Never let it be said that Pinnacle MD Peter Sleeman has let his company stand still. Those who remember him introducing the concept of exclusive distribution – now a market standard – are well aware that the man at the top of one of the UK's longest-running service providers will change his business at the first sign of stagnation.
And that's exactly what Sleeman and his team have done in 2008, with a radical new direction for the company – designed to enhance the prospects of global developers not wishing to go down the publisher route.
For whilst continuing its traditional business, Pinnacle Software now offers studios funding, as well as marketing and manufacturing powers – as shown by its release of Spanish studio Tragnarion's Doodle Hex on Nintendo DS on July 11th.
The firm has a slate of titles from UK studios coming later this year, offering each aid with release. Here, Sleeman explains the new model. Just don't call him a publisher…
Why did you need this change?
Our traditional business is still vital to us because that keeps all those retail doors open. But there are fewer retailers with fewer store fronts being serviced by fewer publishers. There are more people coming into a narrower space – apparently Tim Chaney's going to come in and give me a slap and he's set up his own distribution service. Distributors go bust every year, and the ones that do don't evolve and don't change. We're making sure we do change.
What's different to what we've seen before?
We make sure that the entry point gets easier for developers. We ensure they don't have to use a publisher, but equally that doesn't mean they have to go: Oh my God, we were a developer, now we're a publisher.” If this works, it will definitely be something we invest in more. And we are making sure we are giving the all-important kudos to those that deserve it – namely the developers – by putting them on front of the box, not us.
To put it bluntly, if you're not a publisher, how are you making money from boxed sales?
We are taking a share of the revenue in each case. That share of the revenue is a return on our investment – whether that investment has been in marketing, personnel, resource, structure or development. The developers are coming to us and telling us what it is that they require for their title.
Can you see the ‘fame' element of developers being put on the front of boxes becoming more like the cinema model?
Absolutely. Cooking Mama's a great example – it didn't matter who published it. What was interesting was the game. 505 has been very clever in associating itself with that and as a result people will look for 505 Games.
From our point of view, we don't have an umbrella brand we're pushing on the front of boxes. One of the biggest selling points for us is that an Introversion game should have Introversion on the front. We hope that will drive people that perhaps haven't seen Introversion products to look at some of their other releases – we hope the same happens with our other development products.
It's harder than film, because you don't have personalities. I'm not sure we'll ever get there. We have Miyamoto-San, but stand outside GAME and ask 5,000 people who bought a DS title who he is, and you'll draw a blank from 99 per cent of them. The consumer audience doesn't care. The publisher has been the star for a long time, and that emphasis is changing. Our strategy dovetails into that.
If the publishers are Universal, Fox, Paramount, Disney, MGM, then maybe what we're creating is Miramax – something that sits underneath those players that picks up the auteurs in the games market.
What would you say to those who liken your model to Koch or Gamecock?
Koch's Deep Silver is a publisher and a development studio. Simple as that. We're neither of those things. Gamecock is not dissimilar, but they've just done a deal with a publisher. It's still to be seen what they'll become. We're a service provider.
People have traditionally known Pinnacle for pick, pack, ship, sales – they wouldn't have associated us with marketing, PR or financing products. What we don't want is a load of people saying, Give us a load of money and we'll make you a great game.” We're not interested in that. We're interested in people who need assistance to get over the line without conceding control. We'll obviously use Pinnacle for distribution, because you have to use the best now, don't you?
What if one of your titles becomes huge? Can you reassure developers that you have the resource needed to deal with major success?
We've had the Christmas number one the last nine times out of 12 doing physical distribution, so I am sure that we could handle that.
With the exception of Tragnarion, all of the developers you're working with are from the UK. Will we see this expand more globally over the next year?
We're talking to developers in other countries now. Obviously, we don't stop at the end of Q1 next year – ‘look what we've done!' – we're talking to the US, Australia, France and Germany. We don't want to become a giant factory of hundreds of games. We want to do a certain amount, well. In an ideal world, our development slots decrease each year because we have franchise slots that continue each year.
Is Pinnacle going to remain in the background in a way that other publishers don't?
Because of the way the manufacturing model is structured, we have to have some kind of acknowledgement of that in the process. We become the licensor of the products in certain cases, and in others we're the licensor of the rights. Is Pinnacle Software going to become our generic brand? I think probably not. Could we create an umbrella brand? Yes we could, but there's no rush to do so.
We very firmly see ourselves as the missing part of what a developer would need to form a publishing stategy. We have developers who don't need any contribution to development, but who don't have a licence to publish. We can offer them that, so long as they can satisfy the requirements. Every single deal is different. Generally, you'll find the developer name on the front of the box, and on the back you'll find ‘Distributed worldwide by Pinnacle Software'.
Would you ever be interested in owning IP?
Yes, potentially. That might suit the studio in the future at some point.
What about buying a studio itself?
I don't know about that. It hasn't ever come up for us. We've definitely got no plans for buying a studio at this stage. I am never sure what you own when you own a studio. The beauty of working in this industry is you work with really talented, creative people. And I think most big publishers have shown how hard it can be to own creative individuals – it's almost impossible. They can stop being creative. How would you manage that? Our propostition is not the only solution to taking games to market, but we offer a marked difference to the rest.