Looking back a decade, it’s fair to say that no one really expected Focus Home Interactive to become a trendy publisher. The French firm started its journey as a PC specialist, with franchises such as Cycling Manager, Pro Rugby Manager or Trackmania, and then earned its stripes Farming Simulator.
Going from strength to strength, the publisher was then able to invest and support more ambitious games, outside of its initial comfort zone.
And attending Focus’ annual What’s Next event in Paris made that pretty clear, with a wealth of games on show from renowned international studios, from Dontnod to Saber Interactive to Deck13.
“2017 has been a beautiful year for Focus. We just announced a turnover of nearly €80m,” Focus CEO Cédric Lagarrigue (pictured top) tells MCV. “So it’s been increasing despite the delay of two important games for us, Vampyr and Call of Cthulhu, which are highly awaited games. But we managed to get a surprise hit at the end of the year with Spintires: Mudrunner, which sold nearly half a million units and continues to sell extremely well. We hope to hit the 1m milestone in the coming months. If you add the success of titles like The Surge – and Farming Simulator, of course – that all contributed to a beautiful year for Focus.”
The publisher has no fewer than 11 games lined up to release this year and what’s immediately visible is the ambition and scale of those games. However, when mentioning Focus’ impressive rise, Lagarrigue just grins.
“We exist,” he says. “We somehow managed to get on the radar of a lot of people. The mainstream has started to find out about the ‘Focus philosophy’ – our desire to create games we love, simply put. And it’s something that’s been a little lost in the current market, as there are now so many blockbusters with important economic stakes.
“We managed to establish ourselves in the physical market these past years. Last year the share of physical sales was superior to digital sales.”
Focus’ evolution comes down to a smart choice of games, and 2018 takes shape as a turning point for the publisher.
“Focus really tries to fill up the gap between indie games and blockbusters,” Lagarrigue explains. “We have an original offering, really different from what’s on the market right now. I got into the habit of saying that we’re a bit similar to Netflix Originals: strong universes created by talented teams with mid-range budgets but big enough to be able to deliver a more than satisfactory experience. So we fill up that space with success and we’re very happy today to be working with some of the best independent studios.”
Focus’ collaboration with Dontnod on Vampyr is on everyone’s lips during What’s Next, as the release date was announced in the middle of our chat with Lagarrigue. The publisher’s most anticipated title of the year will release on June 5th, having been initially scheduled for November 2017.
“We’re really trying to take the time to make sure the game is balanced, because it’s a complex title, in a big open world, with a lot of storyline ramifications,” says Lagarrigue. “We don’t want to disappoint.”
Last time we spoke to Lagarrigue, after Gamescom last year, he told MCV “Vampyr will be considered a success when around 1m copies are sold.” This time around he’s a bit more careful, saying that “Focus is always cautious when it comes to announcing figures,” especially with a new IP with “no precedent.” However, he adds: “I think it’s fair to say that as long as we have a good game, we’ll be able to sell over a million, because expectations are high and the game made its mark on the radar of many gamers worldwide.”
There’s another similarity that is noticeable among the games at What’s Next: they share a similar atmosphere, with a lot of moody, narrative-driven RPG titles.
“Narrative driven, yes, but not only,” Lagarrigue says instantly when asked about how he would define a typical Focus game. “There’s a little bit of everything but, yes, the story is something that is important for us. I think that sometimes video games can lose themselves a bit in big open worlds, and lose rhythm. So we also love the stories told by these studios renowned for the quality of their storylines, their writing, their narratives. But in addition to this, we also make games that are massively played online. It’s a mix of everything. You can’t say there’s a ‘Focus style’. There is a type of game you’ll find in Focus’ catalogue, things like Vampyr, Call of Cthulhu, and then you have games like Mudrunner and Farming Simulator. We’re interested in taking universal themes that are extremely popular and finding teams that will be able to invent and imagine mechanics that work well around these themes.”
Despite the publisher having an increasingly diverse portfolio, Farming Simulator had the most extravagant booth at What’s Next.
“It’s a flagship title for Focus,” he says. “It’s been a success that’s taken a lot of space in Focus’ turnover, but we’ve been constantly reinventing ourselves. Farming Simulator remains an important franchise for Focus, we’re ambitious to sell more copies each year, for instance with Farming Simulator ‘19, which, I think, will both reach an even larger audience and please the fans as there are big surprises that we’re going to announce at E3. So Farming Simulator remains as important as ever, it’s the rest of our catalogue that has gone from strength to strength. The success of titles like Farming Simulator, Mudrunner and Blood Bowl helped us build a portfolio of games we love. And we love a Farming Simulator as much as we love a Vampyr. It’s very exciting to release games like that.”
That also includes giving a chance to new studios, like Big Bad Wolf, which is giving the episodic format a spin with The Council (you can read more about it here).
“We have a role in the French video games ecosystem, which is to work with young talents, young teams, and ensure the success of their debut titles. It’s something we’ve done with a lot of studios in France,” Lagarrigue explains.
“[Big Bad Wolf] came to us with an interesting offer, with RPG mechanics, skills that have a deep impact on the story and the action. We thought it was original and well crafted and we decided to give them a chance and give them access to the international market. It’s a first collaboration.”
But not content with publishing young studios in its home country, Focus also has its heart set on strengthening its international presence. 87 per cent of Focus’ turnover is made outside of France, but the publisher still mainly works with local developers.
“70 per cent of our studios are French, but we also work with the likes of English, American, Canadian, German and Swiss studios,” Lagarrigue says. “We don’t limit ourselves, but of course, as we outsource development it’s also good to work with French studios that we can meet with on a regular basis. We communicate a lot with them, and proximity allows us to visit them, making them friends.”
He continues: “Of course, the size we aim for is not the size we’re at right now. So we’re going to continue to grow through the success of the titles we support. The aim is to keep growing with an offering that is different from those of our competitors. A catalogue of strong, anticipated, original games, created by the best teams in the global dev scene.”
As the gold rush to the Nintendo Switch continues, Focus has remained quite set back as far as the hybrid console is concerned, with only a handful of titles announced. But that doesn’t mean the publisher doesn’t have interest in the Switch, Focus’ CEO Cédric Lagarrigue tells us. If anything, Focus is just waiting for the right time to jump on the bandwagon.
“It’s a console that we’ll keep supporting for certain games,” he says. “It’s the case for Farming Simulator, Spintires: Mudrunner and Masters of Anima (pictured above), even if the install base is not important enough yet to really hope for big scores that only Nintendo can achieve at this point. But it’s a very interesting console. It’s different. We’ve started to realise that it’s played as a handheld a lot, it’s replaced handheld consoles more than home consoles. So there’s a real interest for us to keep offering experiences on this console.”