Tim Allison got his foot into the video game industry in Australia first at Imagineering and Questor. Imagineering was a very large PC distributor representing companies early on like Apple and Microsoft, while Questor was the games division that represented companies like Epyx, which was renowned for California Games and Impossible Mission, and Activision. Allison remembers they were the major competitor to Ozisoft, and between the two companies they controlled over 90 per cent of the games market. He joined Imagineering from University and was hired to work on the games business, as well as marketing manager looking after the international publishers. For a young guy, the gig sounded like fun. Allison admits he was not a gamer then, but quickly became one.
Activision nowadays has become one of the largest video publishers in the world. Did you expect the publisher to become as big as it did now?
Ozisoft national sales and marketing manager, Tim Allison (TA): The games industry has always been exciting both in terms of technology change and growth. Admittedly we were coming from a small global sales base, but year on year the growth was significant. It has always been unique in its rapid growth and ease of entry for new publishers. It’s harder for publishers to enter the console market now but online and smartphones still have low barriers to entry. I always expected Activision to be a key player, but I did not expect Epyx to eventually close. I went to Epyx in San Francisco and played the Lynx hand-held console on a large developer board, unfortunately they could not fund the launch and sold it to Atari.
You were the national sales and marketing manager at Sega Ozisoft from 1988 to 1992. What were your experiences with Sega's Master System and Mega Drive when they were released in Australia?
TA: We did some unique consumer based marketing including a club magazine and consumer hotline for game help. In many ways the hotline, which was phone only, is similar to the community aspects of online instant input and support now. Our hotline was run by “gamers” who could provide a direct and immediate response in a way the consumers could relate to. Later on we had a couple of full time road shows, designed as large open drains with the machines setup in side, that gamers would come and play the latest games for free. We used it as a promotional tool for the retailers and we would setup in Westfield or at key independents. They travelled the country by trucks and again were managed by young gamers.
What were your experiences with dealing with Sega in Japan at the time?
TA: I had daily dealings with Sega Japan and travelled there as well. At that time Sega was a very traditional Japanese company and it took me some time to learn their ways and cultural requirements. They were highly professional and strict in their dealings and pricing. It was a great experience being able to work with them and it has established the bases for my Asian gaming business now.
What were some of the notable promotional initiatives that you ran for the Master System or Mega Drive?
TA: We ran the Sega national championship live on Hey Hey It’s Saturday [a long-running variety television program at the time]. It was a great, fun experience filled with the challenges of live TV. It was a big event for the team that ran the national roadshows, and they conducted regional competitions around Australia before the winners were flown into Melbourne for the Hey Hey It’s Saturday event. For us competing against Nintendo, it was a major coup to do this with such a powerful prime-time TV show.
You moved on to become the national marketing manager for Sega Ozisoft from 1992 to 1995, where you helped launch the 32X and Sega Saturn in Australia. What was your reaction to seeing the two consoles for the first time?
TA: The 32X was really exciting. We were amazed by the capacity of unit and how much bigger and better the games were. It was a logical extension for the Mega Drive. Consumers are used to technology add-on and expansions now, but back then it was a harder sell. The speed of tech change was far slower then and the buying decision was more considered.
The 32X and Saturn were launched in a similar time frame. With the success of the Mega Drive in Australia, was a high demand for the 32X anticipated? Or was there some concern that consumers would hold off to get the Saturn instead?
TA: The issue for the 32X was not the timing but the software support from the third party developers. The development was not there and this was the beginning of the huge development costs we now see on consoles. Many of the third parties started to develop for the 32X and discovered it was far more expensive and took longer, and in time it made sense just to move the focus to Saturn. It was a classic case of the software being the make or break for the hardware. Without the third party publishers, the 32X could not survive.
What did you do for the launch of the 32X and Saturn in Australia?
TA: We built a large cinema campaign for the launch of 32X. It was an expensive ad focusing on cyberspace mixed with cyber punks, in this case being the gamers. From a branding perspective it was meant to herd the move into the new technology which would lead onto Saturn. We made a big statement but the 32X never delivered on that claim, so it was difficult watching our release schedule for games shrink as the third party developers pulled away from it. With such a small release schedule we could tell soon after launch that it would be difficult to support long term and impossible to grow the user base.
