Cooking Mama, Zumba, Terraria… 505 Games’ decade in the games industry is littered with surprise blockbusters, and the publisher is now set to launch its most unusual line-up yet.
We speak with 505 Games president Ian Howe and global marketing chief Tim Woodley on the firm’s story so far
How did 505 Games come to be?
Ian Howe, president, 505 Games(pictured right): The initial ambitions for 505 Games were pretty humble and quite opportunistic.
The low cost-of-entry and large install base on DS meant that it was the obvious platform to focus on. We could take a portfolio approach, take a few more risks and increase our chances of finding success.
A lot of the original content came from Japan. There were many firms struggling to reach the European market. One of the first games we picked up in Japan was Cooking Mama. It had a real charm about it, but we’d be lying if we had any idea what we had. That game went on to sell over 1.5m copies in Europe.
505 Games was also born out of the casual/family market that Nintendo created and we understood it intrinsically. Many other core gaming publishers were struggling to understand it.
Our challenge was in how we moved away from the low-risk casual sector to core gaming when the Nintendo iceberg melted.
When that ‘iceberg melted’, so many companies just fell away. But 505 Games didn’t…
Tim Woodley, SVP, global brand and marketing, 505 Games(pictured top far right):Well, we have always kept a very keen ear to the ground when it comes to market movement. We’re not big enough to drive the dynamics of the market, but we do like to be fast-followers.
Even before the Nintendo platforms started to fall away, we recognised that we would have to move into the grown-up gaming world, the world of Xbox 360 and PS3. This meant bigger investments, longer development times and bigger risks.
Even then though, we remained pragmatic and considered. IL-2 Sturmovik and Naughty Bear were co-production deals with their developers and gave us both the ability to turn a profit very quickly. IL-2 Sturmovik, in particular, was an 8/10 game developed by Gaijin on four formats in Russia. People would be shocked to know how little that project cost us.
We diversified our portfolio onto the core-gaming platforms in a fiscally responsible way, and established closer and more symbiotic, open, honest and transparent relationships with developers, something which has become part of our corporate identity. Addressing the traditional friction point between publisher and developer has been one of the core achievements of our first ten years.
We also had a ready-made distribution network from the outset. Our parent company had been in bricks and mortar games distribution for 15 years and already had offices in Italy, France and Spain. When 505 headquartered in the UK, we had only to open in Germany and the United States, which happened in 2008, to have all the major markets covered.
Also, the team all had experience at larger games corporations, mainly Activision and THQ. This expertise, which remains to this day, enables us to think like a big publisher but with all the benefits that come from being a small one.
Finally, we have always been quick to move on opportunity. Rugby World Cup 2011, for instance, was greenlit in 24 hours after HB Studios were let down by its original publisher five months from the start of the tournament. That went on to sell half a million units.
Cooking Mama was a defining moment for 505 Games. What are your thoughts on the series looking back now?
Woodley: It was the right product on the right platform at the right time. Cooking Mama matched the DS gameplay style perfectly, at a time when millions of new casual players – girls especially – were getting into games on that platform. It was a killer app for that generation.
For ages, 505 was ‘the Cooking Mama company’. While that was no bad thing in the early days, as it gave us a calling card, especially for retail, over-dependence on anything is a dangerous thing.
We have always been good at identifying this risk. With Cooking Mama, it was about slowly diversifying from Nintendo platforms onto PS3 and Xbox 360, finding our footing there, and gradually levelling up in terms of the developers we were working with. With our US organisation now fully operational, we would find our first million seller on those platforms in the form of Sniper Elite V2 with Rebellion in 2012.
But real diversification was still to come with the rise of digital, mobile and free-to-play.
How did digital change things?
Howe: We’ve never been more successful than in these last couple of years as we’ve diversified into digital. Access to digital data has meant that people have only ever seen the tip of our iceberg. In June 2015, we closed out our most successful year to-date.
Terraria has sold well over 5m units across the nine platforms we have developed and published it for. It became a console hit and has rarely been out of the App Store’s Top 20 in many countries in two and a half years. That helped us establish strong relationships with Apple and Google.
Payday 2 is another one of our best-kept secrets. It was given a last minute physical release in 2013 after it transpired that the game would be too big to be released solely through digital. Five months from launch, we were able to turn on a dime, activate the commercial arm and prepare for a retail release. It went straight to the top of the charts and the franchise ended up becoming far bigger than it would have had it stayed purely digital – we sold over 9m units. Nevertheless, the majority of Payday 2 sales have come from digital, it’s been an evergreen hit on Steam.
The rise of digital has allowed us to take a few more risks. Starbreeze’s Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is an indie project, which we’re really proud of. It took a while for critical acclaim to translate to commercial success – it’s now sold over 1m units – but retail would never have taken a chance on it. Similarly with our other zombie survival mini-hit, How To Survive, which has sold 1.5m units.
Our wholly-owned free-to-play IP, Battle Islands, was a profitable mobile experiment, which has now broken through onto console to levels that we never expected. This is now leading the charge.
Let’s head back again, though, to the Zumba phenomenon of 2011. That was quite a surprise.
Woodley: You couldn’t help but notice the rise of fitness and dance genres among this new casual audience. We knew that if we could bring these two together, you had all the ingredients of a mega-hit.
