Keeping the UK in the game

10 10 2005

TIGA (TIGA) are hosting a day-long seminar in Leeds on wednesday entitled ‘Strategies for the 3rd Generation – How to keep the UK the place to make games in Europe.’

The guardian last week reported on the story, with Keith Stuart writing
“I can’t help but notice that our ambitions have been scaled down somewhat over the last few years. Once it would have been about how to maintain Britain’s position as a world leader – but a decade of corporate take-overs, foul-ups and meltdowns has seen to that. Now, we are a mere outpost, desolate, endangered, struggling to keep the barbarians from the door.

How did this happen? When? It is interesting that the two guest speakers mentioned in TIGA’s press release have their own stories to tell about the sickening of the UK games industry. Rod Cousens was CEO of Acclaim a now defunct US company that put its British studios to work on too many conversions and ‘me too’ genre titles. Ian Livingstone was Creative Director at Eidos once a shining success story, later buried by its heavy reliance on the fading Tomb Raider brand. ” … “Meanwhile, there are other British developers that lead rather than sheepishly follow: Lionhead, Rockstar North, Criterion, Creative Assembly, Bizarre Creations. Most now answer to American paymasters, but still manage to bring local flavour to their mega-hits. However, is there really anything other developers can be taught about the success of these studios – apart from to be in the right place at the right time with exactly the right brilliant ideas? That can’t be taught can it?

And in the end, the question of how to remain a vital force in the worldwide development scene can’t really be answered by the developers, it’s about the publishers. Too many UK studios have become sweatshops for tie-ins and conversions, too many are working to creatively crippling 12-month deadlines. The British industry has lost faith in itself – it is busting its lungs just to keep up with the demands of next gen development. Making games is expensive, it’s scary, so publishers adopt a Pokemon approach – got to have an urban racer, got to have a WWII shooter, an anti-terrorist stealth adventure, a gangsta romp, got to get that blockbuster movie license. Gotta catch ‘em all. And British development is caught up in the maelstrom.

That’s not how to become important. That is how to exist. Becoming a vast outsourcing factory, with the odd pocket of innovative resistance, cannot be this country’s strategy for the third generation – whatever that might be. There is too much history. There is too much potential. “

And there was some interesting industry comments that followed:

“There’s been a poor selection of games over the past few years. We Brits are innovators, but recently we have been trolling out typical stuff, The UK used to define genres and trends not follow them… We need a bit more imagination. Keep an eye on some of the new Scottish development companies there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening there.”
“British companies are trail-blazing on the PS3 lets not forget… off the top of my head F1, The Getaway, Killzone and Heavenly Sword (which is awesomely original) are all done in the UK – the latter 2 by completely independent studios. Also, MS is pinning the release hopes of 360 on a British game franchise in PD0 (albeit less British since they lost the accents, and yes it’s a *quel) and Kameo, and PGR3 (yes, another *quel). But, we’re healthyish.”

“But Credit should go to Sony London who have been developing most of the hugely innovative games for Eyetoy, and Singstar, but I dont hold much hope out for Criterion, who since they have been assimilated by EA, has found no one wants to buy their wonderful renderware for fear of lining the enemy’s pockets, and are now trapped in the inescapable cycle of creating Burnout sequels for the rest of eternity.”

“The British industry deserves everything it gets because it is probably the most incompetent sector of the games industry world wide. FACT.

People there spend too much making shitty games, fucking each other over at every opportunity, and almost nobody is actually in the industry to make great games. They all want to make great products instead.

The problem with the British games industry is the same problem that they have with the British film industry. Which is that the British are far too cynical, far too inclined toward scam solutions to problems, and far too inclined, ultimately, to cut and run rather than build a company. That’s why the US keeps slapping themn around economically. Americans have vision, but British people have none.”

I’ve been amazed at the sheer level of backstabbing, money-squandering and so on that I’ve seen in the UK industry. I’ve not met one single producer or famous designer who didn’t, on closer inspection, turn out to be an utter fraud. Bad management, dishonest practises and a heavy dose of fraud are the calling cards of the British industry these days, and they have only themselves to blame for the appalling state that they find themselves in.

The problem is, I think, that there’s a lot of talent and history in the British industry, but the new generation on the ground are pushed down by the old guard who grew up in the bedroom days. The problem with the bedroom people is none of them have any formal training in running companies or managing people and they’ve been getting away with just pretending to for years.

Now finally economics are catching up with them, and good riddance. These guys, like the Macleans, Hassabisses and Molynuexs of this world are nowhere near as talented as their press reputations make out. They need to be shown the door, and then the new generation, the ones who do have actual talent, might have a chance the make the British industry into something worth praising again.”

“Rod Cousens preaching to the UK gaming industry.. blind leading the blind.

Name me a hit product that the paying members of TIGA have created in the past? Distinctly average.. attending corporate luvvy seminars will not suddenly spark innovative ideas unfortunately.

One thing is for sure; the answers to the British development slump won’t be found within the dusty walls of the TIGA seminar.”

What do you think? Do we have the anwsers? Where will we find them. Will the UK be a outsourcing unit for the US? what happens to us when Eastern Europe wakes up along with Korea, China, and India?

How do we compete?

