E3 Panel: With new hardware ahead, what's a publisher to do?

Planning a platform strategy is no easy task; Conference Program panel asks the majors how it's done.


LOS ANGELES--Hardware announcements from Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft started the week off with a huge bang. E3 attendees and members of the press were dazzled with news of superfast processors and the promise of photo-realistic gameplay. But while many gamers welcome the competition between the systems and the choices they offer, game developers and publishers often have to make an early decision as to which platforms they will choose to support. A panel titled "Fine Tune Your Platform Strategy" tackled this tough issue on the first day of this year's E3 Conference Program.

Moderated by Anita Frazier, an analyst with NPD Funworld, the panel included Rory Armes, vice president and studio GM for Electronic Arts Europe; Karthik Bala, CEO and cofounder of Vicarious Visions; Will Kassoy, vice president of global brand management at Activision; Robert Lightner, vice president of strategic planning and business development at SEGA; and Bob Picunko, director of business development and production at Buena Vista Games, Disney's interactive entertainment branch.

Exceptions were the theme of the panel, as most of the panelists agreed on the key points but also emphasized that there were exceptions to every rule.

The panel first addressed the issue of how platforms were chosen for different games. "At EA, we generally start on all platforms and then scale back as the project develops," said Armes. This statement was generally echoed by the other panelists. Kassoy agreed, "The majority of everything we do is cross-platform."

Business necessity often drives these decisions, causing different companies to make different decisions. With one platform it's often difficult for a title to recoup costs, and so companies choose to release on multiple platforms, which can help drive sales. But SEGA had to get its titles out as quickly as possible to establish its reputation after discontinuing its support for the Dreamcast. Lightner discussed his point of view, saying, "By and large, we try not to do platform-exclusive properties. We had a lot of one-platform titles, but that was by necessity rather than design."

Yet while the panelists endorsed multiplatform titles, they also agreed that there was room for single-platform properties, although it was a little more difficult. "You have to have a title you can knock out of the park, that pushes the technical boundaries of what that platform can support," said Bala.

Picunko brought up the example of Kingdom Hearts, a PS2-only title that enjoyed incredible commercial success. He argued that it would not have had the success it did if the developers had to focus on porting the game to other platforms, distracting them from the main focus of the game. In addition to being easier to develop, these titles can often draw large audiences to the console they support, which in turn means that first-party platforms are willing to pay both marketing and development costs for exclusivity.

Releasing games across platforms brings up issues on how to market these games. In general, most developers have one large marketing campaign that doesn't differentiate between the different platforms, although one notable exception was Tony Hawk, which had different audiences for the console and handheld versions. Kassoy demonstrated the difference between the two campaigns by showing a few clips from the commercials that were used.

The panel didn't just focus on the console market, however. They also made clear that positioning was as much about choosing which market to release to. While the next-generation systems are definitely attracting a lot of interest, game developers also have to be aware of handhelds, cell phones, PCs, and arcades.

Of course, most consumers are interested in next-generation systems. The panel discussed how next-generation systems were relevant to game developers, from when to drop support for current-generation systems to introducing new intellectual property on these systems.

Armes analyzed the industry's experience transitioning from the previous generation to the current generation, highlighting EA's choices in particular. "We dumped the PS1 a little too early and lost millions and millions of consumer sales," he said. "Then we jumped back in and made more games for the older generation." Frazier noted that the PS1 outsold the Xbox and the GameCube when the two consoles were first introduced, remaining a viable system for quite a while. But the panelists all also agreed that it was possible to develop even more intellectual property on next-generation platforms. "Based on historical data, most of the new IP has been launched within two, maybe two and a half years of a platform launch," said Picunko. These new properties represent another potential source of revenue for game developers.

Bala ended the panel on a cautionary note, "From the development point of view, there's a sense of urgency to get on to the next generation, and there's a big cool factor as well. But we can't forget about the current generation of machines."

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