Monumental Get Another Grant

6 01 2009

Monumental Games recently moved offices in Nottingham, acquired half of Swordfish Manchester as it got into trouble, and now have another £140,000 grant. This time it’s from Northwest Vision and Media, and they were eligible for it thanks to taking on the extra office in a different region. That’s probably a happy but unintended outcome rather than a plan, as there are plenty of other reasons for Monumental to have acquired Swordfish Manchester and it’s not very long since they did.

It’s comparatively rare for games companies to take advantage of this kind of thing though, whereas it’s fairly common for film production all over the world. Good to see developers acting smartly even in the downturn, as we’ve previously heard a lot of cynicism from studios about readily available government support.

(CC image of coins by Warren H)

Happy New Year?

5 01 2009

2008 closed with bad news for the East Midlands, with Free Radical Design going into administration (Edge Online gave some of the best coverage), though so far it seems not liquidation. The gamers I know are quite shell shocked that they failed to find a publisher for Timesplitters 4, because they and those they know regarded its predecessors so fondly.

It was thought some staff would be retained, as was announced over Christmas: 140 people have been made redundant, and 40 have stayed on, with the administrators dropping strong indications that publishers are interested in buying the studio.

Codemasters and Monumental games were on hand during the company meeting in December, and it seems David Doak and Steve Ellis have left to start a new studio. These are very troubling times, with games booming yet games businesses struggling and risk averse, but some firms are still growing and, so far, doing well.

FRD was a massive indie to lose, but others are being set up. As well as Pumpkin Beach, Simple Lifeforms recently started up too.

(CC image of a new year bonfire by tanakawho)

Split Streams

9 12 2008

The Guardian have a perky report about how well the games industry is doing in the UK, which has some good observations, such as the timing of this recession being as good as it could be, falling in the middle of a console cycle when sales and resource allocations are optimal. Another is that publishers are more likely to put money into established IP than risky new projects, something that’s already the case mid to late cycle, given that new IP is a lot easier to launch with a new console.

However, the Guardian piece is still only telling half the story. “Recession proof” is a term that has been thrown around a lot in relation to games recently, and given the massive spate of studio layoffs, sales and closures that has blighted the end of 2008, it’s just not true. Of course it affects games businesses, just like others.

NESTA have produced a new report on the state of the UK games industry, and despite an improvement in the dollar rate it’s really struggling against a few factors. While work for hire is getting easier and more common, the amount of IP UK developers can generate seems to be decreasing. Meanwhile, the vast revenues being generated by unprecedented retail sales only go a limited way towards developers, passing as they do through the filter of publishers.

Edit: Even today, bad publishing news.

(CC image by TCL 1961)

Emote Get £600K

2 10 2008

Midlands games developers seem to be well ahead of the rest of the country in utilising funding offered by the Technology Strategy Board. As well as Monumental being funded recently, Emote just announced £600K from them as part of a £1.3M project to improve AI in networked environments.

They are also apparently partnering with Imperial College London for the project. Not only is this a more intelligent approach than most studios take, Imperial are a heavyweight university for CS, with well respected courses that make students work hard. Kudos to Emote, who are only about 25 people strong.

(via Develop)

(CC image for this post by Nadya Peek, of a rather interesting AI project involving networked Darth Vader helmets apparently composing music. Youtube links in the Flickr comments).

Monumental Expands

2 09 2008

Nottingham, UK based Monumental Games are rapidly growing, having gone from 35 to 60 staff in the past six months.

We’re based in the same region, which has quite a gathering of large game developers (Rebellion Derby, Rare, Free Radical, Eurocom) plus a some smaller studios (Gusto Derby, Emote), but until now most of them have been clustered around Derby.

Many studio heads are complaining of rising pressures in the UK, while at the same time some studios are expanding. Many more, hit by the credit crunch, are currently not expecting to grow during the next year. The dollar rate is easing somewhat, but we’ve a long way to go before the UK industry is past the worst.

The Games Up campaign seems to have been quiet for the last month or so, peaking just before that with stories in the national press and the announcement of NESTA’s skills fund. I expect they’re preparing a lot more to be put out around the London Games Festival.

A lot of developers have been talking up the UK industry for the past few months. It’s difficult right now, but not impossible.

(Image: Football superstars, in development by Monumental)

Develop: Games Up

7 08 2008

There was a panel at the Develop Conference about the Games Up campaign, which rather predictably went into tax breaks and stayed there. There were a number of good points I found in it, both for and against tax breaks, none of which I’d heard being made before.