Majesco clearly had a similar thought and secured exclusive rights to the then-fledgling Zumba craze. It then approached us to be the European publishing partner for Zumba Fitness.
The interesting thing about that game is that, initially, retail was only interested in the Xbox 360 Kinect version and not the Wii edition. In 2010, retail was of the opinion that the Wii had had its last Christmas. Roll on to April 2011, when we had finally managed to get the game listed, and we started getting calls from retailers experiencing unprecedented levels of pre-orders.
The rest is history. That first game spent all of the summer of 2011 at No.1 in the UK charts, and the franchise went on to sell 3.5m units across Europe. Just as Cooking Mama changed our fortunes by allowing us to diversify and invest in new platforms, Zumba Fitness was another significant injection of resources.
Was there any particular low-points during the early days of 505 Games?
Howe: Anyone who’s started up a business will say there are plenty of low points and we’re no different. Having a small, tight-knit team who’d all worked together before was beneficial early on.
Whenever you release a game, you don’t truly know how the world will react and when the reaction is bad, it’s always challenging. Sometimes you can look at the game and say it simply wasn’t good enough, other times, the quality is there but for whatever reason, there was no demand.
We try not to over-analyse the market – if you do that you can cause a reduction in creativity so we try and trust our instincts. But that sometimes leads to bad decisions and, ultimately, a bad product, which is something that we’re always trying to improve upon.We have been able to learn from our mistakes.
Looking further ahead, what are your aims for the next ten years?
Howe: They’re certainly broader than ten years ago, but we’re ultimately focused on developing interesting video games.
We’re highly focused on our own IP. A lot of our success has come from other people’s games and while we’re very happy to still have this play a part in our future, it’s critical that we’re able to develop our own brands.
We’ve been working extremely hard on some new, unannounced IPs that will come to market in the next few years. These are ideas that come from our team at 505 and we encourage everyone in the company to think about the types of games they want to make. If we think the idea is strong enough, then we’ll go ahead and make it. In that respect we’re taking an approach much closer to that of a developer.
But we’re always looking to partner with the best development talent and again, we’ve got a couple of major partnerships that are as yet unannounced.
Looking further ahead, growth is something of a double-edged sword for us. We see our size, or our lack of size, as one of our key strengths and growth presents some interesting challenges. It is inevitable that we will see a significant growth over the next decade, but it’s hard to predict in what areas that will come.
My hopes, ultimately, are that we are still able to be a vibrant and interesting games publisher that’s still prepared to take risks.
505 Games: The story so far:
505 Games business plan written on dining room table in Northampton, UK.
Original Cooking Mama on DS is released in Europe. Cooking Mama franchise goes on to sell 3.5m units.
505 Games is Awarded Sales Triumph Award for Cooking Mama DS at the MCV Awards.
North American and German offices are opened.
First global day and date multi-format release – IL2-Sturmovik: Birds of Prey for Xbox 360, PS3, DS and PSP.
The iconic Naughty Bear released, and causes a stir by wandering around E3.
First Zumba Fitness game released.
Zumba Fitness Wii released and spends 13 weeks at No.1 in UK charts. Franchise goes on to sell 3.5m in Europe.
505 Games wins the Sales Triumph category for Zumba Fitness on Wii at MCV Awards.
505 Games Mobile established.
Sniper Elite V2 released. It becomes the company’s first 1m unit seller globally on 360 and PlayStation 3.
Terraria launches on XBLA and PSN. Goes on to become the 12th best-selling XBLA title of all time and is released on a further seven platforms.
Terraria launches on iOS
and Android. First Editors Choice feature.
Payday 2 launches on Xbox 360 and PS3. Surpassed 1.2m units in its first week.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons released on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. Goes on to garner many awards and widespread acclaim.
Breakthrough free-to-play success with Battle Islands released as 505 Games’ first wholly-owned IP for iOS and Android. Now across mobile, social and console.
Sniper Elite 3 released. Biggest retail release in 505 Games’ history.
505 picks up Indie Games Label prize at MCV Awards.
New signings Abzu and Adr1ft impress at E3 2015, garnering multiple Editors Choice awards between them.
505 Games opens office in Shenzhen, China.
BROTHERS IN ARMS
505 Games may be looking to establish its own IP hits today, but some of its biggest successes have come from partnering with the likes of the Cooking Mama Company, Majesco (Zumba), Re-Logic (Terraria) and Starbreeze (Payday).
The company’s success in the indie space saw it named indie publisher of the year at last year’s MCV Awards. And this was no surprise to the teams that have worked with them.
505 Games has been an integral part in helping Terraria become the global brand it is today,” says a spokesperson for Terraria developer Re-Logic. It’s now sold over 16 million copies.”
Bo Andersson, the CEO of Payday developer Starbreeze/Overkill, adds: "505 Games’ independent status and flat structure enables it to react quickly, make prompt decisions and keep pace with our agile organisation. At the same time they have the reach and means to take the Payday brand to all corners of the globe, which has enabled us to reach nine million franchise sales… so far.”
505 Games has a reputation for surprise hits. Cooking Mama, Zumba Fitness, Terraria and Payday 2 all took the market unawares (two even won MCV Awards for doing so).
So the three new IPs 505 Games have coming to market in 2016 might be worth paying attention to: