E3 '07 Q&A: Sega's Simon Jeffery

Sonic Factory CEO and ESA board member steps into the debate about the revamped expo, and reveals which games his company will be touting.

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SANTA MONICA, Calif.--Simon Jeffery knows a thing or two about E3--he's been going to it for over a decade. A game industry veteran, he worked at Virgin Interactive and Electronic Arts before settling at LucasArts in 1997. Over the next six years, he went from director of the Bay Area publisher to its president, leading an effort to make the company more than a simple maker of Star Wars games. But while he did help forge relationships with top third-party developers, allowing for the creation of BioWare's acclaimed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (PC, Xbox), his attempts at creating new intellectual properties such as Gladius faltered.

Jeffrey left LucasArts in 2003 to become CEO of Sega of America, the US arm of the Japanese publisher and former console-maker. During his tenure there, he has led a charge to bridge East and West with a series of deals with American and European developers. After buying The Creative Assembly (Rome: Total War) in 2005, and Secret Level (Golden Axe) in 2006, the company announced deals with Gearbox Software and Obsidian Entertainment to make a shooter and RPG based on the Alien films. Sega also recently scooped up several Marvel Comics licenses, including Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, and The Mighty Thor--and announced a deal with BioWare to make a DS RPG featuring Sonic the Hedgehog.

But while Sega seems to be on a roll, the future of North America's biggest gaming convention appears much less certain. Tomorrow's Microsoft press conference will unofficially kick off the rechristened E3 Media & Business Summit, the successor to the once-mighty Electronic Entertainment Expo. From what's known so far, the event will be much smaller and plainer than its deafening, dizzying forbearer, with standardized kiosks and no stage events on the show floor.

Though it's not holding its own press conference, Sega is representing itself aggressively at E3. So GameSpot caught up with Jeffrey, who also sits on the board of the Entertainment Software Association, to get a dual perspective on how the new E3 will play out.

GameSpot: What are your overall impressions about the new E3?

Simon Jeffery: Well, we're part of the ESA, and I'm on the ESA Board. So, therefore, we've been supporting the new E3 wholeheartedly. It's going to be very interesting to see how it turns out in the end. I guess there's been some fun and games getting to this point, but now everyone's really putting their hearts into making it as strong as it can be for showing product. It's become essentially a big press event. I guess you could call it the world's biggest gamers' day, because there's not a lot of participation for retail and other parts of the business. Hey, why not? I think the press is pretty important.

GS: Well, I'm flattered you think so. So as far as the show floor goes, I noticed that as recently as a few weeks back, a lot of space on the Barker Hangar floor wasn't rented out yet. You're on the ESA Board. Can you tell me the story behind that?

SJ: Well, yes, it's mainly the ESA members who are going to be there at the Barker Hangar. There are smaller members who aren't on the board, and because there isn't retail coming along, some people have decided they don't want to participate there.

GS: What do you think is really at stake this year for E3?

SJ: Well, I think the event needs to demonstrate what it's become. It can be effective in creating the same excitement and buzz around the industry that E3 always has done, but in a more civilized manner.

GS: So it won't have quite the Thunderdome element as it did in years past?

SJ: No, absolutely not.

GS: Do you think the Barker Hangar, in combination with the various hotel suites and the meetings at the Fairmont, will achieve the goal you just laid out?

SJ: Well, that's certainly the hope. I guess it will remain to be seen. But, yeah, the hope is that we'll be able to show our current product to the Barker Hangar in a very even, playing-field manner, so there isn't the arms race that E3 had become in terms of who's got the biggest, most lavish, loudest booth. And then we can have some special, private love-time with the press back in the suites of the hotel.

GS: Hotel love-time, eh? [Laughs] So now as far as Sega goes, what's your big push going into E3 for you guys specifically?

SJ: Well, I think in terms of what our key message is, we've got a couple of major points. The first point is the growth that Sega has gone through in the last couple of years, and how successful we've been in demonstrating our new commitments to Western publishing. And then I think this year we want to demonstrate that, with the breadth of the titles we're showing, that we've attained the portfolio management approach that we've been talking about for a couple of years. We're big on licenses. We're big on original products. We're developing our own [intellectual property]. So we have a really good mix, and that helps gamers, no matter where they are.

Another thing is that we're not focused just on the traditional Sega market. Wherever people are playing games, that's where our games are going to be this year. We've got some obvious ones: Mario and Sonic on the Wii and Nintendo DS, and the Golden Compass, which is going to be one of our biggest titles this holiday. It's really the only big movie license coming out this holiday.

Now, I know there's been some mixed feelings around the movie-released games over the summer. There's definitely been a bit of a cluster effect, so it's been hard for anything to rise to the surface. But when Golden Compass comes out in December, it's pretty much the only movie at that time. Also, the content of the movie is very "gameatic," and New Line has been very conscious of this in building the movie as they did with the Lord of the Rings franchise.

GS: Yeah, it definitely has a fantastical element to it. Now, you mentioned your push to cut deals with Western publishers. You also mentioned Sonic. One of the things I have found really interesting and surprising is that whole BioWare/Sonic role-playing game deal. Can you talk about how that came about? That surprised a lot of people.

SJ: I'd love to, as it's one of my pet subjects. I'm a huge fan of the BioWare guys. I worked with them in the past, and it was one of the best experiences of my career. So, when I came to Sega, I was very, very keen to work with those guys again. We've also made no secret of the fact that we are very keen to increase the quality of the Sonic franchise moving forward.

Therefore, there was a degree of reinvention that was really called for. We felt that it was time to shake things up a bit, to do some really new stuff, and to do that with partnering with some of the best people and the genres in the world. So, the BioWare guys and us started to talk maybe 18 months ago, and this is what came out of it. And we're really excited about it. The DS is the fastest-growing gaming platform in the world. It's the only gaming platform that you can say is genuinely successful in every major gaming territory right now on a global basis. And RPGs are one of the leading genres there are.

So, we don't want to make it a dumb game, but we've talked about it being "my first RPG." We want it to appeal to traditional Sonic fans, but also traditional role-playing fans, and this whole new generation of handheld game players who are adopting the DS right now.

GS: I've already heard it compared to the Paper Mario series...

SJ: I would actually scale it a little bit above that, because I think the game they're going to build is going to be incredibly deep, but it will still have that same instant pick-up-and-play gratification that the Sonic games have traditionally had. We think it'll probably feel a little bit more like Sonic used to feel in the--to the fanboys. But, at the same time, it's going to be for those people who want to have a massive play experience. It'll provide that as well.

GS: Right, and you said you felt the need for reinvention. Was that a result of the reception that the Sonic for the PS3 and 360, the first game for that got? Was that kind of thing that you guys revisited?

SJ: Well, I'm thinking it started before that, to be honest.

GS: OK.

SJ: Sonic games have sold incredibly well through the years. It's still one of the top three, maybe top two, probably top two gaming franchises in the world still. And so we felt for a couple of years now that we really wanted to contemporize the IP and to always look at it on a global basis to see what we could do to make new gamers pick up on the game, as well as bring back some of the lapsed Sonic gamers from the old days. It won't be at E3, though. The game is going to be shipping in 2008. We won't be showing it at E3 this year.

GS: Well, back to Western publishers. How are the two Aliens games coming along?

SJ: Again, neither will be shown at the E3 this year, but it's an incredibly exciting project. We're working very closely with [film studio 20th Century] Fox to make the launch of those games feel actually like a new Aliens movie is coming out, because the investment and the passion that's going into them from Gearbox, Obsidian, and from Sega itself are just really, really cool and very, very exciting. But I probably don't want to say anything more than that at this point in time.

GS: Are they going to be released around the same time as each other, or is that still up in air?

SJ: It's still to be announced.

GS: Now, in terms of another Western project, I know a lot of strategy games are being moved to the consoles, and I was wondering, as far as the Total War franchise goes, are you guys considering maybe a console version of one of the Total War games, or perhaps a more traditional a strategy game?

SJ: Well, we're looking at a variety of approaches to the strategy game on consoles. One of the games we're most excited about this year is Universe at War, which is being built by Petroglyph and that's coming out first on PC, but coming out very shortly after on Xbox 360. And the fact that it's going to be Windows Live-compliant means it's actually going to be the first third-party game that we can have cross-platform playing between PC and 360.

GS: And the first strategy game to offer cross-platform play, is that right?

SJ: Absolutely, yeah.

GS: Yeah, one of the issues raised by that, obviously, is that you have a keyboard if you're playing on PC and you don't if you're playing on 360. So, were there any specific measures you guys have taken to address what might be perceived as an inequity in playing?

SJ: Well, the use of interface on a console strategy game is really important, and it was only when actually it could demonstrate to us that they have nailed a really cool, easy-to-use user-interface mechanism that we agreed to move forward with it, into making it cross-play, cross-platform playing. The game is not one of those keyboard shortcut games some of the traditional RTS games are. Hardcore RTS fans will certainly appreciate the play and the depth of the play. But we don't think that the experienced PC RTS gamers will have that much more of an advantage over a newbie playing on a 360.

GS: Another one of your big projects that's also garnering a lot of interest is the forthcoming Golden Axe game. Can you give me any new news on that front?

SJ: Well, we're going to be holding off on showing it at E3 probably. We considered showing it behind closed doors, but we want the big unveil to be a big unveil. So, we're probably going to do a special event around that in a couple of months into the fall. We're still targeting releasing it in the spring next year on PS3 and 360. It's looking absolutely beautiful, and it's got some real good moments from the classic arcade game connect that the gamers will appreciate. But at the same time, it can still really work for gamers who don't know what the heck Golden Axe is.

GS: You mentioned you're going to show that at a press event later this year, but I know one of the sentiments coming into E3 is that a lot of stuff that was traditionally at E3 has already been shown. I'm not talking about Sega, specifically--I'm just talking about in general. So, as a member of the ESA Board, do you ever worry that individual gamers' days are a detriment to the E3 event itself?

SJ: Well, I think to be honest, gamers' days have been going for four or five years now, before E3 anyway. So, that was always going to happen. And I think in some ways, the timing of gamers' days this year was very similar to where gamers' days fell last year, and the year before and the year before. But E3 is going to have an awful lot more to see than there was at gamers' days, in that the games that were shown at gamers' days have evolved quite significantly. But there's also going to be a lot of first shows of games that have never been seen before, such as Mario and Sonic at Olympic Games.

GS: Why did the ESA push back E3 to the middle of summer?

SJ: Well, there was a lot of debate about that, and some of it was for the reason that people felt, especially sales and marketing departments around the industry, that stuff couldn't be shown very well in May. And, believe me, having worked in publishing for a few years, you get some of the biggest fights between development and marketing in the launch time period two months before E3, when development is saying, "Hey, we're not ready to show this at E3 this year," and marketing says "Lovely, you have to!" So, that's part of it. But also, there is the simple fact of availability of resource and hotel rates, and all that stuff.

GS: Now, what's going on with the Wii Virtual Console. Are you guys pleased with how your titles are selling on that?

SJ: Yeah, we're very pleased about how that's been going. We believe that there's a big marketplace for the industry moving forward on all three of the major platforms for revisiting old content, and also for just simple $5 downloads, as Xbox Live Arcade is proving. It's a really cool time to be doing new stuff in the industry and with the next-gen games costing so much to develop and the risk associated with that being so high, it's actually nice to have the balance of handheld games with lower budgets and also games that are delivered by consoles online.

GS: And in terms of those big budgets, there's been a lot of talk about how a lot of people are now shifting resources as they develop for the Wii, because it's cheaper to develop for. Is Sega revisiting how it originally allocated its own development efforts and shifting over to the Wii more than it was before?

SJ: Well, I think we saw the Wii success coming before anyone else did. It was actually two E3s ago when everyone else was writing off Nintendo as being way behind PlayStation 3 and 360. And Sega was going, "Ah, man, this is really smart." They positioned themselves in a totally different way and pulled out of the technology arms race, and they're just going for fun and creativity. And how cool is that?

So, we went early on the Wii with Sonic, and since Monkey Ball did really well, we've got a bunch of Wii games coming out. Obviously, Sonic and Mario at the Olympics has been in development and in planning for quite some time. We've got NiGHTS and Ghost Squad coming out on the Wii this holiday season. So, a lot of Wii-specific stuff has been in the pipeline for us for quite some time. So, we look at what everyone else is doing, and we see they're just rushing developments to the Wii without really taking absolute advantage of what the Wii has to offer. We don't think it's going to be of any benefit to anyone in the long run. So, we're still pretty much sticking to our guns, we're still balancing our portfolio. We're having a bunch of fun Wii stuff, but we're keeping the PlayStation 3 and 360 developments going as well for the higher end part of the market.

GS: Great. So, as far as E3 booths go, are their exteriors uniform in appearance? Do they look the same so that it eliminates that "arms race" you mentioned, or are they allowed to customize it to a certain extent?

SJ: The customization options are going to be extremely limited. So, the booths and the equipment that the games will be set on is pretty much plain vanilla.

GS: So in terms of Sega's booth, what's going to be playable at the booth? NiGHTS, perhaps?

SJ: I think we're still talking and changing on that, but I think right now the plan is for it to be playable on the booth. I think it's at the Hangar.

GS: One thing that's really struck me about this E3 is that it seems that it's really coming down to the wire for a lot of publishers, and they're really just shifting what they're going to have right there. Is it more chaotic this year than in other years, in your personal estimation?

SJ: Not really. I think that it's just under more scrutiny this year because of what E3 has become versus what it was. I think people just took for granted in the past how it is going to shake out. You've just got to be a little bit cleverer and tighter about what you're doing.

GS: Well, one last question. How are you maintaining Sega's Japanese development talent? Sega isn't taking away resources from them to redirect toward Western projects?

SJ: No, we're not taking resources away from Japan at all. Our studios are still building products, and you'll see some cool things like Sonic Rush Adventure coming out on the DS. So, that's going to be at E3 as well. The Japanese internal studios are taking a little bit of a breather. They're looking around at the market seeing how they can help their products become more successful in the Western markets, shifting some multiplatform strategy, which is very difficult for Japanese companies to do. Japanese companies, as you know, tend to just build a game on one specific format. So they're working very closely with Sega to make Japanese games move bigger numbers in the West overall, as well as looking to build up more of an external development portfolio in Japan as well. So, traditionally, we've not worked too much with Japanese companies as third-party developers other than a little outsourcing, but now we're looking at partnering with some of the best independent development talent in Japan.

GS: Are you planning another acquisition push of the Western developers, or is that just ongoing?

SJ: It's pretty much ongoing. We're trying to be selective. There's a lot of developers out there right now who would love to be acquired and who'd love to build products within our product and IP portfolio. But right now, we're trying to be selective. We've made quite a few aggressive acquisitions over the last 24 months, and they're working out really well for us. We are still shopping.

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