Charles Bellfield is the Vice President of Marketing at Capcom, USA. In this Gamasutra interview, freelance journalist Kyle Orland sits down with Bellfield to discuss Capcom's stance on the Academy of Interactive Arts and Science's 'pay to play' model, the success of downloadable console demos and the feedback loop it creates between developers and consumers, Eastern influences on Western games, Okami, Phoenix Wright, and more.
Gamasutra: How do you feel about the whole matter with the AIAS awards and how it has played out in the press?
Charles Bellfield: First, I'm not gonna talk specifically about AIAS but I will talk about what Capcom's philosophy is. We are very much a developer-centric company. The games that we have as a company are essentially the brain child of the producers and the directors and the whole development team that we have, both in Japan and in the West.
Our philosophy here is that we support the creative -- and technical these days, I suppose -- talents of the people we have working on our titles and on our brands. The individuals and the sort of collective groups of development talent are at the center of what Capcom is about. We create games that come out from a vision, a creative direction, a perception of what the content needs to be by the developers, in conjunction with the marketing team, but very much it's the individuals and the creators at Capcom that are the most important element at Capcom.
The reason we said what we said was very clearly that recognizing the talent of those individuals and those groups is very important to Capcom in terms of inspiring our developers and our team members to create games that really are breakthrough and developing content which in many ways has a vision and bringing that content to consumers. One thing I would say specifically about what happened – the reaction – I think we were pleased by the vast majority of consumers as well as the media actually reinforcing that the recognition for great talent is important.
And it's not an issue of paying for awards but in fact the recognition by consumers and editorial staff and the industry generally behind the great content that is important. Which is why, for example, for the Game Developers Choice Awards awards, [for which nominations have now been announced], we have been recognized by a body which is not a pay-to-play scenario. Members obviously have nominated and will vote, and that membership is by individuals, not by corporate bodies, so I think the recognition that IGDA is giving to Capcom studios from individuals here is from their peers in the industry, and that is something we very much do support.
GS: How important do you feel awards like these are in the marketing and selling of games?
CB: I think unlike the music or movie industries, the video game industry schedules are very different. We're not dependent on awards to market our titles, unlike the movie industry which sees great benefit to the nominee in the Oscars, the Golden Globes, or television with the Emmys to drive sales or advertising.
For a game that ships, let's say, in January of 2006, that may be a critically acclaimed title, it doesn't have an extended sales cycle a year later with an award. I think that's very true with not just Capcom games, but any games. I think it's in many ways the marketing of titles is defined around the quality of the game at the time the game ships and not up to twelve months later, so I don't see it having a significant impact on the marketing at all.
GS: How has the release of early downloadable demos for games like Lost Planet and Dead Rising impacted the marketing of those titles?
I think this comes back to a philosophy issue. Capcom today believes that interaction with consumers on a one-to-one basis is central to our marketing plans. With regard to releasing demos, what we had particularly with Lost Planet, where we released the first demo nine months before the game shipped, we were able to have a dialogue with consumers every day, anywhere in the world, and be able to gather their feedback based on the experiences they made within the game.
What we were able to do was make impactful changes into the gameplay mechanics to make sure we could fine tune elements of the game which there was consensus they needed to be dealt with. And so we've done that and I think from the announcements of the changes we've made, both before launch and after launch, is indicative of knowing what the consumers want and hearing their feedback, making those changes. I think consumers in the community out there very much appreciate they are being listened to.
Capcom's Lost Planet
GS: Can you give some examples of changes that came about because of this feedback?
CB: Absolutely. One main example is in terms of the lobby system of Lost Planet. There we had a vision that we wanted to bring people together all over the world to play against each other in an act of – I don't want to say randomness, but a sense of – you could vary the number of people you could play against.
One of the simple things consumers were saying was when they play a game they want to be able to at least go into the lobby with people they've played against to either have a repeat or choose that they want to go play against other different people. Consumers very loudly said they want at least the opportunity to have that choice. So we made that change in the lobby system that when you do finish a match you actually go into the lobby with the people you played against, and you can choose to leave or stay in it. Again, it comes back to philosophy, in terms of engaging directly with consumers, building that community and being responsive to what consumers are wanting in our games.
