We talk to Bandai Namco's Hervé Hoerdt and Lee Kirton about the firm’s strategy and how it relies on its perennial franchises to try new things in uncharted territories
Hervé Hoerdt, VP of digital and marketing at Bandai Namco Entertainment Europe

Hervé Hoerdt, VP of digital and marketing at Bandai Namco Entertainment Europe

Bandai Namco is getting out of its comfort zone. The Japanese firm’s strategy to focus on titles for a western audience is not exactly new – it kicked off with the release of titles such as Get Even and Little Nightmares in 2017. But now it’s taking it even further.

“We want to do 50 per cent of our business with new IPs within a decade and that’s the reason why we created Get Even, Little Nightmares and Dark Pictures,” says Hervé Hoerdt, VP of digital and marketing at Bandai Namco Entertainment Europe.

The Dark Pictures Anthology is the firm’s latest project, announced at Gamescom earlier this year and created by Until Dawn studio Supermassive. The first installment of the anthology will be the five-hour long Man of Medan, set to release in 2019 and focusing on a group of young people trapped on a ghost ship.

“The best way of explaining [Dark Pictures] is they’re individual games. So the future could be long in terms of how many of those games there are,” Bandai Namco Europe’s PR and marketing director Lee Kirton says. “I think the clear thing is not to associate it with episodes. It’s not episodic. These are unique games. It’s a bit like Black Mirror in the sense that they’re individual stories. So we treat this title, Man of Medan, as one game. There’s horror, there’s supernatural, it’s very much in that Until Dawn area. But there’s lots of new gameplay mechanics that separate it from what’s been done before.”

Bandai Namco Europe’s PR and marketing director Lee Kirton

Bandai Namco Europe’s PR and marketing director Lee Kirton

Black Mirror’s latest episode, Black Museum, does connect previous episodes across seasons though, with very subtle clues.

“Absolutely,” Kirton nods, before we ask if Dark Pictures could follow a similar pattern. “Who knows?” he smiles. “There could be a link. At the moment they’re completely individual titles, individual stories, individual characters.”

And the Supermassive team down in Guildford has ideas for years to come.

“They said they’ve got over 30 ideas and concepts for stories,” Kirton says. “So it could be two games, three games, four games, it could go on like Black Mirror has. Obviously building a game is not an easy thing to do. So it takes time. But if people enjoy what we’re doing with Supermassive, then they are going to want more of this supernatural-horror anthology type of thing.”

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Kirton is keen to emphasise how The Dark Pictures Anthology finds its place in Bandai Namco’s western strategy.

“We’re super excited because it’s a title that Bandai Namco is not used to working on. We’ve been known as more of a Japanese-centric company, with titles that appeal to the west like Ace Combat, Soulcalibur, Tekken, and we’re trying to get a broader share in terms of western products. So this is one of those titles, among others.”

So Man of Medan will be the first step towards Bandai Namco’s goal of getting 50 per cent of its business out of new IP. But finding the right IPs and working towards this goal won’t be a quick or easy task, Hoerdt continues.

“We’re skimming more than 200 opportunities a year. So choosing the best three, four, five is already taking time and using a lot of bandwidth. Then you have time to market, time for development, which takes months, two years, three years. So I don’t see this happening before the next eight to ten years. It’s about quality and the brand ecosystem first. We don’t want to fill a pipe with games, games, games and then that’s done. It is an overall strategy and the strategy is to align resources and do proper executions.

“If there is the quality, if it’s sustainable, if consumers are excited about what we have created, then we will be fine. But I think we’re in pretty good shape to be honest. Little Nightmares has sold about 1m units. Twin Mirror is going to be successful. I mean it’s Dontnod, if you look at the size of the community behind Life is Strange for instance... So we can kind of foresee the blocks we are building and the size of those blocks. I think we’ll be [at 50 per cent of new IP] probably before [a decade] but quality comes first. Most important is finding a community; if people like what we do, we’ll be motivated, we’ll get some money back and reinvest it.”

This new strategy, to create more IP that appeals to a western audience, is only sustainable because Bandai Namco can leverage resources coming from its perennial licenses.

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“In Japan we’re super successful,” Kirton starts explaining. “Bandai Namco is a stable company that owns many many companies. We’re structured in a very successful way in the sense that some risks can be taken, which allow us to do things differently and not copy other publishers. So the whole idea as well is to stand out. Do things that are slightly unexpected.”

Being a big Japanese company relying on licenses can also have its downsides though – you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket. And that was very much one of the motivations behind this shift in strategy, Hoerdt tells us.

“When you look at the content, we own half of the IP, things like Tekken, Pac-Man, Ace Combat and so on and so forth. For the other half we are licensing the games, like Naruto or One Piece. Our job and responsibility is to make sure the company is still there in five, ten years. This is our reason to be: to anticipate what happens in the future. So at some point if we lose one of those IPs or all of them, the company will be in danger.”

He continues: “The second reason is, when we license an IP, there’s nothing more we can do than a video game, we’re not allowed to do anything else. Whereas, talking about Little Nightmares, we can explore this IP, we can do escape rooms, we can do movies, series, talk to Amazon, Netflix... So that’s the second part.

