Lighting The Ignition: Jumping From Niche to Triple-A?

In an in-depth interview, the principals behind fast-growing publisher Ignition Entertainment, backed by Indian Bollywood media giant UTV, explains its current import-centered (Muramasa, King Of Fighters) business plan and hints at publishing plans that center on multiple triple-A games aimed at North American audiences.

Ignition Entertainment's profile has slowly but steadily been rising among U.S. gamers, but the best is yet to come, says its management team. The company, which was originally founded in the U.K., in 2007 entered into a relationship with Mumbai, India-based UTV Software Communications.

UTV purchased a 70% controlling share in the company, and Ignition has stealthily been expanding its operations since that time. (The Indian firm also owns microtransaction-based PC online game publisher True Games Interactive and a controlling interest in Indian developer IndiaGames.) 

The U.S. arm of Ignition is headed up by president Ajay Chadha, who co-founded the company in England with his brother Vijay, who remains its C.E.O. out of its U.K. offices. Earlier this year, the company hired veteran video game journalist Shane Bettenhausen as director of business development in the U.S.

The company has had a few notable titles in the past -- such as Archer Maclean's Mercury for the PSP -- but has mostly been skirting under the radar, with niche titles like Blue Dragon Plus, a DS sequel to the 2006 Microsoft-published Xbox 360 RPG, and the upcoming Nostalgia, an RPG for the DS originally published by Tecmo in Japan.

Muramasa: The Demon Blade, a Marvelous Interactive title for Wii from Vanillaware (Odin Sphere), looks to be its next major hit. King of Fighters XII, for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, seems poised to be the biggest title since the formation of Ignition's publishing relationship with the Osaka-based SNK Playmore.

However, Ignition aspirations appear to be much larger. While the company remains somewhat secretive about its future plans, Chadha and Bettenahusen here drop hints of a Tokyo Game Show 2009 presence, publishing plans that center on multiple triple-A games aimed at North American audiences.

They're joined by UTV CEO Ronnie Screwvala -- the parent company's original founder, and a TV show and Bollywood (and sometimes Hollywood) movie producer, who also discusses how Ignition fits into its global media plans.

What's your take on Ignition so far?

Shane Bettenhausen: When I came on board at Ignition, I understood some semblance of what this company had done -- largely DS games and PS2 games -- Archer Maclean's Mercury, Zoo Keeper, those are our big hits.

But in terms of what they have in the lineup right now, I knew that they had a multi-game contract with SNK Playmore, and, being an old-school gamer, I have a lot of love for those games. So, hardcore, old-school Japanese games: I'm into that, Ajay's into that, Vijay [too]. So in terms of picking things up from third parties, we were on a similar mindset of things we wanted to bring to market.

Is that your primary focus? I know in the past, at least, up till present, and especially with your relation with SNK, it has been. Also, you have games like Muramasa -- which is a Marvelous Interactive game in Japan. Is that your current focus?

SB: Yeah, the current focus is picking up third-party games, largely from Japanese developers. Some European developers as well. But I think that's the first step.

The next step -- what I was brought on do to -- is new business. To find development in the U.S., in Japan, in Europe, to partner with those [developers] to make original games instead of just picking things up that are finished. But we're still not opposed to picking up things like Muramasa. That already had a publisher lined up, and we came in and we're now the publisher of that game.

Ignition Entertainment/Vanillaware's Muramasa: The Demon Blade

That was an interesting scenario.

SB: It was. I played that game last year at TGS, and I was really impressed, and at that point it had already had a [North American] publisher. So when it became available, we were incredibly excited and poised jump on that, and to work with Vanillaware.

When I first joined the company, the focus was picking up games from other developers -- largely Japanese things -- and bringing them out to the market in the best way that we could. That's about the tip of the iceberg. I think we're poised to move to the next level.

And you guys do have studios, right?

SB: We do own studios. We haven't really talked about that publicly yet, but...

What I'm interested in is the roadmap for Ignition. The company has been a little bit under the radar, but obviously with the UTV acquisition it gained some notice, because that's a huge infusion of capital and resources that weren't previously there. Also the company is starting to make some moves -- games like Muramasa and the SNK partnership started to bring forth some cachet. What's the roadmap for the future?

Ronnie Screwvala: Well, the trajectory of the last 18 months, I think, started off with more publishing. Much more European Union-based. I think in the last six months we've invested heavily in the U.S. We're really creating a marketing, development, distribution base... So I think that's one side.

When we [UTV] came into the business, our interest was to a certain extent on the publishing, but finally to look at IP creation. And I think the ability for is us to be able to do both, and the team [at Ignition] has the expertise. So we're building up our distribution prowess, and with that we have a very strong ability to source games from worldwide.

