... David Scolari
By Don Evanoff
While at E3 for 2001, I decided to make a detour from the Tony Hawk half-pipe show and the Sega Press Fortress to drop in on one of my favorite game companies, Codemasters. Although based in the UK, these guys have brought us some wonderful titles on the NES, from Big Nose to the Quattro series. Their recent efforts on the next-gen systems have been stellar (with some exceptions, of course). Most notable of these great games has been the Colin McRae rally series and the TOCA series. For total rally immersion, on any system, nothing touches Colin. And the TOCA series has been so shamefully overlooked in the States that one would think there was a conspiracy against the company.
My detour proved fruitful, as not only were they debuting MTV Music Generator 2 for Playstation 2 (if you’re a fan of the first, the second should be a no-brainer purchase) but they were kind enough to sit down with me and answer a few questions about the company. One thing led to another, and my superlative charm convinced them into granting me an interview with the Senior Marketing Manager for the US, David Solari.
David Solari started with Codemasters in November 1998 as Product Manager working on all Codemasters products at that time. These included, TOCA 2, Music (the version before MTV Music Generator), Brian Lara Cricket and No Fear Downhill Mountain Biking. His role involved providing materials, demoing product and running promotions.
In the summer of 99, David was promoted to Assistant Marketing Manager. Still working on all products, he was responsible for developing marketing plans for all Codemasters products. Early 2000 he took on a more strategic role and developed international marketing campaigns for products like Colin McRae Rally 2 and TOCA World Touring Cars. September of 2000 David began working on Codemasters US business by developing communication Campaigns for Mike Tyson Boxing, Jarrett and Labonte Stock Car Racing, and Fox Kids Micro Maniacs. Mr. Solari was then promoted to Senior Marketing Manager and transferred to the Codemasters New York office for 6 months to get a better feel for the US market.
He is currently based in the UK but takes regular trips to the US, working hand in hand with the New York based sales & marketing team.
The following interview was conducted through email correspondence (and in an incredibly short amount of time, furthering my argument that this has to be one of the most approachable game companies in the business). I decided to ask about some of their most recent successes, plus a few industry questions that a marketing guy like Davie might shed some light on.
DP: What do you find different about the US market compared to the European and Japanese markets?
David Scolari: Well I have been lucky enough to work extensively in both Europe and the US. Probably the biggest difference for me is that America is even more heavily influenced by marketing and licenses. Sure these things are a benefit in Europe but you can still have a successful product without spending a fortune, if the products good enough.
DP: Do you feel this type of attitude toward gaming in America is harmful to the future of the industry? We've seen this preference for marketing over substance affect the release of TOCA 3 in the United States as Jarrett and Labonte Racing, tying it in with NASCAR racing instead of relying on the merits of one of the most underrated racing games for the Playstation. Does Codemasters want to follow up with this type of marketing of its games in the US, or do they think it is something they have to work around?
For the actual industry it’s probably a good thing as it
means games get a huge amount of exposure because of the marketing money spent
and the big licenses used. This means that the market for games is likely to
grow. However, it’s not such a good thing for gaming as a lot of smaller budget
games with original ideas, either don’t get made or don’t do very well
Jarrett and Labonte or TOCA World Touring Cars (in Europe) was very successful in Europe and was probably our highest scoring product ever. However, it’s based on touring car racing, which unfortunately is of little interest to Americans. We only had a short time to build news for the product so we used licensing to make it more relevant in the US market. The stark reality is, if we hadn’t it probably would not have sold at all.
We have a new title coming from the guys who made J+L and we have decided go without a license. We are calling it Pro Race Driver and it’s quite revolutionary for a driving game as it is plot driven. You play the part of Ryan McKane and basically race your way around the world as the story develops. To make it work we are talking about it really early and are focusing on the unique proposition which is the plot and characterization.
DP: What was the relationship with Camerica back in the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) days of the mid to late 80’s? Was that relationship similar to the current relationship with Activision in distributing Codemasters' games (Colin 2.0 for example) in the US? Do you feel distribution through another party helps or hurts Codemasters name recognition in the US?
I cannot comment on the 80’s (since I was not with
Codemasters then) however I will say I think the video games industry has come
along way in terms of size and professionalism. The way we work with
distributors now is very different than then.
Obviously we would like to think we would have direct distribution at some point in the future, but at this early stage we are happy with our current distribution strategy.
I don’t think having a distributor has a huge impact on consumer recognition, it's still our name on the box and we do publish and market our titles.
