Evaluating the Publishers: Part 3 - Niche Companies

It's week 3 of our multipart feature, Evaluating the Publishers! We are accustomed to reviewing and ranking the games in our industry, but how often do we stop to rank the companies who make them? In this series, we attempt to do just that, by looking at twenty of the game industry's most important publishers.

In Part 1 we evaluated Sega, THQ and Tecmo, and found them wanting. Part 2 was a look at Capcom, Namco and Disney Interactive, three companies with big dreams they just can't turn into reality.

This week brings three great and very diverse companies, as we look at those with the sometimes-dreaded "niche label." Konami is one of the grandfathers of the game industry - but are they adopting a "retired" mentality to growth and expansion? Atlus, meanwhile, is a perfect example of a niche company, but in recent years have shown they are capable of more. We also look at the narrowing focus and decline of once-beloved LucasArts.

As a refresher, the evaluations are not based off the physical size or stock value of a company. These are not a popularity vote, either. We are concerned with the diversity and depth of each publisher’s portfolio, the stability of the company and its developers, and the recent growth or progress. Leave your thoughts on these three publishers below!

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1. Konami

We looked at two of the classic Japanese game publishers last week in Part 2 of this feature, and Konami is similar in a lot of ways to those two. Like Namco and Capcom, Konami was founded as a company before the game industry really existed. Like those companies, Konami is also a conjunction of three of the founding leaders’ names. But while Capcom and Namco have seen changes and tried to evolve their business model, Konami seems to be the same company it was all those years ago. The “Ko” in the name, Kagemasa Kozuki, is still the current Chairman and President.

He founded Konami as a jukebox rental and repair company. Over the years, Konami grew into a more diverse company with many sectors of business. Most of those continue today… so while their game division might not seem as proactive as some of the competition, it doesn’t need to be. Konami still has a strong presence as a toy and trading card manufacturer, anime producer, slot machine and gambling company (they have casino operations in Nevada), as well as operating arcade machines.

After building such an impressive empire, Chairman Kozuki seems content to sit on it, at least the game division. But more on that later…

Konami’s foray into gaming really took off in 1981 with their surprise hit Frogger. Since then, they have published and developed games across quite a few genres. But what we are concerned with in this piece, really, is the franchises that are still being utilized or developed. Oddly enough, all of those have been around since the 80s and 90s.

There was a 2 year period when Konami birthed their three most successful or well-known franchises. Castlevania came in 1986, then Metal Gear and Contra came in 87. For a company that has been around so long, is it odd that these three are still their main blockbusters? Metal Gear 4 set plenty of records when it launched on PlayStation 3, so it would be crazy to suggest the series is old or outdated. Castlevania has seen a couple of successful releases this generation, both classic 2D ones and the “Lords of Shadow”  3D variant. Contra we haven’t seen as much, at least not in major 3D titles, but it remains one of the most recognizable of Konami’s franchises.

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The other half of Konami’s stable, what I would consider their B-list franchises, came in the mid/late 90s. There was RPG series Suikoden (first seen in 95/96), internationally-renowned soccer franchise Pro Evolution (first seen in 96, under the current name in 99), the launch of the music genre with DDR in 98, and Silent Hill in 99.

That list might not intimidate EA or Activision, but it represents some solid franchises across different genres, and series that have devoted followings. Konami is arguably the biggest presence in the music game genre (along with Harmonix), and was really the one to bring the genre mainstream. Silent Hill is one of the staples in the horror genre, while Metal Gear is the name to beat in stealth-action. Castlevania and Suikoden have their own good reputations to uphold.

So if the company’s portfolio is more diverse than the other two publishers in this category, why is Konami still here?

Because Konami seems to have no interest at all in developing new properties. They still come out with sequels to their big franchises, but all of those franchises are over a decade old. Three of those franchises have seen almost yearly releases, and all have at least 3-4 sequels. They aren’t all staying on top of the game, either. Take Silent Hill for example, since it has had the most recent new sequel. The last four entries in the series, Origins, Homecoming, Shattered Memories and Downpour, have all ranked between 69-77 on Metacritic. Those are alright scores, but they wouldn’t warrant a sequel for most publishers. What’s more odd is how consistent these pedestrian scores are.