There is a “but” to this, and that “but” is our creators and our developers here have a vision with what they're trying to deliver in a game. Some elements of Lost Planet, for example, we did not change – that we had a significant amount of criticism online, but we kept because we believed it was central to the gameplay we were trying to deliver here. I'll give you an example. [Lost Planet producer Jun] Takeuchi-san specifically did not want to just recreate another Western-style third-person shooter, he wanted to add elements to it that would make Lost Planet unique.
Some of the examples are, maybe, the power of some of the weapon or the melee attacks or the number of times the respawning and the different locations where you do respawn – we wanted to make it harder for you if you do die, so it really gives you an incentive to keep an eye on your health and your energy within the game, and make sure you protect that rather than just feel that you can just go in blasting away, die quickly and respawn quickly. We wanted to, in essence, focus the consumer and the gamer to be protective over their energy.
GS: Is it hard to balance the desires of the players and the desires of the designers?
CB: I think that's the question we're all trying to face at the moment. At the end of the day there's a balance. I was there in the conversation when we had all the feedback from the Western market and we were going through it with Takeuchi-san and the team, and there were some elements that Takeuchi-san was explaining why he wanted to keep it as it was because it's very attuned to what he wanted to deliver in the consumer experience. We were mentioning what the consumers were saying in terms of direct feedback we'd got, and he understood what we were saying, but we also allowed him the opportunity to explain the vision he was trying to create.
In some instances, as a consensus between Takeuchi-san, the development team and the marketing team, some changes we agreed to make, other changes we agreed that we weren't going to make, and we explained to the consumers why. I think the indiciation here is the comments you see on the boards and the talk about those gamers who have spent time with Lost Planet appreciate that it is different and it's giving them a different experience and other content. This balance between the vision by the developer, the demands by the market is where companies will either succeed in that balance or they will fail.We are not about being formulaic, that's the one thing I would say. Capcom is about innovative gameplay even if it's a mass market game or a game which is designed for smaller markets as being more alternative.
GS: That kind of gets into my next question about the closing of Clover Studios which makes some rather non-mass-market games. How damaging do you think that closing was to Capcom's image among gamers?
I think there are two things about that. One thing is the perception of the announcement created in the consumer marketplace and secondly, more important, is the reality of what actually happened.
Capcom, unlike most other developers, doesn't have dedicated strict boundaries between each of its development teams. We actually have one pool of development talent at Capcom and those individuals are basically assigned based on the timescales of each product we're working on, so everybody does work on a variety of content and games at Capcom... with the exception of Clover, where we did create a separate entity which was based on one of the sixteen floors in Osaka, where the other fifteen floors had everybody else on it. That Clover team was a seperate identity – it was managed by [Atsushi] Inaba-san, [Shinji] Mikami-san and [Hideki] Kamiya-san, and the three of them were essentially the individuals that made Clover, plus with the team staff they had about 80 people in total.
Our games need to at least break even and add value back to our shareholders, so it's impossible to make games that are not profitable over and over again. What actually happened is Mikami-san, Kamiya-san and Inaba-san chose to leave the company and do something else and the rest of the Clover team was just incorporated back into the rest of Capcom's development talent pool. So in fact, while three individuals left, Clover Studios as a separate entity was merged back into the rest of the Capcom teams and today, still, the talent we had, with the exception of three people, is still remaining at Capcom.
GS: How important do you think the vision of those three people was to the Clover studio games?
Obviously, they were the three key individuals, so obviously it was a very important component to Clover, but in any organization -- especially a company like Capcom that is coming up on its 30th anniversary -- reinvents itself over and over again. [Keiji] Inafune-san who is now the head of our R&D teams, when Capcom started he was very much a junior level person within the organization. So we've grown internal talent very much in terms of evolving the development teams as well. I think it's a good balance we need to have between keeping certain individuals versus continuing to grow and evolve the organization.
GS: Do you see Capcom creating other studios in the same vein as Clover or is that a failed experiment at this point?