On the panel were Richard Wilson from TIGA, Sarah Chudley from Bizarre Creations, Ian Livingstone from Eidos, and David Braben of Frontier Developments.

Cutting off any comparisons to any industries such as coal mining, Ian Livingstone pointed out that subsidising dying industries is futile, but as a growth industry games would likely be reinforced and enhanced by tax breaks. There was a quick audience vote in which a great deal of those present seemed unsure about the idea, with a few even putting their hands up against.

The reasons soon became apparent, with the session quickly turning into a debate. IGDA Director Jason Della Rocca offering some particularly challenging comments. Over all, his argument was that the problems faced in developing games at the moment are so complex that a tax break would probably make little or no difference to the UK industry.

Furthermore, he said, there are many other areas which are within reach of studios, such as tool standards and talent retention. He’s right; while game development is not quite in the management wasteland of the early 00’s, there’s still a great deal of development to be done on businesses and staff.

In line with the comments at this session, Paul Wedgwood gave this quote to this morning:

I can tell you as the owner of a studio that, at least has the perception of being successful, if I paid less tax we wouldn’t make better games

As with any debate like this, all camps tend to be a bit naive in their own favour, but it’s interesting to note such industry figures decrying tax breaks as too simple and too unlikely a target. Of course, if the government offers the industry money it would be foolish not to take it, but there’s far more to pushing the industry forward, and I can’t help but feel that through this Richard Wilson has stepped into a tricky cultural problem in terms of game development: It’s fairly straightforward for studios to unite yet act out of self interest as far as calling on the government is concerned, but other areas where studios can make improvements call for a lot more selfless effort.

(CC window tax image by akira_kev)

TIGA Expands Lobbying

16 07 2008

TIGA is expanding it’s efforts to lobby the UK government, with a tightly packed argument built around training and education. Game development studios have far more to offer the UK than exports, and there’s opportunity for the government to utilise this in developing a more highly skilled workforce.

It’s good to see TIGA making such specific recommendations rather than just demanding tax breaks. They’ve had a much better line in PR for the past few months, especially with the launch of Games Up?. The question mark makes the name clunky, and it doesn’t seem to have a website, but they’re certainly talking to the right people and making sure to get a varied message out regularly.

Not only that, but under Richard Wilson the organisation seems to be taking a very proactive and intelligent approach to supporting the industry. Hopefully, that will prove to be contagious.

(CC image of longhand mathematics by misterbisson)


9 07 2008

We’ve been boning up a little on Kangaroo, which is the working title of a video-on-demand player that will incorporate content from BBC Worldwide, Channel 4 and ITV (It’s slated to have the final name of “SeeSaw”).

It’s interesting in itself that three players with different business models and strategies are cooperating on a single VoD service, but the service itself will also allow different business models:

Users will be offered programming for free, rental and buy-to-own, with the intention that Kangaroo provides a “one-stop shop” for all BBC, ITV and Channel 4 content.

The most interesting thing we’ve found though is this blog post by Steve Bowbrick, positing that a referral to the competition commissioner, which has delayed it by six months, may in fact have saved it:

By then the entire market will have shifted again: just remember how different everything looked when Kangaroo was first discussed. Back then (almost exactly a year ago) VoD looked fairly simple: it was going to be a paid-for, walled garden kind of business with TV shows delivered in standalone applications, wrapped in heavy-duty DRM.

Now, led by the BBC’s second-generation streaming iPlayer, VoD looks very different: it’s free, it’s delivered in a browser and DRM is fading fast. The OFT’s decision has handed Kangaroo the opportunity to sit out the next six months of cock-ups and dead ends and time travel to a different context all together. Sure it’s risky (and costly) to sit on your hands for half a year in a fast moving business but the opportunity to watch the other early entrants tripping over their laces and going bust surely can’t be missed.

It’s a scary time for all kinds of media. A quote from the NESTA games industry event on Monday was “Innovation *is* the strategy now”, and this will surely lead to a very high failure rate accompanied by sudden scale changes (in both directions) for businesses. If that seems frightening, doing nothing is the one sure route to total failure.

Steve also points out that the OFT is unlikely to shut the service down, just specify necessary changes. The challenge was initiated by Sky, and its likely that any changes would mandate a degree of openness. So rather than being a standalone player…

It’ll be a platform to begin with. And it’ll probably be a tiered affair, with the investing partners’ shows featured at the top and the stuff from the great unwashed further down or out at the fringes.

