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Namco Bandai is renowned for its console titles, from Ridge Racer through Tekken and beyond, but has now hired MMO biz dev veteran Zack Karlsson to "expand our business [in the U.S.] from being strictly console publishing" - we chatted to hi

February 7, 2007

6 Min Read

Author: by Brandon Sheffield, Simon Carless

Major Japanese-headquartered game publisher Namco Bandai recently appointed Zack Karlsson to oversee all new business development as Business Development Director for North America. The Ridge Racer and Pac-Man creator, which merged with toy and anime company Bandai in 2006, has obviously been thinking hard about its Western prospects, reaffirming its commitment to the development of new intellectual properties. It also announced at the time that Karlsson, formerly of Sigil Games (PC MMO Vanguard) and Sony Online Entertainment, will "focus on building solid relationships with development studios as well as exploring new online revenue streams" with regard to Western operations at the Silicon Valley-headquartered publisher. The firm has started commissioning many more Western-created games in recent years, but still seems to be casting around to find its sweet spot (as lukewarm response to projects such as the Mage Knight license have shown). Recently, Gamasutra had the chance to sit down with Karlsson and discuss exactly what he hopes to do at the storied publisher. The Three Arms Of Namco's Future Karlsson explained to us, by way of introduction: "I'm the business development director here. I've been here for about two months. My practical function really is in overseeing our new business acquisition. So, while I do provide some critical oversight on stuff that we've already done or stuff that's in development, my primary focus is on developing new business for the company. I come from a PC and most specifically an MMO background." He explained of Namco Bandai's particular focus over the next couple of years: "We are obviously looking at pushing into a variety of different spaces, and trying to expand our business from being strictly console publishing and looking at a lot of business opportunities in the space. That's really what I've come on to do." When asked for further detail on Namco's longer-term plans, Karlsson was very specific: "The business plan that I'm driving has a little bit of a longer gestation period, and that can really be summed up in three phrases. That's new IP, multiplayer and online. That's where we are really looking to focus our efforts." He noted: "That's not to say we are abandoning our roots. It's really about growing our roots, if you will, looking in new directions. We have a very, very strong base of console titles and we will continue to push high quality console titles out to the market." Namco's Cross-Platform MMO Aspirations? When asked specifically if Namco Bandai is actually considering moving into the MMO space, Karlsson comments: "Potentially. It's not anything that we've committed to or that we've said yes, we're absolutely going to do. We're looking at consoles as really a connected platform, and a PC is a connected platform. All of the consoles now are connected. So, online is really emerging as this sort of omnipresent entertainment platform." Conversation with Karlsson turned to the major cross-platform MMOs made by Japanese companies, particularly Phantasy Star Online from Sega and Final Fantasy XI from Square Enix. When asked whether simultaneous console and PC releases of MMOs might be the kind of thing Namco would consider doing, Karlsson noted: "Do I view those as viable? Yes, potentially. They present a series of unique challenges. Communication is the big one; without a keyboard you're looking at voice chat - how do you separate out different communication venues and channels? It gets very, very complicated. UI design becomes very complicated." He continued: "Final Fantasy XI faced some very unique challenges with regards to their market. Given that the game felt very much like a console game that was ported to PC, a lot of the more core consumers for an MMO were a little bit disenfranchised with the way that the game felt. But it's a fantastic game, by the way; I play it often still." "The experience that NBG [Namco Bandai Games] has, specifically in the console space and then building some really solid titles and being able to make their games accessible, I think that's really going to be a strength that we can use within this space. Because often times you've seen the MMO that traditionally lives on PCs, and so we're really able to bring a unique perspective to it." However, the Namco exec warned: "That's assuming, of course, that we decide to go in that direction. It's not that we're committing to that, by any stretch of the imagination. We're just really looking at it." The Virtues Of Co-Op Gaming Turning to another of the key elements Karlsson will concentrate on, he commented on the newly merged Namco Bandai entity: "We have some great licenses, but we are really starting to build new franchises, also focusing on multiplayer, specifically co-op. I think that is an under-served market, because previously to the console being wired, you had to play split screen if you wanted to play a game co-op." "I don't know about you but I always liked playing Gauntlet, or whatever it happened to be down at the arcade, because you could play with other people, and it wasn't just beating up other people." He continued: "I think now that we have these consoles connected, there's some pretty cool opportunities for that, especially with the back catalogue that we have of these very strong RPGs and things like that... We haven't been able to provide that experience until now. I think there is some really, really innovative game play that can be brought to the marketplace." Console Downloadable Glee, Handheld Gloom Conversation then turned to downloadable console titles such as those found on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation 3's E-Distribution Initiative, and Karlsson clearly believes Namco will be considering this area in the future, commenting: "It keeps your cost down. You can get some great games that are really innovative and very clever out to the marketplace." He is also considering Namco's place for original IP downloadable games, commenting: "There are some really clever companies out there doing pretty cool stuff, for instance, the Cloning Clyde game that I saw [on Xbox Live Arcade] theother day... It's a cute game. It's a way that you can get smaller games, smaller titles that have a really unique hook, really have a unique approach, out to the marketplace. I absolutely think that's viable." However, from his current position at Namco Bandai Games America, Karlsson is not quite so interested in ramping up handheld game development, commenting: "Making games for handhelds is a very competitive business, especially when you are competing with first party. It becomes a particular challenge. If we found a particular concept that we thought worked fantastically well in DS, we would certainly consider it." But he concluded: "It's not something that we are looking to grow, necessarily, as a market because the handhelds traditionally trail the console market from a game play perspective. I've seen some pretty cool innovation with DS... I believe that's a deviation from the norm, but in general, we're focusing on what we know, and where we think the market is going as a whole."

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