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Gaming Bridges: One On One With Mad Catz CEO Darren Richardson

NEW YORK — Remember Rock Band? Well, Mad Catz certainly does.

The gaming accessory manufacturer made headlines this spring when it announced that it, along with Harmonix Music Systems, was bringing the former gaming superstar back into the forefront. TWICE caught up with Darren Richardson, Mad Catz CEO, shortly after E3, where the company had just wrapped up an expansion demonstration of its new venture.

TWICE: Mad Catz is going to co-publish “Rock Band 4” for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox. What do you think the consumer reaction is going to be to the brand?

Although games like “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero” were once worldwide phenomena, the gaming focus seems to fixate on mobile gaming the last few years.

It’s true that mobile gaming is enjoying phenomenal growth, and Mad Catz is strongly positioned to capitalize on its growth with our range of GameSmart mobile gaming controllers, headsets and Bluetooth peripherals. That said, at Mad Catz, our aim is to be anywhere passionate gamers are, and wherever games are being played – whether that’s mobile, PC or console.

Since its announcement, we’ve experienced an overwhelmingly positive response from gamers and throughout the industry to “Rock Band 4.” Everyone is very excited that we’re getting the band back together and eager to see the return of this groundbreaking franchise.

TWICE: Are you planning any special retail setups to demonstrate the game and the controllers to consumers?

Absolutely. We just wrapped up a hugely successful E3 – where retailers, press and consumers were able to go hands-on with the game and controllers and results were phenomenal. “Rock Band 4” led the music category with 15 award nominations and eight wins, and, more importantly, we received universal feedback that our next-gen wireless controllers represent the best the franchise has ever seen. Looking forward, we’re currently in discussion with first parties about inclusion into their retail demo kiosk programs, which would enable us to get the game and controllers in the hands of gamers at thousands of store fronts across the country. In addition, over the summer we’ll be taking “Rock Band 4” on the road, bringing the game to fans across the country at gaming, music and lifestyle events such as PAX, Comic-Con, Gamescom, EVO and more.

TWICE: What kind of demonstrations did you have at E3?

This year, our primary focus rested on “Rock Band 4,” which publicly stated is one of the biggest opportunities for growth Mad Catz have ever seen. We had several areas where visitors could play and experience the game and our hardware, including an innovative outdoor stage which attracted big crowds throughout the show, as well as various behind closed-door meeting spaces. We joined Harmonix in throwing a “Rock Band” fan event for the community and VIP guests in Hollywood, which we believe was a great event! We had some 150 press demonstrations and were nominated for no less than 15 “Best Music Game” nominations, winning eight of them, including awards from IGN and Game Informer. In addition, we showcased our mobile gaming range including the multi-award-winning Lynx9 controller; our PC range, which includes the new Rat Pro X; our range of Tritton headsets; and our best-selling range of Fighting Game controllers.

TWICE: You make accessories for nearly all gaming platforms. What is it like trying to straddle the console wars, and what kind of challenges does this pose for a gaming accessory manufacturer?

Our goal is to be anywhere gamers are – whether that be console, PC or mobile, and to make each of these experiences better. The key for us is to concentrate on high-quality, specialty products which appeal to passionate gamers — and for this reason we continue to employ a consumer-centric approach to new product development. To that end, we’ve developed strong relationships with first-party publishers, independent software developers and technology partners that enables us to optimize our product’s performance for each gaming platform. The trick for us is to continue to innovate both for the current gaming platforms, while looking forward to anticipate where the industry and consumers are heading several years down the line. A great example of this is our Lynx9 Mobile Hybrid Controller, where we’ve combined a next-generation ID with transformative abilities, and in the process redefined consumer expectations for what a mobile gaming controller can look like, feel like and be capable of.

TWICE: What do you view as the biggest challenge currently facing the gaming market?

I think one of the biggest challenge facing gaming is remaining relevant and profitable in the face of so many competing platforms and technologies. Mobile gaming is fast transitioning from simple apps to rich, console-quality experiences which demand to be enjoyed on the big screen. Monetizing such software is a challenge that we still need to answer as an industry. As part of our GameSmart initiative, we are championing a unified standard for controller protocol, actively reaching out to publishers, hardware manufactures and developers so that gamers can seamlessly take their gaming experiences across multiple platforms.

TWICE: What gaming development has taken you by surprise the most in the past several years?

I’m not sure if “surprise” is a fair word but there have certainly been some interesting developments that no one could have accurately predicted. As an industry, we were all pleasantly surprised at how quickly gamers have adopted the current generation of console hardware, with PlayStation 4 and Xbox One enjoying faster install base growth than the same time frame last time around. As a company, we’ve been championing mobile gaming since its infancy, and to see it continue its rapid growth and achieve mainstream popularity comes as no surprise to us, even as the sheer speed at which the hardware is improving continues to astound.

TWICE: Did the headphones explosion in the consumer market have any effects, whether negative or positive, on the gaming headset market?

Are consumers paying more attention to the gear they use? Absolutely. Today’s gamer is far better educated in the virtues of quality audio and is actively seeking out high-performance hardware which delivers a winning edge. Those who game competitively or as a passionate pastime demand a unique feature set – such as the ability use audio to determine placement of enemies or teammates based on audio direction from their headset. The slogan for our Tritton brand of gaming headsets is “The unfair advantage,” and we think its context continues to ring true and helps to guide the technology we utilize in developing new products the range. Interestingly, successful lifestyle audio headphone brands have not experienced the same level of success in gaming, where fans are looking for a very specific feature set. Headsets are still one of the fastest-growing categories in gaming and account for a sizable percentage of our business. We have plans on growing our presence in this space throughout 2015 through product innovation that continues to pursue the values of design, audio technology and features which enhance the gaming experience.

TWICE: What do you think virtual reality means for the gaming industry? Does Mad Catz have any plans to participate?

Interest in the technology is at an all-time high and rightly so. We’ve reached the inflection point where the hardware is extremely capable and priced within reach of the consumer. There are still challenges to overcome but interest in and the future potential of the segment is obviously there. Interestingly, there are many things that we as a gaming company can and already are doing to be successful in this field. Many of our headsets are regularly used in Oculus Rift demo’s to provide full surround sound and enhance user’s experience. In popular games like “Elite Dangerous,” our range of Saitek flight sticks have actually been mapped into the game so users can look down at their virtual cockpit and see, touch and hold a fully accurate replica of our hardware in the game space. We will continue to look at strategic opportunities such as these to capitalize on the emerging hardware.

TWICE: On a personal note, what games are you currently playing?

“Rock Band 4,” of course!