Ten years of Develop

Ten years of Develop
Michael French

By Michael French

December 20th 2010 at 8:00AM

Game design. Coding. Art. Sound. Business. The topics never change but the industry did, and so did the magazine. We look through the Develop decade

2001

The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Develop’s first year embraced the bigger and better nature of game development wholeheartedly.

The very first cover feature was a missive from Ian Baverstock on why studios need to ‘Grow Up’ else risk going bust quickly.

His controversial claims put Develop instantly at the heart of the games industry, and the following month we published a range of articles - some biting back, others agreeing.

Later issues looked in depth at both the high-risk nature of games development, the rising prominence of American and French-speaking studios, why the education sector hadn’t yet embraced games, and ways to raise VC money. Issues as important today as they were 10 years ago.

But our favourite moment proving how things have adefinitely changed came in a roundtable about PS2 games development in the first issue of the year. ‘Are any of you using middleware?’ Develop asked, and the likes of Nina Kristensen, Jez San and Brain in a Jar’s Matt
Gabriel just said they weren’t interested. These days, asking that question would get you laughed out of GDC.

Prescient quote of the year: “I think Sony needs to be a little careful of being too arrogant about their position,” said Demis Hassabis in said roundtable about PS2 development.

Hindsight’s a wonderful thing: “We see ourselves more as a format holder and as a potential distributor than as a publisher,” says Nokia. Um…

2002

With Develop quickly established, and games development fast growing up in the new Millennium, year two for the magazine took the opportunity to sit back a bit and think about the nitty-gritty of games development.

The most memorable pieces that year included a cover story written by Jason Kingsley on why you can make a living of licensed games – and be proud of it. Plus there was a valiant argument for retaining IP rights (a rule still being wrestled with today) from Matt Nagy, and a look at how a then-unknown trio of young developers called Introversion had decided to not even try publishers and printed their discs and packaging in their living room.

However the year’s final feature, a look at the game business boom in Dundee, is a little wince-worthy today after a year of pain for the Scots in 2010.

Highlight of the year was a cover feature on the science  of jumping in platform games by Ben Cousins, then of Intrepid Games and now head of EA’s Play4Free games team in Stockholm. Fun fact: the timing sweet spot between hitting the jump button and the character landing on the ground is between 0.6 and 08 seconds.

Hindsight’s a wonderful thing:
“We will be actively involved in all the games Rare makes,” co-founder Chris Stamper told Develop, hours
after announcing the studio’s sale to Microsoft for a cool $375m – still the UK industry’s biggest value acquisition ever. He was out a few years later. Probably just waiting for the cheque to clear when he spoke to us.

2003

After the boom usually comes the bust. For UK developers it was no different – a wave of studio closures opened 2003. The collapse of 200-man outfit Rage became Exhibit A as the future of games development in the UK went on trial. Baverstock’s issue #1 warning had come true.

That gives the context around many of Develop’s big 2003 stories an extra edge. Specifically: Ubisoft’s plan to grow its studio business overseas by thousands, not hundreds, and a serious examination of trying out ‘the Hollywood model’ in face of increasingly disparate development.

Most sobering, and simultaneously optimistic, commentary came from an interview we conducted with EA CEO John Riccitiello: “There are probably more start-ups in the UK than anywhere else in the world. If you start five times more than anyone else, you’re probably going to suffer more exits than anyone else.” , Riccitiello has since become a bit shy when it comes to talking to European outlets like us - maybe because that's because he's caused a fair bit of pain in the UK himself during EA's eternal saga of reorganising and cutting its studio headcount.

Prescient quote of the year: “Steam is exactly the sort of thing the industry should be building as part of next-generation entertainment. The issue for developers isn’t how to texture a polygon anymore; it’s how to get that polygon onto someone’s desk they can be entertained?” Gabe Newell spoke to Develop as his studio Valve prepared its digital distribution platform for launch.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing: “Some nights I lie awake thinking it will never work,” but Newell added he wasn’t always confident.

2004

The year’s run of Develop opens with a cover featuring a solitary, lone question mark – no better way to represent both the post-2003 uncertainty and the results of Develop’s first industry survey.