CB: Well that's looking a little into the crystal ball at this moment. I think you never say never about anything but I do think the structure we have – we don't have seperate delegated teams, we have one big team – is a great way to cross-pollinate skill sets across the whole organization, and also learning curves. So, for example, some of the team that worked on Clover titles are now helping Takeuchi-san on Resident Evil 5, helping Inafune-san on a new title for the Wii, so I think it's very much the skill set still stays in the company when those individuals stay and, unfortunately, three individuals chose to leave.
I think the structure Capcom's got in Japan is unique, it allows a cross-pollination between teams, a shared skillset that various games from various teams and different individuals can work on. We're balancing that with external development talent in the West and in Japan as well when we do have dedicated teams we're working with. In essence, at the end of the day, Capcom will always have a balance between different types of organizational structures.
GS: You mentioned a new title for the Wii. What are Capcom's plans for the Wii and the PlayStation 3 going forward?
CB: I would love to give you my product lineup for the next five years, but... *laughs*. Obviously you saw Inafune-san mention we are developing a new title for the Wii platform. I will say we are developing a cross-support for all major platforms that are out there at the moment -- the ones that have shipped for a while and the ones that recently shipped. We will be making announcements in the coming months as to what these different titles are.
GS: Are the games being developed for the Wii going to be exclusives or re-imagined ports from other platforms?
CB: It's a good question... Capcom has to balance its content between some of its established brands that may come over to different platforms – obviously we have a track record there with Resident Evil 4 from Gamecube to PS2. We also have a track record of focusing key franchises on specific platforms such as the Devil May Cry brand. Also we're launching new IPs on new platforms such as Dead Rising and Lost Planet. At the end of the day all I will say is there is a continuation of that same strategy of a mixture of strategies on each platform and with the different brands we've got.
Capcom's Dead Rising (Xbox 360)
GS: Do you feel it's harder for a Japanese company to sell games in the current U.S. gaming market?
CB: No. Not for Capcom.
GS: For Japanese companies in general?
Well, although I spent six years at Sega, I can't really speak about other companies at the moment. My perception on the globalization, I suppose, of the industry – this is my third Japanese company I've worked for – I think Game Informer had an article on this about three or four months ago on what it's like to work for Japanese companies. I've always felt that the challenges of working for any company in terms of suceeding between development and marketing to have successful titles is not one of distance within an organization, it is not one of differences in languages within an organization, and it is not one of different cultures within an organization, but it is an issue of mindset between the key individuals within an organization.
If you have an understanding of how to integrate the development talent with the marketing talent, the understandings of markets outside of your own home territory, with a willingness by marketing to accept creative visions of the developers we've got, and alternatively, a willingness by the development teams to accept that the marketing individuals have an important component in the development products, then you make successful products.
GS: How different is it marketing a game that might have more Eastern influence for a Western audience?
There are interesting ones, certainly – and I can't speak for other Japanese publishers – but for Capcom there are three things we focus in on on marketing our titles in the West. The first one is stay true to the creative talent – stay true to the vision that the developers and producers and art directors have got for their titles. The second one is being relevant to the market you're selling to – understand who is your consumer both pre- and post-ship.
Pre-ship is basically really giving the information to the development talent so they understand who will be playing and buying the games they are creating. The third area, essentially, what's happening now, is engaging with the consumer on a one-to-one basis. The philosophy that Capcom has behind this is instilling an idea within the consumer's mind and within the community out there that they're part of the development process.
I'll give you some examples there: Though the Lost Planet demos that were out we were able to address specific issues the consumer had, but also with marketing programs, again with Lost Planet, we issued, about four months before the game shipped, a bunch of different creative assets online to allow consumers to create their own fan site for the game. Everything from logos to videos to soundtracks to art files, we put a ton of stuff online. We basically gave it away without any need to sign an agreement or contract with us – you can take our assets and create your own fansite.
What we then did, a month before the game shipped, se selected the top three fansites that were created for lost planet, we printed [the URLs] for those top three in the manual itself. So we actually wanted to inspire the consumer that they can be part of the Lost Planet experience and the Lost Planet game itself -- create your own fansites and we'll actually promote it inside the manual. The third area is all about having that connection, that direct connection with consumers so that consumers can feel they're part of the development process.
