An avid marathon runner, Bruno Bonnell knows the value of endurance. Seventeen years ago, Bonnell and a college buddy scraped together $10,000 to start Infogrames Entertainment, a software company in their hometown of Lyons, France. Today it's Europe's biggest electronic games publisher and No. 2 worldwide. Infogrames expects to post $1 billion in sales this year, fueled by such bestsellers as fantasy-adventure game Alone in the Dark and such hot new offerings as Ronaldo, a game where players assume the role of the Brazilian soccer star. With imagination and savvy marketing, the 42-year-old Bonnell has grabbed an impressive share of a global industry whose $20 billion in revenues now rival Hollywood's.
Bonnell isn't slowing his pace. To capitalize on the spread of digital television, he's teaming up with leading European TV companies to offer interactive games on TV. He's also investing $200 million to develop game-playing sites on the Internet. Making a push across the Atlantic, he has just acquired New York City-based GT Interactive Software, one of the biggest U.S. game publishers. And he's still shopping, with an estimated $500 million at his disposal. Among the properties he's considering: the games division of troubled toymaker Mattel Inc. "This industry is consolidating fast, and everyone has to wonder about being either prey or hunter," Bonnell says. "We will not be prey."
GLOBAL FUN. With his shaved head and impish grin, Bonnell is clearly having fun as he pursues his global ambitions. At press conferences, he likes to entertain journalists with dance moves. His aides still talk about a 1998 sales meeting where he donned a leotard and performed a trapeze act before several hundred employees. Traveling constantly between Infogrames' Lyons headquarters and its fast-growing operations in California, Bonnell relaxes by trying out new games with his three teenagers and keeps up his energy by jogging.
He'll need plenty of stamina for the road ahead. As a new generation of game consoles, such as Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 2, come on the market this year, he and other publishers are under pressure to develop games with snazzier audiovisual effects. Developing a new game can cost $4 million or more. At the same time, publishers such as Britain's Eidos PLC have seen their profits plunge as customers anticipating snazzier audiovisual effects have quit buying once-popular titles. Infogrames--offering a wider variety of games than many publishers--is so far riding out the turmoil, with profits up 81% in the second half of 1999, to $18 million. But it has been hit hard by falling tech-stock prices, with its shares dropping more than 21% this year.
Bonnell also has to prove his mettle in the U.S., the world's biggest games market, where Infogrames remains well behind industry leader Electronic Arts and its sales of more than $1.4 billion. "To be profitable in this market, you have to have a few big hits. Infogrames has had tremendous success in Europe, but they haven't had any real hits here yet," says Kevin Hause, a games-industry analyst at International Data Corp.
HE'S GAME. But Bonnell stands a chance; he's already come a long way. In 1982, after working as a computer salesman, he teamed up with a former college classmate from Paris, Christophe Sapet, to write a how-to book for novice computer users. Sales of the book generated the $10,000 with which they started Infogrames in 1983. Their first game, Autoroute, featured a frog trying to cross a busy highway. In 1984, they scored a huge hit with Alone in the Dark, a game targeted at teenagers that has sold 3 million copies to date.
Bonnell has ridden out several boom-bust cycles in the industry by focusing on marketing to expand his customer base. "Our business has grown from a niche market for young boys and teenagers to a much broader audience, with many more adults playing," he says. "People will [soon] play games as simply as they watch TV."
Most homes today lack the broadband Internet access that's necessary to support high-end interactive games. That will change over the next decade. Infogrames is now developing Web sites tailored to its current titles--so that, for example, someone could download a new model of sports car for use in an Infogrames racing game.
More challenges lie ahead as game-playing moves onto the Internet. For Bonnell, the game is only beginning.