Mathew Horne and Jonathan Ross have just turned up to the Titanfall launch event in London.
They’re here along with a number of minor and not-so-minor TV celebrities: Reece Shearsmith, some boyband (Lawson - ed), Ralf Little, that girl from The Inbetweeners. It’s a who’s-who of: “Oh! That’s what’s-his-face.”
And this is another clear indication at just how important Titanfall is to Xbox. It is not unusual to see celebs put in some face time to secure a free game or console. But usually you will only see them at events for major entertainment brands like Call of Duty or Halo. Not an unproven new IP like Titanfall.
Yet Microsoft is going all out with this one. Although Xbox One sales, by most standards, have been fine – even excellent – it has fallen behind PlayStation 4. And the gap is wideneing.
“Titanfall is a very big launch and a significant moment for Xbox One,” says Harvey Eagle, Xbox’s UK marketing chief.
“Respawn has delivered a killer app of a game, it has won more than 85 awards from critics. It has been game of the show at E3, Gamescom and Eurogamer Expo. More than 2m people played the multiplayer beta when it was open for just a few days in February. It has had fantastic reviews and is currently the highest rated game for Xbox One so far according to Metacritic.
“We have a strong marketing campaign in partnership with EA, and to top it off we have a fantastic offer where you can get Xbox One with Titanfall for £399.
“There is no doubt that this is a big moment in time for us. We think people will buy an Xbox One in order to play this fantastic game.”
"Certain retailers from time-to-time, of their own accord,
decide to make some price promotions.
But it’s nothing to do with Microsoft
and not something we support.”
- Harvey Eagle, Xbox
The price cut on Xbox One two weeks ago was a smart move, even if the reduction was a relatively small one.
Sony’s lead has been widening over Microsoft all year. Yet, as a result, PS4 stock is regularly in short supply. If Xbox One wants to catch PS4 before it builds too strong a lead, the company needed to act fast.
And Eagle says things have improved since the price was reduced.
“Sales have been strong since we made the announcement and dropped the price on Friday, February 28th. But no doubt there will be many holding on for that Titanfall bundle. We expect the uplift will be truly seen now the game is out. But the two weeks between us making the announcement and Titanfall coming out has still been very strong for us, which is really encouraging actually.”
The £399 price point was a significant move, but retailers have taken that even further. Numerous – often smaller – online retailers have been running special offers, reducing the price further or even bundling in free games. A mini price-war erupted, which has undoubtedly helped sales even further.
But Eagle insists this is not something that Microsoft has encouraged: “As a manufacturer we set the recommended retail price which is £399. Certain retailers from time-to-time, of their own accord, decide to make some price promotions. What we tend to see is that these are pretty short lived, and by the time you get to these websites you’ll find the offer has gone. But it’s nothing to do with Microsoft and not something we support.”
I don’t know that anybody can put more
pressure on us than we do.
Pressure is our middle name.
Respawn Pressure Entertainment.
- Abbie Heppe, Respawn
Titanfall has taken on a vital role in the Xbox One story. The console has faced criticism initially for its policies, then its price, and then for the technology itself. Microsoft has repeatedly said that once the games arrive people will discover the true value of Xbox One.
The pressure is on the game’s developer Respawn to deliver.
“Not that we’ve had any pressure since the very beginning of this project, giving the history of the studio,” says the studio’s Abbie Heppe with more than a hint of sarcasm. Heppe is unquestionably the real celebrity at the launch event and the real reason I am here.
“Being an independent studio, we live and die by what we do. I don’t know that anybody can put more pressure on us than we do. Pressure is our middle name. Respawn Pressure Entertainment.”
Respawn’s history has been a controversial one. The studio was formed by some of the most senior members of the Call of Duty team at Activision’s Infinity Ward. Back in 2010, Activision and Infinity Ward accused each other of various misdeeds, including not paying royalties and conspiring to join rival publisher EA.
The result was half of the renowned studio abandoning the series it created and starting over with Respawn.
What followed was lawsuit ugliness between Activision, Respawn and EA, which ended by mutual consent away from the courts. Yet it was just one of many hurdles Respawn had to overcome in the journey to Titanfall.
“It’s so surreal to me that the game is out,” adds Heppe.
“It hasn’t quite hit me yet. Maybe when I’ve got a bit of distance from it I can be ‘ok’.
