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In the videogames industry, as in any industry, there are several companies which have always been the bridesmaid, never the bride. No matter how profitable, successful, critically acclaimed or downright long-lived they have been, they've always existed in the shadows of their peers.
No company more so than Codemasters, which has been a fixture of the British videogame publishing industry for over two decades. At various points in the company's lengthy history, it has been very profitable, vastly successful and significantly critically acclaimed - and its longevity, of course, is in no question. However, Codemasters has arguably never felt like an A-list publisher, even at its most successful.
Perhaps it's the firm's legacy, the years spent churning out low-budget titles of extremely variable quality (some classics, many best forgotten) in the 1980s. Perhaps it's the fact that unlike its more highly regarded British rival, Eidos, Codemasters has never been blessed with an iconic character like Lara Croft. Perhaps it's even the simple fact that Codemasters has never been listed on the stock exchange, choosing instead to remain privately owned.
Most likely, it's a combination of these factors which has prevented Codies, as the firm is affectionately known, from ever really being seen as a player amongst the industry's big boys. However, there's a wind of change blowing over the firm's offices in sleepy Warwickshire - and this week, what seemed like a stiff and lively breeze has suddenly become a gale.
The headlines, of course, you will already know. The Darling family - the talented twin brothers who founded the business, and their father who provided much of the business acumen - are out, having sold the family's entire stake. The company now belongs, lock stock and barrel, to Balderton Capital, the venture capital firm formerly known as Benchmark Capital Europe.
Of course, you don't make a sweeping change like that just to sit on your hands and keep doing the same old thing for the next two years. Codemasters recently rebranded itself; now it's 100 per cent owned by an aggressive venture capital firm whose ravenous appetite will only be sated by truly impressive growth. Just to underline the fact that Codemasters isn't messing about, it has secured a GBP 50 million (about USD 100 million) line of finance from Goldman Sachs.
That credit line will be the engine that drives a rapid expansion in Codemasters' business; it must be, because otherwise Balderton Capital simply wouldn't be on the scene. The language even of this week's dry press release makes this clear. Balderton partner Ynon Kreiz talked about Codies being "ready for its next stage of growth"; Codies CEO Rod Cousens went further, saying that the firm is now ready to "realise its ambitions to be a global player".
So what will this new, fully funded, expansion hungry, aggressive Codemasters do? Actually, the chances are that by and large, it will do exactly what it has been doing for the last year or so - just more of it, and with deeper pockets to back it up.
I say this, because it's been increasingly obvious in recent months that Codemasters is making a determined stab at the publishing A-list. Its present release schedule demonstrates that somewhere along the line, a product acquisition and development policy has been put in place which is both ambitious and intelligent.
In the coming weeks, Codemasters will launch Colin McRae D.I.R.T., which is not only an excellent return to form for the popular franchise, but also a re-invention which should open it up to a far wider audience. It will also launch Overlord, a quirky, funny and extremely attractive action strategy title which could well be a sleeper hit, especially given the relatively barren summer release schedule.
Further down the schedule, titles like Clive Barker's Jericho and Turning Point: Fall of Liberty stand out as potential hits. It's an enviable release schedule for a company of this size, and that's before the new finance has a chance to make its mark.
Then there's the Codemasters Online Gaming division. Having endured several disappointing title launches, this arm of the firm has found the first proper challenger to World of Warcraft's throne on its hands in the form of Lord of the Rings Online.
Critically acclaimed, and perfectly timed to pick up MMOG addicts dissatisfied with Blizzard's handling of the Burning Crusade expansion pack for WoW, LOTRO is almost certainly set to be that rare gem of the publishing world - a successful massively multiplayer game.
A successful MMOG delivers the kind of repeating revenues and financial stability which other publishers can only dream of; just ask Vivendi Games. Lord of the Rings Online may never reach World of Warcraft's astonishing subscriber numbers - but it doesn't need to, in order to be a major success and a vastly influential addition to Codemasters' bottom line.
It's not just about the bottom line, though. These games - everything from Colin McRae through to Frodo Baggins, stopping off at Clive Barker on the way - are worth even more than simple revenue figures to Codemasters. They represent commercial success and critical acclaim - and along with them, credibility and status, both within the industry and with the wider public.
That, in a very real sense, is a key step for Codemasters. It is part of a process which we've seen clearly this week, in Balderton's takeover of the firm's remaining stock. Armed with a significant warchest and rising credibility as a top-rank publisher, Codemasters' intent is clear.
Expect to see a new kind of beast in Warwickshire in the coming months and years. Aggressive, well-funded and seemingly making the right kind of product decisions, Codemasters' days as a bridesmaid may well be at an end.
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