A Casual Rebirth: The Remaking Of Majesco

By Brandon Sheffield

New Jersey-headquartered game publisher Majesco is, these days, best known for publishing the Cooking Mama series. However, the company, despite a long history in the game industry that includes the production of the Genesis 3 under license from Sega, has -- until recently -- found a game franchise that delivers stronger success somewhat elusive.

In the prior console generation, after some major expansion moves, the company instead focused on high-profile core-focused titles. Its Advent Rising adventure game, envisioned as a sprawling, ambitious series with a story by popular sci-fi writer Orson Scott Card, flopped on the original Xbox; a PSP prequel was cancelled. In addition, results from the critically lauded Double Fine Productions title Psychonauts were not as promising as the company initially hoped.

As a result, the company ran into some significant financial troubles in 2006, and Majesco's president, Jesse Sutton, announced that the firm would "focus primarily on publishing value and handheld video games".

Partly, this seems to have been a financial necessity due to the large budgets blown-out on its major title. But in the face of the success of some of its casual games -- particularly the Japanese-developed Cooking Mama series -- the company has changed tack totally, and its financial results are improving significantly.

Now, Majesco is trying to concentrate on the casual audiences that made Mama so successful, control costs, and pick the projects that look and feel right for a particular targeted market. A recent major hit is a Jillian Michaels fitness game for the Wii, and there's a new push on with a GoPlay line of family-friendly Wii titles. (There have been some sales mis-steps, too, such as apparently overlooked Wii rhythm title Major Minor's Majestic March, from the creators of Parappa The Rapper.)

In this interview, Gui Karyo, the company's executive vice president of operations, spells out the company's new strategy in detail, and talks about how having a focus like that has allowed the company to increase sales drastically.

Majesco has had two very large shifts in the past few years. One was to larger titles, and then the other was a more casual space. You joined as part of the more recent restructuring. Can you talk about the methodology of the shift on a smaller scale? A lot of companies haven't been able to do it.

Gui Karyo: [laughs] That's interesting. You know, Majesco has a certain advantage from its 25-year experience -- predating me, obviously -- that they have always had the capacity and understanding about how to develop a product for a low mean cost. And not just random product but product that has a high quality level in comparison to how much we spent on it.

And certainly in terms of the shift from triple-A games to the mass-market casual business that we've been focusing on, I think one of the things that made us far more nimble at it than some of the other publishers is simply that we understand the economies of development at that scale. I mean, I certainly know that particularly for some of the larger publishers, it's taking them a lot longer to figure out how to successfully produce stuff where your budgets are often less than a million dollars and where your marketing budgets are a fraction of that, even.

I would definitely say that there is a certain thing in the Majesco DNA in particular that made the process, of developing product in the price range necessary in order to make the model work, feasible.

And then I say that the other element in that is simply the real focus the company has put over the past three years on identifying a product against a demographic and being very brutally honest both to ourselves and to the developers about products that are right and not right for that demographic.

You know, when the "casual" term wasn't quite so ubiquitous as it is right now three years ago, people used to come to us with "casual" first-person shooters. And, you know, what is a casual first-person shooter? [laughs] I'll tell you what it is, it's a crappy first-person shooter. What it is is one that's been made really cheap, so it doesn't make any demographic happy. The people who like first-person shooters aren't happy because it's not high-quality, and the people who want casual games aren't happy because they don't want first-person shooters per se.

And now, obviously, the diversity of product and creative ideas has shifted all sorts of things since that time. So that second leg of the stool, so to speak, was absolutely the affinity and the focus on what markets we're after, who are customer really was -- so it wasn't just about price point; it was also about going the specific consumers, and choosing products that work for them.

It does seem like there's an art to make large success out of small games. Obviously, you have to manage your cost of product against how you think you can sell it, but there's more to it somehow. Companies like Atari have been trying this too, but there's something else in there.

GK: For me, it's focus. You know, what has been really even difficult for us... Let's be honest, it has been a slow path. It's been three years, but it has been a long three years in many ways. I think that part of the reason that we've been successful is that we have remained very focused on who it is we're trying to serve.

And I think that part of the challenge for publishers like us [is that] we see hundreds of products a year. A lot of them are phenomenal. And, you know, sometimes, I think the difference between being successful and not is knowing that, "Yeah, this is a great product." [It's knowing,] "Yeah, the creative vision is right -- but not right for us because that's not what we do anymore."

