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Empire Strikes Back

Empire Strikes Back
Despite the relative size of the company, it was a pretty momentous occasion getting an feature with Empire’s CEO Ian Higgins last week. Notoriously (and for a journalist, annoyingly) publicity-shy, Higgins has stepped up the media black-out over the past couple of years. And understandably, given the tightrope the troubled company walked as it looked for a solution to its financial woes.

Its White Knight came late last year, as NASDAQ-listed Silverstar Holdings stepped in to acquire the company. But there was still no word from Higgins. Last week, however, he finally broke his silence. The announcement of the publisher signing up the Jackass licence was, of course, a pretty big deal. But for the Finchley publisher it represented much more; it signified the arrival of Empire 2.0.

“We’re really pleased with the deal; it shows that we’re very much back in business,” he points out.
“It’s probably fair to say that this is our biggest title for some time in Europe. In the US we’ve had some bigger hits with titles like Big Mother Truckers and FlatOut. In Europe we’ve had some decent top ten titles, whereas with Jackass we really believe we have a number one title.”

The announcement of Jackass is also expected to spearhead Empire’s move back to the main end of the market. While it has retained a flurry of full-price titles such as FlatOut and International Cricket Captain, its Xplosiv budget range has been a bigger part of its business, as Higgins admits.

“We have been more or less a budget publisher,” he says. “It’s true that the majority of our titles have been in the £15-£20 range; it was probably 70 per cent budget and 30 per cent full price this time last year. That was partly down to capital and partly down to the market transition to the next generation. The high development costs on the next generation console formats were too risky for a company of our size.

“And it’s only been a month since all the new console formats arrived on the market. As the new machines achieve bigger installed bases, we will move towards them. We do actually have FlatOut coming on 360 next month, which is a very exciting move for us. But we will ultimately be on all formats, including the handhelds, of course.”

Empire’s senior management team are, of course, now looking to further bolster the North London company’s portfolio with further product signings. But the ambition of the team goes far beyond new IP.

“The acquisition by Silverstar has given us a fresh start and now allows us to develop the company and look ahead to acquiring stronger content; our hands have been tied a little in that respect because of our position. But we’re now potentially looking at company acquisitions, as well as product acquisitions. Part of the reason for the guys at Silverstar wanting to acquire us was to grow us, both organically and through acquisitions.

“We may look at publishers or developers; it will be based around content,” Higgins continues. “It’s key to our business model going forward. We are still a relatively small company, so it will be relative to our size. We’re only really starting to look at this now; after all, the deal with Silverstar was only closed in December. But watch this space.”

So, a new chapter for the veteran erstwhile Britsoft firm. And further changes are no doubt on the cards. Higgins claims that he plans to stay at the company he founded some 20 years ago, although he points “it’s impossible to say for the future”.

What is likely is a name change for the business. “We have had brief discussions about this,” he admits. “Silverstar has the PC publisher Strategy First in the US and Empire here. So at some point I’m sure that this will be addressed; it makes sense to have one company name for all of our brands.

“But, meanwhile, there are lots to do over the next few months; that comes under ‘Future Plans’.”

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