DP: Can you explain how the relationships were different then than they are now?
David Scolari: The relationships are the same for the most part, it more the ways of working and the scale of the business, which has changed.
DP: Does Codemasters have a strategy for achieving broader success in the US, like focusing more on PC games instead of console development, or perhaps providing games for a couple of genres, like racing or strategy, instead of creating a role playing game, a sports title, a platform title, a fighting game, a racing title, an adventure title, etc, etc.?
David Scolari: We are aware that some of our best and most successful titles are not perfect for the U.S. market. However, we have recently released some titles, which better fit the U.S. market, like Operation Flashpoint, Blade of Darkness and MTV Music Generator 2. We are also looking at developing titles specifically for the American market.
DP: What do you feel are the types of games you would like to develop specifically for the US market? And after looking at the list of popular games you mentioned, please don't tell me you don't plan on releasing the next Colin McRae or TOCA installment in the US.
David Scolari: I am afraid I can’t talk about the titles we are looking at for the US market at the moment. As for our other games, as I mentioned before we are starting really early with Pro Race Driver so we can give it the best possible chance of becoming a mass-market title in the US.
DP: What have been your biggest obstacles or hurdles in the US market? (Interests that differ from the UK and Japanese gamer, ESRB considerations, lack of familiarity with game subject matter, like Touring Car racing instead of NASCAR or Indy racing)
David Scolari: There is always a lot to learn when you enter a new market. There have been a few bumps in the road, but after a year I think we are getting a good grip on things. We have had to spend time learning how our different suppliers, buyers and partners work. We now have a small team dedicated to the U.S., who know how things work and who are going to drive the business forward.
DP: What are the company’s goals when creating a game? Is Codemasters a company that wants to create the most realistic gaming experience possible (TOCA, Colin McRae), or an extremely detailed gaming experience, regardless of the reality of the event (Micro Machines, Cannon Fodder, Pro Pool)?
David Scolari: Without a doubt Codemasters biggest commitment is to quality. Whether that is with regard to realism, graphics or just fun gameplay, we won’t release a title unless we are sure it will be well received. When we make or sign a 3rd party game it is because we believe we can make it the best in its genre. I would say we have been pretty successful with products like Colin McRae Rally (Rally), TOCA World Touring Cars (realistic track racing), LMA Manager (Soccer Management) and Operation Flashpoint (War Simulation).
DP: As a follow-up, since Codemasters began selling games in the US, the types of games that have been released have changed. What began with releases like Ultimate Stuntman, Dizzy, Big Nose, mixed with Gran Prix Simulator, BMX Simulator, MIG 29 has been narrowed today to releases like the TOCA series, MTV Music Generator, and other sports simulations. What has prompted this shift from the broader mix of titles, or does Codemasters feel their line-up is still diverse?
David Scolari: Games now require teams of 30-40 people and between 18 to 36 months to make. It’s simply not possible to make the same broad range of games these days. Further if you are going to spend the millions required to have a successful game it makes more sense to do so within a framework of recognized themes. Unfortunately this means
DP: But do you feel that not pursuing those “out there” concepts can hurt a company in the long run? Won’t it prevent diversification of the company’s game base, limiting its appeal to gamers who want something more than a racing game or a combat simulator? I guess limiting your development now will limit your growth in the future.
David Scolari: I hear what you are saying but making too many “out there” game concepts can also mean that you end up out of business. We have always tried to make or publish some original and innovative games; this year alone we have released Blade of Darkness and Operation Flashpoint. We have Prisoner of War coming early next year. These are all original products, and Prisoner of War really puts a new spin on adventure gaming.
DP: Another look at this is that doesn’t that kind of rationale of developing only “recognized themes” hurt the industry as a whole? The disappointment of E3 this year came from the lack of variety in the games being offered for the coming year. It seemed everyone was going after the “recognized theme,” giving us Tony Hawk 2x, Tony Hawk 3, Madden 2002, NBA 2002, F1 2002, NASCAR 2002, NHL 2002, Final Fantasy X, Metal Gear Solid 2, SSX 2, ESPN Extreme Games (take your pick), Soul Reaver 2; see a pattern here?
David Scolari: Sure, but these games sell huge amounts of copies, if people didn’t want them they wouldn’t buy them. You can’t blame the games companies for making what the market wants. There were a lot of sequels at E3 but there were also a lot of good-looking original games as well, though most of them were based on recognized themes and genres.
