Right, there is a stratum of people working in the video games industry who you the reader don’t get to meet. These people have to keep us happy – and sometimes in line - but they also have to keep developers and publishers happy. These people are PR people: marketing people. But, do they even play the games that they sell to you? Let’s find out.
I’m going to start our tour of the UK’s games marketing and PR industry with a veteran. Lee Kirton is currently Marketing Director at Namco Bandai. We began a chat over the ether about how and why a game like Enslaved
) could get such critical acclaim but appear to miss the mark in terms of public approval and therefore sales. But let’s give some context first.
So, how long have you been involved in games, Lee?
“I started in June 1997. So, 14 years in total. I started as a PR Assistant after a short spell as a Receptionist/Customer services advisor and then moved through the PR ranks through GT Interactive, Infogrames, Atari and now Namco Bandai.”
Many readers – and aspiring journalists in my experience - assume that a Marketing/PR person in the games industry doesn't play games, and is a probably either an ex-journalist or just treading water until a job in 'real' media comes along. That's correct, right?
“You know what they say about assumptions? I think there is a fair mix of very passionate games people working in PR and marketing.
“The industry also has some incredibly talented marketers from all parts of entertainment and other industries who lend their knowledge and experience in being creative. You have to have an interest in the games industry to stay in it I think and you have to be passionate for the business you're in.
“I was always a gamer, a movie lover, a music lover and I enjoyed going out, drinking, partying, the usual things that loads of people like. For me I wanted to work in film, but luckily ended up working in games... This was like a dream job. I still play games when I can, climb trees where possible and turn up to the occasional party... I love all games in general as I look at them in different ways to when I was younger."
We started this via a quick conversation about Enslaved and, despite the fact that it’s been nominated for critics’ awards it didn’t sell so well. Why did you personally love it so much?
“Because I'm a big fan of talent, passion, vision and art. I love what a director can do to a movie like Pan’s Labyrinth
, and what creativity can do for a video game. Ninja Theory turned a brilliant story and source material into a beautiful adventure that pushed boundaries within performance capture, music and gave the industry its first real view of a post-Apocalyptic future which was very clever.
“For me it proved that bringing together great British talent can deliver a stand-out experience. It's not just a game, but a superb experience. That is what Ninja Theory does so well.
looked great, sounded amazing (Nitin Sawhney), was well written (Ninja Theory and Alex Garland) and continued to prove that Britain has some of the best talent in entertainment. I love the passion and love that went into Enslaved
from Tameem and the team. I think some experiences like this need to be recognised... Andy Serkis is a legend and he played Monkey brilliantly.”
So, what did you learn from experiences with games like Enslaved and Alone in the Dark or a game that I personally loved, Eternal Sonata, which it could be said didn’t perform as well as might have been hoped in sales?
“You learn a lot from all different games you work with over the years. I've been fortunate in my career to learn a lot in development, producing, creative art, PR, marketing, sales, presentations and many other areas of the industry.
“All these factors need to be applied carefully to each individual game and each game needs to be treated carefully and evaluated for why everyone one is unique.
“For me Alone in the Dark
(which Lee worked on with Atari) was one of the most challenging, but also one of the most fun titles to present and work on. It was an incredibly lengthy development and planning processes.
"It was a very ambitious game with some superb ideas. It still delivers some of the most stand-out tech that I've still not witnessed in other game. Some of the game lacked polish and fluidity, however, but the fire for me was the start. It was good game, however it was a bit like Marmite when it was launched as release dates were missed.
is a favourite of mine also. Music by classical Polish composer Chopin, beauty, great story (and really quite sad) and superb visuals show that games like this and the Tales of...
series are unique pieces of creative gems. We work hard to try and make these JRPGs stand out, but we have a very targeted audience here in the UK.
and other great gaming gems sometimes just don't have the consumer backing when up against big IPs and epic shooters. Many things can be learned by launching a superb game like Enslaved
but without the public's attention it's sometimes hard to develop something that's so costly."
