Charles Bellfield is the Vice President of Marketing at Capcom, USA. In this Gamasutra interview, freelance journalist Kyle Orland sits down with Bellfield to discuss Capcom's stance on the Academy of Interactive Arts and Science's 'pay to play' model, the success of downloadable console demos and the feedback loop it creates between developers and consumers, Eastern influences on Western games, Okami, Phoenix Wright, and more.
Gamasutra: How do you feel about the whole matter with the AIAS awards and how it has played out in the press?
Charles Bellfield: First, I'm not gonna talk specifically about AIAS but I will talk about what Capcom's philosophy is. We are very much a developer-centric company. The games that we have as a company are essentially the brain child of the producers and the directors and the whole development team that we have, both in Japan and in the West.
Our philosophy here is that we support the creative -- and technical these days, I suppose -- talents of the people we have working on our titles and on our brands. The individuals and the sort of collective groups of development talent are at the center of what Capcom is about. We create games that come out from a vision, a creative direction, a perception of what the content needs to be by the developers, in conjunction with the marketing team, but very much it's the individuals and the creators at Capcom that are the most important element at Capcom.
The reason we said what we said was very clearly that recognizing the talent of those individuals and those groups is very important to Capcom in terms of inspiring our developers and our team members to create games that really are breakthrough and developing content which in many ways has a vision and bringing that content to consumers. One thing I would say specifically about what happened – the reaction – I think we were pleased by the vast majority of consumers as well as the media actually reinforcing that the recognition for great talent is important.
And it's not an issue of paying for awards but in fact the recognition by consumers and editorial staff and the industry generally behind the great content that is important. Which is why, for example, for the Game Developers Choice Awards awards, [for which nominations have now been announced], we have been recognized by a body which is not a pay-to-play scenario. Members obviously have nominated and will vote, and that membership is by individuals, not by corporate bodies, so I think the recognition that IGDA is giving to Capcom studios from individuals here is from their peers in the industry, and that is something we very much do support.
GS: How important do you feel awards like these are in the marketing and selling of games?
CB: I think unlike the music or movie industries, the video game industry schedules are very different. We're not dependent on awards to market our titles, unlike the movie industry which sees great benefit to the nominee in the Oscars, the Golden Globes, or television with the Emmys to drive sales or advertising.
For a game that ships, let's say, in January of 2006, that may be a critically acclaimed title, it doesn't have an extended sales cycle a year later with an award. I think that's very true with not just Capcom games, but any games. I think it's in many ways the marketing of titles is defined around the quality of the game at the time the game ships and not up to twelve months later, so I don't see it having a significant impact on the marketing at all.
GS: How has the release of early downloadable demos for games like Lost Planet and Dead Rising impacted the marketing of those titles?
I think this comes back to a philosophy issue. Capcom today believes that interaction with consumers on a one-to-one basis is central to our marketing plans. With regard to releasing demos, what we had particularly with Lost Planet, where we released the first demo nine months before the game shipped, we were able to have a dialogue with consumers every day, anywhere in the world, and be able to gather their feedback based on the experiences they made within the game.
What we were able to do was make impactful changes into the gameplay mechanics to make sure we could fine tune elements of the game which there was consensus they needed to be dealt with. And so we've done that and I think from the announcements of the changes we've made, both before launch and after launch, is indicative of knowing what the consumers want and hearing their feedback, making those changes. I think consumers in the community out there very much appreciate they are being listened to.
GS: Can you give some examples of changes that came about because of this feedback?
CB: Absolutely. One main example is in terms of the lobby system of Lost Planet. There we had a vision that we wanted to bring people together all over the world to play against each other in an act of – I don't want to say randomness, but a sense of – you could vary the number of people you could play against.
One of the simple things consumers were saying was when they play a game they want to be able to at least go into the lobby with people they've played against to either have a repeat or choose that they want to go play against other different people. Consumers very loudly said they want at least the opportunity to have that choice. So we made that change in the lobby system that when you do finish a match you actually go into the lobby with the people you played against, and you can choose to leave or stay in it. Again, it comes back to philosophy, in terms of engaging directly with consumers, building that community and being responsive to what consumers are wanting in our games.
There is a “but” to this, and that “but” is our creators and our developers here have a vision with what they're trying to deliver in a game. Some elements of Lost Planet, for example, we did not change – that we had a significant amount of criticism online, but we kept because we believed it was central to the gameplay we were trying to deliver here. I'll give you an example. [Lost Planet producer Jun] Takeuchi-san specifically did not want to just recreate another Western-style third-person shooter, he wanted to add elements to it that would make Lost Planet unique.
Some of the examples are, maybe, the power of some of the weapon or the melee attacks or the number of times the respawning and the different locations where you do respawn – we wanted to make it harder for you if you do die, so it really gives you an incentive to keep an eye on your health and your energy within the game, and make sure you protect that rather than just feel that you can just go in blasting away, die quickly and respawn quickly. We wanted to, in essence, focus the consumer and the gamer to be protective over their energy.
GS: Is it hard to balance the desires of the players and the desires of the designers?
CB: I think that's the question we're all trying to face at the moment. At the end of the day there's a balance. I was there in the conversation when we had all the feedback from the Western market and we were going through it with Takeuchi-san and the team, and there were some elements that Takeuchi-san was explaining why he wanted to keep it as it was because it's very attuned to what he wanted to deliver in the consumer experience. We were mentioning what the consumers were saying in terms of direct feedback we'd got, and he understood what we were saying, but we also allowed him the opportunity to explain the vision he was trying to create.
In some instances, as a consensus between Takeuchi-san, the development team and the marketing team, some changes we agreed to make, other changes we agreed that we weren't going to make, and we explained to the consumers why. I think the indiciation here is the comments you see on the boards and the talk about those gamers who have spent time with Lost Planet appreciate that it is different and it's giving them a different experience and other content. This balance between the vision by the developer, the demands by the market is where companies will either succeed in that balance or they will fail.We are not about being formulaic, that's the one thing I would say. Capcom is about innovative gameplay even if it's a mass market game or a game which is designed for smaller markets as being more alternative.
GS: That kind of gets into my next question about the closing of Clover Studios which makes some rather non-mass-market games. How damaging do you think that closing was to Capcom's image among gamers?
I think there are two things about that. One thing is the perception of the announcement created in the consumer marketplace and secondly, more important, is the reality of what actually happened.
Capcom, unlike most other developers, doesn't have dedicated strict boundaries between each of its development teams. We actually have one pool of development talent at Capcom and those individuals are basically assigned based on the timescales of each product we're working on, so everybody does work on a variety of content and games at Capcom... with the exception of Clover, where we did create a separate entity which was based on one of the sixteen floors in Osaka, where the other fifteen floors had everybody else on it. That Clover team was a seperate identity – it was managed by [Atsushi] Inaba-san, [Shinji] Mikami-san and [Hideki] Kamiya-san, and the three of them were essentially the individuals that made Clover, plus with the team staff they had about 80 people in total.
Our games need to at least break even and add value back to our shareholders, so it's impossible to make games that are not profitable over and over again. What actually happened is Mikami-san, Kamiya-san and Inaba-san chose to leave the company and do something else and the rest of the Clover team was just incorporated back into the rest of Capcom's development talent pool. So in fact, while three individuals left, Clover Studios as a separate entity was merged back into the rest of the Capcom teams and today, still, the talent we had, with the exception of three people, is still remaining at Capcom.