DP: What are Codemasters’ plans for the hand-held market? We’ve seen critical success for several Gameboy titles like Pro Pool, Micro Machines, and Cannon Fodder. Does Codemasters feel this is a viable market for them? Does Codemasters intend to develop for other hand-held systems either here or overseas (Wonderswan, Neo Geo Pocket, Gameboy Advanced)?
David Scolari: We have not done a lot in the hand held market. We do license our brands though and quite a few Codemasters titles are available on hand held formats. We have no current plans to develop more titles on hand held, outside of these relationships.
DP: Cannon Fodder. What prompted that title purchase and release? Why only a hand-held version? Will we see a future release of this title, either on a hand-held or console? Does Codemasters see potential in purchasing the rights of popular discontinued titles and developing them for other systems?
David Scolari: Codemasters bought Sensible Software, around 18 months ago. Sensible Software developed Cannon Fodder originally, so we were able to use the Cannon Fodder name. We decided Cannon Fodder would be perfect for the Gameboy and using some of the original team we did just that. Cannon Fodder was a classic title and if there was a really good design suitable for the Cannon Fodder brand I am sure we would consider it. I think there is potential for old brands to be resurrected, but quite often it can be intimidating as there is a lot to live up to.
DP: In the past, Codemasters has developed games for almost all home console systems (NES, Sega Master System, SNES, Genesis, Saturn, and Game Gear). Today, we have only seen development on Playstation, Nintendo 64, Gameboy, and now PS2. We’ve seen little development with Nintendo, no work at all for the Sega Dreamcast (speaking before the demise of the system), and only Sony in the foreseeable future. Why? Companies have complained about the difficulty they’ve encountered working with Nintendo, but why no work with Sega, why did we see nothing for Xbox, Gameboy Advanced, or GameCube at E3?
David Scolari: We evaluate all platforms when we start a project and decide if it's going to work from a commercial and game point of view. Dreamcast was a great piece of hardware, but it was soon obvious that we would loose out financially by devoting a lot of resource to developing for it. Sure we could have ported PC titles, but the result would not have met the level of quality we set for ourselves. We tend to wait a little bit until the installed base is better on new consoles, and therefore you can sell enough to make a reasonable return on your investment. This is why we have done a lot of PC software this year while the market for the new consoles develops. We have a number of products in development at the moment and hope to make some announcements soon with regards to other platforms.
DP: I am more interested in Codemasters' console gaming plans than their PC work, but where does Codemasters see itself focusing its efforts in the future? Console or PC? Does Codemasters feel that internet gaming is worth the development costs, or do they see it as a recent craze brought on by Sega’s efforts, only to drop off in the future, either stabilizing with a core group of users (PC or console) or a particular game?
We have no particular plans to focus on console or PC, we
believe that we can be successful developing for both. Certain titles like
Operation Flashpoint are always going to be more suitable for PC, where as car
games and 3rd person adventure games like Prisoner of War are going to be more
suitable on console formats.
We feel that internet gaming is important, as we move forward consumers want more interactive experiences and this is what online games bring. It is a challenging sector and you have to have the right product to be successful. I think there is room for market expansion in online gaming but I also feel that expansion will hit a ceiling. Then you will have this large group of people who either stick with a single game or are constantly looking for new online experiences.
DP: This kind of relates to your “recognized themes” statement, but do you feel a particular genre of game will have that large group sticking with it, and what is that genre? Since PC gamers have had a longer and more successful run with online gaming than console users, is this where we should expect to see Codemasters' focus on online development for the next few years?
Clearly persistent world games are where it’s at right now
and I would expect that to continue, but whether people choose to play in the
Star Wars Universe or Middle Earth we will have to wait and see.
Until broadband becomes standard I think online is not going to take off in a big way for consoles, as for us we are keeping our options open.
The industry has changed dramatically since I started playing Intellivision twenty years ago. (Don’t think I don’t see some of you snickering when I mention Intellivision.) What was once a curiosity has now become an industry rivaling the scope and income of the recording and film industries. Those new demands for market share, bottom line, and title recognition have pushed the development course for new games in a direction some question.
I want to thank Mr. Solari for his time with this interview. He has helped shed some light on how a company like Codemasters functions in the brave new world of the gaming industry. Marketing for a game company is no small task, especially when doing it from a continent away. And for him to take the time to answer my questions is not overlooked by the readers or me. Special thanks to Ms. Chesler for organizing the interview, one of the jewels in Codemasters’ crown. Next time when you’re at the local EB or Funcoland, try looking up a few of their past and present titles, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
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