Sega Europe’s marketing director on the transition from Sonic to smartphones

With unique characters such as Sonic the Hedgehog at its disposal, Sega remains a brand that resonates warmly with Brits. But as video games evolve to more story-based narratives and smartphone casual gaming takes off, Sega Europe’s marketing director Jon Rooke admits the Japanese developer is altering its approach.

Long before the days of Playstation and Xbox, Sega, which was originally a hardware developer, was responsible for popular 90s gaming consoles including the Sega Megadrive and Sega Saturn.

However, after the high-profile failure of the Sega Dreamcast in the late 90s, its stock fell considerably and Sega was forced to stop making consoles altogether and to transition into a third party developer.

Over recent years, the Sega Europe studios have been responsible for publishing critically-acclaimed games including survival horror Alien Isolation and football management simulator Football Manager.

Rooke was approached for the European marketing director role after impressing Sega with his work as global brand director at Alien Isolation developer Creative Assembly. Alien Isolation, which features the horror film series’ iconic Xenomorph and will go on to be a “long term franchise” for Sega according to Rooke, was a huge critical success despite previous Sega’ Alien game Colonial Marines getting savaged by critics.

Rooke told Marketing Week: “Now my biggest challenge as marketing director is to make sure people are aware that Sega isn’t just this heritage brand that made all the Sonic games but we’re making cutting edge adult narratives such as Alien Isolation too. Not a lot of people realise we make Football Manager either – that has to change.”

Moving to smartphones

Revenues for smartphone and tablet games almost doubled in 2014 to $25bn, according to research firm Newzoo. It estimates that revenues will rise to $30bn in 2015, with console gaming lagging behind at $26.4bn.

Smartphone games are gaining particular momentum in the Asian market. So much so that renowned Japanese developer Konami, which has created classic titles such as Metal Gear Solid, recently quit making games for consoles altogether in order to explore a smartphone strategy.

Sega’s one time console nemesis Nintendo is also debuting games for smartphones, with plans to translate its Pokemon series onto iPhone.

Rooke, however, insists that Sega isn’t planning to abandon console gaming any time soon.

“We’ve had some great successes on mobile – our Sonic Dash game has over 100 million downloads – but mobile is an overcrowded market and being truly innovative in that space isn’t easy,” he adds. “The strategy at Sega is to focus on producing great content first and then decide which platform it works best on afterwards.”

Admitting that Sega has not done a “great job over the last four years” in communicating its brand values and engagement has subsequently “died down”, Rooke says Sega is interested in refreshing its heritage.

Sonic the Hedgehog

With a hugely popular smartphone game and an animated kids show getting renewed for a second series, Sonic the Hedgehog remains crucial to the Sega brand. Even if getting the actual games right remains a challenge.

Sega’s Sonic Dash smartphone game has been a huge hit

Rooke explains: “Sega has publically apologised to the fans as the quality of console games in the Sonic franchise hasn’t been acceptable over recent years. It’s been tough translating that iconic side scrolling 2D experience from the 90s into 3D but Sonic is still huge for us so the new games will be more inspired by how it played in its heyday.”

Listening to fans remains key to Sega’s strategy. For years hardcore gamers have called for Sega to release a third title in the Dreamcast’s Shenmue series, which is set around a teenage martial arts expert in rural China.

But their pleas were repeatedly ignored until earlier this year when its original developer Yu Suzuki unexpectedly announced a $2m kickstarter campaign in order to get Shenmue 3 finally made after Sega handed him over the license. The hugely popular campaign ultimately raised over $6m and became the sixth most funded campaign in the crowdfunding website’s history.”

“Yes, we want to innovate and back smartphones and virtual reality but our key purpose is to go back to what the brand used to stand for and I think the buzz around Shenmue 3 shows that people love our legacy,” adds Rooke, who says Sega is currently “exploring ways” to re-release the original two Shenmue titles.

“Sega was an innovator, the Dreamcast was offering online gaming as early as 1998. But perhaps back then we were pushing boundaries a little too soon. Nowadays we know what we’re good at and the strategy is to be more gradual. Over the next few years, we want to use engaging content and marketing to remind the public why they fell in love with Sega in the first place.”