The publisher once famed for the Harvest Moon games has rebuilt itself, with a new team working to new values in pursuit of new developer relationships. Richie Shoemaker sits down with Marvelous Europe’s Marc Melton and Sarah Burns for a recap, and to see where the story goes next.
The UK subsidiary of Marvelous Inc. has endured – or perhaps enjoyed – something of a renovation over recent years. Established more than a decade ago, the publisher happily remains synonymous with Story of Seasons (nee Harvest Moon), but has sought to distance itself from what our in-house expert Vince Pavey calls its “pervy anime” past. It’s not a transformation that’s quite total, given that a number of games that Marvelous publish retain much the same aesthetic, but it’s actually been quite a fundamental if fragmentary shift.
“There’s been a lot of changes, different decisions and a new team built over the last three years,” says managing director Marc Melton, who joined when Marvelous was just as well known for its lecherous anime games as for its family-friendly life sim series. As a product mix it was not a good look, or one that was likely to age well. “Marvelous had gone down a certain direction, and it wasn’t working as well as perhaps Japan wanted it to,” he says diplomatically. “I felt, from working elsewhere, that the product portfolio and the resources to support that product portfolio wasn’t quite fit for purpose for where we wanted to go.”
With the creator of the contentious Senran Kagura series moved on and a growing number or more diverse games set to overshadow it, it’s understandable why Melton is happy to draw a line between where Marvelous Europe was (coincidentally, in Tunbridge Wells) and where it’s re-established itself (in London) as part of the Tentacle Zone community that includes Payload, Robot Squid and Spilt Milk Studios.
“We acknowledge our past, it’s been quite colourful, for sure” he says, having taken steps to present Marvelous as “more modest and humble”, a process which he admits is difficult in an age where the volume of new publishers might compel them to be the opposite. Part of the process of change was to question the values of the organisation as was, and ask if they were compatible with a team that was becoming much more diverse and inclusive. Just a few years ago Marvelous Europe was 100% male. Now it is 30%.
“We wanted to make sure that the values came from the people, because we are very people driven” says Sarah Burns, head of production and operations. “So we all got together and we landed on three core pillars, essentially: human, ambitious, and collaborative.” Recognising that Marvelous works with developers of many shapes and sizes, there was a desire to treat partners as individuals and equals. “We’re trying to tailor our support to what they need and to not stifle their creative vision.”
“We are very collaborative,” adds Melton, describing Marvelous Europe as a boutique publisher. “ We give [developers] the love and the support to commercialise their creative vision, which sounds quite trite to say, but we do rely on each other. We have a responsibility. We know our place as a publisher.”
It’s proving to be a busy time for Marvelous Europe. Earlier this year the company announced the increasingly anticipated RPG Mandragora and Suda 51 action game No More Heroes III. Then at gamescom we heard about the delightful Nova Antarctica and Ninja or Die, with the GameCube and PS2 classic Story of Seasons: A Wonderful Life recently announced for Switch. It’s a compelling mix of the familiar and one or two titles that break ever-so-slightly from the Marvelous mould of old, but this is no scattergun approach. There is, according to Melton, a belief in the games that comes directly from within, which gives greater impetus to support each developer and the desire to see them succeed. “We see something in the game that we all agree on at Marvelous, and then we try and support that,” says Melton. “And if we do a bad job and it doesn’t work commercially and we’re proud of the game, that’s sort of okay.” So long as it doesn’t happen too often, we assume.
“I do realise it’s quite privileged to have an HQ that is solid and supportive, but we have an obligation and a love of the titles that come to us.” It’s not always about, says Melton, having a quota of titles foisted upon the team, all of which have to hit a certain threshold to please the money gods. “We don’t have to sign 30 titles a year and put those through, I don’t think that ends well. This is not an easy business for anyone, in publishing especially.”
“We have to prove that whilst we have a lot of autonomy from our Japanese publisher, with our sister companies XSEED/Marvelous USA, we still have to earn that trust, we have to do our business properly and be profitable. Provided we deliver that, we’ve been able to slowly build a team. We’re not in that sort of acquisition stage where we’re pumping hundreds of thousands into titles and we need to double [the business]. It’s not where we are or what we enjoy doing. We’re 40 titles and two product managers. We have our family obligation, our HQ. And then we have our titles that we like and can support.”
It’s only in the last year or two, says Melton, that Marvelous Europe feels that it has found the right partners to take it forward. “Primal [Game Studios] who do Mandragora have been doing work-for-hire for 20 years, for Riot for example. Vile Monarch, who did Weedcraft and worked with Devolver, they’re good people, who we thought we could add value to what they want to do.” Melton includes the sole Japanese developer of Ninja or Die to the list, who received support through the Marvelous Indie Incubator program as another that he hopes will become a long term beneficiary and supporter of what the company is trying to establish.
“If someone comes along and says ‘I’ve got a game, can you launch it next month?’ Or ‘I don’t need any investment or input, I just need the cash. Can we get it on Steam?” It doesn’t really interest us, because we’re not really adding any value, and there are better parties that are suited to that. It’s just not where we play.”
THE SQUIRMY FINISH
One gets the impression from talking to Melton and the team that while they are keen to get across that the Marvelous Europe of 2022 is a very different outfit from the one that was established a decade ago, they are equally keen to not have to shout about it, and to let their actions and the rather more subdued voices of those they work with do the talking for them. Equally, they seem to accept, rather begrudgingly, that these days you have to talk the talk to get others to notice if you walk the walk.
“There a lot of guff in the industry, but we genuinely try and live it,” says Melton. “The ambition is really to be the sexiest unsexy publisher, because we want to do the basics properly.” Melton admits to being a tony bit cynical when he hears of similar efforts from other publishers to be more open to diverse people, identities and ideas, but only because he wants to see change rather than it be announced. “We want to be the publisher that people say ‘We really recommend those guys. They might not be for you, but they’re good people who know what they’re doing. They have the expertise and can help you.’ You need publishing you can trust and can add value and I hope that’s what you will hear more of.” Assuming, that is, everyone else can keep the noise down.