Interviews & Opinion

Why Codemasters wants to be the Disney Channel of racing

Why Codemasters wants to be the Disney Channel of racing

More than 30 years after Codemasters was founded, the UK-based racing specialist entered the latest act of its life.

The game maker and publisher went public on the London Stock Exchange on June 1st, 2018, following in the footsteps of Elite Dangerous firm Frontier Developments, outsourcing giant Keywords, Sheffield work-for-hire outfit Sumo Digital as well as Yorkshire indie label Team17.

While Codemasters has had its fair share of ups and downs in its over 30-year history - and what company of that age hasn't? - the firm has stabilised in the last few years. Being public has made new things possible for the racing specialist from the basic, like stock options for employees. But on a higher level, CEO Frank Sagnier (pictured) says that being public has given the company a sense of legitimacy.

"Going public also puts you on the map in a way I didn't really expect," the Codies boss explains to when we met him at GDC 2019.

"Just because you go public, suddenly you're legit and more people to talk to you. A few people still thought that Codemasters was struggling. They didn't realise that the company had been doing well for a number of years. It takes time. Very often when you're CEO of the company, you are looking two or so years into the future. It takes time to convince your own employees that that's the right direction and it takes even longer to convince investors or the external world.

"And if you want to raise money to make mergers and acquisitions (M&As), being a public company you can make money very quickly. There's a lot of advantages. But when you do something doesn't go as predicted - your share price is up or down, depending on the sentiment - that's not always linked to facts. When we launched OnRush and the sentiment was that the game wasn't as successful as we were hoping and our share price dipped - it was frustrating for me because I knew that we could still do our numbers. It wasn't as bad as people said."

Dirt Rally 2.0 launched in February 2019 following in the footsteps of its 2015 predecessor

OnRush, launched for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in June 2018. While it had a strong critical reception, it didn't meet Codemasters commercial expectations. As a result, a number of people who worked at the studio behind the new racing IP departed. At the time this was reported as layoffs, with Sagnier insisting to that these were employees left of their own accord. The CEO says that OnRush was trying too many new things at once, with Codemasters looking to introduce new and interesting elements to existing franchises in order to keep things fresh.

"OnRush was quite original, new and disruptive, but there were too many new things in there at the same time - a new IP, a new concept, which probably made it less successful than we were hoping," he admits. "I do think that OnRush will eventually come back at some point because we have two million people playing it and being quite happy. There is a way to bring it back.

"Regarding the balance of new and old IP and ideas, you need to be smart. You can build new within old. We've had the Dirt series now for 20 years; it was Colin McRae, it became Dirt, it became Dirt Rally, it became Dirt 4... we've got variation. Establishing a new franchise is hard. If you have a name that exists or is derivative of that name, it's way easier. We could be smart and do new within existing franchises. It's a smaller risk than doing something completely new. And we are looking at all opportunities."

I cannot continue to do the same thing for 200 years and not change. There are new consumers I want to reach, there are new platforms, there are new ways of playing. We need to innovate. I'm not going to be stifled by the Stock Market for innovation

But being public, Sagnier and Codemasters have to answer to shareholders. Investors might see new ideas appearing to underperform - OnRush being a perfect example - while existing franchises like Dirt continue to do the numbers, and insist the game maker focuses on what is working. To that, Sagnier says that it's important to be honest and realistic with shareholders, while also trying to innovate.

"You have to manage expectations. But you also have to explain to your investors that companies that do the same thing all the time you aren't going to grow where you are already," he explains.

"I cannot continue to do the same thing for 200 years and not change. There are new consumers I want to reach, there are new platforms, there are new ways of playing. We need to innovate. I'm not going to be stifled by the Stock Market for innovation. I need to continue to innovate because we are in a business where innovation is the name of the game. Our investors are smart enough to understand that you aren't in the software entertainment industry without innovating. What our shareholders are saying is that we should not bet the whole house on the innovation and go bankrupt if you fail. It's a question of still delivering a base on existing things that are secure, but can also take some risk to grow your business then we are happy with that."

In addition to exploring new ideas, Codemasters is interested in exploring new platforms. Google's Stadia streaming platform, announced a few days before we sat down with Sagnier, presents the opportunity to create new kinds of games altogether.

"With something like streaming, it's just not about reaching two billion people; it's about the new experiences and gameplay that you could develop," he explains.

"There are so many things you can do, you can completely rejuvenate your brands. We can make a Dirt again that's completely new on something like Stadia without having to create a new IP. You can have a new game anyway. The idea is that we like new, we like old. Do I want an arcade game to get away from pure simulation? Course I do, and we will get there, but we may get there through a different route."

New IP OnRush didn't hit Codemasters initial commercial expectations but Sagnier says the IP isn't dead yet

Looking to the next year, Sagnier says that the plan is to bolster its position as the leading racing games company around.

"We'd like to strengthen our acquisitions in the racing segment," Sagnier says.

"I'd like to think that whether our games grow or we have more games but I'd like to become - and I think we already are - the Disney Channel of racing. So if you want to have a kids programme, you go to Disney. That's a very clear identity; we'd become a racing channel - best in class, highest quality and my hope with new business models coming along, we'll have the racing offering, which will give us a lot of clout to have many experiences under one brand. And hopefully, if anybody is interested in the racing genre, they can come to us."

PCGamesInsider Contributing Editor

Alex Calvin is a freelance journalist who writes about the business of games. He started out at UK trade paper MCV in 2013 and left as deputy editor over three years later. In June 2017, he joined Steel Media as the editor for new site In October 2019 he left this full-time position at the company but still contributes to the site on a daily basis. He has also written for, VGC, Games London, The Observer/Guardian and Esquire UK.