As new formats come and go and fluctuations in the market have industry bean-counters tapping furiously on their calculators, one sector that remains steady as a rock is the budget games area.
Having long since established its unofficial home on PC, third-party value publishers have branched out more than ever into home console in recent years, a move pioneered by companies such as Blast, Xplosiv, Midas and Digital Design Interactive – which owns the Popcorn Arcade series of titles for Wii.
And now, with the arrival of the three next-gen formats, it appears the time is ripe for budget gaming to become every bit as established on home console as it is on home computer.
“The new formats are the new frontiers of budget games – they are like our Californian gold rush,” says Stuart Green, managing director of Data Design Interactive.
“They offer a new wide open land of opportunity for publishers and retailers.”
Blast, which predominantly creates value titles for PS2 based on universally recognisable kids’ licences, has had huge success this year with titles such as Little Britain and Bob The Builder. And, according to CEO Sean Brennan, deliberately targeting a youthful market helps to distinguish its products from others on retail shelves.
“The difference with Blast and other value publishers is the fact that we publish brand new games for kids, all with strong worldwide licences,” he says. “We bridge the gap between TV, film, kids characters and popular toys to produce an affordable range of games aimed at pre-school and five to 12 year-olds.
"We secure the best brands and create new games that are fun for the kids as well as teaching problem solving and coordination. We also translate the Blast range into 13 different languages and distribute the range on a global basis.”
Midas, which publishes across PS2, PSP, DS and PC, prides itself on its relationships with distributors and retailers – which it says helps to keep it informed on what today’s gamers are looking for.
“Midas has always managed to select the right products, sell them at the right price, in the right packaging and in the right locations,” says sales manager Sam Collins.
“Our stringent assessment of each product to meet this criteria has undoubtedly contributed to our success. We have sold over ten million units in Europe on the PlayStation formats alone.”
Xplosiv’s dual proposition has helped the Empire label rocket up the budget charts on numerous occasions since it was established in 2000. The company is careful to pick the juiciest IP it can find when republishing for its PC titles, whilst it searches out instantly recognisable franchises on PSP and PS2, such as the likes of Hello Kitty, Antz and Ford Street Racing.
“Our product specific consumer marketing and our distinctive packaging help us stand out clearly amongst our competitors,” explains Xplosiv MD James Spice. “Having a range consisting of PC, PS2 and PSP has allowed us to explore these opportunities by providing an overall budget solution to retail. It has opened some interesting doors.”
The ‘new kid on the block’ in terms of low-price console publishing is Liquid Games, a value label that comes from the Oxygen stable. Backed by the marketing slogan ‘Family Price Guaranteed’, the sub-£7 PS2 titles have been backed with a TV, print and online-based marketing push since the firm re-positioned its offer earlier this year..
“We have evolved to focus on providing original, family-friendly content based on the real-world interests of the new wave of mainstream consumers,” says Liquid CEO Jim Scott.
“We provide titles based on table-top board games, children’s fables and so on. We’ve avoided low-quality licensed products and clones of triple-A titles as we don’t feel these offer genuine value to consumers.”
Budget companies that publish on home consoles face a number of trials every bit as daunting as their PC publishing peers – and the principal culprit is the oldest in the book: claiming shelf space at retail.
“It’s a challenge to secure in-store space for lower priced games in an environment where newer, more glamorous formats have emerged,” explains Midas’ Collins. “In the main, however, buyers in the UK are aware of the installed bases of each formats and so platforms such as PlayStation 2 are still managing to stand their ground.”
The reputation of value titles as chiefly PC software has largely been thanks to the success of the three major players in that area: Mastertronic, GSP and Focus.
And it’s no wonder these publishers have found favour with retailers. They offer stores products with a longer shelf life than new releases, steady year-round sales and the chance to avoid the pressured one-upmanship that leads to price-cutting and broken street dates.
Mastertronic brings gamers a choice of three different levels of PC budget title: the Sold Out range at £4.99 and the £9.99 PC Gamer Presents and MAD ranges. “We have regular high profile releases and a vast back catalogue to choose from and we offer retailers a full display solution for the ranges,” explains Mastertronic business development director Garry Williams.
“We provide retail with a strong and predictable income without the peaks and troughs of new releases.”
Focus Multimedia’s marketing manager Grant Hughes adds:
“For Mastertronic, GSP and ourselves sales continue to flow from our established SRP £9.99 and £4.99 ranges, and we do not see this changing. Customers buying games for a fiver or a tenner don’t think twice: it’s an impulse purchase. For the retailer to have quality games at a range of price points increases their chance of a sale, and of course a profit.”
GSP has won recent popularity with casual-orientated games such as Holiday World Tycoon and Puppy Luv. Managing director Dave Brass explains the firm’s business model: “GSP specialises in using spinners to maximise choice for the consumer, in a space-efficient way for the retailer. People who come in for something else – perhaps for the latest release – then see a pocket money priced game and tend to buy on impulse.”
Which is all good advice for a relative upstart in the world of PC publishing: Alten8. Although the company is set to dip its toe into the DS market with games such as Mind Cube and Cyber Punk, it is PC titles that dominate its release schedule until the end of the year – and the firm is confident that its offering marks it out as a unique player in the field.
“We are different from nearly all the other publishers in the UK, not just ‘value’ ones,” adds Alten8 CEO Paul Andrews. “We do not just have value games, but also mid-price ones, and console titles as well. Nearly all our games are new releases, as opposed to titles which may have been ‘bigger’ titles once but have been in retail once or many times before.”
But although these value PC publishers are all striving to distinguish their offerings from that of their peers, they seem to be agreed on the challenges facing the sector.
Attaining in-store space is a constant battle for many, but public enemy number one is an issue that refuses to go away: those pesky ‘super-budget’ promotions, usually on £1 PC games. And these established budget firms are calling on retail to think twice before stocking them.
“It’s a short-sighted way to non-profit revenue, but these kind of £1 promotions can only cause long term damage to the games industry as a whole,” says Mastertronic’s Williams.
“In order to extend the lifecycle of a good quality game, the price point must go through a slow, measured price reduction based on the current marketplace.”
But whether a PC or console budget publisher, there is still good reason for optimism. Not only do value software sales show no sign of slowing down, but the onslaught of downloadable content across all formats could well open up a new revenue stream for the sector in this generation of consoles.
“If Wii Virtual Console is as successful, or more so, than XBLA, then we will have additional channels to supply content to its target consumer groups,” says Liquid Games’ Jim Scott. “If such channels are successful, it will be interesting to see if it is price, convenience or breadth of choice that is the main driver.”
“We already make our PC games available for download and have an excellent distribution network,” adds Midas’ Collins. “I am delighted with the sales so far and expect this to continue on its current upward trajectory.”
And the continued support of non-traditional retail channels has also been a blessing over the last few years – and shows no sign of slowing down.
Liquid’s Scott says: “Non-traditional channels have been a great help in our success. We get the general impression that they will begin fielding a narrower range of titles across all quality levels, so it will become increasingly important to provide games that offer more relevant and compelling entertainment for the value consumer.”
And Dave Brass, MD of GSP adds: “The fact that budget games are starting to have wider appeal – to the casual gamer – means that these outlets are perfectly situated to satisfy this new demand. By stocking a range of budget games and racking it well, the non-traditional stores can meet the needs of this market. These stores are shopped in by people who may never venture into a specialist store, but they own a PC.”
Budget, it seems, is bigger business than ever – and also more competitive, with so many players bringing their own unique offering to retail.
Their mission might be to give gamers the best titles at the lowest prices, but it appears that there’s nothing cheap about the ambitions of the UK’s leading budget games publishers.