivers well for that core community.”
The success of those titles has meant that gamers have been quick to make lists of other titles they’d love to see on their PCs. The most common title at the top of those lists? Shenmue.
“It’s something we would love to make happen, something we are trying to make happen," Clark says. "I think we want it to happen as much as anybody out there. Yes, it’s a serious task and it’s not a task that we’re not working on, if that makes sense. It’s something we’re actively pursuing.”
We ask whether Sega has its own list of possible console-to-PC conversions? “Yes, which is almost identical, I would say, to the community’s list," Clark replies. "You know, when we launched Bayonetta, there was a list created straight away on Steam that was saying, ‘What games do you want to see Sega release next?’ Those titles have been titles on our list for a long time.”
Steam’s an ecosystem where you can’t pitch up and buy a banner ad, so it’s really to do with that connection with the community.
John Clark, Sega
Looking forward, we move to Sega’s impressive publishing stable of strategy games, with the two Warhammer titles sitting at its crown: Relic’s Dawn of War 3 and Creative Assembly’s upcoming Total War: Warhammer II (pictured below). We’re curious about the publishing strategy behind the latter, opting for a discrete release, rather than a game-as-a-service.
“[Our publishing roadmap] is driven by the studios as much as it’s driven by Sega. We ensure we remain engaged with the community and that they continue to get really strong gaming experiences. It’s something that’s very much part of the games-as-a-service model and that’s really at the forefront of our thinking.
“Creative Assembly is a studio that has been working on the Total War franchise for such a long time now. I think we’re coming into the thirtieth year of Creative Assembly," Clark continues. "It’s an incredible franchise that’s been built, an incredible studio and an incredible fanbase, so we have the desire and the vision to keep adding to the games.”
In that respect, both Warhammer and Total War are huge franchises, so we ask how much data the company had on the potential crossover between these now bedfellow brands. Clark is positive about the mix, but not at the expense of Total War’s roots.
“With games-as-a-service, we’re able to look at data and at our consumers in the community a lot loser. Bringing fantasy into the Total War environment was, I think, something that was important to the studio, and important to us to bring to the fanbase. But we still understand that the historical aspect of the games is a real core part of what we need to deliver to the community. That’s something we need to bear in mind as well.”
With Sega being among the bigger players utilising Steam for its digital sales, the firm is also at the forefront to witness the evolution of the service, as well as the usual bugbear of discoverability due to the sheer weight of titles.
“Discoverability, obviously, is a challenge. I think we’ve seen that the average volume of a Steam game is reducing every year. The last figure I saw circulating was that the average sales figures of a Steam game was somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 copies, which isn’t really people’s idea of being a success of Steam.
“A lot of that comes down to discoverability. Discoverability for us, in the first instance, comes down to the quality of the game, and the connection you have with the community, ultimately, putting the consumer first. [Steam’s] an ecosystem where you can’t pitch up and buy a banner ad – there are no rate cards – so it’s really to do with that connection with the community.”
However players feel they want to pick up a game, we want to be there to support it.?
John Clark, Sega
We ask whether Sega engages with influencers, some of whom have increasingly big sway on Steam via their lists of recommended games, and Clark agrees this is a key aspect: “We see the value of the community reviews, and regional community reviews. For instance, the Chinese community wanting content that’s specific to them. It’s really important to understand that. We look at that detail and we work with all the studios on Steam to make sure we’re delivering as much satisfaction as we can.”
Physical is still a key part of the strategy, too, both on PC and console. Sega America, for instance, was the driving force behind the recent console release of Yakuza 0 on PS4.
“We still release packaged goods," he says. "There’s a digital shift that’s been going on for many years, but we really do support the physical market as well where it’s relevant for the region, such as Germany, for instance. It's still very strong for physical releases.
"We support the channels to market and the consumers. However they feel they want to pick up a game and play the game, we want to be there to support it. So all our games get physical releases generally. We do some digital exclusive games on PC and console, but we support the packaged audience where it’s relevant for us to do so.”
It’s the mix-and-match bag of the modern publisher, and despite Sega’s inextricable link to the now very fashionable days of retro gaming, the company is taking a thoroughly contemporary approach to turning games into profits, whether it's digital or physical, or on PC or console. The trick is to give the community what they want, where they want it – and while that might sound easier on paper than it is putting it into practice, Sega looks to be succeeding.