Special Report: UK devs declare love for digital download

20 12 2006

by Michael French

Who needs triple-A titles? That’s the message from studios as the support for digital distribution swells, but beware: games for such platforms are now more complex – and more expensive to make.

Recent word from heavyweight studios, established smaller teams and new companies shows that demand for these games from publishers is only outstripped by developers’ enthusiasm as the number of contracts signing up games for the PlayStation Network Platform and Xbox Live Arcade rises.

Team 17’s Worms is set to debut on XBLA soon, as is its PS3 PNP version of Lemmings. Isle of Wight team Stainless has signed a number of XBLA deals, too, including new game Novadrome for Buena Vista Games and a range of arcade classic remakes based on Atari’s various retro IPs.

Meanwhile London-based Curve is hard at work on a number of downloadable games, including PNP games for PS3 and PSP, plus a concept that will be available for both Sony’s formats and the 360.

And established names such as Climax, Blitz and Sumo are taking the category very seriously – Sumo’s Go Sudoku! will roll out to the PlayStation Store for the PS3 very soon.

While the programming environments for the PS3 and 360 are quite different – with download size caps between the two wildly contrasting at around 500MB and 50MB respectively (although the PS3 figure seems to be rising almost by the day) – there’s plenty of space for developers to use the environment to create games to rival the big budget titles that usually head for store shelves.

Stainless’ Novadrome is a retooling of a concept the team originally had planned for the PS2 and Xbox. On Live Arcade, it will be almost identical, offering eight-man multiplayer and other bells and whistles, while further down the line download content packs are expected to boost the game beyond what it might have been as a retail product.

”I presume Novadrome is at the highest end of Live Arcade,” said studio CEO Patrick Buckland, explaining: “To write Novadrome for the PS2 three years ago, it would’ve had a seven-figure budget. The scope of the game is not that different to what would’ve been considered a triple-A retail game not that long ago. You don’t have to look that far back to see the complexity of it is right up there with what would’ve been released straight into stores.”

However, while there’s arguably more space for new IP to flourish in the wider download channels than on the finite store shelves, developers are fast finding themselves in a competitive environment – the big budget in-house productions that dominate chains of GAME and Gamestation have, in the e-distribution tubes, been simply replaced with retro games and already established casual titles. Is there not a worry that developers using a cutting edge delivery mechanism to deliver cutting edge games will find themselves competing with games long-thought dead?

“I think there’s room for both,” Buckland commented. “When it comes down to it you’re talking to an audience that simply enjoys playing games, so I think there’s space in people’s attentions for both.”

And remember, says Climax’s CEO Karl Jeffery, that Wii’s own Virtual Console will grow to include over 100 retro games within the next year, meaning the onus will be on Xbox and PlayStation to claim a share of the original game category: “Wii will come along and take a lot of Xbox Live Arcade’s thunder away because it has cheaper prices and a lot of classic games on there.”

Ultimately, Buckland said, the concept of ‘infinite bandwidth’ which has convinced publishers to root through their IP back catalogue in turn draws in customers who could go from sampling a retro game to buying a brand new concept.

He added that the bigger picture to think about is the knock-on consequence this will have on consumer behaviour . “My personal opinion is that retail will die,” he said. “In 20 years time consumers will laugh at the idea of going into a shop. This is a more efficient way of getting content to consumers.”

But it seems that PNP and XBLA games won’t remain a low-budget luxury much longer.
Estimates coming from the US already suggest that budgets for future XBLA games are edging close to the symbolic $1m barrier. With Xbox Live Arcade having been open for just 12 months, that’s quite a big step.

Buckland confirmed that the cost of developing Novadrome has been higher than that spent on Stainless’ first game, XBLA launch title Crystal Quest: “Sure, the production cycle is smaller because there is less content in there, but the full cycle in terms of testing a game and getting it towards a publishable state is comparable to a full game.”

For some of the bigger studios, too, it seems that there won’t be a major switch to having an e-distribution-focused portfolio any time soon. The margin on such games, while perfect for smaller, newer teams, won’t feed a superstudio.

Said Jeffery: “XBLA is an awesome casual gaming platform, but frankly at the moment we can’t compete in that market because of our cost base. The games going up there are so suited to one or two man teams. Whereas if we start a project and say we’ll need an artist and a programmer and three months analysing the technology needed, what the strategy is and all that – and before you know it we’ve spent £100,000.”

But don’t take that as a sign of defeat: “We are going to do an XBLA game purely as a loss leader and a statement of intent,” Jeffery added.

Team 17 MD Martyn Brown added: “The appeal of developing such titles are many: it’s an option to develop smaller, tighter and more cohesive development teams; it’s generally shorter design periods with less financial risk; they provide opportunity to innovate (due to associated risk reduction); and also there is significant financial upside for the developer on digital formats as opposed to the royalty on traditional published media.”

