The 4 Winds Wants Gaming To Become Truly Global
Markets like MENA, LATAM, Russia and Turkey have long been marginalized, and the company wants to change that.
Being a fan of video games, it’s not always a given that you’ll be catered to depending on your locale or cultural background. Everything is filtered through the global northwest’s economic hegemony that it’s almost-impossible to conceive of it otherwise — the 4 Winds Entertainment is a company that aims to change that, and unlike failed past attempts at doing it, it claims to have the focus and drive to see through a sea change in how the gaming industry perceives and operates on traditionally-neglected markets.
Video games have long been a far more universal medium of entertainment than most give it credit for, and yet oft-excluded from conversations of representation in it are those who don’t live in the global northwest. Steven Huot thinks this is a relic of long-standing business doctrines that still hold dominion over the gaming industry. “[It’s] worth remembering is that Video Games had a truly worldwide appeal since Pong and the Commodore 64, yet few publishers today… 50 years later… serve even the world’s largest markets, MENA being a prime example. At the same time, the likes of Coca Cola have long solved the challenges of delivering a physical bottle to every remote village on the planet,” Huot asserts. “Big Western publishers, due to incorrect stereotypes and lack of confidence allow these massive “other” markets to be overlooked year after year. And into the void are only the small, regional publishers or local offices of those same brands.”
As a result, there remains a lot of untapped potential, and Huot correctly posits that the first to take advantage of it should be amply rewarded. “[Big western publishers] tend to forget that they did not actually launch anything in the region or even don’t have an established brand presence; or if they did make something “available,” they likely did so while missing even the most basic of elements necessary to succeed, such as giving the ability to pay in local currencies or even something as obviously limiting as not supporting the language of the land,” he says. “Not adding new markets means publishers leave money on the table, and worse the players of these large, vibrant communities unsupported. And that’s why today, 50 years after games were first available you still have millions of players with subpar levels of service and content. But this leaves huge opportunities to the few pioneers that we will take to market with us in opportunity markets. A truly unmet need of massive proportions, all asking for games by name!”
The old regime of localization is part of the issue — though there is appetite to see products distributed and consumed in territories where such demand might not be fathomed, rarely is indulged the effort to place them in proper cultural context through properly-targeted marketing and well-done translation work. Huot chalks it up to a misinterpretation of what relevant regions actually want, leading publishers and developers to just throw their hands up in surrender. “The biggest challenge we have is the misperception that markets like MENA require dramatically different game content. They assume the game must change almost in its entirety to fit the regional needs. Rarely is that the case. It is simply a need for the local language to be implemented, and some basic culturally relevant marketing and content served to them via their trusted social media celebrities and influencers. […] Our approach for the business is to fix misperceptions first, educate publishers about the region’s rich culture and history, best practices to localization and adaptation to connect with the culture, etc,” Huot references Arabic in the context of the MENA region. “When you do launch, it does not take much to stand out. Since expectations are still quite low given how few games get properly localized, the only game assets to think about are the easy one. Simple assets like skins, environmental items or assets that are culturally relevant make a world of difference. Same as we do for well-known markets, consider the region, and add content that shows you care. When done right, these assets work regionally, but can have global appeal too. It is about exposure to different cultures that are basic to storytelling. […] [MENA] is a market force to be reckoned with, and the spoils of war go to the pioneers that are getting there now and seeing it for what it is, a must-launch market.”
Something that inspires confidence about 4 Winds’ future is the amount of expertise under its belt, between executive and employees. There are smatterings of Blizzard’s DNA in there, but the expertise is far-reaching and diverse, as it should be for a company of its scope. “While T4W emerged the legacy of our work at Blizzard in Opportunity Markets, it is also a team experience from 16 other publishers around the world. We see ourselves as cultural ambassadors for opportunity markets, having lived there, and dedicated our careers to it,” Huot says affirmingly. “We have learned what works and does not work, and best practices from some of the world’s best. So we are uniquely positioned to lead the charge to shed light on these markets’ true, enormous potential. […] Demand is growing in these [opportunity markets] at an exponential rate, a yearly 12.5% revenue growth, fuelled by big install of mobile devices and record internet penetration rates. We understand that these markets are deeply misunderstood and have experience to see that they do not react the same way to standardized, big budget messaging. These new gamers have the same national pride and want to be seen as people that matter, as countries themselves, and be truly understood by the brand before they commit themselves to a game.”
