In this exclusive roundtable discussion put together by UK single-format magazine 360, leading names from Britain's games development scene discuss the state of play for the country's industry…
360: How are UK developers placed in the competitive world of the games industry?
Peter Molyneux, Lionhead: The merger of Activision/Vivendi, and the continual shrinking of the development pool with companies like BioWare/Pandemic, Travellers’ Tales and Bizarre Creations all being snapped up (and if the rumours are true a few more announcements to come) mean the landscape of developers is changing more rapidly than ever before. UK developers need to increase their ability to be competitive and there is a lot of talk about developers in Canada and the Far East who are treated far more sympathetically by their governments in terms of subsidies and tax breaks. Where British developers can still compete is in terms of originality and innovation.
Simon Farmer, Rare: I think developers in the UK have always been and will continue to be in great demand. Not only because of the quality of the output, but also the creativity we historically display in titles dating back to the early Eighties. UK developers have consistently proven to be amongst the best in the world in videogame development.
Peter Jones, Blade Interactive: Many people in our industry tend to think that we are in some way unique – i.e. that the laws of the market generally, and particularly competition, do not apply to games. Our industry is unusual in that it has a very short (five year) technology cycle but it is not unique. To survive in the medium term let alone the long term developers need to either exploit a reproducible IP or have a smash hit, which in itself is an IP. Work for hire as a UK or European studio is no longer a long-term business model. Overseas developers with a much cheaper cost base are getting better and better. Look at any industry that has faced a cheaper overseas competition and eventually it has succumbed.
Colin Macdonald, Realtime Worlds: It’s a very tough business, there’s no doubt about it, but UK developers are some of the best in the world, and are still producing some of the best games in the world.
Gavin Cheshire, Codemasters: I think in terms of talent, originality, ability and excellence, we’re as good as we ever were. In terms of growing our businesses to continue to meet the demands of ever more ambitious products, we’re struggling to do that. The competition for quality personnel amongst developers in the UK and from abroad is greater now than ever. It’s creating risk and leading to escalating development costs.
Alasdair Evans, Laughing Jackal: The UK still boasts some of the best development talent in the world and therefore will still be very much in demand by the global publishers of today. The key difficulty is to establish and maintain relationships with the key publishers.
Fred Hasson, Tiga: The UK has first-class creativity and innovation capacity and some leading-edge technology for the console and PC markets – in these still dominant sectors it needs to continue to find and invest in efficiencies in particular production pipelines. It is less well prepared for new opportunities in casual and MMO sectors. One of the key issues that needs to be addressed by everyone is knowing your audiences.
360: Is there any concern that cheaper production costs abroad will push publishers away from the UK? What can British developers do to make sure they offer more than just cost effectiveness?
CM: Huge concern yes, and I think we’ve seen a lot of that already – probably more so by new opportunities that have gone elsewhere rather than come to fruition here in the UK.
PM: What can British developers do to make sure they offer more than just cost effectiveness? I kind of answered this above but we can’t compete on production cost so we have to compete on quality and what UK developers are good at is uniqueness and our ability to solve design problems – UK developers still have a lot to offer.
SF: Some aspects of production may end up being created abroad due to financial factors, but that’s really dependent on the type of product you’re working on and whether or not you have the capability to guide, manage and deliver the required results from overseas. The greatest edge we have in the UK is our well-known artistry and imagination in the various gaming-related disciplines.
PJ: Publishers have been going through the same rationalisation process for years now. There are no Gremlins, no Oceans, no MicroProses no Domarks left any more. What we have are increasingly large international publishers that will increasingly have games produced in places where cheap production costs and quality coincide. A few years ago these concepts were mutually exclusive, now increasingly they are converging. Again British developers need to provide IP whether that is original product or licences or join the trend and increasingly outsource work themselves. There is a third way that is to provide games creation systems that provide different ways of creating games.
GC: I think the ability of UK talent to create triple-A titles that have global appeal has been proven again and again, with a lot of that down to our gaming culture and experience. You can’t just transplant that to another country that has no games culture and create hits, even if the games are cheaper to produce. Being cost effective and very creative are core strengths and these two things add up to a much stronger argument than just cost effectiveness alone.
AE: The publishers that we at Laughing Jackal work with tell us that the key criteria is reliability and delivery on time within budget – not the delivery of the cheapest possible product. If a developer delivers a game late then the financial consequences for the publisher can be huge – particularly a publisher with shareholders to please. By focusing on prompt and accurate delivery timescales the publisher gets much-needed clarity on the project. By putting the needs of our customer first we keep them happy and coming back for more.
FH: UK developers already offer innovation and creativity unsurpassed anywhere in the globe but they offer cost effectiveness with increasing difficulty due to issues beyond their control. They need to take on board new skills, look at new potential markets, and prepare to take some opportunities towards self-publishing.
360: Are developers getting enough support from the government in your opinion?