But he added: “Although it has to be said, at the current time, mainstream development remains our ‘bread and butter’ development activity.”

There are upsides for the bigger companies, explained Brown, pointing out that the release of Worms signifies a return to self-publishing for the studio (although it’s worth noting that Stainless’ view differs here, saying the choice for partnering with a publisher being that “they can market our game in a way that we never could”).

Brown believes e-distribution games are also a great answer not just to the business and creative side of games development, but omnipresent recruitment issues.

“By doing this, we can recruit on a high-talent basis first and foremost to create small core teams, rather than having to find ourselves recruiting large quantities of staff simply to put names on seats – I believe the selective, targeted approach bodes better for the continued development of our studio.”





£4.4m offer made for Kuju

18 12 2006

A German investment group has made a £4.4m offer to buy developer Kuju.

The offer by Catalis, which already owns QA company Testronic, looks set to go through, having been recommended by the Kuju boad. Irrevocable acceptances have been obtained representing approximately 54.6 per cent of the outstanding share capital.

The offer values the shares at a 50 per cent premium over the price at the close of business yesterday (16p).

Kuju is the UK’s only remaining market-listed developer, and has teams in London, Brighton, Godalming and Sheffield.





‘We can develop faster without a publisher’ – Hetherington

16 12 2006

A direct-to-consumer, publisher-free agenda is on the cards for Realtime Worlds after an investment boost, says chairman Ian Hetherington.

Speaking exclusively to Develop, Hetherington – the co-founder of Psygnosis and one time CEO of SCEE who is also chairman of MotorStorm creator Evolution – said the company plans to “look at significant developments in the online sector” thanks to the $31m cash injection from US financing group New Enterprise Associates announced last week.

Realtime Worlds – founded by CEO and creative director Dave Jones, the creator of GTA – is currently finishing Crackdown for Microsoft and working on All Points Bulletin for MMO firm Webzen. The security granted by the £16m worth of funds allows the company to start “controlling its destiny” said Hetherington.

He explained: “What the money does is allow us to act independently for a while and if we think we need a publisher involved later on then we’ll get one involved. Its very hard when developing these products to prototype an online game and get to an open or closed beta stage – and it’s a difficult concept for publishers to deal with.

“So now that were are independent from publishers we can move at our own speed and our own pace – quicker than a publisher will, actually. They can’t take the risk assessment half the time. What this allows us to do is take a product to a level where it’s de-risked and pretty ready for market.”

He added that the online sector is “without any shadow of a doubt” the key area in which developers will flourish over the coming years – chiming in agreement with studios’ increasing affections for digitally distributed games and online-enabled titles. US team Red 5, founded by former World of Warcraft creatives, will no doubt agree – as will its investor Benchmark, which earlier this week gave them $18.5m in funding to push forward their own online plans.

But it is “hugely unlikely” that Realtime Worlds will acquire another studio in the short-term, with the money instead going to bulking up staff numbers, already at over 100, at the Dundee HQ as the company starts establishing relationships direct with consumers in the online space.

“In future the developer will be synonymous with the product and that’s who the consumer will have their relationship with,” said Hetherington, pointing out that the template set out by Blizzard hin introducing a point of contact between games players and games makers in its game World of Warcraft is one to envy.

“The consumer plays and interfaces with the game and the developer produces the game – that’s the total relationship.”

More views from Hetherington will be published in the next issue of Develop.





Warner Bros. buys a ten per cent stake in SCi

15 12 2006

via MCV

Media giant Warner Bros. has bought a ten per cent stake in SCi thanks to a newly-announced deal worth £44.5 million – and the UK publisher has scooped eleven high profile licences in the process.

The new deal means that SCi has claimed the rights to high profile IP including several Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera properties.

It also gives SCi a foothold in the US with a primary distribution agreement that means the Tomb Raider publisher can take advantage of Warner Bros’ huge logistics operation.

SCi chief executive Jane Cavanagh said of the deal: “These agreements represent a further step in SCi’s development as one of the world’s leading publishers of interactive entertainment.”

“The licensed properties will extend and strengthen our product portfolio through globally recognised titles such as Batman, Looney Tunes, Bugs Bunny and the classic Hanna-Barbera catalogue including brands such as Tom and Jerry. The properties also include content with a broad demographic appeal.”

“Significantly, the partnership with Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group in the United States links us to the distribution network and buying power of one of the world’s largest media companies.”

“The share subscription will provide SCi with the firepower to accelerate growth initiatives such as increasing our development capacity and our new media and online strategies,” she added.





Rockstar Games to open London studio

15 12 2006

Grand Theft Auto creator Rockstar is putting together a games development team that will be based in central London.