This all ties back into 4 Winds’ whole raison d’être — a desire to break out of old traditions and see opportunity markets recognized for what they truly are. “This is why we decided to create The 4 Winds, to offer a rare, high quality service to other publishers and developers focused on opportunity markets,” Huot says. “We would like to see ourselves as a one-stop solution to grow their business in those markets, thanks to our regional expertise, analytics and market insights, business model and forecasting and product management. When we execute customized go-to-market, identify partnerships with locally relevant alliances, everything needed is done well, it works. We essentially co-publish in the territory so the publishers get more from the market than they can do on their own and do not have to staff up to get it.”
There’s a tone of absolute confidence in Huot’s words when he expresses his desire to tap into what eventually became a secondary consideration for many first-rate publishers. It’s the burning core behind 4 Winds’ inception, and he hopes to see that mission through despite great obstacles still to overcome. “When we work together with the right games and great content, we will unlock the full potential of the market and make the industry aware of what success really looks like here. […] And since big publishers were pulling back because they simply did not want to add headcount or form a regional team, even when it would expand their ability and capacity, then someone else needed to do it,” he says. “So, we decided that should be us. I am building a company that knows exactly what to do from the best and the brightest I have met along the road in my 30 years of marketing and brand building. I have a core leadership team already in place that in their careers have always exceeded benchmarks every time. They have worked for the best games and IPs in exactly these markets. What could be more fun than putting that kind of team together, and focusing on markets that have super-sized growth on top of huge bases of gamers yet limited competition? It gets us up wide-eyed every morning!”
I made the mistake of referring to neglected regions as ‘emergent markets’ in asking if a brighter future was ahead, and Huot was quick to point out the flawed nature of that label. “I think that the notion of “emerging markets” should be addressed. The industry has been using this misnomer to mask their lack of knowledge of these regions forever. When in reality, most of these markets aren’t emerging at all. Some even emerged thousands of years ago like Baghdad, Istanbul and more. All of them are vibrant cities full of technology and the same human interest in entertainment and great content. These countries have mature commerce, people live in urban areas, in high rises, have IT degrees and access to the same technology. We are talking cities of 10, 20, 30M or more,” he says. “And it is not a few markets, in fact together opportunity markets make up 40% of the global population. That is some 1 Billion new potential players the big publishers are NOT serving. And most of them are expanding at the highest growth rates in the world. Based on our previous work and analysis, we estimate the average measure of success in just 3 of these regions, Turkey, MENA, and Russia for an average title should deliver $67M per game in 3 years. That is a lot of revenue for even the biggest publishers to reconsider their easy dismissal. But again, that means launching properly. Not perfectly but doing the basics. If you do not you will not see that number. If you do it right, you can leave this benchmark in the dust and create a growing slate of titles and have a top gaming brand with relative ease.”
Huot hopes that early successes will lay the groundwork for the rest to follow, as well they should given the facts laid out earlier. “A global and centralized approach of doing business, without considering the true market potential means the big guys miss out year after year. They always repeat the mantra of “next year” year after year. Then due to the dearth of content, the region sits fallow, leaving an otherwise diamond opportunity for most franchises unserved and not the best content for the market to expand at its potential. We know what to do, what the necessary effort will take to appeal to the local culture, and we love to do it,” he says. “When the big publishers see one or more of their own winning there, they will all follow. They will run out of excuses to say, next year and instead say, we wish we would have gone there sooner. At that point they can build their own teams. I know from experience, that will take them years. And it will take them a lot of mistakes and a lot more years to build the expertise to grow efficiently. Clearly with us, we are ready to go today. So they have everything to gain by partnering with us instead of going it alone. Faster to market, with less waste and the full potential of the market in their sails.”
