Mon, Aug 15, 2011 | 14:00 BST
Sonic Boom: Sega’s Hayes on the future and more
As gamescom week kicks off, Johnny Cullen speaks to Sega West CEO Mike Hayes on Wii U, Vita, the UK games industry, Sonic’s 20th anniversary, its Japanese efforts and more.
Announced earlier this year that it was expanding Creative Assembly with second studio for Aliens IP.
Celebrating Sonic’s 20th anniversary with new title, Sonic Generations. More on S4: Ep 2 coming “soon,” though.
Has two titles planned for Vita launch: Virtua Tennis 4 and an unnamed title.
Two relatively big titles planned for early 2012: Anarchy Reigns in January from Platinum and Binary Domain from Yakuza team in February.
If my conversation with Mike Hayes, Sega West’s CEO, is anything to go by, the main pilars for the company’s road ahead – at least in the foreseeable future – will be about three things: digital, new platforms with the release of Wii U and Vita and learning from past mistakes with release schedules. But it’s here, in Cologne, that we begin with. It’s been a year since Sega pulled out of last year’s show due to commercial reasons.
But the company now returns to the show with a strong line-up – such as Sonic Generations, Binary Domain, Aliens: Colonial Marines and Anarchy Reigns – but it’s one that its western-based president may not get to see, at least at first.
“No, it’s unfortunate. I was invited to give the inaugural address, actually,” Hayes told VG247 in a phone interview last Thursday. But that isn’t going to happen due to a big personal event “that was just not moveable.” He admits he’s going to try and get out here for Thursday and Friday, though.
One of the main talking points since E3 has been the introduction of new platforms: PlayStation Vita and Wii U. While the next-gen Nintendo successor will keep away from Germany this week, Sony will go all out on the handheld at its press conference tomorrow and at the show, giving the consumer its first hands-on with the tech.
Sega has a lot of big things planned with Vita, as noted last week: it has two titles being prepped for launch – one being Virtua Tennis 4, the other an unknown title.
And this isn’t counting anything the publisher may have planned with digital or the new game being worked on in Soulihull in the West Midlands of England.
We’ve already touched upon the Vita/Sega launch deeds last week. But could the recent 3DS price-cut cause problems for the Sony handheld, which has now become the most expensive against Nintendo when there was only a reverse back at E3? Not at all, according to Hayes.
“We see the platforms as very different. 3DS, lets be honest, the hardware didn’t sell as well as expected, so the price moved,” he said. “It’s just a very sensible market reaction I think for Nintendo to do and, obviously, we’re very pleased with that. I think Vita and 3DS are two completely different beasts in terms of what I think Vita is going to be able to do from a more core gaming point of view.
“3DS, lets be honest, the hardware didn’t sell as well as expected, so the price moved.”
“So certainly in the early days of the Vita launch, I think that price differential is not going to be something that will, we believe, over-inhibit its performance. How it pans long term when both are trying to hit that true mass market, I don’t know, I’m sure there’ll be adjustments. But the two are pitched as pretty different machines and I think that will be fine for Vita at launch.”
What about that 3DS price-cut itself? Sega’s very honest here: it knows Nintendo didn’t shift enough hardware, which Hayes admits it was “disappointed” in. But the fact that Nintendo has done something now rather than later has given Sega a new-found belief with the platform, which it will continue to support.
“We have several titles, we have some huge ones hovering into view with both Mario & Sonic and Sonic on 3DS. We’re obviously nothing other than absolutely delighted that they’ve dropped the price because clearly that’s going to give it a great big kick and get that install base driving,” he said.
“I think it would be an act of desperation if Nintendo actually did nothing. But the fact they’ve responded to the market, I think, is first class. So if anything, that just gives us a renewed confidence in the platform. I think also with those cracking titles Nintendo has coming out for between now and Christmas, plus I’d like to think a couple of Sonic titles we’ve got, which always are hardware pushers for Nintendo, we’re pretty optimistic.
“But of course, we were disappointed with early sales. So I think this is the right thing to do, and timing wise, it’s probably perfect I would think.”
But it’s not only handhelds getting price-cuts. The big boys too get chopped prices. Case in point: Sony’s rumoured to announce a PS3 price-cut tomorrow night at its gamescom presser. Hayes decided to stay mum on it, saying he makes it “a rule to never comment on first-parties.”
