INTERVIEW: Pete Stone

Ben Parfitt
INTERVIEW: Pete Stone

Konami has a bank of brands that many publishers would envy.

At the top of the pile is its famous five: Metal Gear Solid, Pro Evolution Soccer, Silent Hill, Castlevania and Yu-Gi-Oh.

The constant challenge for the publisher is to maximise the return on the gilt-edged portfolio – whilst also keeping them fresh and relevant.

PES is probably the best known in the UK, and certainly the only one that gets a run-out on an annual basis.
Traditionally, it was seen as the gamers’ choice in the football field, the critically adored alternative to Electronic Arts’ more commercially successful FIFA.

Recently, however, it has been the poor relation by both measurements – partly because EA has improved FIFA exponentially and partly because Konami didn’t improve PES with the same vigour.

THE BEAUTIFUL GAME

In an analogy which will simultaneously please and depress Konami’s Arsenal-supporting UK general manager Pete Stone, rather like the Gunners’ rivalry with Spurs, it was once a close call, with both teams having convincing claims to bragging rights – but then one side became so dominant that ‘rivalry’ became a rather grand and sadly misleading description.

Now, though, like Spurs, PES is fighting back. Stone says: “I don’t think there’s a massive gap in terms of the playability. There are certain areas we need to improve and catch up, but it’s not a huge gap – and we’re gradually closing it.

“If we can make the necessary changes to the game itself, which is what we’ve been doing, then there’s always going to be a market for the game. We may not outsell them, but we can sell enough so that it’s good from our point of view.

“Don’t think of it as a battle where we’re trying to win, or outsell them, because that’s not necessarily the case. We’re trying to sell enough to get to a position where it’s profitable and successful from our point of view.”

After three years of decline since a high watermark in 2006, Konami claims that sales stabilised last year and, given current market conditions, expects them to stay flat this year – which would still peg it some serious distance between a still growing FIFA.

But, as Stone says, measuring the two brands purely in terms of units shifted is a futile exercise. Better to work to its own agenda in terms of sales – and then maybe try to compete head-to-head, like it used to, in terms of quality.

In that respect, the publisher knows that the eyes of the gaming world will be on this year’s iteration. It’s vital that it delivers. Rather like Woody Allen films, you can only pitch so many as a ‘return to form’ before the phrase starts to ring hollow.

A look at Metacritic shows that, as with sales, review scores have levelled out recently – high 70s, compared to low 90s in its pomp.

But Konami believes the media has yet to catch up with the game’s actual improvements and that it is still suffering from something of a critical hangover brought about by a couple of admittedly shoddy versions released at the start of the current hardware cycle.

Stone concludes: “We’ve made progress and that’s beginning to be noticed, but we’re also going to spend a few years rebuilding PES and rebuilding sales. It’s a long process.”

Another major franchise that returns this year is Silent Hill. The new version, Silent Hill: Downpour, is due on PS3 and Xbox 360 in November and is described as a return to the series’ roots. It has less of the running and fighting elements that didn’t prove too popular in the last major, multi-format update, 2008’s Silent
Hill: Homecoming.

Many people’s favourite Konami brand, Metal Gear Solid, will get a new lease of life on 3DS in November. A tech demo of MGS: Snake Eater 3D was shown extensively by Nintendo itself throughout the launch of its new handheld, whetting the appetites of games and kicking off a slow-burn launch that should explode into life in Q4.

PES 2011 3D was, of course, part of the format’s launch line-up and, Stone says, has performed pretty much on target.

Next up on 3DS is Dr Lautrec and the Forgotten Knights, a title which, thanks to some early, bell-ringing visuals, was widely regarded as Konami’s take on Professor Layton.

There are similarities, but also plenty of points of different. Stone says the latest versions are looking strong and that confidence is growing internally.
He also says that the title is part of Konami’s ongoing strategy of regularly introducing new IP, attempting to create new franchises to slot alongside its existing roster.

DEATH AND DANCING

Another example is NeverDead, a fantasy/horror action game for PS3 and 360, currently being developed by UK dev team Rebellion under producer Shinta Nojiri.

“With our leading brands, the idea is to make them better and make them feel new, that’s an ongoing challenge,” says Stone.

“But the other challenge is to develop new IP and see if any of them can become a franchise in their own right. That’s difficult, of course – creating and marketing new content is always tough and especially tough in current market conditions – but it’s something we strive to do and we’re confident about what we’ve got in the pipeline.”

Another Konami brand worth checking in on is Dance Dance Revolution. In arcades and at home, DDR was a pioneering and hugely popular series in the dance game sector, more or less before there was a dance game sector.

In recent years, with motion-sensitive technology giving rise to a slew of such games, a few of which have become commercial juggernauts.

Does Konami feel, perhaps, that, having created the daddy of the genre, it maybe missed out? Stone says not: “I don’t think so, no. I think some years ago we had the market more or less to ourselves and did really well. I remember selling over a million units in the UK one year. So other dancing games might be doing that now, but we’ve already done it.

“And Dance Dance Revolution might be slightly quiet now, but there’s no reason it won’t be big again. Meanwhile, Karaoke Revolution scored a big hit with the first Glee version last year, and a second Karaoke Revolution Glee 2 is due on May 13th.”

But it’s not the auto-tuned voices of the TV singing stars that need to hit the high notes for Konami this year. What the publisher really needs is to maintain momentum behind Silent Hill, deliver an MGS game for 3DS that’s as good as everyone hopes it will be and, perhaps most importantly, blast one in the top corner with PES 2012.

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