Game Notoriety Outscores Quality

Eidos boss Bill Gardner says controversial games like "25-to-Life" would die a natural death if politicians ignored them

Next Generation visited Eidos' HQ in San Francisco, to talk to Gardner about his role in trying to turn the company around. After more loss-making years than anyone can remember, some pretty dismal games, and a protracted buy-out from SCI, the firm says it's ready to propel itself back into the big-league.

But Gardner admits products like 25-To-Life (Gamerankings 45%-53%) won't do the trick. He says its sales success (the PS2 version charted at number 13 in NPD's all-formats January table) was more about notoriety than quality.

He says, "The game, I thought, was weak. It rated poorly. But the politicians felt that they should step on the game, which caused it to show up much bigger than any marketing money we might have put behind it.

"I tried to ask them not to but they didn't listen. So the reason that the game got attention and sold at all was because the politicians and the mouthpieces decided to make such a noise."

He says that without the controversy, the game would have died "a very quiet death because it wasn't that good" He adds, "The same could be said about other games they've tried to ban, which then lead all the kids to at least take a look. If no one had said anything, they would not have bothered."

Gardner expresses some frustration that some much-better rated games didn't attract the same levels of sales. "Project Snowblind (Gamerankings - 78%-83%) was a very fine game. We tried to promote it, but it didn't get any publicity and it sank. I don't see how 25-To-Life could sell better than Snow Blind."

He says that, personally, he would be happy to live without media controversies, but that it's essential to defend a publisher's right to tackle issues head on. "In my opinion you can't come in and say that all games that deal with something controversial should be banned. That is a first amendment issue. Some of these games are, arguably, not the best scenario from a moral standpoint but can I tell you not to read a John Grisham novel because a policeman gets killed? I don't think that is fair so I defend the right to produce the game even if the nature of the game does not appeal to me personally."

Gardner is not completely critical of 25-To-Life though. He points out that the multi-player aspect of the game is well polished, and has found a large online audience.

Gardner has been working towards rebuilding Eidos the way he likes it, focusing in the short term on big franchises like Tomb Raider, Commandos and Hitman.

Staff turnover has been rapid during his tenure. He explains, "People who did not want to be a part of the direction where I believe the company needs to go are gone. I competed against Eidos for many years, and I always saw them as hard competitors and good people. I knew the core was here. We knew there was an element here in this building that was really good and we just had to find that."

One of the big stories about Eidos has been continued speculation that the company, along with its UK-based parent SCI, was about to be bought; finally laid to rest last week.

Gardner says the chatter isn't especially helpful, but it does have its benefits, "In some ways it's an unfortunate thing; because among our employees there's a sense of 'oh my god here we go again'. The good side is that our stock price rises because of the interest."

He says any purchase would take significant funds. "It's going to be a very expensive proposition for someone to try to put their hands on the combined entity of SCI and Eidos. Lara Croft, Commandos and Rogue Trooper are all coming out. We're going to have a hell of a year so it's going to be very expensive.

"Certainly the time to have bought would have been before we had a visible schedule with great products; last summer, ideally. But the company has come together and has gelled extremely well and so the value has significantly increased."

What about working for the last really significant British player in the games market? Gardner says it's been "a marvellous experience" adding, "There's a lot of pride in Britain in seeing that there is a good strong publisher that is British.

"Eidos has always been British, but whether you're British, French or Japanese it doesn't matter because it all comes down to the fact that that biggest market is here in the U.S.

He adds, "I'm given a free rein and a good relationship with the board at SCI and they have given me free rein to turn this around."

So what's the target for the year ahead? "I've told the board that by 2007 we'll be in the top ten but I think it will be achieved in 2006. Our challenge is not the next six months; it's the next two years. We can get in the top ten quickly. How we stay there and improve on that is the challenge. Many companies have pole-vaulted into the top ten and then pole-vaulted right out again. The challenge is staying there.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.