30 YEARS OF SYSTEM 3: Q&A with Mark Cale

System 3 may not be the biggest games publisher in the UK, but its impact on the global games market should not be underestimated.

Over 30 years, the independent publisher has launched several multi-million selling franchises – from International Karate to Ferrari Challenge – and helped establish Activision as a European powerhouse.

To kick off our five-page celebration of System 3’s 30 years in the business, we speak to Mark Cale about what comes next for the publisher.

What’s the secret to System 3’s 30 years in business? How does that set you up for the next 30 years?
The one asset the business has is that it always had an eye for what a good game is and how to make a game playable. It’s the most important ingredient to any game, be it then or now. In the early days, when graphics were not as powerful as they are today, it was all about playability. If a game was an inferior product, it just wouldn’t work. So we have an eye for game design and innovation.

Also, as the last remaining British independent publisher we have some of the most valuable back catalogue IP in the market place. I don’t know many other publishers that has a back catalogue as strong as ours. We are in a very fortunate position, because the strength and depth of our IP means that if we want to do a tablet game – which we are doing with Constructor – then we have an IP for that. For Wii U, Kinect or Move, we have interactive titles such as California Games. If you have a portable device, we have platform games for that, whether it is Putty, James Pond or Impossible Mission. We have IP in a number of genres and not a lot of people have that.

You told us three years ago that digital will become the dominant trend in the industry and you received a backlash for that. Now we’re seeing the rise of digital. So is time up for retail?
Retail is extremely important because there are some older gamers like myself that love to have a boxed copy. But the new generation is not like that. And as long as it is positioned correctly, there is a huge opportunity in digital. Some people like to have movies downloaded onto their laptops or tablets. I prefer Blu-ray.

The market is so varied these days. And what digital offers that physical doesn’t is the whole freemium model. Look at Candy Crush, which lets you play through if you have the patience, but if not you can buy extra turns.
For casual gamers, digital is a great option where you can access a game for free and pay for extra content or to accelerate yourself through the game. That works. But if you’re asking people to spend 40 on a digital game, I don’t think that works. At that price, someone wants a boxed copy.

Also, boxed products are perfect gifts for kids. I don’t think you can replace a physical game with a digital code. And parents are becoming wary of giving kids more freedom to download things, because of reported mistakes where kids keep spending hundreds of dollars for add-ons.

The market is so much bigger than it used to be and absolutely the future is digital. But there is a huge role to play for retailers. It’s very important that publishers give all the support the can to retail, or they will lose a great outlet for content.

What’s System 3’s stance on retail?
We place as much importance on retail as we do on digital. But one thing digital does is give you an endless aisle of products. So whatever game a consumer wants, it’s available. That cannot be said about retail. As a publisher, try getting a game into retail at Christmas. Retail is buying FIFA, Call of Duty and so on – how much cash flow do they have left to support other titles? It makes you think about when you release products. You have to plan around retailers’ cash flow. But if you can get a game on a shelf, there’s a lot of visibility there that you just can’t get via digital.

What do you make of PS4 and the next generation?
It’s foolish to write any manufacturer off because anything can happen. Our policy is to try and support as many platforms as possible – as long as it remains financially viable. Tablets, phones, handhelds and consoles. But the success or failure of a console can depend on price. Vita is a fantastic machine, but it’s too expensive. Wii U is too expensive. It’s harder to convince the consumer to spend money at these higher price points. I understand why they are priced the way they are. If you look at the price of the Vita vs an iPad, it’s a downright bargain. But the consumer doesn’t see it that way. There is a wide variety of gamers. So, whether you are a hardcore or a casual gamer will determine what platform you play on.

What are you currently working on?
To celebrate our 30 years, we are revisiting a classic in Putty Squad. We even have original coder John Twiddy leading the programming team. Putty Squad is the holy grail for gamers – despite getting a demo and 90-plus review scores on Amiga, it never actually came out. And fans have regularly asked for us to release it. Now it’s coming to 360, 3DS, Vita, Wii U, PS3, PC, Mac, iOS, Android and Windows 8.

We have also started working on Constructor, which is an important title for us because it works across many platforms, and it’s ideal for touch screen tablets. We have also started work on Ferrari Challenge 2, California Games and Arcade Pinball Classics. We’ve done four pinball titles now and we’ve been delighted by the press reaction. Our last Williams Pinball game received scores mid-80s review scores.

What are your ambitions for these titles?
We want to deliver an experience that we can be proud of in our next 30 years. If you look at Putty Squad as an example, we have improved the game; not just the graphics but there are more levels, puzzles and downloadable elements. Every two weeks we are giving away a free downloadable level, and players have to collect stickers in the game to get those levels. But if they don’t want to collect the stickers, they can always pay for the content. We have a freemium element in Constructor, too. For us, that digital freemium model is very exciting.

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