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The company (or at least its long-time Chairman) seems completely content to coast with what they have done for the last decade. The sequels do alright (some better than others), and that seems to be enough. That, more than anything, deserves them a spot in this category. They have settled themselves in as a niche company by choice – they churn out sequels for the existing fans, but don’t actively pursue ways to bring in new ones. At least, not in any successful venture.

Someday the gaming community might tire of Metal Gear, Castlevania, and Silent Hill sequels. Someday, Konami might decide to pursue new IP and change its model. But neither of those days seems near. Maybe that consistency is what people like about Konami. That, and pressing up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A.

  • Strengths – The Metal Gear and Castlevania series, strong presence in music genre with DDR and Beatmania series, devoted followings and classic hits
  • Weaknesses – No new blockbuster IP, a seeming lack of ambition or drive, some franchises need revitalizing
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2. LucasArts

The decline of LucasArts into the current generation is a sad tale, and in many ways, it parallels the Star Wars franchise upon which the Lucas name is built. While the movies enjoyed blockbuster success in the past (with the original trilogy), the new trilogy has not fared as well. The original trilogy was hailed for its creativity and advancement of the genre, but the new trilogy is criticized for continuing the same norms, style and clichés.

Like the movies, the game publisher is past its prime. In the 1990’s and early 2000s, LucasArts was a household name among gamers. And not primarily for their licensed games, but rather, as the leader in the Adventure game genre. Franchises like the Monkey Island series, Maniac Mansion, Grim Fandago, the Indiana Jones adventure games and Sam & Max all contributed to LucasArts’ impressive stable of games. The vast majority of these were not based off LucasFilm series, and showcased creativity and ingenuity.

In the mid 90s LucasArts began developing its own Star Wars games, and publishing many more from outside developers. As the adventure genre declined near the end of the decade, LucasArts put more and more of its focus on Star Wars titles. And for better or worse, the company hasn’t looked back since.

For most licenses, focusing on a single one would mean a very limited portfolio in one or two genres. But LucasArts has gotten a lot of mileage and diversity out of sci-fi’s most recognizable series.

Even before the abandonment of adventure games in the late 90s, LucasArts was mining the series. Action title Shadows of the Empire was one of the top-selling N64 games, and the space simulator series Rogue Squadron also succeeded with three releases from 98-03. Developing a shooter series was a must (with the Jedi Knight franchise), but LucasArts even managed to get into the racing genre with Episode 1: Racing and its sequels.

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The positioning (or exploiting, depending on your point of view) of the franchise continued in the 2000s. They made waves in the RPG world with BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic games, and their MMO Star Wars Galaxies. The Jedi Knight shooters gave way to Battlefront, and soon after the platforming-adventure blockbuster Lego Star Wars was born. LucasArts arguably hit another high note with The Force Unleashed in 2008, as “core” gamers again jumped into the Star Wars universe (sales were great too).

But for all the different genres represented here, does LucasArts really have a diverse portfolio? If every successful game has the same four-letter words in the title, the portfolio is still founded on a single brand. Which means that even if they develop Wookie Boxing, Cantina JazzBand, The Sims: Clone Edition, and Bowling for Jawas, this is still a company with a one-sided business model.

And frankly… that business model doesn’t seem as successful as it did five or ten years ago. The Force Unleashed sequel was nowhere near as popular as the first. Traveller’s Tales must be running out of new Lego sets soon. The Battlefront series seems to be abandoned, after LucasArts pulled the plug on Free Radical's Battlefront 3. Even the new MMO, The Old Republic, can’t seem to maintain its user-base despite good reviews. And Kinect Star Wars speaks for itself.

LucasArts isn’t in danger of going under (or it would be on this list), but it’s not going to be impressing us anytime soon either. All they do is develop Star Wars games, whether we want them or not.

  • Strengths – They have Star Wars, and they know how to turn it into an RPG, MMO, Simulator, Platformer, Racer, Shooter and Action game.
  • Weaknesses – Despite all those genres... it's all still just Star Wars.
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3. Atlus

When I think of niche publishers, Atlus is the first that comes to mind. The company seems to be the very definition of the word.

Founded in the 80s, Atlus was apparently created (originally) for the sole purpose of publishing and managing the Megami Tensei series. While it might not be as well-known among western gamers, Megami Tensei and its spin-offs are one of the top RPG franchises, especially in Japan.