That said, if Sony does announce a cut, you can bet Sega will be the first third-party popping the champagne corks, with Hayes saying that it will be “be delighted because third party’s always pleased when first-party does something to sell more hardware.”
Sadly, cuts of another matter seem to be a big talking point this year: job cuts. This year has seen two of the UK’s biggest racing studios say goodbye in the form of Bizarre and Black Rock Studios, as well as THQ Warrington. To add to it, there’s also been the cuts announced last week at THQ in its Australian arm and elsewhere.
It’s not been a rosy time for the games development industry as of late, needless to say.
“One of the only silver linings on that dark cloud is that we have the availability of very good people we can hire. Whenever we hear of an announcement, lets be honest, we have nothing but sympathy because these things are cyclical,” says Hayes.
“As you know, we had to do this with our racing studio in the Midlands a few years back, so I’m kind of aware at this. But what we do is there’s great talent, so for example, I know already we’re looking to recruiting several people in Australia for our Sega Studios Australia business down there. We do as much as we can to help because there’s a lot of talent that we want to try and get onboard as much as possible.”
He continued: “But at the end of the day, we have limitations on the number of people we need in that business. But it’s a shame when brilliant studios like that do break up, but I think it’s a sign of the times of how traditionally-packaged gaming is becoming so more big-IP driven and how development is definitely having to look at the kind of more nimble digital business.
“It’s very difficult to create brand new IP on 360 or PS3 these days because you literally haven’t literally spent tens of millions of dollars, and the risk is very, very big.
“So I think of what we’re seeing is the result of this huge transformation in our business. The question is what’s it going to be like in three-to-five years time? Is it still going to be a disc-based business? Is it going to move more digital? Will new IP break through? It’s quite an interesting time for publishers and developers.”
However, like you take dark clouds, you get the nice clouds too: Sega’s in a big hiring mood. Earlier this year, it announced that it was expanding Creative Assembly, building a new studio based on the Aliens IP. As a whole, CA now has 170 staff on its book, with more hires coming in to the Shogun II studio.
Sports Interactive boss Miles Jacobson is also hiring on for “big projects that are going to be announced soon from them,” according to Hayes, with even more being hired for the newly-formed Solihull team. No name for it yet, though.
“We’re kicking a few around,” Hayes responds. “I’ll almost guarantee we’ll probably have the product out before they agree a name for the studio. I did see one the other day, but I don’t know if we formally agreed it, but I’m hoping very soon we’ll be able to announce that, plus details on what they’re actually doing in the studio.”
Hitting the Platinum standard
But while Sega’s main line of defence is almost certainly its UK studios, at the end of the day, it’s still a Japanese-born company. It still relies on those back home too. One of those is an independent studio that has had all of its games published by Sega since its formation: Platinum Games.
Born out of the remnants of the defunct, Capcom-owned Clover Studios, Hideki Kamiya, Atsushi Inaba and Shinji Mikami – now having set up Tango Gameworks, since bought by ZeniMax – the company’s released four titles to date, a majority of which have been on PS3 and 360: Bayonetta, Vanquish, Infinite Space and Madworld.
And while its already been made clear in the past that Madworld failed to live up to expectations, Bayonetta was a big ticket for developer and publisher, having become a million-seller. Vanquish? Not so much: Hayes told us that it had sold as much as three quarters of a million worldwide since its release last October.
This, he says, is due to struggling whilst going against big shooter IPs last year like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor.
“We released it at a time when a lot of the existing core shooter IP came out on the marketplace,” he said. “I think that was a big learning for us with hindsight, no big surprise. And also, it didn’t have as much point of difference as, say, Bayonetta. So that’s a big learning of how we deal with Binary Domain.
“We’re trying to release that in a window where as a new iP, it’s got a chance to be able to be seen and to be shouted above all a lot of the noise of what the other shooters are doing.
“So even though Vanquish was highly-regarded, I think for a market conditions point of view, it really struggled going up against Call of Duty, Battlefield and everything else that was out there.”
And Bayonetta’s future? Seems to be very rosy, anyways.