Escapist: Advertising to support content

6 10 2005

What is it about the digital medium that people expect web content to be free? I mean, we’re totally okay paging through magazines half-full of ads, but when that content is translated to bits and bytes, those ads have to go?

Apparently, that’s what Brant over at Control+V seems to think about The Escapist’s new ad run. From Brant’s post:

…I feel betrayed to find that an online publication I have held dear to me since its very first issue has “sold out”…Beer and tits? Who the hell do they think we are?

In all fairness, Brant has retracted his remarks due to a response from Alexander Macris, publisher of The Escapist.

Why preview when you can review

5 10 2005

Premature Articulation

Early promises, long regrets

The arrival of the holidays means a huge spate of new releases, some of which we’ve been following for years. For consumers, it also means a huge spate of delays, disappointments and frustration when long-anticipated games turn out to bear little resemblance to the ambitious original design the publisher announced in 2001. This experience has become so routine that it’s hardly cause for comment. Wild over-promises are pretty much the standard announcement method these days. Games now have a firm reputation for promising big and delivering little, and consumers are so used to being maltreated by the industry that they rarely complain any more.

In wild frenzies of zeal, publishers and studios leak information far too early and follow up with an avalanche of press that sometimes goes unabated for years. Interesting concepts that drum up genuine excitement turn into eye-rolls of nearly Duke Nukem Forever proportions. These games endure countless delays and feature subtractions until their potential – or, rather, their potential potential – is utterly demolished. The industry counts on the fact that gamers will buy something based on that potential rather than the reality. This trend of announcing games that barely exist in developers’ imaginations, let alone in code, has gotten out of hand. It impacts sales and antagonizes our most loyal fan base. But far worse is an oft-overlooked fact: it is one of the chief reasons that innovation has stalled in recent years.

Seem far-fetched? Consider this: games in general are complicated. Innovative games (the kind that are usually announced a decade ahead of time) are even more complicated, since they explore things as yet untried in the medium. Remember that persistent worlds, 3D, physics, multiplayer, it was all innovative once. And getting it right is a difficult, expensive, lengthy and failure-prone ordeal. For every Indigo Prophecy there is a Trespasser . But innovation is nonetheless essential to the business; especially now when technology is reaching a point where we can’t get more real than real. Innovative games, which naturally require more effort to develop than the usual crap, are very, very important. They keep us fresh and creative. Games like this don’t need the added pressure of an outlandishly premature coming-out party.

When a publisher announces an ambitious game and feeds the fire with tantalizing images and overwrought press releases, potential buyers get excited. The game goes on lists. Fansites are constructed. But when years pass and all we see are recycled screen caps on IGN and a torrent of press releases that say less and less about the game’s supposedly ground-breaking contents, consumers become frustrated. The game is removed from lists. Fansites are disassembled. Eventually consumer boredom turns into resentment. One of the first serious instances of this was Zelda II , back in 1987, and it has been getting worse ever since.

Now look at what’s happening on the inside during the sad plunge from promise to infamy. Long-delayed games are systematically eviscerated of features, usually on orders from a once-eager publisher now sick of throwing good money over bad. In time, a stripped-down version of the game may appear on shelves. But what had once been billed as a revolutionary title is now just another ho-hum FPS or RTS, bullied through production because PR couldn’t keep its mouth shut. When a game is off schedule and customers are making noise, the novel stuff is the first to go.

It is exciting to announce new titles, but there is an important lesson to be learned from Oblivion. Bethesda quietly started work on that game pretty much the day after Morrowind shipped, yet the public has only heard about it in the last six months or so. It is (as far as I know) right on schedule, and there was no added pressure of countless press releases promising features that developers already knew wouldn’t make it into the game.

Bethesda wised up after Daggerfall . That game was too ambitious and was announced too early. What people don’t seem to perceive is the connection. Bold design elements are hard to add and easy to remove; that’s why untimely proclamations have such a deleterious effect on creativity. Bethesda had been pimping Daggerfall ever since Arena , they shipped a broken game, and it was a disaster. With Oblivion , they got it to where they wanted it before the announcement. Half Life 2 was supposed to work the same way, though Valve did get a little overeager in 2003. Still, imagine how much worse it would have been if we were deluged with Half Life 2 trivia from 1998 until release.

A lot of things are wrong with games today, in business and substance. The issue of early announcement may or may not be one of the more serious. But look at it this way: the games industry is guilty of consistently promising content that’s not delivered in the product. It happens in hardware, too. The solution is not to promise less. It’s important to dream big. But keep quiet until the game can be evaluated on its own alpha-level merits. Or if the temptation to blab is just too great, consider an alternative distribution model. Tale Worlds is doing quite well on beta sales of Mount & Blade – they’re basically selling an unfinished game, at an unfinished price, and releasing new pieces over time. Valve’s episodic model for Half Life semi-sequels could easily be employed for similarly as-it’s-finished distribution.

Personally, I would prefer to buy games finished, in a box. But that’s not happening now; the pressure to get the games into the box has outstripped the expectation that they be finished. An industry that feeds on anticipation had better deliver, or it will pay when that anticipation turns into disappointment or anger. “When it’s done” is never an acceptable release date. By the time gamers hear about it, the developer should know when it’s going to be done. A product announcement isn’t a sacred trust, but it should be more than an excuse to get a preview feature.

by Matthew Sakey