IP profile: Driver
Thursday, 19th June 2008 at 2:28 pm
In the fifth instalment of our IP profiles series, Nick Gibson looks at Reflections’ driving success…
DRIVER - THE STATS
Estimated Total Unit Sales: Over 14 million (multiple platforms)
Number of Iterations: Four major releases and one expansion
Game Release Timeline
1985: Codename Droid
1995: Destruction Derby
1997: Destruction Derby 2 and Thunder Truck Rally
2000: Driver 2
2006: Driver: Parallel Lines
2007: Driver 76 (PSP port of Parallel Lines by Sumo Digital)
1984: Reflections Interactive founded by Martin Edmondson
1989: Reflections releases first million unit seller, Shadow of the Beast
1995: Reflections enters driving market with 1m-selling Destruction Derby
1998: Reflections Interactive acquired by GT Interactive in advance of its release of Driver (in 1999) for $41m
1999: Infogrames acquires 70 per cent stake in GT Interactive for $135m and subsequently renames GT Interactive to Atari Inc
2003: Reflections Interactive used as security (along with several other Atari assets) to secure a $50m facility for Atari from General Electric Capital Corp.
2006: Driver IPR (brand and technology) and existing staff and most of the assets from Reflections Interactive sold by Atari to Ubisoft for €19m
Creator: Martin Edmondson
GAME INCEPTION AND GROWTH
Driver was Reflections Interactive’s third driving game brand. Its first, Destruction Derby – a ‘smash-em up’ driving game that sold over three million units across two iterations and was one of the first few high quality titles to demonstrate what could be achieved on the new console – was an early hit on PlayStation.
Destruction Derby and the less successful Thunder Truck Rally showcased the studio’s unique understanding of physics and collision technology as well as the more commonly-found skill set in racing games.
Released two years after these two series, Driver added sophistication of plot, character and higher production values to the updated racing technology. Players take the role of a 1970s undercover policeman trying to break into a crime syndicate. The game is set in four real-world cities and although the game is mission-based, the cities are freely navigable giving the player the ability to access all areas – the same open world freedom which contributed to the success of Grand Theft Auto 3 (which came out two years after Driver).
The original Driver received broad critical praise and sold well, although the reception for the sequel, released in a rush the following year, was considerably more mixed. Despite more expansive gameplay features (such as the ability for the player’s character to get out of their car), many reviewers condemned the game for appearing to be incomplete and rushed to market. However the original game’s sales momentum was maintained and the sequel was a commercial success.
However Driv3r, the first Driver game to be released on PlayStation 2 and Xbox, suffered at the hands of the games press which mauled it. Despite a longer lead time for the title as the studio got to grips with the new platforms, the game suffered from appearing to be less than completely balanced and finished. This resulted in the accusation that publisher Infogrames had rushed the game to market, which was not inconceivable given the financial precariousness of Infogrames at the time. This time around, the game suffered at retail, although achieving two million unit sales on a new platform was far from dismal.
Some of the third game’s problems were addressed in the most recent Driver game, Driver: Parallel Lines, but the title suffered from lack of support from its owner and publisher, Atari. Although the on-foot sections remain, the studio returned to the tried and tested formula from earlier games. Critics were a little more receptive, but by this time the damage to the franchise had been done and moderately improved review scores were not able to prevent it performing poorly at retail.
In 2006 the studio found a more stable and viable home when Reflections and its IPR were sold to Ubisoft. A version of Parallel Lines for PSP (called Driver 76 and developed by Sumo Digital) begun under Atari was an improvement on its immediate predecessor, with higher review scores. A new Driver for current generation consoles is expected, but its release date has yet to be announced.
COMPANY INCEPTION AND GROWTH
Reflections was founded in 1984 by Martin Edmondson, with a range of titles released on BBC Micro such as Raveskull, Codename Droid and Ballistix, each of which charted at number one on the platform. Its first major commercial success came in 1989 when it released Shadow of the Beast, a side-scrolling action game that went on to achieve over a million unit sales under the auspices of UK publisher Psygnosis. Psygnosis was acquired by Sony in 1993 to form the basis of its European PlayStation development and publishing division; Reflections continued to use Psygnosis for its products including its initial successful forays into the driving market with Destruction Derby.
