Q&A: How Sega Balances Nostalgia, Modern Gaming Appeal
While Sega has a storied legacy of classic games and IP, Mike Hayes, the president of Sega West, tells Gamasutra that the company "takes pains not to play on [its] heritage," saying its first priority is to stay "relevant for the modern gaming audience."
He specifically called out the Sonic franchise, noting that when Sega stepped out of the hardware game to go third party, Sonic's audience began to split into two camps: the core fanbase of old, and younger players who have other expectations for the classic Sega mascot.
Gamasutra sat down with Hayes earlier this year to discuss the company's product-focused approach to brand management, specifically looking at how the Sonic franchise has changed over the course of its 20-year history.
Let's talk about Sega maintaining its brand over the years. There have been a whole lot of changes in the company's direction. How would you describe Sega's approach to managing its brand?
Well, we always considered ourselves as a company that can quite comfortably have a whole variety of games. So I think what we've done as a company is try to be as agnostic as we possibly can, so that everything's focused on the brand, rather than the company itself.
Definitely our focus is in the product. If people like the product and they recognize it as Sega, that's an absolute bonus. But what we don't want to do is just trade on the name Sega, because it's about products and the fun you get from that product rather than the name, and whatever people may think about that name.
That's interesting to me because in the past, saying that something was a Sega game meant something specific. But it's interesting to hear how you're moving away from having a distinct "Sega flavor" for the games.
Yeah, that's very important. We see ourselves as a software company, and take pains not to play on our heritage overly, unless there's a good nostalgic reason like a re-release of a [Sega] Genesis title or whatever.
But what we're trying to do is make ourselves relevant for the modern gaming audience. And like any other software company, people remember the names of the games, rather than what they think of us. You know it is quite interesting, because we are privileged having a name like Sega.
But to so many people there are so many different impressions of what that means, and it would be impossible for us to try and act like a first party company, trying to reinvent and recreate that. So again, working with product is the most sensible thing for us to do.
How important is that legacy IP in terms of keeping it around and reviving it versus moving it in new directions?
It's like everything, it's a balance. We really rely on a lot of our classic IP, obviously Sonic being the biggest one. And we take pains to make sure that we suit both our core fans -- old people like me that have grown up with Sonic -- but also the whole new load of our consumers that we've got for Sonic in the younger groups. So something like Sonic Generations is a perfect balance of providing something for two different audiences, so we're very cognizant of trying to provide that where it's relevant.
But we have had experiences where we've tried to reinvent old Sega IP … Actually, we haven't done it hugely successfully, and therefore we only embark upon something that uses the existing Sega IP if we can make it highly relevant for a modern audience. And interestingly on XBLA and PSN in particular, we've had a lot of success with old Sega IP, where we can provide more of a bite-size or a memory-driven experience. To try and reinvent something, we have to create a whole new game, and therefore we're very selective of what we do.
Yeah, I mean thinking back to the agnostic idea, it could be potentially beneficial. Because pretty much anytime a Sonic game is made, for instance, the core people wind up saying, 'Well, clearly these people don't understand why Sonic is good, and this is not right, it's not Sega enough.' And so if you avoid that problem entirely, it may be beneficial.
It's interesting when you look at Sonic specifically. I think we realized about three or four years ago where we were perhaps going wrong on certain platforms, mostly PlayStation and Xbox. And I think it was because we didn't actually realize that we've got these two broad audiences. We were trying to make something that the whole fan base to enjoy it, but then maybe 10 year olds will play it, and it was just like oil and water. I think what we've understood now is that we need to try and drive the product in two ways.
For example, that's why we launched Sonic 4: Episode 1. That was clearly aimed at our original core fan base, and that's done extremely well. Always people are going to say you can do it better, and we listen to that and we try that. And then you've got something that was more aimed at young fans like Sonic Colors on Wii and DS -- even though that did actually crossover quite nicely, but that was more aimed at a certain audience. I think we've understood that.
So now that we have that [understanding], I think we can craft the game appropriately so that we're keeping both audiences pretty happy with what we've got. The unique one is Sonic Generations, because actually we're bringing those two together, so that you've got a 2D and 3D appeal for both of those audiences.
So we listen, we're working as hard as we can. Can we improve quality? We can always improve quality. Are we always going to make people ecstatically happy? No, we're not. That's the creative business, isn't it? That's like everything, I think.
It's also one of the dangers of having a strong IP that had its strongest years in the 90s. As far as the core fan base is concerned, you can't really give people back their childhood nostalgia, you know? Which is what they want.
Yeah, exactly. And let's not forget that 20 years ago -- because it is almost Sonic's 20th anniversary -- and particularly when Sonic 2 came out, that was the Call of Duty of its time; that was the first core game. Gaming has moved on, Sonic is still as relevant now as he was then, but the way in which you play is different.
Just consider Mario and Sonic; it sold 19 million copies globally. So that is a huge power brand that is being bought because it was a fun party game everyone can play. So he's as popular today, but the relevance is completely different, and Sonic's never going to become a "modern Call of Duty" as he was then. So again, we have to understand and plan accordingly.