Mad Catz Gone, Now Back Again: Here are 4 Aspects In the Brand’s Rise and Fall And Where We Go From Here.
I still recall the day of March 31, 2017 – an ordinary day by ordinary standards, except for what I believe was a very glaring piece of a headline – Mad Catz, Inc. had ceased operations. At first, combining the words “Mad Catz” and “Gone” did not ring true in my head, as I knew them to be a common name for gaming accessories around the world, so why could it go “bye bye” all of a sudden?
Truth be told, the brand had been struggling for quite a while back then. And when I say a while, turns out it was pretty bad; like “2-cents-a-share-at-the-New-York-Stock-Exchange” kind of bad (which eventually led to their de-listing from the stock market). But how did it get so bad, though? Looking at it from the ground level, it did not make sense that they would dissolve as they did.
It always hurts to hear about big-name manufacturers fading out from the spotlight, and I will admit that this article was one of the hardest to write. However, what’s done is done, but after recent news that they are back in the game with a brand-spanking new line of PC gaming accessories, it will be interesting to see where this iteration of Mad Catz goes. And what better way to do so than to look at Mad Catz in a retrospective.
A Retrospective Primer
So as a bit of background to myself (before I proceed with the intended train of thought) – when I am not writing about gaming controllers or playing video games, I work in software development as a Scrum Master (pretty much an Agile Coach based on the nature of my work, currently.. if you want to see the details, you can read more about it here). In my role of advocating iterative growth and continuous improvement, I like to instill the pillars of Transparency, Inspection, and Adaptation to guide teams and products in getting better – one of which is a ritual called the Retrospective.
This activity is an outlet to collaboratively inspect (and adapt to) the aspects going into and coming out of the product development to understand the victories, pitfalls, and areas for improvement. And so, with the case of Mad Catz, I would like to approach their undertakings in this manner. The thoughts below are based on my personal research and opinion and are open to discussion.
What Went Right: Associating Quality Product Lines with Prominent Gaming Titles
Just like most of the manufacturers in the realm of video games, Mad Catz found its start in gaming accessories that mainly supplemented the PC platform. Their product line consisted of control pads, cables, headphones and the like – pretty standard stuff that was meant to add on to our generic gaming experience.
At some point, they had even published/co-published a couple of games like Real World Golf and Pump it Up (thus making their foray into console gaming as well), with the latter being bundled with a dance pad that carried their brand name. Both titles enjoyed warm successes – a nice feather in their cap.
Suddenly… A New Challenger Approaches!
It was in 2008 however where the brand would be featured more prominently, as CAPCOM had expressed interest in partnering with Mad Catz to release a line of fight sticks in support of Street Fighter IV’s release. This was a time when the franchise took a dip in popularity, and the publisher wanted to make the game more accommodating, especially for a younger, newer generation of players that had felt intimidated by the more technical, execution heavy niche of prior titles (particularly, Street Fighter 3: Third Strike)
Now for a gaming accessory manufacturer, this presents an amazing opportunity – CAPCOM is a big player in the market, especially in the realm of fighting games. If this title is successful, then they stand to benefit from the attention towards their product line (and well, if things do not pan out, then there would be some syndication, at the very least). It was around this time that the TE1 arcade stick made its way to the market.
Thankfully, the gamble paid off.
Street Fighter 4 (and all its later iterations) reached unprecedented heights for the fighting game franchise with an estimated sales of $8.8 million worldwide, with highly-rated reviews all around – along with that was an extremely large player-base that filled convention centers, banquet halls and the like for years. All the while the arcade-feel and control were extremely prominent thanks to stability and performance that was in every Mad Catz stick that was built. It also helped that most of the best professional players of the genre used these sticks!
What Went Wrong: Needing Innovation on the Product
While the Mad Catz line of fighting game peripherals was practically synonymous with the genre, it is not to say that they had no competition – HORI, Qanba (also known as Eightarc), and Razer all had their share of the market as well. Each brand out there brought forward some fresh ideas in an effort to gain prominence with the target consumer.
HORI used wider bodies, LED lights and their own signature stick shafts and buttons. Qanba took a multi-platform PCB into the fray as a means to appease players on different platforms. Razer constructed a casing that was easy to customize both internally and externally.
With these three brands all bringing something new to the table, it was interesting to see how they would fare against Mad Catz’s offerings. I used to always think that this was generally a mismatch in favor of the latter though – they had the name recognition, they had a solid community base, and they had a solid product that fared pretty well over the years.
Was it a reason to worry then?
Personally (and looking back).. yes.
One of the things I learned about businesses is that in order to stay relevant (dare I say, competitive), you have to constantly disrupt the market with innovations and improvements – this is where a fair combination of R&D and customer feedback comes in.
The way I saw it, the competitors took the time to see what could be improved on a basic arcade stick to accommodate the subtle nuances that different players consider a big deal. The most notable one that I saw was with the Razer Atrox – not only did they look to improve the comfort and usability of the arcade stick, but they saw a great opportunity in making customization easier for players – whether it was a quicker way to change stick art or a more efficient way to screw in PCBs or cable fasteners, this proviso made a world of difference.