A starting presumption that big gaming industry leaders had was that opportunity markets simply could not afford the cultural goods exported to them. Huot offers a compelling challenge to that statement, citing the most-recent example of China as a prime retort. “They said the same about China and look at the state of that market today. Limited buying power is not the reason for a lack of success in the opportunity markets. It is a numbers game, and the numbers are there in the markets we know firsthand,” he says. Huot further elaborates on the need to support a region’s financial infrastructure, and not stick to old knowns: “Equally important, but oft-forgotten is implementing the critical payment solutions needed for that market. Paying online is regional in terms of what methods of payment work and what gamers prefer. You must turn those on, or you won’t get the right results. Most franchises, even the pay-to-win titles, have for the longest time forgot that you need to support the region for a player to become a payer. How can you appeal to a player in Tunisia when the only way to pay for digital content is via mobile top-up and cash-on delivery are from a different country?”
Similarly-cited is the issue of piracy, but as Huot correctly points out, it is part and parcel of the very problem created by the industry’s neglect of opportunity regions. “For online games, and the software-as-a-service model today, that means the speed of new content coming to the authentic game is too rich, so that piracy is not much of an issue now that a game never really ends. You can steal it, but it is always a lesser version of what you could get. Most people in these countries do not buy pirated copies because they want to, but because they have no other alternatives,” he says. “The big publishers literally do not give many would-be-buyers a way to pay with their local currencies, native payment solutions, and usually also priced out of the market by 3X or worse. So would-be payers, become players in the only way they can, with a “free” version. This applies to Russia, MENA and Turkey. [The rationale goes:] Let me pay, and I will pay to play.”
Aware of the risks present, the fickle nature of 4 Winds’ endeavor isn’t lost on Huot. Though wary of potential failure, he sees taking the leap of faith as a necessary step towards much-needed progress. “Making games is risky, it is a heavily creative process that takes years before you find out if you have something. […] That risk is not for us, we are not developing our own games. Instead, we are taking the proven path of leveraging the amazing creative skills from the best of the content creators. We will partner with the most experienced developers from the Western world, China, wherever. We will ask the AAA game makers with pioneering spirits, those who are hungry to expand and establish their brands first in the most exciting of markets left on earth to join us,” he says. “Most in the international business community know what first-mover advantage means for a brand and understand how different a brand can be in one country versus another impacted largely by how and when it arrived. Luxury brands in some countries fight to be the low-price leader in another when they arrived late or launched wrongly. KFC, as an example, is a high end, premium fast-food chain in many lands where they got in there first. Brands that got there early, and do it right carve out an optimal position. And these first moves make all the difference.”
Part of this drive to innovate comes from Huot’s own history with Blizzard, seeing how even the most-shy attempts at expansion can be met with great enthusiasm when brands do not trivialize their presence outside of the global northwest. “I launched Blizzard’s brand and first 10 games, then left Blizzard for a few years to launch a web design and early social media focused online agency at the infancy of that industry. I returned to Blizzard when the opportunity to lead their international expansion happened, starting with opening Latin America. I saw the job as that of an “intrapreneur” and always, by nature challenged the conventional thoughts. I was set on changing the company from within. I knew the enormous potential of Latin America first-hand, and Brazil alone was just screaming for attention in 2009. Yet no one at Blizzard HQ could see it, no one at almost all other publishers could either,” he says. “I recognized this blind spot as a huge opportunity. So, I made that happen. We established a beachhead position there as a brand that cared first. And it was a wild, successful ride up. I moved to Europe and took over more emerging markets and did the same for Russia. Hiring a new, dedicated team over the years with specialist skills to do the same for Turkey, MENA, even India we got set up and ready. That is the team that came to join me in our mission to do the same now for other publishers at T4W.”
