Realtime Worlds Secure Funding, Govt. Challenges Tax Breaks

31 03 2008


Dundee based Realtime Worlds have secured a third round of venture finance, totaling around £25M. There’s not much to say beyond “congratulations”, however…

Realtime were founded by David Jones, designer of both Lemmings and the Grand Theft Auto series. We have some absolutely stunning talent over here in the UK, but it won’t matter so much if the business climate keeps on becoming more severe.

With the Byron review coming down so much in favor of games and common sense, one big uncertainty facing the games industry is largely settling. It seems like a good time for developers here to campaign for a better deal, especially as the DCMS have given a first twitch on challenging Canadian tax breaks. However, with the EU approving tax breaks for French developers, and the following quote, the DCMS current line of UK tax breaks potentially being illegal and the Canadian ones likewise, is not looking promising:

Guillaume de Fondaumière head of trade association APOM which serves developers in France, says the move is a mistake.

He recently posted here on the Develop site that France’s own investigations already found that “Canada’s tax breaks are more or less aligned with WTO policies”.

He said: “APOM and French government services had looked a few years ago at the opportunity to challenge Canada’s incentives with WTO. Our conclusion was such a challenge would lead nowhere.”

Instead, he recommended: “The UK should rather join forces with the France (which made the first move in the ‘tax break direction’ a few weeks ago) as well as other Euro countries understanding the imperial need to save a key industry and convince the European Commission to widen its horizon on the subject and allow all games to benefit from tax credits and other incentive.”

TIGA, under new CEO Richard Wilson, are talking about improving their game too:

“My vision statement for Tiga is two-fold. Firstly, to lobby UK, European Union and regional governments to create an environment in which developers in this country can prosper. And secondly to establish best practices so developers can rely on themselves to enhance their competitiveness. There are a lot of trade associations in the UK and they very in quality – I want Tiga to be one that adds real practical value for its membership.”

It’s an issue the UK has faced before: The need to turn world class game development studios into world class businesses.

Paramount Moves Into Games Publishing

28 03 2008


No details on how many people or how much money yet, but Paramount have followed Warner Bros and Disney into games, upping the size of their interactive team and first looking at lower risk projects like mobile and casual. Variety has the scoop. It reads as if they’re trying to spread the risk as far as possible, sketching the outlines of a very flexible business model:

“We are entering into deals now where we will be publishing games this year,” said Sandi Isaacs, Par’s senior veep of interactive and mobile. “There’s going to be a slate where in some cases we’re publishing, in some cases we’re co-publishing, or in others we’re funding development and another publisher buys it. It’s important for us to have a flexible model.”

Grand Theft Chldhood Interview

28 03 2008

Laura and Scott with Guns. Yesterday.

I’ve blogged before about Grand Theft Childhood and am still looking forward to my preorder landing, but for now Open Education have an interview with one of the authors:

One very encouraging finding was how sophisticated middle-school boys were in their understanding of violent games. They could enjoy playing bad guys without wanting to be them. As one boy told us, “When I play violent games like (Grand Theft Auto) Vice City, I know it’s a videogame. And I have fun playing it. But I know not to do stuff like that, because I know the consequences that will happen to me if I do that stuff.” We were especially struck by how protective these boys were of younger kids; in fact, their concerns about video game influence were almost identical to those expressed by parents.

(CC image by Merrick Brown)

Analysis: French Tax Breaks

27 03 2008


A Develop feature from Tuesday 25th examines French Games Industry tax breaks in some detail. It makes a lot of very good points, taking examples from France’s past of where they’ve gone wrong before:

France’s games industry was in trouble before Montreal started calling. Its independent sector was shrinking rapidly just like every other major development territory. Beyond a few major hits, France had real problems creating global blockbusters.

Many of its games studios had become dependent on grants and hand outs, mostly from local government but also from national funds. Grants totalling hundreds of millions of Euros were being poured into games companies, some without commercially viable products.

Essentially classic French protectionism, some of their studios were being propped up artificially while the global market ignored their products. Eventually, subsidies always run out, and this led some unviable studios, like Cryo and Kalisto, to crash spectacularly. Many of their staff will have ended up in Montreal.

News broke late yesterday that Ontario is raising corporate tax breaks for the games industry to 25% from 20%. Looking at longer term strategies, whether or not anyone wants to start a arms race with Canada over games industry tax breaks is a question worthy of very serious consideration.

