How Warner Bros came from nowhere to take on EA and Activision

Christopher Dring
How Warner Bros came from nowhere to take on EA and Activision

There was a time – just a few years ago – when the big movie studios were a legitimate threat to the likes of Ubisoft, EA and Activision.

Disney, Warner Bros, Paramount, Fox and Marvel, with their decades of entertainment expertise and treasure trove of million dollar franchises, were preparing an all-out assault on the global games market.

But it didn’t work.

Disney struggled for attention, Paramount’s last game was the critically mauled Star Trek, while Fox and Marvel never left the starting gate.

So you have to credit Warner Bros. It has not only cracked the video game sector, but is now on the brink of taking on the super publishers.

“Our journey since the UK launch in 2008 has been tremendously exciting,” says Spencer Crossley, sales and marketing director UK at Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment.

“Within the Top 20 UK publishers Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment is the second fastest growing publisher since its inception. Over the past six years we have moved up twelve positions in the volume charts to number six by the end of 2013, and eleven positions in the value charts to number seven.

“From 2008, we’ve been focused on building a viable and profitable business, so strong market share naturally follows suit.”

LEGO HOUSE

2013 may be best known for Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V and Sony’s success with PS4, but it was an equally impressive 12 months for Warner. The firm had four games in the Top 25 of 2013 – including new IP (of sorts) Injustice: Gods Among Us – and it’s no surprise that it’s up for ten MCV Awards.

So what more can the company do now to take that next step and crack into the Top Five publisher rankings?

Crossley says it’s a combination of factors, including using digital to grow its physical business, listening to customers, taking advantage of the latest trends, making the most of its back catalogue (particularly its evergreen LEGO series) and developing new mobile companion apps.

And it’s already having a positive effect as the company is currently the UK’s second most successful publisher of 2014.

“2014 is already looking to be bigger and better, with WBIE already having the highest number of titles in the All-Format Top 40 chart and tracking an impressive 136.6 per cent year-on-year for volume and 219.1 per cent for value, year-to-date.”

A lot of this early 2014 success is down to Warner’s most consistent performer: the LEGO franchise.

Traveller’s Tales’ LEGO series is almost ten years old and continues to defy expectations. LEGO Marvel Super Heroes last year was the seventh best-selling game of 2013 (shifting 509,600 units), despite only launching on November 15th.

“Since the start of 2013, WBIE has sold 1.6m LEGO games. LEGO is currently the second biggest game franchise in 2014 year-to-date, in terms of units sold, with 420,200 units. Another strong week could see the LEGO game franchise take the number one franchise spot.

“The evergreen appeal of LEGO games combined with franchises such as Batman, DC, Marvel, The Hobbit, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings continues to appeal to an incredibly wide demographic, regardless of age, gender or casual/core. The formula of colourful characters and graphics, humour, and drop in/drop out gameplay is improved for every new release, resulting in an almost cult-like following for the franchise.

“They also completely buck the sales trend with a huge shelf life, right into deep catalogue. LEGO games are no longer seen as kids products and we ensure they’re available on all platforms, both physically and digitally.”

And Crossley isn’t content with LEGO’s current performance, and believes there’s room to become even bigger.

“LEGO is the second biggest toy company and the ninth biggest video games franchise in the world, so there is good room for more growth in our sector,” he says.

“On the console and handheld, we have LEGO The Hobbit due in April, which is already looking fantastic.

“Our roll-out of LEGO titles onto iOS devices gathered momentum through 2013 with LEGO Legends of CHIMA: Speedorz, LEGO Batman 2: DC Superheroes, LEGO The Lord of the Rings and LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga, and we have many more set to arrive in 2014.

“Continuing in the digital space, we’re working on LEGO CHIMA Online.

“We have many exciting projects planned within our LEGO strategy and will be embracing digital innovation, as well as new brands, in the future.”

"LEGO is the second biggest toy company and the ninth biggest games franchise in the world, so there is room for growth."

Spencer Crossley, WBIE

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

It’s not all LEGO, of course. The jewel in Warner’s crown over the last generation has been its Batman Arkham series. And last week the franchise’s creators Rocksteady announced it would return this year with a new version for next-gen consoles, Batman: Arkham Knight.

“Both Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City were multi-BAFTA award-winning and the amazing Rocksteady Studios are back again to produce another outstanding entertainment experience,” says Crossley.

“We have a huge campaign planned for this huge title and our expectations are understandably high.”