What we do is we target tweens, we target moms, we target various audiences, and we're looking for products that fit certain niches, so that occasionally what we do is we say "No." Products that another publisher might say "yes" to, because they're very good product propositions, just not for us.

Case in point, if you look at Atari, I think there's a company that's had its hand in a large number of different things. And I think that they probably have been more successful than you think if you start looking at where they've had focus. Like the Backyard Sports stuff has actually done really well in the same marketplaces that we play in because there's just such a focus on that brand.

So, I think for us, at the end of the day, what has been the thing that has made our portfolio work, where some of the competitors who work in the same budgets, who work against similar demographics had to struggle more, is that we've had for the past three years -- almost from the day I started -- a very clear vision of who our customer was and how we're going to fill needs for them.


You're not trying to expand into too many areas.

GK: No, no. If you look at our portfolio the past three years, we've had a couple RPGs in there. And they didn't light the world on fire, and they didn't lose us money, but where we've really had the defining success is when we stuck close to our guns. Even if you take out the outliers, like [Cooking] Mama is a huge outlier obviously, as is a product like Jillian [Michaels' Fitness Ultimatum 2009].

But if you look at things like Wild Earth, then Wonderworld [Amusement Park], products like that -- Cake Mania, for example -- that fit our audience and sold comparatively well for what they were in terms of competitive space, it's really been our day-to-day determination to really fill those gaps.

I was wondering what the balance is between those large titles that have to hit and really sustain you, and then those titles where you're actually hoping to break even.

GK: [laughs] There's no title where I'm hoping to break even. You know, for us, profitability is a requisite. We don't green light a title unless we're reasonably comfortable that it will do better than just break even.

Before video games, I was working on comic books. I ran Marvel Publishing for several years, and I think we try to apply that same sort of publishing portfolio mentality here as we had there, in terms of provide a broad catalog of product that's well-designed for our audience, that really is a reasonable investment, and make sure that they come out on time and at a quality level anticipated. And then where you start placing your bets is where you double down.

For example, we're launching our Go Play line. Even better, we launched the Gardening Mama SKU, which was the first expansion of the Mama franchise, and there are just some times where you've either got a collection of products or an individual product where you're just so confident to create it, that what you're going to say is, "Okay, I'm going to increase my investment to build awareness, to build excitement, to add additional depth of development, because we are so confident and so encouraged by its opportunity to be more than just."

So for us, it's not a question of the need to have a hit, it's a question of where are our best handicaps, for us to see an opportunity to break out of the model.

What's been impressive to me -- this may sound initially rather rude -- is the way that Majesco has been able to keep momentum post-Cooking Mama and not ride it exclusively.

GK: [laughs]


Cooking Mama: World Kitchen

At least externally, you can look at pre- and post-Cooking Mama Majesco and see a big difference in terms of what people think of the company's success and chances.

GK: Well, I don't think that's rude at all. I definitely appreciate that. It has been our goal from the breakout of Cooking Mama to make sure that Majesco itself isn't seen as a single-franchise company. And that's not just because we want people to believe in our value.

That's because we believe that the audiences that we're after are still vastly underserved in the marketplace and we want to make sure we are doing everything we can internally and externally -- so that people are bringing us ideas, that we're generating ideas, that we're working with developers who are interested at designing products that will go after the demographics that we're interested. We're looking for [titles that target] tweens playing together; that play on moms who are rapidly playing video games on their own; to attract families who now play video games together the way they used to watch TV.

So, I think internally we would take that as a compliment. What we would say is that "We are continually trying to challenge ourselves to identify where is the opportunity against those customers that we're trying to get the attention of."

Plus you don't own [Cooking Mama developer] Cooking Mama, Ltd. You can't rely on one thing forever.

GK: No, and I would say even more than that, you know, I have every reason to believe, and I am extremely happy with the longevity of the Cooking Mama franchise. I think internally we have the hopes and the expectations that it will be a franchise that will live decades-long in various incarnations.

And we have a wonderful relationship with [Cooking Mama, Ltd. and its staff], but I think we're also very realistic about the world of publishing. You know, products come and go, even the most popular ones. We believe that in order for us to be competitive, regardless of our relationship with Cooking Mama, Ltd., in order for us to be competitive, we have to constantly be on the search for what's the next thing.


So, talking about your demographic, how do you determine it? Do you do a lot of focus testing? Do you test products against the market?