“I remember thinking years before we announced that in two years from now, this game is going to be out. Then when we announced it, I was thinking “Wow, nine months and this will be out.” And now we’re here. All those moments didn’t seem so long ago. But there were times when we weren’t sure this was going to happen. Development is really difficult and it’s hard to build a new studio, it’s hard to agree on what you’re going to do. This hasn’t been an easy thing.”
"There were times when we weren’t sure Titanfall
was going to happen. Development is really difficult
and it’s hard to build a new studio."
- Abbie Heppe, Respawn
What’s helped Respawn, Heppe says, has been Microsoft. Respawn’s decision to make Titanfall exclusive to Xbox (although there is a PC version) may sound like an error, particularly considering the recent success of PlayStation 4. But there’s been some real upsides, she says.
“We never set out to exclude any gamers. But, we made the decision to work with Xbox first because we are a small team, so being able to focus and do two platforms really helped. But it also allowed us to work closely with Microsoft on Azure, which we are running the game’s AI on and we are using as dedicated servers on all the platform’s. So we were able to work closely with them to make sure that it would support our needs, and make sure it is a great fit for us.
“We have a team up at Microsoft that is monitoring the game as it goes up around the world, and that has been a great thing for us. Dedicated servers are expensive and for us to be able to offer them to everyone without the huge cost is great.”
And Microsoft have been helping promoted the game, too. Including with the game’s high profile Beta last month.
“Xbox believes in us so much and they really care about this project, and we have had amazing marketing support,” she says.
“They have a huge audience. This is the first game I have worked on and it is crazy to turn on your Xbox and see a big Titanfall promotion. Everyone in the office is like: “Oh my God guys, did you see?” It’s so exciting. And these are guys that worked on Call of Duty. They are still so enthusiastic.”
She adds: “The Beta helped a lot, too. And not just in testing things. We have always said you need to play Titanfall to understand it, and when you take it on the road all year you might only get 10,000 or 20,000 people to play it. So to be able to do a mass Beta and reach 2m people like that was just great.”
"What we are seeing is this emerging phenomenon
about broadcasting direct from your console.
MCV has covered the Twitch Plays Pokémon
phenomenon and that was truly amazing."
- Harvey Eagle, Xbox
Xbox’s marketing team has been busy on Titanfall. Harvey Eagle says that as hype has built around the game, Microsoft and the game’s publisher EA have gradually increased their marketing. And you couldn’t escape from Titanfall advertising this week.
But it’s not just been a case of spending money on adverts, cutting the price and running some bundles. Xbox has been actively trying to get things in place behind the scenes in time for Titanfall.
The platform holder has been changing its machine to accept third party headphones, it’s updated its UI in an effort to improve multiplayer and tweaked its service to answer fan criticism. And perhaps the biggest change is integrating Twitch into the service, just in time for Titanfall’s arrival.
“We are very excited about the Twitch integration,” says Eagle.
“What we are seeing is this emerging phenomenon about broadcasting direct from your console. MCV has covered the Twitch Plays Pokémon phenomenon and that was truly amazing with 10m people watching that. So we are seeing the emergence of this new trend in broadcasting and when you combine the capability to broadcast with the Kinect camera, Twitch and a game like Titanfall, then that is something we are very excited about. It’s an exciting thought that the next YouTube sensation could be here in the UK and about to play Titanfall.”
Listening to Heppe and Eagle, and looking around the room at the Titanfall launch event, and it’s clear that this isn’t just some new IP. Like the upcoming Watch Dogs, Titanfall has effectively become an entertainment super-brand and a franchise even before it launched. A sequel is inevitable, while big toy brands are already banging on the door to secure the licence. Novels, t-shirts, movies could follow.
“This game has a lot of potential for toys and things, which is great for us because we love toys,” says Heppe.
“Joel, who is our lead artist, has all of these handmade models. So when there was a prospect of doing something that’s toy related, I think he went through the ceiling."
She concludes: “We also have a collaboration with Playfight, and they are doing some really cool live action film stuff for us. But in terms of comic books, books and movies, we haven’t done anything yet. And part of that is because this is our baby. This is our first project and we feel a tremendous amount of ownership over it, and we want to make sure every decision that we make about Titanfall is right.
“And that requires a lot of vetting of who will be the right writer, director and producer. That is a huge undertaking and we have been so busy trying to finish this game. But now, who knows?”
I can certainly name a few celebrities that will be interested in taking part.