Interview: Codemasters on Dirt Rally, Evolution and the company’s bright future

It’s been a tough few years for Codemasters.

The UK-based outfit has struggled to get off the ground with the PS4 and Xbox One. Meanwhile, its ventures into non-racing territory – such as last year’s Overlord: Fellowship of Evil – proved disappointing. In fact, Codemasters closed its non-racing operations in November 2015.

But this awkward phase is over.

The business has been transformed quite a bit in the last few years,” CEO Frank Sagnier says.

We are now seeing the fruits of our new strategy and focus. It’s paying off, but as you know it takes a long time to change things. In the last two years we have focused on what we are best at – racing.

The transition to the new machines has not been easy, we have cut the areas which we didn’t feel were strategic for us and we have ended up with a year that is actually the first operational profit we have had in five years (for fiscal 2016, which finished in March). That is a big achievement and something I’m very proud of to say the least.”

He continues: It’s a very positive time for the company. Dirt Rally has been really successful. The results are very good and we’re very happy with that. F1 2015 was successful, we did two-and-a-half times the number of units we did the year before. The company is more focused. Our morale is up because when you do good games and they’re successful, your employees are happy. And, by the way, so are your shareholders.”

Sagnier’s talk about refocusing Codemasters around racing is nothing new. For the duration of its 30-year history, racing has been Codemasters’ bread and butter. And Sagnier says that it’s essential for companies to play to their strengths in the current market.

You have to be the best at what you do these days. Average does not work and what we do well is racing,” he explains. We don’t decide the market. But we can easily increase the size of our business five or six times by making better games and focusing on this area. It was a very simple observation of a market that is growing between five and seven per cent a year. There’s a lot of room to do better. We just can’t be good; we have to be great. The only way I could make our games even better is to focus on them and I do believe that just making better games increases your business considerably. We want to be the best racing studio in the world.”

"We can easily increase the size of our business
five or six times by focusing on the racing sector."

Frank Sagnier, Codemasters

Codemasters’ latest release is Dirt Rally, which went straight to No.2 in the All Formats Top 40 when it launched on April 5th.

While very successful, this project was the definition of careful. Codemasters released the game onto Steam’s Early Access in April 2015. Over the next twelve months, the PC community helped Codemasters work out many of the title’s problems. For a company in the midst of an awkward transition, this approach appears to have paid off.

We make games for communities. Only the consumer will decide whether they like your game or not,” Sagnier says.

After I left EA I spent years making free-to-play games and learnt a lot. Having data to listen to what consumers want has become absolutely crucial. It’s essential to succeed. It was very important to get as much feedback as possible so that we knew that we had something consumers want and something that had a chance to be successful. We are building brands and these brands don’t get built in one game.”

Codemasters also made the headlines recently with its acquisition of the development team from Sony’s now-closed DriveClub studio, Evolution.

The thinking behind that was pretty simple,” Sagnier says.

I wanted us to grow and become the No.1 independent racing studio. To do this, we needed to develop more games and hire more people. We started to look at how we were going to do this, then the opportunity arose. I had been speaking to Mick [Hocking, Evolution co-founder, now Codemasters VP of product development] for a few months, heard that Sony was intending to close the studio and thought it may be a good opportunity for them to join us. Evolution has a very similar DNA to us, it makes triple-A games and together we could do something really, really exciting. It came together by focusing on racing and looking around at how to grow the business in the quickest way.

I could have hired a team of 50 or 100 people but do you know how long it takes to do that? And when you hire a new team, you have no idea how it is going to work together, how it’s going to gel. The beauty of Evolution is that these guys have been working together for many years and have developed some triple-A games and just happened to be available at the right time. So we jumped at that opportunity and I have to say that Sony has been great. It has been really helpful in facilitating the whole process.”

Alongside Sony’s closure of Evolution, Microsoft is shutting Fable studio Lionhead, while Activision is ‘restructuring’ FreeStyle Games, the devs of last year’s Guitar Hero Live.

As a result, things look challenging for the UK games development scene – but Sagnier says the UK games scene is in rude health.

The UK games development scene is thriving at the moment,” he insists.

Yes, there are some closures but there are also some huge successes. You saw the results of the BAFTA Game Awards last week – you see a lot of UK companies [Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture developer The Chinese Room and Her Story dev Sam Barlow both took home three prizes] doing really well. Overall, it’s very buoyant.

And big companies shutting down studios is sometimes the result of strategic decisions that go beyond the product itself. It always happens and will always happen.

But overall the industry is doing really well. I don’t think anyone would complain about how the console market is doing, how well Steam is doing on PC, how well mobile is doing.

It’s not easy and that is why you need to be very good at what you do, choose carefully what you are good at or the segment you want to be in, and if you do some great games, usually it pays off.

When you’re small you have to be the best at what you do if you want to survive – and we are small as a developer, even though we’re not a ten-person studio in a back bedroom, but when compared to the big publishers of this world we are still a very small company. Focusing on racing was an obvious route that I chose at the time because I’m not sure you could support many genres and be good at them all at the same time and succeed. It’s too risky a strategy for who we are and who we want to be.”

"Evolution has a very similar DNA to us.
It makes triple-A games and together
we can do exciting things."

Frank Sagnier, Codemasters

And going forwards, Sagnier is optimistic about the future.

The message I want to get out there is we really want to be the best at what we

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