GK: We do everything. Obviously, we're a small company, and we don't have the kind of market to produce such engines that an Activision or EA has, but we certainly rely on everything from focus groups and surveys, to the gut creative capabilities to be successful against demographics, to our own internal sensitivities that we've been building up in those genres.

What I would say is no amount of research makes up for building the company that has a DNA that's sensitive to the audience it's going after. Yet no company that's going after an audience should be without research. I think, again, that it comes back to focus. Our hope has been to build an internal sensitivity towards the audiences that we're going after and working with developers who get that same thing.

There's this indescribable creative element that you feel when you're there when you know you're working with people who really understand what they're going after. Take A Boy and his Blob for example -- beautiful game.

It's something that started out as an internal feeling that there was an open place in the market for an adventure game against the tween demographic and that our A Boy and His Blob IP was something that could work there. WayForward took this and came back with a design that blew everything we hoped for, in our opinion, out of the water.

Even without the initial focus groups, even without necessarily the surveys per se to drive it, there was a sense that this is a product that could work. This is something that makes sense for that audience. Here's something creative that really resonates.

And yes, the use of market research helps define where we're going with that, how we're going to promote it, how we may market it, but really, we rely on a full palette of capabilities both in terms of quantitative and qualitative and internal and artistic direction.


A Boy and His Blob

A Boy and His Blob is an interesting one because, to some extent, a high-res 2D title is somewhat risky. And also it's interesting for me to hear you say that you're targeting the tween demographic, because the people who know about the franchise are my age  -- it potentially has risk to it. [Ed. note: the original A Boy and His Blob was released on the NES in 1989.]

GK: From our perspective, economically, it doesn't have any more risk necessarily than any other project that we put out. And I would say that in some ways, for us, it has less risk than some of the things we do, in that we really do believe that there is a product targeting that audience with a game like Blob.

And we also recognize that our primary focus in terms of positioning it is against that casual gamer who's interested in a more narrative experience than they're going to get out of the next collection of sports mini-games. But it's got the additive advantage for a certain group of people that there's this nostalgia value of A Boy and his Blob. So, you've got a handicap in a sense in that it might hit two audiences instead of one.

And then when you factor how well the creative is coming along, you start to really feel better and better about it. I would say that in many ways, the risk is the risk that Mama has, which is: who is expecting that a cooking game is going to work? Well, who's expecting necessarily that a platformer of this sort if going to work against the tween demographic? In our view, it's the right product at the right time.

Tweens and teens used to play platforming games...

GK: Yeah, back in the day.

It's not at all inconceivable; it's just not what people are playing right now.

GK: No. Well, you can kind of understand why. What has attracted this new generation of gamers to console as opposed to PC and Flash games has been the innovation to the controls. And games like Wii Sports, like Wii Sports Resort, which is going to absolutely be a blockbuster no doubt, that take advantage of a kind of gameplay dynamic that's a new experience.

And I think that our view is that that's wonderful, and we still make Mama, we still make Go Play stuff, we're still doing things that absolutely go after that genre of gameplay, against that demographic in novel and innovative ways, but we also believe that entertainment is an emotional experience, and that narrative forms work. And that's why the platformers of our generation worked. And we think that there's an audience there.

How important is Nintendo's success to the success of Majesco?

GK: Well, I would say that Nintendo's success thus far has been very important to us. I think that the success of the DS and Wii absolutely built the audience that we have since taken advantage of in terms of sales. We are 100 percent confident that Nintendo is going to see strong growth on all of its platforms. And we're excited about a lot of the innovations that they're working on.

But for us, right now, the determinator of our success is less about a single platform or a single first-party and more about the audience. You know, there's a great install base on Nintendo, there's an interesting and growing install base on the other consoles, there's an interesting audience of mass-market consumers out there who now relate video games with their every day entertainment experience. And for us, it has more to do with keeping them interested in playing video games and less to do with a specific first-party.


Considering your audience how much do download titles on platforms like DSi, WiiWare, PSP Go, actually really crossover into the demographic that you seek?

GK: Well, certainly, with each new iteration -- take DSi for example, I think everyone has been appreciative of how fast they've been growing. I think they announced a million units sold in the first three months. And we believe a significant portion of them is from a broader demographic than the core gamers that genuinely or initially usually hallmark the launch of a new console platform, or a new handheld platform.

So we continue to think that as the audience broadens and matures, more and more of the audience that we're going after is going to become a higher percentage of the audience on new platforms.