Mad Catz did implement the same features when they released the TE2, but outside of the customization and comfort, there was not much else (other than hey, it’s Mad Catz!). It’s still a stable stick, though, don’t get me wrong (let the Grand Finals of Evolution 2015 be the judge of that)! But I kind of hoped that they had continued to push the “figurative” button on what can make the product even better in terms of new, valuable features, and not just be taking the queue of what made a similar product more successful.
What Went Right: Extending Their Reach
While it might be challenging to recall all of the exploits in the brand’s humble beginnings, it is probably much easier to identify all the brand’s other forays. As mentioned earlier, Mad Catz’s console offerings were not just limited to arcade or flight sticks. Gaming pads were also part of their product line, and they came in different shapes and sizes.
If not to get too far from the fighting game genre, Mad Catz released a line of “fight pads”, where they also lined up the right shoulder and trigger as buttons on the face of the controller, thereby emulating the 6-button layout seen on some arcade sticks. This provided a similar experience for pad players that are usually reserved for stick enthusiasts by making all the attack buttons visible and quickly pressed (instead of relying on the travel time for shoulders and triggers).
They also had a series of FPS gaming pads with interchangeable face-plates and analog/direction pad configurations and made these available across different platforms. And while we’re on the subject of control pads, the also provided a series of nifty gaming controllers for specific Bluetooth devices (in this case, it was focused on the Android platform) with matching device clip for attaching your mobile device so you could potentially game anywhere.
So what’s the point then?
This is an aspect that I admired about Mad Catz in its previous run – it was equally important to provide a wider variety of products that went beyond fighting games – as gaming would go through different trends in recent years, the continuous rise of pro-console gaming of different genres as well as portable gaming became a much larger demand than before. I felt that Mad Catz rode this wave in an effort to bring their signature style and comfort to fit gamers’ need across platforms.
Mad Catz always seemed to venture forward in the hopes that these products would drive an equal amount of value to their consumer base across the board. Whether it be FPS at a professional level or the regular person on the bus, the intention of grabbing new markets was there. How far along they got, though, was always a wonder (which brings us to my next point).
What Went Wrong: Going To The Well Too Often
When Mad Catz partnered again with Harmonix for the development and release of Rock Band 4, a couple of thoughts ran through my head.
First, the brand was obviously no stranger to the rhythm-game genre, after the work they had done for both dance pad-related titles and with the previous iteration of the Rock Band franchise. Seeing as this was not their first dance in this sector, they looked armed and ready to spruce the gameplay improvements with some technical improvements to the associating peripherals (improved latency, backward compatibility).
Second, its decision to co-publish felt like a similar setup to Capcom with the SF4 franchise – a publisher raring to revive a title in hopes of garnering the adoption rate from a newer and fresher gamer base. And with Harmonix being practically synonymous with rhythm/music games, there was a sense that this was the right formula that would yield the right results.
So in theory, everything should be good, and the partnership ought to be a success.
Unfortunately, the results were underwhelming. Despite garnering some favorable critic reviews, the actual hardware sales were lower than what Mad Catz had initially projected. This was bad as the company used this projection as a barometer for the amount of inventory that was manufactured, and because the actual numbers were lower than expected, they had to make do with promotional activities with their vendors. Doing so further lowered their margins, and in the end, the company lost out to the tune of $11 million.
This further steamrolled into executives leaving and massive layoffs, both of which were the prelude to the company’s eventual demise.
Here are my thoughts on what happened here.
I didn’t entirely feel comfortable with this foray – don’t get me wrong, I love rhythm and music games more than the next guy, however in order for the peripherals to have extended longevity, the game has to continue to evolve; whether it be in its library or game modes, the game’s possibilities need to take on a life of its own. It was reported that there were some licensing issues to a large number of songs, and that put a bit of a damper on what could have been momentum for the game and the hardware.
I also felt that a more conservative approach to building inventory could have been taken as well. Again, I do not mean to harp on the genre as I love this particular kind of game. But one thing I personally learned about the genre is that it is, unfortunately, a novelty. And unless the novelty could continue to be made bigger by other factors, its life cycle could end sooner than hoped for.
Now With The Comeback, Where Do We Go?
Fast forward to January of 2018, and the Mad Catz brand had returned to the fray. For this go around, though, it looks like they have gone back to the basics with a line of PC gaming hardware – a saturated market on its own right, but still wide open in terms of opportunity.
In doing this, they made some challenging moves to stabilize their comeback; selling off the Tritton line of Audio products meant that they could put their focus on their new line (while at the same time providing the buyer an opportunity to run with a highly competent brand of audio gear), while partnering with longtime computer software brand Verbatim to help with distribution to the Americas, implying that they will take more strategic steps towards getting back into prominence.
For me, I hope that the lessons of the past help them move forward. How they will fare this time remains to be seen in less than a year from the resurrection, but we can only hope for the absolute best.
Writer’s Note: I hope that you enjoyed reading this article; I admittedly had a difficult time writing this not just because of how life and work occupied my mind, but I did not want to paint Mad Catz in a bad light and tried my best to bring a lot of optimism for their re-genesis in the end.
I’d be happy to converse about this in the comments section!
Also, I do want to acknowledge the following sources for helping piece in my head all that went down – thank you for sharing these to the world.
Categorised in: Controller Articles