You’re obviously passionate about selling what you consider to be ‘good’ or ‘great’ game, but is it possible for you to support a game that you think stinks?
“Luckily enough we don't have any stinkers. I have worked on very few games that have been terrible. Ultimately you know how good a project is during green light process, how good the studio is and what the game's market potential is.
“Ultimately if you end up working on something that isn't what it set out to be then you manage it in the correct manner. Also it probably wouldn't get the same amount of focus as a AAA or AA title anyway... Namco Bandai has great quality titles.”
Nicely answered. So, how much input do you have with the developers and publishers before you go out and sell the game to the public and media?
“Over many years I've had input into a number of killer titles, I try to always feedback to the studios and impart a little bit from my experience launching some big franchises and playing other games.
“A lot of our games are developed in Japan by some of the most well known and respected teams in this business. Some of these teams are looking at more Western approach of some of our titles such as Ace Combat Assault Horizon
, and for titles like this we try to give feedback through development process.
“I will always feedback on the game, creative approach, direction, PR and marketing as I think it's important to get the best out of a title and maximise the awareness. We have some great teams across territories with some major experience as well so we all like to feed back. We like to work as closely with our colleagues in Europe, US and Japan. My team focus on the UK market and that is our priority.
Moving onto what we do – and our readers read – you’ve been in the business for nearly two decades, as have I – how’s the balance between specialist and general media altered since you started?
“It's got smaller in terms of print readers in some cases, but it isn't too different in what everyone does. Specialist is harder to deal with as it ever was because they can only give so much space and there are more games that ever!
“In print, covers are harder to achieve, and mainstream/lifestyle is a battle, but it's all good and it's great to have so many forms of media available including social tools like Twitter, Facebook and the others to send your message direct to gamers. I think it's important to have a direct relationship with those playing your games. General media are giving games more space than before and the web is just crazy for games sites.”
Right, let’s give you a chance to critique us for once: from your perspective, what's the role of a games journalist?
“The role of a games journalist is to write about video games. Being fair about what they write is also important. Some instances have been seen when journalists sometimes cover games that they're not personally interested in, and this can sometimes have an effect on review scores and therefore on Metacritic.
“I also think that it's not only some consumers that don't realise how much effort, development time and money has gone into making a video game, but journalists can sometimes be the same.
“It's obvious that certain titles get more attention, but there are some genuinely amazing titles out there which are just as good as the major franchises, including indie games that should get more attention; it's not just about which games are getting more advertising spend.
“However, I know many fantastic games journalists that have a real passion for what they write and a major love for all things gaming.”
Finally then, marketing and PR hat off. As a gamer... what's your favourite game?
“That's a tough question as I have many. Goldeneye
on the N64 is probably the one game that really got me super excited about console shooters.
and Destruction Derby
got me really excited about driving games, but games such as the first Resident Evil
, Deus Ex
, Chuckie Egg
, Super Wonderboy
, Golden Axe
, Abe's Oddysee
, Max Payne
, Kick Off
, Sensible Soccer
are all classic examples of games that I really enjoyed.
“I'm playing Another World
on iOS at the moment and it brings back so many memories, as do most Ocean games that I spent my pocket money on.
“The first couple of games I worked on when I joined the industry and started PR were Driver
. We turned those into major hits at the time. Oddworld
has a major place in my heart; those guys are geniuses of their time.
"I loved working on The Matrix
franchise as well as it was the first time I'd seen a real movie studio so heavily involved in making a movie, whilst filming scenes for the game. I got to spend time with the Wachowski Brothers and Warner and I enjoyed working with Dave Perry as well.
) and Dark Souls
) to me are classic examples of what I would call a 'proper videogame'. No 'on rails' feeling, very adult, very hardcore, and totally original in so many ways. Dark Souls
should be a smash hit and a true example of what 'word of mouth' can do to an experience like it.”
Right, thanks for your time Lee. Let’s return to our separate corners!