Taking on the big boys

Ben Parfitt
Taking on the big boys
ON FIRST impressions, starting up a games publisher in the current industry climate appears to be like taking on Tyson armed only with Ken Dodd’s tickling stick.

True giants of the entertainment world – let alone the games industry – stand in the way of anyone with ambitious ideas of releasing the next GTA. They have massive marketing budgets, big licences, major franchises and the development talent to rack up numerous top-selling hits.

Faced with this mountain to climb, it’s a wonder that any new publishers even attempt to make a name for themselves. But they do – and do you know what? They’re doing quite nicely for themselves, thank you very much.

Undoubtedly the breakthrough publisher of this year is 505 Games. Armed with the quirky cooking sim Cooking Mama, it has found a highly lucrative niche for itself. Cooking Mama has been a consistent performer in the ChartTrack listings for months – it even outsold Halo 3 last week.

“I think it’s harder now than it’s ever been for a smaller publisher to achieve chart success, but ultimately, having a hit product is down to the same factors regardless of the size of the publisher,” says 505 MD Ian Howe.

“A good game comes first and foremost, but strong marketing and good retail execution is crucial. Success is relative and depends on your expectations and objectives. We’re happy in what we’ve achieved so far, but it’s the first stage in a longer process. Ask me again in five years!”

But this against-the-odds success isn’t exclusive to 505. UK publishers like Rising Star Games, Blast, Reef and SouthPeak have all scored themselves chart hits over the past year – proving that this array of underdogs can still have their day.

“It is a tough, tough market where size of operation and deep pockets are fundamental to success as never before,” says Rising Star Games MD and COO Martin Defries. “However, as we and 505 Games have shown, it is possible to break through and sit at the table with the big boys.”

But what does it take to make a breakthrough? Having stormed into the top five earlier this year with Two Worlds, SouthPeak’s executive vice president Melanie Mroz explains.

“It’s always going to be a combination of good product and aggressive marketing that generates a hit. A good relationship with retailers and distribution helps as well. We feel that if the product is distinctive and well-supported, the market will take an interest. Credibly appealing to certain gaming subcultures is also crucial for specific games.”

Mastertronic-owned label Blast is a label barely two-years old, yet it has already notched up a decent showing in the charts with its licensed value titles – a key factor in making an impact, says Mastertronic MD Andy Payne.

“Marketing and innovation will play their part for sure and to get a sustained hit, consumers cannot be fooled. So the product must be wanted, it must deliver and it must get word-of-mouth endorsement. If it does that, it will certainly appear in the top ten and for a good period of time.”

Reef Entertainment brought Free Running to market earlier this year, and managed to hit the number one spot in the PS2 and PSP charts. CEO Pete Rezon believes that going up against established publishing giants can be hugely rewarding – both personally and professionally.

“It was tough, arduous and time-consuming, but the end justifies the means. We looked at a hugely competitive market and went in with a very good game, a focused sales and distribution strategy and innovative communications. We took on the established brands such as Tony Hawk’s and pushed our way to the front of the charts. We punched above our weight and left the ring smiling.”

So maybe it’s not as difficult as you might think. “It depends on the way you look at this,” adds Mastertronic’s Payne. “What is small and what is big? A publisher can grow, just look at what Ubisoft has done in the last five years – nothing short of stellar growth based on solid business practices and great products. Sega are also on that track. Neither would regard themselves as small now, but their roots were.

“With the growth of digital download, socially interactive, casual games, as well as portable hardware platforms that are not purely game focused, arguably we are set to see new business models. These models will get under the radar of the established big players who need to ship millions of units across the world on launch to satisfy their spreadsheets and shareholders. Products with long tails can prevail.”

Can it still be done? Rising Star’s Defries certainly believes so – and thinks that if you’re a publisher which doesn’t think it’s possible, you may as well give up now.

“The goal of any business is to drive itself forward,” he tells MCV. “Certainly it is fundamental to RSG’s existence that we continue to expand and have the ambition to challenge at the next weight/division/table. To do so means consistent delivery of product and the back-up services of marketing, operations, finance and so on. To grow is a continual cycle of investment and success, investment and success.”

SouthPeak’s Melanie Mroz adds: “Standing out from the crowd and making yourself heard above the noise of the large publishers is never easy, but there are opportunities to be had in today’s gaming landscape. With the market continually expanding and the games media diversifying, finding the right niches can be key.”

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