Job postings by the developer-publisher imprint of Take Two have revealed the company’s intentions to set up a new development studio in “the heart of London” to go alongside its European publishing HQ on London’s King’s Road.

“We are looking for passionate, creative and self motivated people to form the core of this new studio,” says the background details for the roles open, which include vacancies for a lead animator and engine programmer.

It’s not yet known when the studio will be officially open or what projects the team is at work on – Rockstar was unavailable for comment at the time of going to press.

London is already home to a number of game development teams, including SCEE’s large Soho-based London Studios, plus the likes of Rocksteady, Kuju London and Curve. The city is also host to a number of mobile games development specialists including Morpheme, Ideaworks 3D and Shadowlight.

Rockstar’s new London team boosts the company’s roster of development offices back up to six after the closure of its Vienna, Austria studio in May.

Of its other studios in the UK, Edinburgh’s Rockstar North is of course responsible for the GTA series, while the Leeds team has produced the PSP spin-offs. Table Tennis, The Warriors and Bully/Canis Canem Edit were produced at the North American San Diego, Toronto and Vancouver studios respectively.

Rockstar Lincoln, meanwhile, is a dedicated QA studio based in the UK’s Midlands. The company also has a New York City publishing office.





Sony’s PSP viral marketing campaign unveiled.

14 12 2006

After bloggers found out that it was in fact Sony who were marketing their PSP through guerilla tactics, SCEA has owned up to the fact that it was behind the promotion;

Alliwantforxmasisapsp.com was a marketing campaign fronted as an independent blog, whose authors supposedly had a friend (“Jeremy”) that wanted a PSP for Christmas.

One blog entry read, “…we created this site to spread the luv [sic] to those like j who want a psp! …consider us your own personal psp hype machine, here to help you wage a holiday assault on ur [sic] parents, girl, granny, boss—whoever—so they know what you really want.”

Suspicious net-goers, however, found that the website was registered to a marketing company called Zipatoni, which has offices in St. Louis, Chicago and San Francisco. The firm was also behind a related YouTube video featuring a guy referred to as “Cousin Pete” who was rapping about the handheld.

Now Sony has amended the site, admitting the true purpose behind the blog:

Busted. Nailed. Snagged. As many of you have figured out (maybe our speech was a little too funky fresh???), Peter isn’t a real hip-hop maven and this site was actually developed by Sony. Guess we were trying to be just a little too clever. From this point forward, we will just stick to making cool products, and use this site to give you nothing but the facts on the PSP.

Sony Computer Entertainment America

YouTube videos related to the campaign have been removed, and comments on the blog have been disabled (although you can currently see the cached website here).

Next-Gen contacted SCEA PR boss David Karraker who answered a couple quick questions. When asked about the magnitude of this PR mishap, he replied, “Buzz and viral marketing is a common practice across the industry. In this instance, SCEA hired an outside agency to create a humorous ‘underground’ PSP site for the holidays. The tongue-in-cheek nature of the site didn’t come across as intended and we have since altered it.”

When confronted about accusations that Sony underestimated gamers’ intelligence with the campaign, he stated, “Sony just released the most advanced console ever developed, so I doubt seriously that anyone would think we are underestimating our consumers’ intelligence. This was simply a marketing idea that was poorly executed.”

Next-Gen also contacted Zipatoni’s Dawn Baskin regarding the website, who said that she was aware of the issue, but added, “At this point, we’re not prepared to comment.”





$31m boost for Realtime Worlds

8 12 2006

via develop
Realtime Worlds, the UK development outfit established by the creator of Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto, has received a USD31 million cash injection.

The investment in the Dundee studio comes from New Enterprise Associates (NEA), one of the world’s leading venture capital firms and will see NEA Principal Patrick Chung and NEA Partner Harry Weller join the Realtime World board of directors. CEO and creative director David Jones and chairman Ian Hetherington will continue to head up the business.

Realtime Worlds has already signed an agreement with Microsoft which will publish Crackdown on Xbox 360 next year, while MMO All Points Bulletin for PC and 360 will be handled by Korean online games giant Webzen.

“Extraordinary things are on the horizon for us as a result of our partnership with NEA,” said Jones. “We are developing a global centre of excellence for some of the world’s best games developers that is really quite breathtaking. Together with NEA, we will use this investment to build on the quality of Crackdown and All Points Bulletin and to build new gaming experiences for games consoles, such as Xbox 360 and PC online as well.”

NEA’s Chung added: “NEA has spent three decades seeking out and backing the world’s most visionary entrepreneurs. We are honoured to have the opportunity to work with David Jones and his team as they create revolutionary new games. We’re convinced that they will continue to attract, develop and retain extraordinary talent by offering the opportunity to work alongside some of the most inventive minds in electronic entertainment.”