“Bayonetta was a hugely successful title in Japan and it was a successful title in Europe and America, so overall, that’s performed extremely well. And we’d like to think that’s now an IP that is relevant for the market. How we take that forward in the future, that’s all to be looked at, to be announced, no decisions are made on that, but that did well.”
Which brings us to Anarchy Reigns, the next tile from Platinum. While its previous games was under a previous publishing deal under Sega, Anarchy Reigns, says Hayes, is a “standalone deal.” Its releasing the game in January next year, which is normally a relatively quiet period, which may have been part of the reason why Bayonetta did well when it released 18 months ago.
“I think we’ve got reasonable hopes on Anarchy Reigns. We’re going for this point of difference of a multiplayer brawler with the Platinum Games seal of quality. I think Anarchy Reigns is going to be a solid game that works very well. We’re not expecting Anarchy Reigns to break out and sell 2 million units, that’s not our expectations at all.
“But I’d like to think Anarchy Reigns is going to sort of notch up the numbers sort of in between Vanquish and Bayonetta. And if that’s the case, that will be the success we want it to be.”
Right domain, right time
But one other title Sega has planned for the relatively quiet Q1 period is Binary Domain from Yakuza creator Toshihiro Nagoshi. Sega’s aiming big for this one, with it being aimed to be in “the Bayonetta A++ position in terms of potential” breakout chances
When Sega announced BD last December, Sega marketing VP Gary Knight mentioned in the press release that it was a title “being developed in Japan yet it is designed for a global audience.” The message is on key anyways, and something you might see in future titles.
“The principle of it is absolutely right. I think it’s a big challenge for Japanese companies to always understand western markets, and I think that annoys Nagoshi-san when we say that.
“But I think he’s reasonably and quite unique in that he’s taken a very close look at what works in the west. He spent all his time and all his effort and we’re putting so much kind of western scripting and western input into it that I do believe it’s possible because Nagoshi in particular has got a first-class studio making first-class games.
“I think [Binary Domain] is going to be probably in the Bayonetta A++ position in terms of potential.”
Hayes continues: “And when you look at a lot of the basics in terms of animation, AI or graphic capability, they’re on a par with what’s done in the west. What we have to do in Japan is understand story arcs, scripting, we have to make sure we don’t have huge cutscenes, all of those kind of things that are more relevant for the west. And I think Nagoshi absolutely gets it.
“So I think from his side, I think there’s a good chance we could do more so called games from Japan for a global audience. That’s our hope and that’s our expectation anyways.”
But while Binary and Anarchy are the big ones early next year, the main vocal point from Sega this year has been Sonic’s 20th anniversary. Later this year, to help celebrate the birthday, Sonic Generations will release on PS3, 360 and 3DS. Here, recent Sonic meets up with past Sonic in a game that offers players both the 2D perspective, as well as that from recent Sonic games.
Hayes has very fond memories of Sonic, even as someone who worked at Nintendo when Sonic had launched. And while he’s full of love for the BioWare-made Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood on DS, one key sticking point in his time at Sega is on a collaboration with what was Sonic’s biggest rival in the day: Mario.
“In my time at Sega, I’d come back to Chronicles, but I have to say Mario and Sonic simply because of many things,” said Hayes when asked for a standout moment.
“For me personally, doing that deal with Nintendo when we were such adversaries and bringing the two greatest icons together, for me, is a real sense of pride. Then the fact that its sold 20 million units so far on the two that we’ve released mean people like it, which is great.
“But in terms of imagination, I actually thought what we did with Chronicles was pretty good, which was actually trying to do something with Sonic that wasn’t just about speed and getting from A to B as effectively as possible. And that, I thought, was a pretty good game. Sold reasonably well, didn’t break any record, but I enjoyed that because it was different.
“And that gives us kind of a clue about mainly the future of Sonic. There are chances for him to sort of arc out to do different things, maybe.”
But Hayes also looked back at another title with fondness, something a lot more recent.
I like [2010 Wii and DS title] Colours a lot because I think that’s the best main platform standalone Sonic that we’ve done in many years. And it was hugely popular and it did extremely well based in America and Europe. I just think that was an excellent game, I think [Team Sonic producer Takashi] Iizuka did a good job on that and it rated pretty well. But for me, from my time at Sega, I’d probably say M&S and Chronicles.”
Mike Hayes is president and CEO of Sega West.