And that's the core team. That's one of the core competencies that were there. And to straddle the IP space. So I think the end vision is for us to be scalable in publishing, but actually create and own our own IPs.

So that's in terms of the UTV equation. Was UTV interested in having cross-media IPs? Because UTV has a lot of film. That's the original basis of the company.

RS: I think, basically, we are a content company. So I would say film is one of them, but so are broadcast channels and television. So in small screen and big screen, our focus is always content, not platform.

And I think, therefore, in games, and especially in console games, definitely the focus is content. Publishing, we consider aggregating, and I think the IPs is the content creation part of it.

Ajay Chadha: And I think we've seen the growth of Ignition. If you consider what we were bringing out last year, instead of what we are bringing out this year, a lot of third party developers are having confidence in what we're capable of doing.

I think we're a really proactive team, and I think we bring a different type of style, as well, to the industry. We complement people's games; we know how to look after the people's IPs. And also, I think I've already said, we're creating our own IP, and we know how to handle content, and we know how to look after our partners.

SB: I think the climate of the games industry right now, in the U.S., for a lot of developers -- you know, publishers are falling, consolidating, getting picked up, so there are good games developers out there who are looking for new venues, new avenues to go.

And they're open to talking to us, even though like two years ago they might not have heard of Ignition. But now, as the quality of our games is picking up, we can talk to more and more people, and I think the quality is going to be going higher and higher.

Ignition Entertainment/SNK Playmore's The King of Fighters XII

That reminds me of something I've been hearing: a lot of people have been talking about, with the consolidations and the scheduled downplays -- you know, Eidos canceling tons of games right before the Square Enix merger, and stuff like that. There's going to be some holes in the schedules -- 18 months out, 24 months out. Is that something that you guys are looking at as a strategy? Getting interesting, big titles in the medium term?

RS: I think our strategy has really been to focus on the games we've been excited about, and with the core team members that we've developed in these three places. I think it would be silly for us to say that the strategy worked out well because now there are holes, because that was not part of our strategy when we greenlit the games. But I think that it has worked better, so it will give us a lot of tailwind when we go forward right now.

AC: I think we're going to see a lot of publishers have been falling downwards at the moment. And I think Ignition is reversed: we're going upwards. You can tell by the titles and the acquisitions that we're doing.

We're a very passionate team. And I think that's key. We are seeing licensors who are looking for new options. When they see the core team, they feel very confident when they meet us. They know that we won't just bring a product, and take it to the market. Our marketing, our PR, the activities that we do are very, very different. As much as we have to do the cookie cutter, we think very much out of the box. And I think that's where people's compliments come in our direction.

SB: Yeah, and a lot of mid-level, and even bigger publishers, they have so many titles in their portfolio that they can't focus on any of them. And they spend all their marketing money on one triple-A game, and everything else gets the shaft.

Because of my background in editorial, I understand that every game is important, and to be able to approach it, you need perspective. Find the press, find the user. And if you treat it with passion, the way that we approach all of these games, I think developers see that, and [know] we'll give their game a better spotlight than some other publishers.

Right now, in terms of where Ignition's at, at least in North America, I see the peers of the company being companies like Atlus and XSEED -- in that range. But I get the impression that the aspirations are larger. Can you talk about that sort of motivation?

SB: Right now we are definitely competing for some of the same types of games that those two publishers are, just because their philosophies are in line with us. You know: action RPGs, Japanese-style games. But I think when you see, a year from now, the kind of games we're announcing, it's not on the level of those publishers. It's something they could never do.

RS: I think we've run past the aspiration part, because we wouldn't be at the aspiration stage if we were going to release what we are supposed to be releasing in 2010, you know? So I think we're about already a year and a half past the aspiration, from that perspective.

AC: And you can see that. I don't think they're making the type of IP or content that we're making. We are jumping to triple-A status.

RS: Yeah. It is the triple-A status, and a repertoire of not one, but more than one game. That's going to arouse the curiosity from that point. The combination of the passion of the team, the different geographies, and UTV coming together, is really the USP.

When it comes to geography, you're based in the UK, North America, and India.

RS: And Japan.

And you have some Japanese operations too.

RS: And east and west. I mean, the publishing office is here [in LA], but we've got something interesting in Florida, too.

So it seems to me that there's a lot of different potential... both opportunities, but also different strategies may be required. Do you have a global vision, or are there targets?

RS: Actually it's not a different strategy: the geographies have been driven by the talent pool, and the passion, and the geography of people came in with the original IPs and the creative team. So the strategy is the same in each of the studios, in all contexts.

SB: But I do think Ignition, in the last few years, is in the transition from being primarily a European publisher to seeing the U.S. as the lead market. I think that's across the board. Europe's still important, but the bleeding edge is here in the US.

