Home / Business / Franchise potential, long-term vision and community-driven: Is your game what Sega Searchlight is looking for?

Franchise potential, long-term vision and community-driven: Is your game what Sega Searchlight is looking for?

Chances are if we say the word ‘Sega’ you will instantly think about one of the following depending on your generation: Sonic, Mega Drive, Daytona USA, Shenmue, Total War or even just that iconic Sega jingle – you know the one.

And thanks to Sega Europe’s incubation programme, Searchlight, hopefully the publisher will soon be known for supporting, developing and acquiring indie studios as well.

Searchlight is a publishing division within Sega Europe that’s been going for over three years, operating globally. Its goal? To find new studios who have projects with a franchise potential.

“The key thing for us is that we’re working with really talented, incredible people that we believe in,” says Bobby Wertheim (pictured top), head of content at Sega Europe, who works on Searchlight.

“What’s really important is that they’ve got a great idea, an innovative piece of content that they want to make, which we believe that they can deliver, and there’s the potential for it to be turned into a franchise.

“They must have a long-term vision that we can then invest in, bringing real value to the table, using the whole force of Sega’s global network. That’s in essence what Searchlight is.”

They key words here are “franchises” and “long-term vision” as Wertheim stresses that building long-lasting communities is really what Searchlight is after.

“They’ve got an idea of an experience or game that really stands out,” he says, describing what he’s looking for in a studio.

“Maybe it doesn’t set out to please everyone but it does what it does really well. Maybe it’s genre defining, maybe it’s best in class. I know these are buzz words but the key is that they have a really unique, innovative experience that we can say: ‘There’s gonna be a lot of fun to be had playing that game and we can see a community being built around it’. Because what we want essentially with that first game is to build the community and then look to continue to grow that community.”

But Searchlight doesn’t only want to invest in indies and publish their titles: it wants to acquire them, wherever they are in the world – it wants them to be part of the Sega family. Ideally the team would want to work with said-studio before buying it but there’s been exceptions, such as Amplitude Studios, acquired in 2016.

“So Amplitude, we hadn’t worked with them prior to acquisition,” Wertheim confirms. “And that came about because it felt like it was really immediately a really good fit. With how Searchlight operates, I wouldn’t rule anything out. I think we’re open to seeing what’s right for that team and that project. But typically I think more often than not what we’d probably like to do is an initial deal, a publishing deal, and then take it from there.”

The programme doesn’t have a set target either, but rather wants to take the time to do things properly on a case by case basis rather than blitz through mindless acquisitions.

“We have talked about it, saying: should there be a number? And we decided it wouldn’t be right to do that,” Wertheim explains. “The reason why is if we were to say: we want two acquisitions by the end of this year, we would probably rush and make the wrong call, just trying to achieve that goal rather than doing the right thing. So at the moment we’re taking it one step at a time and just make sure that we make the right decisions with the right teams.”

Sega Europe has certainly not been the only publisher that’s seriously been looking into acquisitions lately, with Microsoft on a buying spree since E3 last year, having bought the likes of Playground, Ninja Theory and Obsidian.

“There’s always going to be investors looking at investing. What we offer is distinct enough for our partners to feel like it’s not about just the money, it’s what that entails after the acquisition.”

 

And that’s not mentioning THQ Nordic, that has acquired numerous studios over the past couple of years, including Koch Media/Deep Silver but also Warhorse, Coffee Stain and Bugbear, among others.

So it feels like there’s more and more competition when it comes to both working with and acquiring small to medium-sized developers. Wertheim doesn’t deny it but highlights that this competition is healthy – and that hopefully it means indies have a choice and will eventually choose Sega because of the quality of what the publisher has to offer.

“I think the industry has been changing all the time and there’s always going to be investors looking at investing. That’s never going to change. Hopefully it doesn’t,” he smiles. “I think it’s good that it exists, that there’s actually a real hotbed and that it’s not just Sega doing it, that other people are involved.

“And from that our partners can say: ‘Okay I’ve got these different opportunities but actually I’m choosing to go with Sega because of what Sega is offering’ – not just financially but how we work, how we operate and what our culture is. I think what we offer is distinct enough for our partners to feel like it’s not about just the money, it’s actually what that entails after the acquisition. We’re really mindful after an acquisition that we integrate our partner into Sega in a really sensible way.”

NEVER GONNA GIVE YOU UP

That leads us to discussing Searchlight’s first tour de force: the acquisition of Two Point Studios a couple of months ago, that Sega is currently “really busy with,” to make sure it’s integrated smoothly to the family.

Acquiring Two Point Studios feels like an absolute no brainer based on what Wertheim has told us: following up on PC hit Two Point Hospital, published by Sega, the developer plans to continue populating its Two Point County with other sim games.

Franchise, long term vision, building a community: does that ring a bell?