But the industry cheered up fast this year – and soon key were the potential of 3D mobile gaming, the rise of the superstar developer, and a slowly emerging beacon of strong UK talent, both publisher-funded and independent.

Sega announced its plan to spend big on EU studios, while the last issue of the year featured a little, quirky game called LEGO Star Wars.

Oh, and remember that clumsy ‘Who uses middleware?’ question from the very first issue? Well clearly someone was – this was the year EA shelled out £40m for UK studio Criterion Games and its RenderWare games technology business.

Prescient quote of the year:
“The future of the small developer is not over, but they need re-educating,” said Jeremy Heath-Smith as he split from Eidos and Core to found Circle Studio. He wasn’t wrong – although the less said about Circle’s disastrous debut and eventual closure, the better.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing:
“We are 100 per cent committed to continuing the work we’ve been doing over the past 10 years,” Criterion’s David Lau-Kee may have been committed to the RenderWare business, but new owner EA was less so – it was off the market within 12 months.

2005

Develop itself grew up a little this year, with a run of glossy cover stories looking at all kinds of celebrity faces, from top tier developers like Michel Ancel through to high end facial animation graphics tested using Marilyn Monroe’s mug.

Plus David Braben, Tim Christian… and, er, Marc Ecko (the ambitious fashion designer whose gaming project ended up pretty crummy, remember?).

The decade’s mid-point was a moment of clarity for many developers, many of those talking in the pages of Develop spoke about focusing more and more on their players’ needs not those of their game or their team.

It was best put by Ancel: “From the moment you want to develop for thousands or millions of people, you are obliged to think of them and not only of you.”

Plus, there was an overall enthusiasm about what lay ahead for the games industry – to be expected given this was the watershed year for new consoles. Microsoft was silently courting developers to start thinking about 360, the Nintendo DS was bedding in, and Sony was finally trying to draw together expectations for the PS3 in spite of a smoke-and-mirrors CG-heavy unveiling at E3.

Prescient quote of the year: “The less reported truth is that Microsoft has got so much more right with the Xbox version 2.0.” That one was insight from us, actually – but it was true: few talked about the lengths Microsoft went on the 360 to go beyond Xbox. And few predicted that it would all ultimately play to its advantage.

2006

Looking back, ‘New Directions’ was the theme for Develop, and games developers, in 2006.

Every single one of our big stories focused on a new approach to games. Richard Garriott wrote an extensive essay on the joys of returning to independent development with NCsoft; a Tiga report looked at the globalisation of the game making craft; LucasArts laid out its plan to merge games and film; Microsoft and Sony revealed how they were recruiting non-games talents both professional and amateur; meanwhile EA, Charles Cecil and Climax all discussed at length their new ways to champion and make original games by tweaking the way they commission and nurture unnourished ideas.

Sure, not every one of those plans bore fruit – but a good portion of them did. Even the dirty word of ‘outsourcing’ was finding credibility. Funny what opportunities a more stable console business provides.

Prescient quote of the year: “Publishers never sorted out how to handle revenue from second-hand or rental games. But now advertising and e-distribution means you don’t need publishers.” Wise words from Blitz following the success of its Burger King-funded games.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing: “One of the classic mistakes – which we’re already seeing on some next-gen projects – is the crazy wishful thinking.” So said LucasArts’ then games boss Peter Hirschmann. Er, remind us – what happened to that ambitious Indiana Jones game?

2007

It wouldn’t be until the following year that the Apple touchscreen devices were opened for apps, but its arrival in the summer of ‘07 was emblematic of big changes ahead.

This was the year games were stretched outwards – by consumers, new hardware companies, and a number of established firms.

Our bigger stories spoke a lot to that: Media Molecule’s debut unveiling of LittleBigPlanet, Ubisoft’s plan to add even more to its Canadian fortress, Microsoft Game Studios formally setting up a UK base, Disney detailing its UK game plan, Bungie jumping ship from Microsoft to become independent, again.

And, buried as a newswire, the formation of a small San Francisco games company with the weird name Zynga.