In typical niche fashion, many of Atlus’ games had only limited availability for years. Not until 2004 was one of the main titles localized and sold in the US. Before that, it was only scattered spin-offs, imports, etc. Another hallmark of niche titles is their naming and marketing. A large portion of Atlus’ titles retain their original Japanese names even when coming overseas, something which may prevent the games from becoming more mainstream. With the limited marketing budgets most Atlus titles have had, the chances of them becoming blockbuster hits is low.

Which is a shame, because Atlus is well-known among its fanbase for quality. With more marketing, those quality titles might be enjoyed by more western gamers – Atlus could even help stem the notion that “Japanese game development is dead.”

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Their titles span a couple of genres, the strongest of which is still their RPG selections. The Megami Tensei series - along with its spin-off series like Persona, Devil Summoner and Devil Survivor – provides the core of those offerings. But other games like the Growlanser series, Divinity and recent hit Radiant Historia support their RPG cred.

Aside from the RPGs, Atlus publishes the King of Fighters series, as well as the simulator games Trauma Center. Both have seen numerous releases across multiple consoles, and have achieved some success in the west. Atlus has gotten more involved in the action/adventure genre of late. In the past they mostly published anime-based games like Naruto and Zoids. But in the last few years, they have added Demon’s Souls, the Cursed Crusade, the Game of Thrones video game, and of course Catherine (though it’s more of a puzzle/adventure) to their list. Not all of those have been successful, but it shows an effort to diversify and grow. That’s an effort not as present with the other two publishers in this category.

Atlus has made changes in the last couple of years, becoming a more recognizable force in the west. Part of that might be due to the purchase of Atlus in 2010 by a holding company, which caused some concern among fans. The nature of Atlus’ titles, many of which are lesser known in the west but are of high quality, tends to create very devoted groups of fans. It was only natural for them to fear the loss of the “independent nature” of Atlus, but it seems like those fears were unfounded. If anything, it seems that Atlus has become more active and had bigger marketing budgets.

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Catherine was a great example of this when it launched last year. Marketing was ramped up quite a bit compared to other Atlus releases, and included a special edition and multiple preorder bonuses (things that are standard for big-name publishers like EA and Activision, but more rare among the ‘little guys’). Within a week of release, it became Atlus’ biggest launch and exceeded the company’s sales expectations (reviews were pretty good too). By October, the game had reached half a million copies, a huge number for the niche publisher. What’s worthy of note, as well, is the staying power of some of these games. Most titles have their big sales spike in the first week, then the numbers drop off considerably afterward. To have sold 200,000 in the first week, but another 300,000 over the following month and a half is rare among games.

Looking to the future, Atlus should continue to make a name for itself in the industry. By setting high standards for quality and taking care of their fans, they have built the niche following. By marketing a few of their big releases, and getting lots of good reviews, they are starting to expand that following. Another prime example is Radiant Historia, the DS RPG that came out last year. End-of-year awards praised the game so much, and so many stores got requests to order in the game, that Atlus did a rerelease and shipped another wave of copies only a few months ago.

Which really highlights the best and the worst of Atlus right now. The game was great, and Atlus is helping to sell more copies. But until the critics put the spotlight on it, it went unknown, and even now you can’t find a copy in stores if you want one (believe me, I’ve been looking). That seems to imply a lack of sufficient distribution or production, creating a scarcity that the “big publishers” would never allow. To be fair, those are the highs and lows of any niche market – what remains to be seen is whether Atlus likes that label, or will continue working to break it.

  • Strengths – Reputation for quality and a devoted fanbase, big presence in the RPG market, portfolio includes winners in other genres as well, recent marketing & sales successes.
  • Weaknesses – Foreign titles with Japanese names aren’t poised for blockbuster success in the west, distribution on hits hasn’t seemed sufficient, some flops with their action game experiments.

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That's the end of Part 3 of Evaluating the Publishers, thanks for reading! Remember to leave your comments below. Do you see these companies as successful or failing? Which do you see breaking the "niche" label soon? Could you picture any of them being acquired?

And don't forget - these are only a few of the many publishers we evaluated. Check out Parts 1 and 2, and come back next week for the continuation of the series. We will be looking at my favorite category in the whole feature, the up-and-coming publishers with "bright futures."