INTERVIEW: Codemasters

You’re both relatively new to Codemasters. How does it compare to your previous roles?

Jeremy Wigmore: Coming from old Atari to this, it was quite eye-opening. In a good way. The product line-up is Euro-centric, that’s very encouraging. There is a lot of UK-made stuff that will sell. And we know that, as it’s now the second largest market in the world, that can also be a good indicator of global performance.

Alex Bertie: What was most exciting for me is that Codemasters is a global business focused around development – it feels like we are more part of the developer than we are just a publisher.

JW: But Codemasters had lacked a regular communication with retail, that’s one thing I’ve found coming in. We’re looking now to have a much closer working relationship.

What some other publishers forget is that the people who sell the games, the people on the shopfloor at the frontline of our business, are passionate about games. About good games. And the thing for us to do is make them our evangelists, have them on side and talking about our games. The quality of Codemasters products is exceptionally, uniquely high – so we’re planning to exploit that that fact.

AB: And because we are a British developer a lot of the sensitivities we have are of this market. That makes us much more commercially relevant than some of our bigger competitors, who tend to approach things from either a very Japanese or North American point of view with their products or strategy.

That’s a really important thing for us, especially in terms of games like Colin McRae DIRT, for instance. That includes some touches which I think, if the game was developed in North America, it just wouldn’t have.

You mention placing a bigger emphasis on the development talent. Does that influence your approach to marketing?

AB: I’ve always been a very studio-focused person. You must work hand in glove with developers because of the investment required. Understanding what a product is and being close to the developer is an incredibly important part of getting that right.

The challenge with global brand teams in the past, in my experience, is that you end up with an ivory tower – and you forget details, the budget, you don’t talk to developers, you don’t talk to retailers, you don’t talk to consumers. That approach in effect is ‘marketing as a consultancy business’ – and that is not what we are about.

JW: And that approach is far too frustrating. It leaves you out of touch with the sharp end of the business.

That could go some way to explain why some larger publishers have been laying off staff this year…

JW: In my previous role the publisher was effectively a distributor – we bought products at cost of goods. There was no flexibility in the way we did business. There we had that proverbial ivory tower Alex mentions, which created a total disconnect between the game being made, its values, and how it sat with the business.

With the products Codemasters has it is vital to make sure the people that making those games are connected with the commercial front end.

So what are the key Codemasters releases this year?

AB: We’ve still got some unannounced titles to reveal, but the announced key games so far are: FUEL in May, Operation Flashpoint 2 later in the summer, new games in the Overlord series for both 360/PS3 and Wii/DS, a new MMO Jumpgate, and of course DIRT 2 which will hit 360/PS3/PC, plus Wii/DS and PSP.

You mention Wii there. But Codemasters has been focusing on next-gen mainly. Is that changing?

AB: You can’t ignore Wii, but it’s bewildering watching what other publishers are doing. Codemasters has taken a more cautious strategy on Wii which has been the right thing to do. We are not going to make cheap, crappy ports. DIRT on Wii, for instance, is not Mario Kart. Overlord 2 is a gamer’s game. We’re not planning to compete in this ‘big head sports arena’ that everyone is obsessed with – the shelves are cluttered with those games. What you’ll see from us is quality games for gamers built for the Wii.

JW: That’s where we can excite retail further. There’s only a number of times I think you can go to a retailer with a DS or Wii game which is that type of mass-market product. Those games just become white noise.

A number of Codemasters’ 2008 releases were American-made externally-developed games, but the new line is all European. Does that signify a bigger strategy shift?

AB: We’re always going to have a mix of internal or external product. It doesn’t make sense for a company of our size to build up a vast development organisation and only focus on those games. We have some great partnerships with external teams as well – but that’s always about finding the right cultural fit as well.

JW: We’ve had some product to get through that was very much ways to try new revenue stream in the previous years. What we have now is a mix of product that is much more powerful and palatable to both us and people outside the company.

The company is famed for its racing games – and you’ve a number of them due this year. How will you differentiate between them?

AB: Most important is that we have racing games with very distinct identities. FUEL is an open world racer. DIRT is a rally game full of authenticity which also captures the driving lifestyle.

JW: The one thing that everyone knows about Codemasters is the development quality of its racing games. That’s never been in doubt, and I think that will win out for each game.

And of course there is Formula One. What can you tell us about it?

AB: Our game is an opportunity to bring F1 back on multiple platforms to a broader marketplace. Our vision for F1 is about making it exciting again as a video game property. We can’t talk about how we will do that yet, but we have big plans that will not just be one huge game later this year, but a phased approach over a number of years. There’s a great alignment of ethos there that a UK studio is working on the game of a sport whose current champ is a young ambitious British driver.

There’s been regular talk of a Codemasters sale or float. Is that influencing your 2009 plans?

JW: Yes, there’s been a lot of corporate chatter. But this team’s focus is a sensible approach to profitability and revenue. That has become more pertinent given what is going on across the High Street. I’ve seen too many people get lost up the corporate arse and forget what they are supposed to be doing. Our responsibility lies with our products. Because if the games don’t stand up, the sales won’t – and what Codemasters stands for means nothing.

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