Sonic the Hedgehog

Sega’s been awfully quiet about making noise in mobile and digital. They’re obviously active in both spaces, but we never seem to hear much about it.

Or maybe that’s just us not doing our jobs. We recently interviewed two executives from the online and digital sides to find out where the company is at during this console transition and recent boom in mobile, and they were quick to point out their big successes there (naturally). But they also recognize the huge challenges that still face them. How does a once-king in hardware — remember the Sega Genesis, Saturn, and Dreamcast? — deal with this new age of too many platforms?

Senior director of digital marketing Mike Evans and director of online operations Ethan Einhorn sit down with GamesBeat to discuss.

Sega - Mike Evans and Ethan Einhorn (800x444)

Above: Left: Mike Evans, senior director of digital marketing. Right: Ethan Einhorn, director of online operations.

Image Credit: Sega

GamesBeat: We’re in this transitional period where traditional consoles are still coming out, but the market doesn’t look anything like it used to. Sony’s main competition for consumer dollars and time may not be Microsoft but perhaps Apple instead. How does Sega view the market right now? Who are your consumers?

Mike Evans: It’s a good question. Our audience is really all over the place. You have an audience that exists on the console platforms, for sure. Sega is still very much part of that picture. Then we have our audience who may also play on console but who exist on the mobile devices, who exist on tablets, who exist on PC.

For Sega, rather than us defining a particular platform, what we’re trying to do is make sure that we can get our content out to all the places where our consumers exist. That’s key. You’re absolutely right. The market has changed fundamentally. But it’s also a really exciting place to be. Sega has been making mobile games since the feature phone days and at the forefront of the smartphone since 2008. Where the platforms are emerging and where there’s demand from consumers, Sega is going to be there.

Ethan Einhorn: We’re taking, on the console side, more of a pillar approach. We’re doing some very exciting things with Sonic as a brand in the near future. We’re also very heavily focused on strategy, as you’ve seen with our pickup of [Company of Heroes developer] Relic, as well as what we’re doing with [Total War developer] Creative Assembly. Of course, we’re continuing to do core titles like Aliens: Colonial Marines.

Aliens: Colonial Marines

Above: Aliens: Colonial Marines (PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)

But as Mike was saying, we’re trying to appeal to our customers on any platform where they want to play. Mobile opens up the opportunity to allow us to go from a $60 price point to a price point of zero. What’s been interesting for us is to see who within Sega has been interested in moving into that mobile space. For instance, the head of R&D for Sega Games Network is Masayoshi Kikuchi, who was the director of Jet Set Radio. The person who is currently directing Kingdom Conquest II [also] directed Typing of the Dead. A lot of these classic Dreamcast-era designers are bringing their experience to bear now in the mobile space.

GamesBeat: When you say you want to capture this wide range of potential gamers, would that include the purely mobile, casual, play-a-few-minutes-at-a-time Angry Birds crowd?

Evans: Absolutely. We have games that service all different types and sets of consumers. Some [intellectual properties] lend themselves to maybe a younger audience. Some IPs are more classic in their stance; some maybe appeal to a more mature audience. We have titles like House of the Dead. That’s probably an example of a mature game. Then Sonic, which has been kind of reinvented. We’re bringing that to the Android platform. That’s an example of something which might skew slightly younger, as well as have this more classic base.

Einhorn: Sonic Dash, which is popular right now on the top charts, is another great example of appealing to a more casual demographic. But again, within that same ecosystem we have Kingdom Conquest II, which is extremely core. Both of those comfortably coexist at the same publisher.

GamesBeat: Do you worry about some sort of brand-identity crisis, where consumers may be unsure of what type of publisher Sega is? As you guys just said, you have your super hardcore strategy titles. You have your adult, violent titles. You have totally kid-friendly casual experiences. Does this lineup confuse the market a little bit?

Evans: I think it’s up to us to have very defined brands and very defined campaigns. If you’re mixing the message up in your marketing campaigns, then you’re risking the chance of confusing consumers, but I don’t think we do that in the approach that we have with our marketing.

Einhorn: Stepping a couple of years back, we had strategic conversations about exactly that. An interesting analogy that came up at the time was that Warner Bros., for instance, is the studio that does Bugs Bunny and The Exorcist. Those can comfortable coexist under the same umbrella. It’s about delivering high-quality products to consumers. Sega means different things to different consumers.

