Interview: The many faces of Bandai Namco

Bandai Namco is trying its hand at pretty much everything.

It is launching titles for Codemasters, developing anime, kids and blockbuster next-gen games, experimenting with mobile, trialling free-to-play concepts… even building major licensing initiatives.

We speak to European CEO Naoki Katashima on the many different faces of the business.

You’re about to launch Grid Autosport for Codemasters at retail. You are also handling ?The Witcher 3 from CD Projekt. Why are these companies coming to you?
Bandai Namco remains one of the strongest distribution networks worldwide. We have offices in most countries with sales, marketing and PR functions and direct-to-store level relationships.

We have a strong relationship with Codemasters and had strong sales for Grid 2 and F1 2013. We have built great ties with CD Projekt and proved an excellent partner for them with The Witcher.

The family market is a very important sector for us, too, with a heritage of stong IP and our ties with developer Little Orbit, which allows us to utilise our IP from the likes of Dreamworks, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Disney.

As a Japanese business how have you found the popularity of Eastern games in the West?
Each European market is different. Having experience in each territory allows us to tap into our fanbase and offer all the titles are eager for us to release. For many years we’ve had requests to bring Tales of to European markets and even though cost of localisation is high we delivered on fans’ requests.

We continue to look into what audiences want – what titles, what platforms, and ultimately we can’t always deliver on everything but are trying our best with titles such as Tales of Hearts R, Tales of Xillia 2, and Dragon Ball Z as well as new titles such as Short Peace.

We are stronger on our community forums on a territory level and are talking directly to our fans to try and deliver what they want, which is key for us. We are extremely active in Europe with events such as Paris’ Japan Expo and London MCM Expo. Our core fanbase comes to visit us each year and it’s important we represent with a strong line-up.

One big Japanese game that appears to have done well is Dark Souls II. What lessons have you learnt from the launch of that title, and did it perform as you wanted?
Dark Souls is important to us. It is a prime example of our commitment following the move our company made to release Demon’s Souls and provided a deep and rewarding experience and proved that we are not afraid to release to a challenging audience.

Is it always easy to explain to a broader consumer what the game is?
No. Like the game itself it’s a challenge, but we set out to make the world aware of Dark Souls II. Its predecessor is a unique game and something that is talked and debated about every day. We’ve not seen many games that have this amount of fans and interest.

What are your thoughts on the rapid transition to next-gen? Has it made you try and speed up your development of PS4 and Xbox One projects?
We have to focus on our business across entertainment, tie-ins and cross-collaborations, and decide if we are creating the right IP whilst maximising our existing properties. This can’t be done in a rush and delivering quality on new hardware is our focus. We are not basing our business around other publishers and what they do or don’t, we are working on our own strategy as a global ‘entertainment company’.
We have a strong third-party business and aim to bring some exceptional next-gen titles to the market as if they were our own development. Overall our third-party business is successful and we have some announcements to come at E3.

How has the transition to next-gen impacted your expectations of your 360 and PS3 products?
There has been an impact of course, but we focus on making sure we continue to offer a high quality game to a large install-base whilst introducing titles to a younger demographic. The move to next-gen has been impressive but we still have a high install-base of PS3 and 360 consoles worldwide and this cannot be forgotten about. Our core fanbase as well as younger fans still own those consoles.

Smartphone and PC digital have also had an impact of traditional sales of games and boxed goods, however, we still continue to see good sell-through from retail.

You mentioned your new Pac-Man title there. How did that big brand re-launch go for you?
We had a strong launch for Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures with a worldwide roll-out on TV for the brilliant animated series.

We released the game and toys in some territories and have seen consistently strong sell-through. The licence has only recently been introduced and 41 Entertainment has been working to secure licensing deals worldwide. It’s only the beginning. We’ve heard positive feedback and will be focusing on this franchise for a long time to come.

We have a sequel coming later this year in the US, Australia and UK.

How much investment are you making in the mobile and tablet space and how has this grown for you across Europe?
This is a very important part of our business with our well-known IP like Tekken, Soul Calibur and Ace Combat. We have also released some new IP and will continue to do this for the future.
Our focus is to continue to deliver unique experience and introduce games based on our IP such as Tekken Card Tournament, which has over 7m downloads. It’s an area we invest a lot of time in and have done for a while.

A major area of business for Bandai Namco in recent years has been free-to-play.

The firm has been experimenting with the business model around some of its biggest brands, launching titles such as Tekken Revolution, Soul Calibur Lost Swords and Ace Combat Infinity.

Last week, however, the company announced an entirely original free-to-play IP, Rise of the Incarnates.

Our existing IP is important, but new IP is something we will continue to develop and explore for the future,” says Namco Bandai Games Europe CEO Naoki Katashima

Rise of Incarnates is an interesting PVP game that we’ve designed internally as a PC free-to-play Steam title.

The team internally have experience working on some of the best fighting action games such as Tekken andSoul Calibur, and this gave the creative team an opportunity to develop something new and introduce new characters, fighting styles and team-based action.

We understand we cannot just continue to release games based on existing IP.”

The big challenge for anyone developing a free-to-play project in today’s industry is the consumer reaction.

Although F2P does pull in huge audiences, there’s often a negative backlash from some consumers to the business model, who feel they are having to ‘pay to win’.

It’s a tough area and new to a lot of people,” adds Katashima.

We are clear to consumers about what we do and there is an element of educating that needs to be done as a result, This is the beauty of the internet and freedom of speech online. We are not moving our complete business over to free-to-play, we are offering a different way to play and experience our games within particular franchises.

We will continue to be open to what we are releasing to the fan bases and not stop developing paid for games for current, PC and next gen consoles in box and digital distribution, but we are looking at introducing existing IP and something new to players.

Getting it right is obviously offering the right games first-off that are sticky, addictive, fun and then educating the players as to what they will ultimately end up paying for, or not. We are working hard on this.”

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