INTERVIEW: Olivier Comte

Ben Parfitt
INTERVIEW: Olivier Comte

The last time MCV spoke to Namco Bandai’s European VP Olivier Comte, he said the games industry was going through its ‘first big crisis.’

His comments – made during the firm’s 2010 Level Up showcase in Barcelona – were in response to a market that was struggling to deal with second-hand games, new social and digital avenues and falling sales.

Now, one year on, Comte isn’t warning about the imminent demise of video games. In fact, he’s feeling far more optimistic.

And that’s surprising. After all, Namco’s European games division made a loss (albeit an expected one) during its last financial year. Meanwhile Enslaved, a game that Comte once called ‘a symbol of the future of this company’, struggled to perform at retail.

“It was not disappointing but it was below our expectations,” is Comte’s fair assessment of a game that has managed to sell 700,000 units worldwide.

“When we launched Enslaved it didn’t do as we expected, but the public response was overwhelmingly positive,” he continues.

“It was the first period in my time in this industry where I felt so much passion and goodwill from the fans to push us to continue the story of Enslaved.

“I hope this will not be the end of Enslaved.”

Comte’s positive outlook for the troubled new IP was indicative of our interview. There was no more talk of an industry crisis. Instead he says gaming is a sector getting back on its feet.

“The trend of the market today is very positive. The market was depressed 18 months ago. Now we have a new cycle that is absolutely growing,” he says.

“Kinect and Move are both very good devices. And I think they will definitely extend the lifecycle of their consoles. On Kinect we have launched one very big product with Dr. Kawashima. It is an evergreen title, so we are selling the product every month.”

THE NEXT GENERATION

Namco Bandai is fully behind new hardware: Wii U, Vita and 3DS. The firm unveiled a new Ridge Racer for Vita and a new Tekken for Wii U at E3 last week, and remains one of 3DS’ biggest supporters.

“It is always a big event to have a new console on the market,” says Comte. “We can completely trust Nintendo in their capacity to launch hardware. We’re convinced that 3DS will be one of the stars of Christmas. The company is very committed to being very close to Nintendo and to be linked to this success.”

Namco Bandai’s mobile division sees the firm committed to all forms of handhelds, but Comte thinks both have a role to play in the future of portable gaming.

“I don’t really see them as competitors, they speak to different audiences,” he explains. “The games are different. On my iPhone, you’ll find Cut the Rope and Angry Birds, very different to classical games.

“Each hardware adds functionality. So iPhone and iPad are fantastic. But Vita and 3DS have specificity. The first mission of 3DS and Vita is the video game, which is very important.”

GOING WEST

Since buying Atari’s European distribution business in 2009, Namco Bandai has made no secret of its desire to become a major player in Europe.

The firm has experimented with new IPs, signed pan-European deals with the likes of Codemasters and Bethesda, and has spent millions on marketing. But its current strategy sees the publisher focus on its big brands, not least Tekken, Soul Calibur, Dark Souls, Ridge Racer and Ace Combat.

In fact the latter two have been given a bit of a Western makeover. The latest Ace Combat looks like an airborne version of Call of Duty, with FPS controls, realistic settings and modern day warfare. Meanwhile, Ridge Racer: Unbounded is a frantic, destructible arcade racer that’s being developed in Europe, and has almost as much in common with Need for Speed than the traditional Ridge Racer series.

Comte says: “We made a choice – and this is a big strategy for the company – to grow in another direction with Ridge Racer. It doesn’t mean that Ridge Racer classic won’t exist. It means we can have two directions for Ridge Racer, so we can have a franchise that is more classic, more Japanese. And then something that is more hardcore, more dedicated and more Western.”

Giving an established brand to a Western developer has been the thing to do for Japaense firms recently. Capcom, a publisher that Namco Bandai has teamed up with for the hotly anticipated Street Fighter X Tekken and Tekken X Street Fighter, has recently farmed out Devil May Cry and Resident Evil to Western studios.

“Capcom and Namco have a strong rivalry as competitors. But at the same time, we have both kept the flame of fighting games growing,” Namco’s VP of label and brand strategy Hiro Ochiai tells MCV.

“We both have the same struggle in trying to make our presence larger in the Western market. So we work together, as Japanese publishers, to try and make our presence and our products known in the West.”

But it’s not just about developing new blockbuster sequels. Namco Bandai has recently launched Pac-Man onto Facebook – taking the firm’s most iconic star to a new audience, and it’s even developing a Tekken anime movie (with other movie tie-ins a possibility).

NEW AVENUES

Namco Bandai – much like the rest of the industry – is doing what Comte said it should, experimenting and developing new ways to grow its business as more traditional revenue streams begin to dry up.

“All companies are thinking in new business models,” concludes Comte. “Everyone has a duty to think about how to evolve this industry in one year, two years, five years. There are plenty of possibilities and we are trying to pick the best one.”

Games may be in the doldrums but there’s progress in the market and at Namco Bandai. Crisis? What crisis?

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