Evans: We have studios that have their own identity within Sega as well. You have your Creative Assembly making a Total War product, which is very defined and very well respected in that space. Then you have the Football Manager brand, as well, from Sports Interactive. They both exist within that sphere. You have the Sonic products as well. We have Three Rings, which we bought back in 2011, making their kind of games. They all exist under the Sega umbrella, but they all have their own identities and brands and communities associated with them.

The House of the Dead: Overkill -- The Lost Reels

Above: The House of the Dead: Overkill — The Lost Reels (iOS, Android)

GamesBeat: Some of these Sega brands — let’s take Sonic, for example — must be difficult to market. It’s family-friendly and perhaps casual, but at the same time, maybe it resonates more with guys who grew up in the 16-bit days versus kids now. How do you deal with those challenges?

Einhorn: I think what that creates for us with Sonic is a great opportunity. First and foremost, I am a father who grew up with the Sonic games. I was in high school when it came out. I have a 6-year-old now, and one of the great pleasures for me is to be able to share something I loved with my kids. So you have that father-child dynamic.

Kids also respond very strongly to Sonic on their own, without any parental support. I think part of that is that he’s like a superhero. He’s fast. He’s blue. He’s easy to understand. There’s a broad range, as you know, of people who love Sonic, but the age of 7 to 11 is absolutely the strongest in terms of loving Sonic. But then, as you said, we also have the older gamer who’s nostalgic, and that’s why we have products like Sonic Generations that are designed specifically for them. It gives us more opportunities to capitalize on the strengths of an iconic franchise.

GamesBeat: Can you talk about the difficulty of being a traditional console publisher transitioning to mobile and digital? You hear a lot of the success stories in the mobile and digital space, but they don’t seem like they’re coming from the big console guys. EA, Ubisoft, Activision, you guys … you all want to get into mobile and digital, but it’s those mobile-first companies that seem to have more success and more of the share of the headlines.

Evans: I think it’s fair to say that Sega’s had a good degree of success in the space. Maybe we don’t get quite so much press sometimes, compared to when you have a breakout hit by a small indie developer. We started working with Apple in 2008. We had some great success with the first Super Monkey Ball.

It’s a fascinating space to operate in, and it’s changing so quickly. Just when I think we’re starting to get a handle on it, the business models are changing all the time.

Einhorn: We’ve had some incredible high points in our time in the mobile space. As Mike said, we did Super Monkey Ball at the launch of the App Store, and that was actually the first No. 1 product in the App Store. For the first two weeks, it was No. 1. Beyond that, we’d done incredibly well with Sonic, the original Genesis Sonic the Hedgehog, in the feature phone space.

Total War: Rome II (PC)

Above: Total War: Rome II (PC)

Evans: What I’m pleased about is [the recent] Pocket Gamer Awards. Sonic CD won the award for the best Windows mobile game. Sega won the overall publisher award. I’m really excited that we are still seen as somebody who is constantly evolving. We’re able to win awards as voted on by the consumers, which is a great place for us to be.

Einhorn: Our relationship with Apple is very strong. They’ve been quite generous to us. They’ve been providing us with a lot of visibility in the App Store, which has been great.

Evans: We are constantly searching for new platforms and new opportunities within the mobile space as well. We’re not just limited to one major player. We’ve got 15 titles now over on Android. We’re working with Amazon. We’re working with Blackberry. There’s a number of other players who, as they come on, we’ll carry on working with as well.

GamesBeat: Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell told All Things D that mobile is too crowded, saying he’d rather be one of 100 apps for a new platform like Google Glass than one of 300,000 mobile games that’s hard to find. How do deal with the challenges of discovery?

Evans: It’s a good point. We’re in a position where we believe we have game quality and pedigree. That helps. We have great relationships with first parties. We make sure we work with them on an ongoing basis. Where we see opportunity behind a product, we’re going to invest in that product to make sure we can leverage industry PR channels. We have a really good community that we’ve worked with over a number of years, to service them and bring product. That gives us plenty of advantages in this space. But that only because we’ve worked with them and nurtured that community over a period of time.