“That’s exactly it,” Wertheim confirms. “Two Point ties back to what I was saying. We felt they were really an incredible team, with a great vision that we could buy into. And I think it was in January 2017 that we signed the game and from the very beginning it was always a: ‘Look we want this to be a long-term partnership, we believe in your long-term vision and, if things go well, we want to talk about potential acquisition’. And whenever I talk to studios I always mention that that’s what we mean when we say long-term partnership. We’re really clear on that expectation. It’s Sega’s way of making sure that we have a project where we can really see if it’s a relationship that’s a win-win situation, that we’re adding value to what each other’s doing and we can see it working out as a long-term partnership.”

As Wertheim just mentioned, the partnership needs to be a win-win so we ask his opinion on what the value is for the developer to get further into a partnership with Sega.

“Some publishers are very hands off and they’re literally a funding partner and they don’t really give feedback throughout the process of development,” he starts explaining. “And on the other hand, you’ve got publishers that are like: ‘We’re funding the project, it’s our IP and we want that pixel to be this, we want that to be blue instead of red’ – and really micromanage. Whereas we’re in the middle of that.

“We think there’s a middle ground that really works where it’s actually a proper collaboration and partnership, and I think [Two Point Studios] really bought into that and understood what we were about. So what we try and do is go: ‘Okay, throughout development, let’s create a roadmap for consumer testing’. We’re testing the right thing at the right time with the right audience so that there’s meaningful feedback that the developer gets and then they can respond to that during development. And we’ve got QA, localisation, loads of tools that we have internally that we can put into the game. There’s quite a bit of scale and expertise with what Sega has to offer, that allows the studio to not have to wear lots of hats. I think that’s really important for our partners that they can focus on doing what they love doing, which is generally making games.”

“There’s quite a bit of scale and expertise with what Sega has to offer, that allows the studio to not have to wear lots of hats.”

 

Still taking the example of Two Point Studios to understand what the process of being acquired by Sega through Searchlight is, Wertheim tells us about the priorities once the initial acquisition is done – one of them being to make sure that everything is on track before letting go of their hand.

“The key thing for us is to make sure that we don’t destroy the relationship that we have or lose a talent that’s in the studio or the culture that the studio has built up by doing the acquisition,” he says. “So what we’re really mindful of is make sure we maintain those things and that the studio is able to continue to express what it wants to achieve and that we enable that to happen.

“At the moment with Two Point, they’re still under Searchlight even after the acquisition. Rather than go: ‘Now we’ve acquired you, you’re part of Sega, we’re just kind of going to let you go’, we’re still managing the studio and all of its projects and future stuff they’ve got in the pipeline. Once the studio is ready to go, like: ‘Actually we want to do this stuff’, then it’s like: ‘Yeah, you do it’, whatever that is!”

WHAT’S YOUR GAME?

With Two Point Hospital being another strategy/sim title, we assumed that the genre was going to remain Searchlight’s focus, like Sega itself. But Wertheim tells us the team is not focused on one specific segment, for fear of missing out on the next big thing.

“Sega will definitely continue to make really great experiences for its existing community, with franchises like Total War. But in terms of what Searchlight is looking for, we have purposefully not said within our team: ‘This is a genre that we’re going to go for’, like creating a shopping list. Because then we might not find the next… I don’t know. Fortnite. Minecraft. Or whatever it might be. So we don’t look for specific genres. We do want to make sure we’re a really good partner for the project, so if the project is strategy and it makes sense for us, we’d definitely look at it.

“In terms of platform, our focus primarily is PC and console at first, to create an initial experience and a community around it and maybe it can diversify into different platforms like mobile or other new platforms.

“When we talk about long-term vision, one of the things that we are mindful of is: how scalable is this potential franchise? And if there’s potential for it to go into different new platforms, new business models, even new genres, then great.”

Talking about finding the right partners and genres, we end up talking about narrative-driven studio Interior Night, that signed a publishing deal with Sega in January 2018. But unfortunately, not all projects can come to fruition, Wertheim explains.

“Sega did announce a partnership with Interior Night – it’s a really talented studio, headed up by Caroline Marchal who is amazing and really experienced but Sega decided not to continue with that project,” he reveals. “We have a lot of respect for the studio. The great thing about Sega Searchlight is basically saying: we’re willing to take a risk and try something new. We don’t have interactive narrative games in our portfolio and that was a real new challenge for Sega. In the end, not every project is going to go as well as I personally would like. So it’s the end of the relationship but we’re just working hard to find the next big thing,” he smiles.

If this specific partnership didn’t work out, we have no doubt that with his enthusiasm, which is undoubtedly shared by his team, Wertheim will definitely find the next big thing for Sega.

“I’d like to find and work with really talented people and add something really exciting to Sega’s portfolio,” he says when we ask about his ambitions. “I think Sega’s already got loads of exciting games but I think it’s really important that we continue to add new experiences. It’d be cool, in a couple of years, if there’s the really exciting game coming out from Sega because Searchlight has found it and then we’ve acquired the studio and it’s a new and happy member of the Sega family.”

About Marie Dealessandri

Marie Dealessandri is MCV’s former senior staff writer. After testing the waters of the film industry in France and being a radio host and reporter in Canada, she settled for the games industry in London in 2015. She can be found (very) occasionally tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate, Hollow Knight and the Dead Cells soundtrack.

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