While it’s unpleasant and often unspoken, public funding procedures tend to be static enough that they lead to periods of people learning to exploit systems for cash. That can be stemmed by changes to policy and organisations, but this in turn is very bad news for any industry that comes to depend on subsidies, because obsolescence of government help can be easily and catastrophically missing from many business plans.

(CC image by kappuru)

Byron Review Published

27 03 2008

Byron’s Works

The Byron Review has now been published, and so far there are no big surprises. It takes a much more balanced tone than Gordon Brown talking about games and knife crime.

Hardly a day goes by without a news report about children being brutalised and abused in the real world or its virtual counterpart. Some make links between what happens online or in a game, and what happens on the streets or at home.

These headlines have contributed to the climate of anxiety that surrounds new technology and created a fiercely polarised debate in which panic and fear often drown out evidence. The resultant clamour distracts from the real issue and leads to children being cast as victims rather than participants in these new, interactive technologies.

The full report can be downloaded from the DFES website, and the BBC have mirrored it too. From their coverage:

Dr Byron has said games should have just one set of symbols from the BBFC on the front of all boxes which are the same as those for films.

Pegi ratings will now appear on the back of boxes.

It actually makes sense, even though some are bemoaning an extra layer of legislation. The video rating symbols given to cinema, VHS and DVDs are a part of the cultural consciousness of the UK populace. They have more mindshare and impact on people than PEGI labels, and I think adopting them will do more to impress upon people that the games industry is responsible than any amount of PR for PEGI.

Additionally, it lowers the cognitive load imposed on non-media savvy parents choosing games for their kids. The mechanics of rating decisions obviously have to be different from one form of media to the next, but to combine that approach with a single recognisable set of symbols is very sensible. Consumers don’t need to understand rating procedures (though I’m certainly not arguing for any lack of transparency – it is both vital and fascinating), in fact between turning 18 and encountering the issue with games, age ratings are something I forgot about almost completely. It doesn’t matter how good a shiny, new, self-regulatory rating system is if consumers are expected to learn it from scratch. Existing, well known symbols can get the job done much more efficiently by exploiting prior learning.

When the Byron Review (so far) seems to be so balanced, it’s unfortunate that people will misread it as an irresponsible industry getting a well deserved kicking. Some people will even read it that way and trumpet it as a success, but you know what? Screw those people. Just about every case of anti-game media coverage in the last few years has illustrated just how unreasonable and prone to fantasy the anti-games lobby is. They can tell whatever stories they like, but they are not and still won’t be the people driving these policy decisions.

“The games industry is reasonable” is a much stronger statement to make to the public on the basis of the Byron review than “the anti-games lobby scored a point”. They didn’t, the games industry is just going through some admittedly uncomfortable steps on the compromise-riddled road to public credibility and de-facto acceptance.

Metanet on XBLA

27 03 2008

N by Metanet

I have a lot of time for Metanet, mostly because they did such stunning work with the flash version of N. Now they’re finding their feet with commercial indie development through the release of N+, they’ve had a few things to say about XBox live, some of it controversial:

Live Arcade had just came out, and they were like, “Oh, it’s new. It’s not going to be like retail. There’s not going to be all this crap. There’s going to be all these small, great, fun things.”

But now it’s exactly the same. There’s all these big-budget ones with big publishers making them, and the real problem, I think, is that the same people who are deciding what retail games get greenlit are deciding what Live Arcade games get greenlit.

It’s a very important point: Digital distribution is very new, and an appropriate green light process is likely to be experimental and go wrong sometimes.

The interview was done a while back but only published a few days ago, and has provoked a bit of controversy. They explain on their blog:

the interview happened about an hour after we found out that the royalty rates for XBLA have been “adjusted” to the point where our whole business plan moving forward was totally shafted.. hence the bitterness.

So: what the hell were we thinking?

We didn’t intend to provoke outrage, we simply spoke candidly. Actually saying what you think rather than being fake in an interview situation is apparently just not done, but don’t shoot the messenger — it’s not our fault that the vast majority of XBLA games suck! Literally every single person we’ve ever spoken with is in agreement on this, and yet it’s apparently shocking for gamers in general to hear (assuming that’s who reads joystiq/kotaku).

If you think back to when these downloadable channels (XBLA/PSN) were announced, they were supposed to be the “anti-retail”: good royalties for all involved, smaller/less “epic” games (quirky ideas which would never have been approved by a publisher), basically a mecca for small teams. In hindsight we were perhaps naive to buy into what was apparently empty marketing speak, however we really believed that something worthwhile and interesting was happening.