GS: How much of that connection is organic – from actual consumer interest in the game -- and how much can be manufactured on the part of the company. Would there have been any interest in these fan site kits, for instance, if they weren't already interested in the game.
CB: It's an interesting question, and there are two ways to answer it. The first angle is you can never manufacture a false community. I'll give you an example: there was a certain company before Christmas that did a viral campaign that they said was consumers making content about their product. Ultimately, at the end of the day, it was proven that that content was actually done by an agency on behalf of the company. That questioned their credibility in terms of their community programs. Whereas our philosophy is to give the tools, the information and the communication with the consumer and the community to allow them to do what they like and not actually create that false programs and artificially manufacture community.
I think the key difference here is, if you have some content or a game that inspires consumers with a brand they want to be associate with, the community will develop in its own way. I'll give an example: With Okami and Godhand, which were both Clover studios games, we did not change the marketing strategy at all. It was completely based on the creative vision of the team in Japan -- so much so that, taking Godhand as an example, we didn't change the packaging; we did exactly what the creative team in Japan wanted to do.
Same with Okami, the team created the packaging and the community for those games, particularly for Okami, has developed in its own organic way. Lost Planet obviously has more marketing behind it, but I think the bedrock with Lost Planet was engaging with the consumer early enough with content they could play for free, give them a communication channel to be part of the marketing while the game is in development,and they rewarded us by creating their own fan sites, having their own community and having a conversation with their peers about the Lost Planet games experience.
GS: Given the fact that, as you just said, the community will develop on its own, how can you as marketers control it?
CB: Well again I think it's a question of mindset. I'm not interested in controlling. I'm interested in enabling, empowering. I'll give you another example: After we made our initial statement about Dead Rising, Resident Evil 4, Okami and the AIAS awards, we said nothing – we allowed the consumer, the media to speak on our behalf in terms of all those points. You've seen other people in the industry constantly trying to rebut arguments that the community itself has put out there. Capcom is not interested in controlling the message, we are about empowering and enabling and allowing the community to take it as it wishes. Now we will take our bumps and our hits, and I truly expect that.
GS: Silence is golden, then?
GS: Capcom recently released God Hand and Okami for the PS2. Given the huge installed base for that system and the relatively small installed bases so far for all the new systems, how long do you think development for the PS2 can last, both for Capcom and the industry as a whole?
CB: Well, you take Sony's traditional cycle – they look at a ten year cycle for each hardware platform – and I think we definitely have plans to support PlayStation 2 for a few more years. I do think that, yes, it's mass market and I think some of the successes we've had on PlayStation 2 such as Devil May Cry: Anniversary Collection that was shipped just before Christmas – three games for $29.95, Devil May Cry 1, 2, and 3 Special Edition -- sold in excess of 125,000. In terms of that avenue for our content to reach a new market as the PS2 has gone more mass market. Going forward with other brands within the Capcom family, PS2 gives us more of a mass market feel. So I think we will definitely be supporting that, certainly in the next few years.
The PS3 on the other hand, gives us a more core user who's prepared to spend 600 bucks on a piece of hardware. It also gives us a new piece of technolgoy to create a new vision like Devil May Cry 4. If you look at that game, it's really about utilizing that hardware as best as possible to play a game that obviously has higher costs of production, but we are able to deliver a new and compelling experience to consumers.
Capcom's PS2 title Okami
GS: You mentioned the PS3 specifically, but surely the Xbox 360 can create similar experiences, and you already have a relationship with Microsoft through Dead Rising and Lost Planet. Do you see that relationship continuing to develop through a preference for the 360 or do you see the PS3 eventually taking up as much of Capcom's development resources.