PM: On the one hand we have government spokespeople saying we are the UK’s number one creative industry and that we are “important” to the economy but until we see that backed up by financial support we are going to have to keep knocking on the government’s door for tax breaks and investment. But like I said – UK developers have a large degree of uniqueness and resolve.
AE: There is a much-needed drive towards securing government funding and assistance for projects, both to grow our own industry and to bring us in line with other countries which seem to support their companies to a greater extent.
The area I think needs more emphasis is exporting of UK development skills to the US and France as this is where the head offices and commissioning departments for the games industry reside.
CM: From a personal point of view I’m always wary of saying that the government must do more to help, since it implies a weakness of not being able to do things ourselves. But when you look at what support is available in other countries, the UK does compare badly, and the government will have to decide whether it wants to keep a level playing field for us, or see if we can still succeed with a handicap.
GC: I know this is talked about a lot but I’m not one of those waiting for the government to give us the same tax breaks as other media sectors any time soon. I would rather see government money (ie our cash) being used to help the games sector get better qualified graduates out of universities, colleges or even specific academies. UK industries in general all have the same problem on that front but in our industry we should focus our needs with government sponsorship to improve the education of homegrown talent.
SF: It’s not something we have traditionally kept track of, as Rare has been around for coming up to 25 years and has never really seen any positive acknowledgement of the industry from the UK government during that time. I think it probably stems from a lack of understanding and appreciation of how many people it employs, not to mention the amount of money it brings into the country. It’s disappointing, especially when you see the incentives that are put in place in Canada and France. Of course, I’ll take this all back should Mr Brown follow suit with the recent French government announcement of 20 per cent rebate on game budgets.
FH: The government has undifferentiated support structures for all business sectors, dare I say ‘one size fits all’. As it now seems with other public services their effectiveness are now seriously compromised by bureaucratic KPIs and targets – they are becoming travel clubs for officials and too little for companies to bother about. The government, since the EU ruled that state aid can be given to videogames creators in France, has an opportunity to do what it says it would like to do (if it were not for the EU rules) for the industry – TIGA will be pressing them but ultimately it’s the Treasury’s call so now we are likely to have Ministers substituting the ‘Treasury’ for the ‘EU’.
360: How have relationships changed between developers and publishers in recent years?
FH: One of Tiga’s remits seven years ago was to improve and professionalise the relationship between indie developers and publishers – we think we have gone a long way since then to improving the climate. One important change is that there are fewer independent developers than before so more respect has to be shown by publishers than when developers were their own worst enemy undercutting each other.
There is still too big a gap between the box pushers and the developers though.
PM: I think that both publishers and developers are becoming more and more professional, and this professionalism, whether it is scheduling or production methodology has huge benefits. The problem is that big publishers like EA and Activision /Blizzard don’t need to foster independent talent because of their own internal development teams.
PJ: Publishers have become bigger, more risk adverse and more cost conscious and this means that they increasingly turn to the predictable, endless sequels and licences. Their appetite for new IP is in inverse proportion to their increasing girth. There are some exceptions to this of course but not many as far as I can see.
SF: The hands-on approach from publishers has obviously become more commonplace over recent years, and understandably so when you take into account the investments now being made in comparison to the older generation tech. Making a game is a considerable creative undertaking with many parties involved, so there will always be differences of opinion, but ultimately I think it’s down to finding the right relationship with the right publisher and working collaboratively to achieve a product that both parties are happy with. At the end of the day each side needs the other.
CM: Generally there is more understanding yes, both parties tend to mature and be more professional. There’s still a long way to go – speaking as a developer, we find it difficult to match publisher’s voicing that they want more original games, with what they’ll actually fund.
GC: Speaking as someone who’s worked for publishers and run a developer that was hired by publishers, I’ve seen a lot over the last 16 years. I’m not about to say we’re perfect; a relationship is something you work at in any walk of life.
Speaking as VP of Codemasters Studios, we’re very lucky in the way we’re treated, with great support and total focus on our games. I’m sharing the marketing and PR budgets with our externally developed titles too so I do have to get it right and make sure our quality gets us the most focus we can. I know that isn’t always the case with developer/publisher relations but common sense and reality checking isn’t top of the list, ie if you develop a poor game, is it right the publisher should continue to have faith? There are unfortunately still developers around who know little about the quality bit and blindly fall out with their publisher because of it. Having said that, I’ve also known a developer create a truly brilliant game that was pretty much ignored because the publisher had other things on its mind.
AE: Laughing Jackal is a relatively new developer having been trading for just 18 months. When we founded the company we brought in individuals who have worked for publishers and therefore knew what a publisher looks for from concepts, design work, management and funding. By being sympathetic and understanding to their needs we have found that our relationships have gone from strength to strength.
This feature was put together by 360 Magazine.
In part two of this feature, which will be published on Tuesday, January 29th, the panel discuss whether artisic games are at odds with commercial hits, whether the industry should seriously consider the Hollywood model and the possibility of a single console future.