We also think that with each new platform, there's an opportunity for a fun game experience that fits our design ethic so there's a crossover -- you know, like Mama crossed over multiple demographics -- in design for us that remains us interested in watching and trying to be innovative with each new platform.

The reason I asked is primarily because it strikes me, that while you say there's some evidence to the contrary perhaps on DSi, it seems that that demographic may be less technological savvy and less able to make that leap.

GK: Yeah. And I would say that particularly with digital download, you're finding that there's a sharp drop-off in the participation -- particularly on console download that requires some kind of WiFi connection -- by demographic.

But at the same time, it would seem that the statistics of downloading Netflix videos on Xbox are pretty broad. And there's a reason to believe that maybe it's not the primary consumer in the household that sets up the WiFi, but that there is sort of a watershed sharing of that technology among all the consumers that might participate on it.

And then the other thing I would suggest is that again looking at Mama, while our focus is primarily on these casual gaming demographics, core gamers will play casual games.

They play a lot of them, in fact. To the degree that we're designing products that have crossover that might go onto these platforms as well as other platforms that allow for that casual game experience, even against a demographic that might not be a primary demographic for us, that is an important place for us to focus and be.

Perhaps because you're posting positive numbers, but Majesco is in an interesting space now.

GK: Yeah, it definitely is. You know, and only growing more so. It really is. If you look at what EA is doing with its Active line right now -- which arguably is doing Nintendo's job in terms of even trying to drive further the breadth of the demographics that are looking for some kind of console experience.

I really think that we are going to continue to enjoy an evolution not just of hardware audiences, but also software expectations, as these people come to platforms and begin to experience and contemplate new experiences for them. I think we are at a very early stage, despite the rapidity of the growth. We're at a very early stage of seeing what the overall impact is going to be of all of these new voices in our industry.

Do you foresee Majesco ever purchasing a developer?

GK: Potentially. I mean, we take nothing off of the table. I think for us, at the end of the day, it's about economics. We have functioned principally as a publisher with third-party development facilities, and that has worked very well for us and continues to maintain the large majority of what it is we do. I think that with the right combination with a developer whose cost structure made sense, attached to products that fit our long-term strategic direction, it's definitely a possibility. I can't say that we're actively pursuing it, though.

Do you think that Majesco would ever want to return to the more hardcore demographic? Is there a time when that would make sense? To me, the hardcore demographic doesn't seem to be the one that's growing.

GK: You know, at this point and time, I can't foresee that. The entertainment industry is often rapidly changing, and who knows? If the right experience were put in front of us with the right economic structure, we probably would take a good hard look at it, but it would have to be overwhelming -- because for us, we think that the opportunity within the kinds of games that we're producing is barely tapped, and that if we put 100 percent of our effort in focusing on being successful there, we have the opportunity to grow 1000 percent.

I think that for us, it's certainly not in the near-term. It would have to really be one of those situations where there's an opportunity as a publisher that makes a lot of sense economically and strategically. I can say that the core of our business, as I say, the DNA of our business, is very much focused on remaining in this casual space.

[Majesco published user-generated content centric Wii shooter] Blast Works felt to me like kind of dabbling in that arena.

GK: Yeah. Blast Works is an interesting product. It was commissioned before we made the change in strategy.

I was wondering about that, actually.

GK: It was commissioned before we made the change in strategy, and it was given significantly more time because we were very interested in the user-generated content model. So, as you probably recall, a big feature within the Blast Works game was the super-customizability.

I mean, if you listened to Nintendo's E3 presentation, in essence, for a number of games, they were touting what Blast Works did first on the Wii, which was offer the ability to ultimately customize any gameplay experience -- levels, bullets, enemies, you know, bosses. It was an experience that once it was already started, even though the target demographic wasn't strategically the one we were after, the exercise of understanding what it would take to pull it off was very important to us.

We were very happy with Blast Works from that perspective. We were one of the first partners with Nintendo to get the authorization to upload content to an external website for the trading and grading of this user-generated content. I think that overall, it brought lessons that we definitely intend to use, going down the pipeline. But, yeah, it definitely isn't part of what's now considered our market.

I was happy to see it because I've been following the original developer of the game Blast Works was based on, Kenta Cho, since 1999.

GK: For the audience that's after it, that understands that game, in my opinion, it's a phenomenal game. I really think it wasn't rated nearly worth the quality that was put in there, particularly if you really understand the genre and want that kind of personalization capability. But for us as a company, by the time we had gotten that far down the pipe, the big thing for us was understanding the mechanisms of the user-generated content.

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