With a string of commercial successes behind it, Reflections was in a strong enough position to be able to retain the IPR to its next title, Driver, whose publishing rights were eventually picked up by new publisher GT Interactive. In the year before its eventual release GT, recognising a potential blockbuster franchise in the making, acquired Reflections and its Driver IPR for 2.28m shares in common GT stock (worth at the time of acquisition approximately $13.5m) plus cash and options which valued the sale at a total of $41m at the time of the transaction (although GT Interactive’s shares fell in value soon afterwards). By the time Driver 2 had come out a year later in 2000, Driver had already achieved over five million unit sales.
GT Interactive was transferred in 1999 into the hands of ambitious French publisher Infogrames who had acquired a 70 per cent interest for $135m. Infogrames shortly thereafter acquired Hasbro Interactive (the computer, video and online games division of toy company Hasbro) and began restructuring its US and European operations. Infogrames had grown rapidly through a multitude of acquisitions, financed by multiple convertible loan issues, but struggled to create a profitable development and publishing entity out of them.
Driver 2 achieved similar success to the first title – the two titles achieved lifetime sales of 12m between them – but Driv3r failed to match this success (although it achieved some two million in unit sales). In between Driver 2 and Driv3r, Reflections released a new IP, Stuntman, which went on to sell over a million units whilst Glu Mobile released a mobile version of Driv3r which exceeded one million paid-for downloads.
Faced with persistent cash shortfalls, Infogrames used Reflections, amongst a number of Atari assets (of whom Reflections was the only named developer), as security for a $50m debt facility in 2003. It then raised $13m through the sale to rival publisher Vivendi of the IPR to an unreleased title, TimeShift. It also sold the Stuntman 2 game and developing studio (Paradigm) to THQ for an additional $9m. Finally, in 2006, it announced it had sold the Driver IPR, Reflections Interactive and its other assets for €19m to rival French publisher Ubisoft.
Martin Edmondson’s departure from Reflections in late 2004 was controversial and shortly thereafter he brought a constructive dismissal claim against Reflections and Atari who he claimed had unfairly forced his resignation. The settlement agreement which was reached in mid-2005 resulted in Atari paying Edmondson $4.7m, an amount that was intended to compensate for the loss of income from a previously agreed contract extension.
The studio has now found safer waters in the Ubisoft fold, is delivering new projects including an as yet unnamed new Driver game and is growing at a moderate pace compared to Ubisoft’s many international studios.
In acquiring Reflections prior to its launch of Driver, GT Interactive was remarkably prescient and, with the benefit of hindsight, got the company for a good price ($41m in stock, cash and options). The 12 million unit sales generated by Driver and Driver 2 would have generated a minimum six return on its investment acquisition cost. Reflections had certainly produced best-sellers but only one had achieved over two million units for a single iteration.
It could be argued that Driver created the market which DMA and Take 2 subsequently exploited to a far greater extent with Grand Theft Auto 3. The contrast between Infogrames and Take Two’s ability to successfully execute the publishing and marketing of each title shines a harsh light on Infogrames’ operational capacity at the time. Driver seemed to tap into the same demographic with a similar mix of driving and crime although its main success was on the original PlayStation whilst GTA3 was a PlayStation 2 console exclusive. The failure of Reflections and Infogrames to build upon the success of the original Driver appears to be due to the difficulties that the developer had in making a convincing leap to PlayStation 2 and Xbox, as well as the impatience of cash-strapped Infogrames.
That Ubisoft was willing to spend €19m to acquire what was left of Reflections Interactive (which had already lost its founder and the designer of the original Driver games) and the Driver IPR speaks volumes for the inherent value it believed is locked in the Driver brand. As acquisition values go, €19m is relatively low given the franchise’s pedigree. The genre in which Driver sits is still hugely popular and many publishers now have a title to attempt to compete with Take 2’s GTA franchise.
Ubisoft, which did not, can now tick this genre’s box and has a development methodology and technology base that has not only revived other seemingly moribund brands (such as Prince of Persia) but will likely result in the sort of development patience needed to guarantee a successful return for the Driver IP in the future.
- Driver’s crime subject matter and reckless street driving potential appealed to the core PlayStation demographic (18-26 years old)
- Driver was one of the first 3D games to offer entire cities to explore
- Reflections had a strong pedigree of producing successful products including the Demolition Derby titles
- GT Interactive, publisher of the original Driver title, believed strongly in its potential, backing its launch with an extensive promotional campaign
- A difficult console transition for the originating studio and poor execution by its parent publisher Infogrames resulted in the sale of the studio and its IP at low value versus its potential
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