“And the third part is that the group’s content targets the same marketing segment: RPG, fighting, JRPG. But there’s much wider and bigger market segments out there to take. Something we didn’t mention so far is the partnership with Slightly Mad Studios, a great UK studio, with Project CARS. Obviously tapping into this racing market segment is a very important strategy for our long term sustainability. So these are the reasons.”

THE NEXT LITTLE THING

Diversifying its offer is at the core of Bandai Namco’s strategy then, and that also means not focusing on games only, as Hoerdt hinted at, with Little Nightmares being the first in line.

We mention the TV series based on Tarsier Studios’ title, that was announced last year, and ask how it’s going.

Little Nightmares comic book, published by Titan Comics 

Little Nightmares comic book, published by Titan Comics 

“It’s still open. Nothing is signed yet,” Hoerdt answers. “Discussions [are still ongoing] on both sides of the world actually, in the US and in Japan. Something will happen for sure, it’s not that we don’t want to discuss it, we just haven’t decided the best option. Should we go for one big shot with a lot of content or should we go for a series? Which art direction should we go in? How is this content changing the way we envision the game? It’s not that we don’t want to, but we are learning. We are very humble to be honest. We have a lot of projects and ideas but we are also humble, there’s only 24 hours in a day. We’re very committed to this ambitious strategy, but there’s only so much we can do. I’d love to tell you: ‘Yes, we’ve signed with these guys, we’re doing this’. I would love to, especially with this one because this is really our next big thing. We really want our IP to be in theaters or on Netflix.”

This strategy of expanding its IPs outside of the world of games could very much apply to other titles in Bandai’s portfolio, Kirton continues.

“They talk about this ‘360 campaign’ which can be seen as a typical marketing speech, but the experience at Bandai Namco Entertainment is we’re not a games company, we’re an entertainment company. We have business units in visual, in live events, in music, in film production, in every single area,” he says. “So having that experience within the business enables us to create a game and then have a comic, a TV series... And you can’t do it with everything of course but it’s picking the right titles and making sure they grow in the right way, while doing it cleverly and carefully. We don’t want to just say we’re going to do everything. It’s very easy for people to do that. But I think we’ve been very careful in the titles we are developing. The quality is there.”

This brings us back to discussing more of Bandai’s line-up of new IP.

“We’re working on 11-11: Memories Retold which is a really important title set around the backdrop of World War One,” Kirton says. “It’s launching [for the] Centenary this year, in November. We’re working with Aardman, the world famous BAFTA and Oscar winning studio responsible for Shaun the Sheep and Wallace and Gromit. And it’s a title that you wouldn’t expect to connect to a studio like Aardman. So having a relationship like that and working on a title like that was really important.

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“Hervé mentioned Twin Mirror and obviously working with Dontnod is great. We’re sort of harbouring talent and working with really talented individual people to make special projects come to life. But also to separate ourselves from a typical games company.”

Dontnod-developed Twin Mirror will be Bandai Namco’s first episodic release (coming out day-and-date at retail and digitally in 2019), revolving around investigative journalist Sam going back to his hometown and trying to recall a possible traumatic event. In typical Dontnod fashion, there will be some supernatural elements, with the main character being able to go into his ‘mind palace’ to try and find clues.

“If you take Life is Strange, it touched an audience in a certain way. It touched on teen angst and themes around this generation – a younger audience. If you look at Twin Mirror, you can see it’s a Dontnod title but it’s very different in the sense that it’s driven by more mature themes, that you’d expect from a Netflix drama,” Kirton explains.

Between Get Even, Little Nightmares, Man of Medan and Twin Mirror, it sounds like a new type of Bandai Namco game has emerged, more focused on stories. But when we ask Hoerdt about whether or not that’s a thing, it doesn’t seem to be that intentional.

“That’s an interesting question,” he starts, pausing and then adding: “Yes and no. No because to be very honest it’s also a question of the project and the strategic fit with the company and if we foresee a crossmedia expansion or not with this IP and if we own the IP or not...

“But then, yes, it appears there are some kind of similarities. Which is fine. Our ambition and our DNA is between Disney and Nintendo. So, yes, I would like to have this very unique atmosphere, emotional experience, that is different. But in the end I would also love to have something family-oriented, more for kids. We grow in two different macro-categories. But it’s true that for the moment the opportunities we’ve been presented are almost within the same area.”

Kirton expands on these thoughts: “I think we provide content for everyone. No doubt. We’ve done work with Pac-Man Stories on Alexa. And that’s something designed specifically to educate and provide kids with some fun on a completely new platform that we’re testing. The publishing titles, the third-party titles, yes, they’re narrative-driven, story-based, because we want to explore that with a more mature audience. And narrative-driven titles are very popular titles. It’s very easy to say we’re going to do a first-person shooter... Because everyone is making a first-person shooter. What makes it different from other things? I think you can explore difference in narrative, story-driven titles.”

And Hoerdt to conclude: ”What we want is to deliver a great experience, also make some money or at least break even, but what’s also important to us is the learning. I guess we won’t do another episodic game back-to-back but we will have learnt this. We tried anthology, we tried Pac-Man Stories with Amazon, we tried [many] things in entertainment and I think we’re on this course where we’re giving ourselves some years to enlarge the prism of our possibilities and to improve our skills.”

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