CB: I think there's a good balance between all the platforms, whether those two specifically or PSP, DS and even Wii, where we haven't announced any plans yet, but we have plenty of them. I think it's foolish in this generation to ignore consumers just because they made a purchase of one platform rather than another, so once you do see, for example, Resident Evil 5 will be out on both PS3 and Xbox 360, that we have announced. So you will see Capcom both developing a strategy to enable delivery of our content to the largest market possible. But also there are games such as Monster Hunter, which has a track record of being on the PSP, there will be some titles that will be more exclusive to a single platform because that can deliver the experience the game developer wants to create.
GS: So basically a single-platform exclusive would only be an exclusive if the developer said 'This is the only system we can make it on'?
CB: It really depends on the type of gameplay. Monster Hunter: Freedom is on PSP largely because of the ad hoc or face-to-face gaming experience. It's not that easy to take around a PS3 or 360 to do that, although you could play online. One of the key characteristics of Monster Hunter is actually the social element of bringing people together to play the game, so the element of actually sitting around together, particularly in Japan, where the first Monster Hunter has sold not yet a million units but easily 100,000 units, and obviously the Japanese market is more attuned to social gaming in a physical sense, more than online multiplayer gaming we have in the West. That element of social gaming is very important to Monster Hunter, and that's why it's on the PSP.
GS: Well, sure, I understand there's a difference between the portable and console experience but the DS is also a portable...
It is, and I think the horsepower and the performance of PSP allows us to develop that game in the way we want to. Nintendo DS hasn't got the hardware which is really important for that game. It was on PS2 originally and I think the real vision of the developers was they wanted a game that brought gamers together, phsysically, particularly for Japan which is an important market for Monster Hunter, and that's what we could do with PSP.
GS: Have you been surprised at all by the success of the Phoenix Wright series in America?
CB: You know, I hate ever admitting anything being a surprise – as a marketing person, you want to make sure you've planned everything. Yes, is the simple answer. You know, we shipped something like 30,000 units when we first sold the game, we're now well over 100,000 units. It's one of those games that's just got a very genuine consumer base and community base around the game, but may not be the largest in terms of other games out there, but it's very vocal.
I think, again, there are subtle nuances in the Western markets in that particularly unique Japanese-style gameplay actually does resonate. You can go back from everything from Pokemon to Zelda to, with us, Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, but also I think it's down to a security level on the DS in terms of it's a really interesting, compelling story. It's what we refer to in the industry as a slow burner in many ways. It's shipped steadily for the last year, and we've just shipped Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Justice for All and we have more coming up, so I think again it's like a good book, it's that word of mouth that gets people out there to learn more about the game.
GS: Do you think a game like this could have succeeded in America five years ago if someone had tried it, or do you think it's a shifting taste in the market that's causing games like these to have a modicum of success in the West.
CB: I think in many ways the consumer in the West is getting more sophisticated. I also think the industry in a way got too sequelized and lacked innovation. Thirdly I think something different that stands out has struck a chord here with Ace Attorney.
GS: More sophisticated in what ways?
When I say sophisticated I mean they really understand what is a good game and what is not; when they're being marketed at rather than discovering a brand or product. I think the overmarketing nature of some of my competitors has put consumers off those games where if it is a game or brand that consumers explore and find themselves, they feel they're actually like an explorer, except rather than going through the jungles of the Amazon they're going through the jungles of Gamestop, which is almost just as bad. They like finding and exploring and discovering something that is uinque and something that is compelling and I think that's what has happened with Phoenix Wright.
GS: Capcom's a pretty major player in both print and online advertising in gaming magazines and web sites. How do you see the relative importance of each of those evolving within the next few years.
Everything we do for marketing going forward – and it started very much with Lost Planet – is around developing the community and empowering and informing and inspiring the community around our products. As far as marketing, it is all integrated in terms of developing the audience and the information to consumers on a one-to-one basis, drive awareness of the product and give the cinformation to consumers that they want to know about a game coming out.
I do not see a siloed mentality between different functions of marketing, whether it's PR, communications, channel marketing, online, print, promotions – they're all integrated. I do see going forward that we have already made some choices which use the duplicity of some print publications and some online sites. What you will see with us going forward is integration between the print advertising and the online advertising in terms of developing that community. I'm not interested unless our marketing programs are fully integrated and they are actually driving community building.