What was notable about the Australian launch of the 32X and Saturn?
TA: I remember we wanted to launch our cinema campaign to the trade. So we invited them to see the cinema commercial in their capital cities with an unreleased new movie. Unfortunately, the only movie we were allowed to show was Legends of the Fall starring Brad Pitt. It was totally inappropriate for the style of our cinema campaign and I can admit now after seeing it five times it is my now most hated movie ever.
Sega Ozisoft's business at the time grew to $90 million. What was it that enabled the company to reach such a level of success in such a short time?
TA: The founders of Ozisoft, Kevin Bermeister and Mark Dyne, were very smart business men. Their early merging with Questor and then Sega enabled the growth and expansion to happen. I believe Sega would not have maintained such a high market share against Nintendo without their management and vision. They also assembled a strong team of managers to run the business, giving us the support to do our jobs well. I found them tough but supportive and completely focused on the business being successful and highly competitive.
In October 1995, Sega corporate decided to discontinue the 32X in order to focus on the Saturn. What was your reaction to the announcement at the time, considering the effort Ozisoft put into launching it a year earlier?
TA: Without the software support, 32X was doomed before we even launched it. It made sense to discontinue it as we had already moved on to focus on Saturn as the lead unit.
When you left the company at the end of 1995, the Saturn had just launched. What were your hopes for the Saturn in the Australian market against the competing PlayStation as you left?
TA: We knew PlayStation was a great console but what was uncertain at that time was if Sony would be in the business long term. I left Sega to do my MBA full-time, as I had been there a long time and wanted to explore other opportunities.
In 1998, Sega discontinued the Saturn to launch the Dreamcast instead. What was your reaction to hearing about the Saturn's premature end, as well as your first impression of the upcoming Dreamcast console?
TA: By then I had finished my MBA and I was back in the games business launching the Australia and New Zealand business for one of the leading third party publishers, Interplay. The third party perspective is very different. Multi-platform development is normal now, back then a lot of the publishers tended to favour a particular console. Interplay was very strong on PC and had various console titles in the works, and the style of PC and console were very different. I know Interplay had high hopes for the Dreamcast and the relationship with Sega was very strong.
In the following years, both Sega and Ozisoft underwent numerous changes, with Sega ending all console manufacturing in 2001 and Ozisoft being absorbed into Infogrames a few years later. Did you ever foresee such large changes happening?
TA: When I left in the end of 1995, the power of the third party publishers was rapidly expanding. Electronic Arts in Australia was a significant standalone business and it was clear the larger publishers would, in time, all set up their own operations. I did not see Sega ending the console focus but I could see the larger third party publishers moving away from Ozisoft to go direct. Sega Ozisoft was an extraordinary place for us as young people to work and grow. It was truly a great company.
How different was marketing and promotion in the 90's compared to now with the increasing popularity of social media?
TA: It is radically different now. I have specialised in the large Asian online markets since 2004, where huge communities of players are managed daily, instantly and they have a powerful voice. It’s reached the point that after launch they can control the direction of title development. Without that interaction and response, the consumers can walk on mass quickly, or when the response is rapid it can create a high level of ownership. Games can have the same level of hype as a movie but the social aspects of gaming now are far greater and the tools to manage that are absolutely critical for the long term success of a title's franchise.
What is your outlook on the future of video gaming?
TA: There is a massive battle where the traditional consoles are battling their entry into online only to be further complicated by smart phones and touch pads. The future of gaming is being decided by the flexibility of social media. Will an expensive, land locked console be the future? Highly unlikely, which means gaming will increasingly become massively online to the point that the consumers will create and control their own content alongside players of like interest. The traditional console format already seemed old and out-dated to me way back in 2004.
For more information about Tim Allison’s current venture, Omake Interactive Services, go to: www.omakeinteractive.com.
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