Arkham Knight is the headline product in Warner Bros’ PS4 and Xbox One line-up, and the publisher is readying a number of next-gen products. There’s Mad Max, which is being created by Just Cause studio Avalanche, while the team behind Dead Island is developing a new IP for Warner called Dying Light.

And one game that’s garnered plenty of press attention is Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. The Lords of the Rings game has an Assassin’s Creed vibe, and is another potential blockbuster for PS4 and Xbox One, too.

However, it’s not just the gaming element that excites Warner Bros about these next-gen machines.

“Both these new consoles had fantastic launches and injected much-needed excitement, revenue and momentum into the wider market, reinvigorating the customer with trademark games industry innovation and some breathtaking games,” says Crossley.

“Both formats offer us a huge range of opportunities through new product and revenue streams in the game space and a whole host of home entertainment Blu-ray and digital distribution opportunities for our new release and catalogue film, animation and TV content.

“Our opportunities have also extended greatly across retail, with traditional retailers now in a position to launch digital platforms to complement their High Street activity. Finally, the new platforms champion indie publishing, and growth in that sector will fuel creativity and innovation, which excites and benefits us all, industry and consumer alike.”

DIGITAL FUTURE

It all sounds like Warner is on-course to post its biggest year ever. With multiple next-gen projects, the return of Batman and a LEGO franchise that’s bordering on a phenomenon, 2014 could well be the year the publisher cracks the Top Five.

The only question is what about digital marketplaces such as mobile, downloads and add-on content? A place at the top of the publisher rankings may be highly sought after, but these rankings are losing relevance. They don’t factor in digital downloads or mobile. But Crossley insists digital is as critical to the publisher as the physical sector.

“Digital contributed 26 per cent of our total games business in 2013, with the The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth, Injustice: Gods Among Us and The Lord of the Rings Online as standout performers,” he says.

“Mobile has been a large growth area for WBIE in 2013, with eight new titles released. Mobile remains a key growth area heading into 2014 with a strong product slate on iOS and extending our back catalogue onto Android devices.

Crossley adds:?“We will continue to embrace a multi-platform strategy. We will have standalone digital product, but all our physical product will have digital touch points to enhance gameplay, extend the lifecycle, drive incremental revenue and profit and build brands with either existing or new IP.

“A great example here is our Injustice: Gods Among Us mobile game unlocking exclusive content in the console version of the game, and vice versa. Weaving digital content into our physical titles creates a more compelling entertainment experience and drives incremental revenue.”

Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment is a surprising company in many ways. It doesn’t just make tie-in software for its latest movies – in fact quite often it doesn’t. Its Batman Arkham games is a standalone franchise that has had no connection to the cinema series.

It is not just building games based on its blockbuster franchises, either. It may have an IP catalogue stretching back 90 years, but the team is just as happy to release entirely original games, whether that’s Scribblenauts or the upcoming Dying Light.

Whereas countless others have failed, Warner Bros is a movie juggernaut that is on the brink of becoming a true video games giant, too. And it has done it by investing wisely, acquiring the right studios, managing its overheads and not relying too heavily on its movie and TV heritage.

In other words, it’s done it by acting like a games company.

BUILDING BLOCKS – The LEGO MOVIE SUCCESS STORY

Warner Bros says one of its biggest advantages in games is its ability to unite its various divisions around major launches.

A recent example is The LEGO Movie. The film was a Box Office smash when it arrived last month, and it’s had a major effect on the video game division – and not just the movie tie-in.

“Our key differentiator from our competitors comes down to our strength as a market leading global entertainment studio,” says UK sales and marketing boss Spencer Crossley.

“Our ability to promote cross-divisionally and work cross-category at retail allows us to deliver creative and appealing campaigns at a completely unique level.

“The LEGO Movie, which in its opening weekend took the theatrical No.1 spot at the Box Office, was also the biggest debut week of an all new video game in 2014 – with 42,900 units – and an immensely popular toy launch.

“The LEGO Movie theatrical and video game tie-in went on to deliver a huge halo effect across the market, with an impressive nine LEGO games featuring in the Top 40 All-Format charts.

“We’re incredibly proud of our LEGO Movie launch, which places us within the Top Five film game tie-ins of all time alongside LEGO The Lord of the Rings and LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5-7.”

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Tags: lego , batman , warner bros , traveller's tales , spencer crossley , the lego movie videogame

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