It was founded originally in the UK. [Addressing Ajay] By you and your brother.

AC: That's correct, yeah. Originally me and Vijay. And I was shipped off to America.


I hope it's not too painful.

RS: The jury's still out. So.


SB: I think he's becoming an American. It's just a matter of time.

AC: I think we've realized how much of a key market this is; this is why I came over here. With the type of passion that drove the European team, I came out here to drive that same type of passion -- and you can tell by the team we've got.

You've got someone like Shane Bettenhausen coming across to Ignition, which is not well known. He's a big scoop for us. He's seen our vision, and I think that was probably one of the key things for him to say, "You know, I'm going to come over." To the dark side, people say, right?

SB: "The dark side", yeah, they call it.

Your old cohorts?

SB: Well, yeah. To make the transition from editorial to publisher side, it's... Normally you don't go back.

AC: He had 7,000 Twitter followers. Since he's moved to publishing, it's gone down to about four.


SB: No comment.

I don't know how much your strategy revolves around releasing games in India, but Sony has been marketing the PlayStation 2 and it has some indigenous development for original IPs for that market. Is that something that you're interested in too?

RS: I can't say we're not interested, because that's a base for us, but actually this is not an India play at all. If we had a first and foremost market, it's North America. Second would be Japan. Third would be Europe. India would be way past. It still has a ways to go there.

Is that Japan in terms of publishing, too?

RS: That's Japan in terms of publishing. As Ajay just said, North America is our deep focus.

AC: We've got three key territories to concentrate on. U.S. is probably the strongest at the moment; Japan is second; Europe is third. So, I think that's enough for us to handle.

SB: And the Japanese market is a unique situation, different than the either two. That's one that requires very careful calculation, to try to make a success with an enthusiast-based game in Japan.

I don't think anyone with a Western focus has made a consistent success in Japan. Obviously, the big emphasis from our end is always seeing how Japanese publishers do in the West. But even names like EA and Ubisoft haven't really made a splash.

SB: You know, it's funny, because I don't really consider Ignition a U.S. publisher and developer -- even though we are.

RS: If you look at the overall Asian cross-culture heritage, from that point of view, I think that works better. Because actually Japan works with its own culture. So, the geographies are all similar, the strategies are the same, but the cultures are a little different, between each territory.

AC: And I think another thing that you need to look at: you look at all the key management at Ignition. We're all gamers, so we understand gaming. That's the biggest difference. We don't go in suits -- except for me, today, because the big boss is here...

RS: Who's dressed in Tommy Bahama!


AC: He tricked me!

I think the key is that we understand. And the core talent that we're bringing into our studios, the key thing is that they look at the management and they think, "You get it." They see that we understand it, that's why they want to work with us. And I think that's very cool.

SB: And that's what I felt. When I first came to Ignition, both Ajay and Vijay are such huge gamers. Such really passionate guys, in the same way that I am -- and that's a rare find. I mean, I've met a lot of game CEOs, game company presidents, and a lot of them don't even play games at all. The fact that they get it, the consumer will ultimately understand: everyone along the way felt passion for this game. That's important.

You announced the new Samurai Shodown game at E3. Is that your only announcement?

AC: Yeah, it's our only announcement, and I think it's probably best it's kept this way, because we've got four very strong games here now. To be announcing or doing anything is not strategically wise for us. I think, you know, we've got Nostalgia; we've got King of Fighters XII, which is looking huge; we've got Samurai Shodown...

SB: And Muramasa.

AC: And Demon Blade -- I mean, that speaks for itself. You've seen the press that's come out already. Even Nintendo Power, we've had a nine or 10 page spread in there. And every word -- the single word is, it's beautiful. And it's not just beautiful and it doesn't play; it's beautiful and it flipping plays. So, you know, we've got such a beautiful array of games, I don't think we really need to do anything.

Ignition Entertainment/SNK Playmore's Samurai Shodown: Edge of Destiny

It does feel like, at least for this year, you're on the cusp. Which is an interesting place to be, I should imagine, and you're observing. I don't think anyone really knew what E3 was going to be like this year, right?

AC: I was standing there thinking to myself that my boss was going to tap me on the shoulder and say, "Where is everyone? It's midday." [Ed. note: The E3 show floor opened at noon on the first day.]

But, since it opened, the stand had been packed. And we underestimated in some way how busy it would be. We could have had, probably, a few more [demo] pods and they would have been packed, and that's great. That's a great feeling.

SB: I think it shows that gaming isn't going away. Despite the recession, despite all the fears, people are still really excited about games. Probably next year will be even bigger for E3 -- and bigger for us.

