Regrouped VU Games bows

Unit will focus on games based on TV, film

Vivendi Universal’s vidgame unit held a coming-out party Thursday, presenting itself for the first time as a reorganized, unified company, rather than a haphazard collection of sometimes competing units.

Execs said the revamped division will focus on doing “fewer, bigger, better” titles based in many cases on movies, TV shows and music from Universal, Fox, Viacom’s Simon & Schuster Interactive unit and other entertainment congloms.

Among the titles on display or announced at the event at the Paramour estate in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood were games based on “The Simpsons,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “The Hulk,” “Futurama,” “The Hobbit,” “The Cat in the Hat,” “The Fast and the Furious,” “The Riddick Chronicles,” and “Battlestar Galactica.”

VU Games has quietly become one of the world’s largest vidgame publishers, growing quickly through a series of mergers and acquisitions that involved some 43 companies and seemingly annual name and ownership changes.

Quiet but powerful

The resulting company was so anonymous that it wasn’t even broken out as a separate unit on Vivendi Universal financial reports until the end of last year. But the results were eye-opening: The division reported $794 million in annual revenues, a 21% jump from 2001.

In recent months, chief operating officer Luc Vanhal has presided over a fundamental reorganization that has cut 200 jobs, about 10% of the worldwide workforce, and turned formerly independent Universal Interactive, Sierra, Black Label Games, Knowledge Adventure and other units into something akin to labels at a music company.

Marketing and sales operations were merged, and back-office duplication was cut out. Distribution, which also handles several other companies’ titles, remains a separate and unified operation.

“We’re going to put more money and focus into product development,” Vanhal said.

Focus on library

Though the company has several properties that started as multi-million-selling games — including “Tribes,” “Spyro the Dragon” and “Crash Bandicoot” — it is now focused on exploiting the library of properties at Universal and Fox, with which it has the equivalent of a first-look game deal. It also is the distributor for Viacom’s Simon & Schuster Interactive unit, and has relationships with Disney and other studios.

Only Irvine-based Blizzard Entertainment — the developers behind such megahits as “Diablo,” “Starcraft” and “Warcraft” — was excepted from the reorg, and that’s because the quirky company has delivered seven million-selling titles in a row.

“I never mess with a winning combination,” Vanhal said.

Jim Wilson, who formerly ran Universal Interactive and launched Black Label Games last summer to release titles from other studios, has become exec VP of product development. He is coordinating which developers work on which games, deciding which are greenlit and which corporate label will publish a game. He also oversees the company’s relationships with other Hollywood talent and companies.

“Our mantra is ‘fewer, bigger, better,’ ” Wilson said.

Michael Pole, a veteran game exec who headed Fox Interactive, now is senior VP and general manager overseeing VU Games’ Fox-related properties. He and most of the rest of the Fox Interactive team were absorbed by VU Games about a month ago.

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