There’s a lot more speculation from that point on, but:

a post-OFT Kangaroo looks like a whole different kind of place: Kangaroo 2.0? OpenKangaroo? Sky’s self-interested intervention might have a most unexpected result. It might turn Kangaroo from—let’s face it—a slightly desperate tactical response to the seething grassroots video revolution into a national asset: a focus for the UK’s creative community. The new Kangaroo might be a genuine British hub for the emerging layer of video creators occupying the space below the telly production indies who got their leg up from Channel 4 25 years ago. In fact, it might be ‘a Channel 4 for the rest to us’. I don’t know about you but I’m suddenly finding the prospect of an OFT referral much more interesting than I’d ever expected it could be. Fingers crossed.

Fingers crossed indeed.

(Creative Commons image by Unapower)

Rating System Fight Continues…

8 07 2008

The BBFC and PEGI continue to campaign against each other and for themselves, with the drumbeat of PR and anti-PR increasing in particular over the last week.

Today, at the Westminster briefing on the games industry, Margaret Hodge called for a “grown up” debate on the subject. It seems each has half of the solution: PEGI has a smoothly run back-end that’s scalable and already covers online and offline content. The BBFC has amazing “brand recognition”, with age rating symbols that have been emphatically drummed into the British psyche.

Since the games industry has cast the government as the miserly villain throughout the debate on tax breaks, it’s good to see a government representative sensibly warning the ratings bodies off a political conflict. The mudslinging is achieving nothing worthwhile and relegates a very important issue to the same territory as Microsoft and Sony execs regularly taking digs at each other in the industry press.

It shouldn’t be forgotten in the middle of this that the BBFC have often been in the corner of games, defending them against the more outlandish claims leveled at them. Hopefully the two can come to a resolution without either being unilaterally swept aside.

(CC image by lastyearsgirl_)

NESTA, Innovation In the Games Industry

8 07 2008

Yesterday I went to the NESTA Innovation and Growth in the Games Sector report launch. It was a good event in a well run venue.

The big news was that NESTA are launching a £450,000 fund to address the games industry skill shortage, and TIGA are using some of it to develop a social networking site specifically aimed at job sharing and job swapping, i.e. encouraging professionals from industries such as VFX and animation to join the games industry.

This would be a massive and significant boost to games industry skills, since the overlapping skillsets of such people have been pushed to an extremely high degree of technical competency by the film and television industries.

Rory Cellan-Jones from the BBC gave a good outsider view of the industry, saying that we need to exploit “star power”, we need games industry Alan Sugars and Richard Bransons to emerge. He also talked about the development of videogames news stories, which started out as panic-mongering social issues, but have recently become business stories. In particular, he cited the launch of GTA IV being treated as a cultural and economic event.

Obtaining figures on the industry is very difficult, he said (it’s true), going on to urge us to work towards a single trade body that would present a united front. Quote: “There are two at the moment, and most journalists haven’t heard of either”. Richard Wilson of TIGA later countered this to a certain extent by pointing out that, for instance, the UK chemical industry has over 20 trade bodies, so in comparison the games industry is not doing too badly.

Adam Gee also spoke about Channel 4’s approach to games and interactive, summing things up for traditional media quite pithily I thought: “We’re making a transition to public service broadcaster to public service network”. He also revealed that they’ve been working with Introversion.

I know quite a few people, in various industries, who are quite traditionally trained. They see the internet, user-generated content, crowdsourcing, etc. as a cataclysm, something that will sweep by them leaving only unemployment behind. There are plenty who see this kind of change as an opportunity though, and on that count the games industry seems quite split.

AAA studios look set to keep pumping out big-budget first person shooters, while many smaller companies are rushing in to exploit the opportunities presented by everything from MMOs to mobile and casual. It’s becoming a stereotype that big, traditional studios are lumbering dinosaurs baying under a descending meteor, but that’s not entirely true. Nonetheless, Rory Cellan-Jones’ presentation, along with the people I met there, hit home to me that in some respects right now there is more insight on games coming from people outside the industry than in, and even the latter tend to be from smaller companies you haven’t necessarily heard of. While that may seem gloomy, these people are extremely ahead of the curve compared to most from more established industries.

Plenty more quotes about the NESTA fund over at Develop.

(Image: Jetpack Brontosaurus, now in Alpha).