Something that's interesting for me is Nostalgia. I'm sure at some point this has happened, but I don't remember Tecmo doing a lot of licensing out of their titles, so that's an interesting situation.

AC: I think with Tecmo it was quite interesting, because we met by coincidence in Japan, back in Tokyo, and we were literally sitting at the table next to them. And we started a conversation, and they showed us Nostalgia, which I was surprised about. And we talked about what we would do with it; what we had done before. They'd seen, previously, what we had done on Blue Dragon, and I think they were impressed by what we had done.

So we put some ideas down with them, discussed what we would do with the title, and I think -- like I said to you -- even bigger publishers now are looking. Because, and I think Shane put the nail on the head. Some publishers have so many games that they don't concentrate on all of them, and they only concentrate on one; the rest are going to fall, even if they are very good titles.

So, I think the option is, let some other people handle these products, and they'll put the concentration on them that we can't afford to, and they'll make them successful. So this is why you're seeing some partnerships that Ignition are taking.

People are looking at us like that. Seeing the company, and seeing what we're doing. Even the actual logo [of the game], we changed the direction, and the way people look at it. And they [Tecmo] have been really impressed. And I think they respect the way we look after the IP -- the way we're looking after the licensor -- and how transparent we are as a company to work with. I think that is really a breath of fresh air for these guys. There's transparency that Ignition offer.

SB: Yeah. Personally, I would love to take on more Japanese games from other publishers and developers you wouldn't expect to license games out. I think that the climate there has changed a lot. And, same as here: the whole rules of who publishes what, and how it gets handled, are changing.

It is. I mean, this was my quote of E3 -- after XSEED announced Fragile, following up on Retro Game Challenge -- XSEED is my favorite publisher of Namco Bandai games.

SB: Right.

Which is just bizarre. I mean, things are changing, right?

AC: This is a big test for everyone, because, I mean, Atlus has taken Demon's Souls. XSEED has taken Fragile. We have Nostalgia, [Muramasa: The] Demon Blade. It's really what people have tested, to see what has everyone got to offer. It's a big test for everybody.

But I think there's something that we have going on that none of the others really have. We have the creative side especially, with Ignition, and that's something which is very special. Very special.

SB: Yeah, and hopefully this year at Tokyo Game Show, we're hoping to have a presence there, and if so, I think it would be very exciting. One to watch.

It's an interesting market to be in.

Ignition Entertainment/Matrix Software's Nostalgia

Did you guys have any reaction to anything that came out of the E3 press conferences, as pertains to Ignition?

SB: I went to all three press conferences, and the big talk this year is, of course, motion controllers -- again. As you know, both Sony and Microsoft unveiled camera-based motion-sensing peripherals.

And the Wii MotionPlus.

SB: And the Wii MotionPlus. And Nintendo announced the biometrics thing [Wii Vitality Sensor], that senses your biometrics. Lots of new add-ons, and gizmos, and gadgets. And while Ignition has never done anything that uses such gimmickry, we're not opposed to it.

And if it is going to be a new segment of the market, we're open to exploring that. Another big focus of the press conferences was digital distribution, and we're eagerly experimenting and exploring potentials for digital distribution, on all platforms.

OK, so, I'm going to put something back at you...

SB: All right.

You guys said you're all gamers, and you all have a passion for games, and obviously the titles you've released are obviously very hardcore. Just me personally, that appeals to me as well. But when it comes to something like these motion controllers and God-damned things that clip on your finger...

SB: Yes. (laughs)

Is your company in a position to take advantage of the Wii Fit kind of market?

SB: I think so. In the past, games like Mercury and Zoo Keeper were very casual, and those were two of the biggest hits that we've ever had, so we're not afraid to do those things. But I think our true passion does lie in hardcore games. We can't ignore the masses. And I like puzzle games; I like goofy, funny things; I love Wii Sports, so...

Do you like Wii Fit?

AC: Why do you think he's looking so good? (laughs)

SB: I appreciate and respect Wii Fit. Whether or not we'll have a Balance Board game this year? Probably not. But I'm not opposed to it, if you can make it fun.

I think a lot of game companies forget to focus on their strengths, for sure, and that can lead down a bad path. So if you're focusing on your strengths, I can't be too critical, but at the same time...

AC: I think it's really important you look at the type of team we've built, and the type of people that we have in management. I have to tell you that my first love is still, and Shane can tell you, Shadow of the Colossus. You know, I've got posters, all of the figurines around in my office. That's probably been my first love; it's a wonderful game.

But I think even if we indulge [ourselves with] the product that we're making... You'll see, as it goes further, when we get more prepared, you'll see what we're making, and I think it's going to be something very special, and I think people are going to be very surprised.


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