Sometimes an overabundance of experience can be an impediment to innovation, but Huot re-affirms his commitment to exploring all avenues no matter how novel and putting his team’s expertise where it is most-needed. “New ideas and fresh thinking are a mindset that we cherish. If you hire forward thinking, creative individuals and have a work environment that encourages smart risk taking, then experience is never a weakness. I am an entrepreneur at heart. It is about the execution of an idea, more than the idea. And this is a dynamic, fast paced world in a cutting-edge industry. You must adapt, innovate and challenge yourself and you’re thinking because nothing is sitting still. Not the market, not the competition, not even games. The dynamic nature of things is what drives me,” he says. “My team and I are adventurers, we break with conventional thought at every turn. We believe in testing and taking action, call it smart risk taking. You analyse and your research, but then you act. You do not fear failure, you learn. It is pretty basic, if something works, do more of it. If it does not, then step back. We push boundaries and open new doors. In fact, we gathered in this new venture partly due to the fact that each of our own lives were moved by that spirit of adventure. It is how we came to name our new company, to go Where the 4 Winds Blow. We recalled together how the winds moved early adventurers around the globe in a romantic, thrilling ways and those sailors returned as the conquering heroes, laden with the treasures and capital from the massive new trades and markets they found.”
Mildly amusing is the oft-espoused desire for publishers to make players explore ever-bigger and more diverse worlds, just as their business horizons do not extend beyond familiar ground — that irony is not lost on Huot. “We want to instil that age-old tradition of dreaming of new worlds into the oddly complacent gaming industry. Where this dynamic industry has lost much of its spirit of expansion and discovery, buckling down in known markets. Instead, we want to [make games a truly uniting experience],” he says. “With today so many are left out across the world, 40% of them across the globe in fact not having the same breadth of AAA options. The digital age of gaming needs to go North, South, East, or West, wherever the biggest opportunities await and let more join in. We know where they live, a billion+ gamers, and we can help our partners sail there, with the trade winds at their backs.”
The gaming industry is a beast that changes and molds itself to circumstances of the day, and Huot’s vision of what 4 Winds would achieve takes its constantly-evolving nature into account. “[The gaming industry] sits at the intersection of technology and the creative arts. Expect only constant growth, fuelled by rapid innovation. There are better tools, more game ready devices every day […] and more diversity yet to be brought into games, and it is all about entertainment and storytelling. This opens the door to more and more gamers, even if people do not call themselves gamers they can be touched by a story. Entertainment is a basic human need. The way to tell stories is still being unlocked, technology is opening those doors and as we become a more diverse industry, the chance to tell better, more compelling stories change too,” he says. “Shared experiences across cultures are what breaks down stereotypes and conventional thoughts about other people. Gaming and virtual gaming experiences is the rare connection point that can put people from disparate points on the earth into one gaming moment. Teaming up with the best, means not caring where they sit. And when you meet, battle, and share ideas with others from different cultures you start to see how much we have in common. Some games do that well, and new games are yet to be invented that do it even better. Indie games or games from well-funded teams from different cultures will add creativity and vision to what is next.”
Though business opportunities present themselves as plentiful, Huot stresses that it’s important not to overlook their potential — positive — cultural impacts. As games have become a bridge across cultural differences, their contribution to the project of global harmony is all-the-more important to consider. “Uniting people through shared experiences, uniting very “different” people, who will make friends and connections through shared experiences is the way people learn and let go of false perceptions,” he says. “We want people to celebrate our differences, variety is the spice of life. This industry needs to celebrate diversity and is moving in that direction, fortunately. There are a world of differences waiting to become one beautiful online social experiment and it is playing out right now on [the device in your pocket].”
Unsure about the company’s prospects for success, I’m nonetheless impressed at how Huot seems to command a good understanding of what it means to integrate in uncharted spaces in the first place. Sometimes the urge to create something universal for all means filtering all creativity through the lens of eurocentric business doctrines, but it doesn’t have to be that way — Huot hopes his company and and the team of great talent behind can be a conduit for that to change, even if solving the issue altogether seems like a tall order for an operation in its very infancy.