Plus, perhaps the biggest surprise of all – Nintendo introduced WiiWare. The download service has lots of unfulfilled potential, but seeing Nintendo of all companies embrace digital distribution really did prove how the migration to online content was well underway.

Prescient quote of the year: “Nintendo has functioned as the unofficial E&D team for the whole industry in the last few years,” said journalist Stuart Dredge at the second Develop conference.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing:  “I think Nokia is doing amazing things with N-Gage.” We’re going to spare the blushes of the person that said this, but people were actually thinking it.

2008

Yes, this was a disastrous year for banks and financial institutions – but it would take a while for the wave of economic cut backs to slash through games.

Which might explain while many of the covers in this issue feature developers in good spirits – Brighton teams, the Rockstar North boys, the group of Japanese boys and girls recruited by Microsoft to build a SingStar killer.

We even managed to secure an incredibly rare interview with publicity-shy Rockstar Games founder Sam Houser.

It was the June 2008 issue, however, that pointed to where the industry was headed next – namely into a clash with the Government. Tiga and ELSPA members united to fund the Games Up campaign, which aimed to raise the profile of problems undermining the industry. Namely: tax breaks and education.

The whole campaign, of course, prefigured the resulting two years of disappointment and frustration as the outgoing leadership flip-flopped over games subsidies.

Prescient quote of the year: “A great British industry could become a dead man walking, just like the British film industry before Government gave it a tax credit. We must act now if the UK games industry is to remain a global leader." New Tiga CEO Richard Wilson had only been in the job a few weeks – but he wasn't prepared to pull any punches when it came to the challenges for UK developers that lay ahead.

2009

Putting a brave face on things in the wake of a global recession which hit everyone hard – including publishers’ acquisition budgets – Develop started the year with a cover featuring a beaming Barack Obama.

Only two pages later, our Job-O-Meter revealed that over 2,000 games development jobs had been lost globally as publishers cut back. It was just a slice of the bigger cull going on in the wider tech world – Sony was going to lay off 16,000 non-games staff, 5,000 jobs were to go at Microsoft, Intel was cutting 6,000 and Nokia wanted to ditch 1,000.

But this presented a huge opportunity for those looking to do it on their own – and the resultant watershed moment last year of apps, games and digitally delivered content from new small teams was no doubt catalysed by the massive changes underway among the workforces at big tech businesses.

Later in the year, Develop profiled initiatives by contrasting giants Channel 4 and Sony to harness the fast-growing indie and microstudio environment with new content plans and new ways to deliver small-form ‘mini’ titles to PSP.

Prescient quote of the year: “I’m backing robotics. I just can’t envision a future in which we don’t have little robotic guts running around and doing stuff for us.” Okay, so Will Wright’s vision of the future – shared in a piece for Develop were he interviewed fellow dev luminary Nolan Bushnell – hasn’t come to pass and isn’t ‘prescient’ just yet, but let’s give it time, eh?

2010

With the app revolution well and truly established, two Develop covers this year looked at how Apple’s formats will go further. First through the iPad, and then using Epic’s Unreal Engine on mobile as the examples.

This year the changing nature of games technology was more relevant than ever. Developers can spread their bets wider than ever. Mobile? Social networks? Console?
And in an ironic twist again linking back to that question posed in our very first roundtable, this year we published an entire issue dedicated to middleware. The 15 page special was one of the most popular features we’ve run in some time.

But it wasn’t the most controversial – that goes to the November issue, just a month old. ‘Will the last developer to leave Britain please turn out the lights’ we said of the growth in Canadian games development.

Readers accused us of being bribed, stupid and unpatriotic. The rest took it as a warning – and the resultant show of force championing London games developers in this month's Develop is proof that, even after ten years, we can still cut through to an issue burning at the heart of games development.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing: “We went to Activision and said ‘we don’t think the game’s up to our quality level’. It was totally shippable, it was OK. But we would’ve liked to have had more time. They said ‘OK’ which was great. They were great. Really, really good.” We wonder if Bizarre Creations still feels the same way about its parent now that it is trying to sell the studio off?