Fast forward to now: royalties (allegedly) suck, casual games outnumber proper video games (this will have to wait for a future post for further discussion), the vast majority of titles are “disappointing” (this is perhaps a more politic choice of words than “utter crap”), and small teams are being actively funneled through publishers.

There seem to have been a fair bit of indie grumbling about XBLA, notably including Jeff Minter too. While Microsoft are more switched on than almost anyone as far as the technology of digital distribution goes, it seems very possible that they’re missing cultural parameters that could make digital distribution more successful.

Kynogon Head autodesk Games Group

26 03 2008


This is quite an interesting tidbit on convergence and the games industry: Autodesk are buying AI middleware developers Kynogon, but it’s the latter who’ll be taking the lead on games technology. Quote:

He says this as he and fellow founder Pierre Pontevia will head up Autodesk’s new games technology group with ‘to bridge the gap between Autodesk’s expertise in 3D asset creation and real-time engines’.

This is part of a growing trend for gaming and middleware companies to be bought by technology companies. The opening paragraph of the full interview:

Intel (annual revenue $38 billion) has Havok and the Project Offset game engine. Nvidia (annual revenue $3.8 billion) has Ageia and, if you cast your mind back a couple of years, graphics optimisation specialist Hybrid too. It should be no surprise that big technology corporations are interested in game middleware.

As this ars technica article on Intel and Project Offset points out, acquiring gaming technology allows them to have a good old poke at the boundaries:

Intel has remained mum its plans for Project Offset. It’s apparent, however, that the company is taking an interest in all of the separate technologies that drive 3D gaming and game development. This probably has less to do with gaming, per se, and more to do with the difficulty of extracting parallelism from one set of instructions while an entirely separate set of calculations is already taking place. With the number of cores-per-CPU continuing to grow, Intel faces the challenge of keeping all those cores busy—and that’s before we consider Larrabee, which is designed around its own multicore architecture. While we probably won’t see “The Adventures of Pentia” on the market anytime soon, the research driven by acquisitions like this could lead to significant advancements in parallel programing and, by extension, multicore efficiency.

(CC chess image by gabork)

James North-Hearn: New CEO of Foundation 9

26 03 2008


It was only last August that global studio group Foundation 9 bought Sheffield based Sumo Digital, and Sumo’s founder James North-Hearn has just become CEO of the so called “superdeveloper”:

North-Hearn briefly laid out his strategy for the company, saying: “When I worked with Infogrames and also with Gremlin, I was very studio-oriented. The first thing I want to do is spend some time with all of our studios, just to try to understand how they all tick, what we’ve actually got.

(CC image of Sheffield flats by paolo màrgari)

Game Republic: License to Kill

25 03 2008


Game Republic are holding an event on game licensing on April the 15th. From the site:

Speakers confirmed so far include Aaron Ludlow from Mastertronic. Keep an eye on this page for further updates. The session will be chaired by Northern games industry legend, Charles Cecil, Managing Director of Revolution Software.

(CC Image of the N64 in our office).

Nickelodeon Increases Game Production

20 03 2008


Yet more big media pushing into games: Nickelodeon plans to make a further 600 original flash games this year, and get 1000 more from other publishers. They’ve also reiterated a commitment to virtual worlds, and announced game development tools aimed at users rather than game developers:

— is a completely new vertical launch for the Nickelodeon Kids and Family Group. Launching in third quarter, will provide users with various tools to build new Nick-branded or original games and levels within existing games.

— AddictingGames Toolkits and Shockwave Gamebuilder: AddictingGame Toolkits and Shockwave Gamebuilder lets users create and upload their own versions of games and game levels using simple drag and drop editing tools, and a selection of art assets. AddictingGames has already seen huge success with the first of these games, Pencil Racer, launched in February.

— Role Player: users have spent years creating their own role-playing games on the site’s message boards. Groups of friends craft rich, collaborative stories, some of which have gone on for years. Role Player, launching in June, gives users new tools to create games, expanding and enriching these stories outside of the confines of the message boards. Users can invent their own worlds and characters, audition players, and customize different versions of their avatars to fit each game they’re playing.

They already have around 5000 games, and claim 80% of their audience play games. Yahoo have a copy of the full press release.