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)

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The Art of Digital Distribution

1 09 2008

(Above: Preliminary artwork from the development of Braid)

It’s unprecedented: The Daily Mail have given a gushingly positive review to a videogame, Braid. The Daily Mail, of course, has been at the front of many a “ban this sick filth” campaign against nearly every controversial game of the moment. As Destructoid put it, “British tabloid in game-liking SHOCKER!”.

Anecdotally, even my older brother, who only rarely plays games and hates most of them, watched me do a speedrun of the game this weekend while I explained the story to him. At the end, his words were “This is a significant piece of work”.

Since it’s a 360 exclusive, many will have to wait until the PC version of this is out, and luckily it’s likely to have fairly low system requirements. In the meantime, Gamasutra have an article about the development of the game’s art style, going from the basic programmer art through many iterations to the final product. It’s an interesting read, though a little fragmented due to originally being a series of blog posts. There are more in the same series there.

It struck me during this weekend that there weren’t really many propositions that would make a game entering the market at £10 look good or desirable next to £50 new releases like GTA IV. Am I a snob for thinking the idea of a £10 price point in brick and mortar retail kind of smacks of the cheap multipacks of Spectrum cassettes to be found littering cash and carries during the late 80s? Indie games can’t possibly hope to compete in the AAA arms race, and as a result it’s likely that a rack of boxed XBLA titles would create a bargain bin perception.

Digital distribution is the perfect medium to bring indie games back to the fore and reward experimentation though. Braid, Castle Crashers, RezHD, and Pixeljunk Eden are all things that have caught my eye over the past month, but in the past 5 years of my gaming there was very little in the same vein to be had. As a result, in one month since signing up for xbox live, I’ve spent more on games this past month than I usually do in most. There are PS3 titles I’d be buying digitally if I owned the one in our house too. £40 – £50 price points lead me to contemplate AAA purchases carefully, and I don’t make many. £10 for something that will keep me and a housemate entertained for a quiet weekend is a steal.

Digital distribution is a strange current where technology and culture mingle and drive each other. In the case of music, there’s an absolutely overwhelming amount of content, but with games, it’s still fairly easy for a single one to stand out and be remembered. I feel quite privileged to be able to observe a new form of media adapting to new technology.





Indie Developer Talks To Pirates

18 08 2008

Indie developer Cliff Harris posted a request for comments on his blog last week: “I want to know why people pirate my games. I honestly do.”, and the response is both fascinating and important. He’s collated the responses and his conclusions here. The whole thing is worth reading, but one of the most important things he found is that only a minority of those who pirate games (and bothered to respond to him) do it for dyed in the wool ideological reasons. The rest seem to be acting under various constraints, many of which are actually under the control of the developer.

So it was all very worthwhile, for me. I don’t think the whole exercise will have much effect on the wider industry. Doubtless there will be more FPS games requiring mainframes to run them, more games with securom, games with no demos, or games with all glitz and no gameplay. I wish this wasn’t the case, and that the devs could listen more to their potential customers, and that the pirates could listen more to the devs rather than abusing them. I don’t think that’s going to happen.
But I gave it a go, and I know my games will be better as a result. I’ll never make millions from them, but I think now I know more about why pirates do what they do, I’ll be in a better position to keep doing what I wanted, which is making games for the PC.

Cost is one dimension of this, and this developer is as a result of the feedback he got experimenting with lower game prices.

The first transatlantic telegraph cable operated at a very high cost per word, and every time they dropped it, their business expanded dramatically. The same could surely happen with games now they’re being driven into wider cultural foundations. Setting the right price point for something is difficult of course, because you don’t really get to experiment with different ones around the same marketing campaign.

As tinkering and open source technology become more commonplace, people will increasingly redefine what they do with things. Approach them on terms they like, and they won’t be incentivised to pirate your stuff. Approach them on terms they don’t like, and they’ll redefine the way they acquire things they want, i.e. by using modchips, flashcarts, cracks, P2P, etc.

The space between those extremes, in which a business can be profitable and popular, or in respect of a product, where a low enough price generates a high enough sales volume to create maximum revenue, is still difficult to find, but it will happen, especially with dialogues like this driving things forward.

(via Wonderland, and CC image of piracy rosette by Sarodeo)





Global Game Jam

15 08 2008

I got this in my inbox, and it’s definitely worth passing on. Game Jams have been a venerable part of games culture around GDC for a long time, and now the IGDA Education SIG is aiming to send them global:

I am really excited to announce to friends the live website of a new project that the SIG is organizing. I hope with your help to make at a real success with everyone globally. The Global Game Jam will be announced at Sandbox and SIGGRAPH, where we are doing a call for host venues and looking for sponsorship money to pull of such a large scale project. The Global Game Jam is a first of its kind Game Jam that will take place in the same 48 hours around the world, January 30-February 1st, 2009. Our friends at the Nordic Game Jam will be our flagship Jam – they have had years of success. This should be a real experience in creativity, innovation and experimentation.

If you know of anyone willing to host a Game Jam in their local area or for that matter, help us sponsor the project, please let me know. Information regarding hosting and sponsorship is available on the site. We hope to have local jams throughout Asia, Europe, North/South America, South Pacific… and anywhere else willing to host a jam. The Global Game Jam is open to everyone. Sign-up for the local Jams will happen in late October. The GGJ will provide one representative of each winning local jam a round-trip ticket to present their game at the IGDA Education SIG Workshop at GDC.

http://www.globalgamejam.org

I’m looking forward to seeing the results of this.

(CC image of seed packed Kiwi jam by rachel is coconut&lime)





Jonathan Blow: Slides Online

8 08 2008

Many more of the slides from Games:EDU will be online soon, but for now I’d just like to draw your attention to Jonathan Blow’s blog, where he’s posted his slides and audio.





Develop: Studio Sales

6 08 2008

(The quotes in this post are paraphrased from my notes on this session)

One of the sessions I went to at Develop last week was “Why We Sold Our Studio and Why We Didn’t: A Candid Discussion About Selling Up or Staying Free”, which had a panel comprised of Ian Baverstock of Kuju, Paul Wedgewood from Splash Damage, and Sarah Chudley from Bizarre Creations.

I made it as a sensible and work relevant choice over potentially more entertaining sessions, but actually it was one of the best sessions I saw, with studio owners heckling from the audience. Some of it has been reported on already (Though Paul did an okay job of presenting Splash Damage, I don’t think the press are being entirely fair to him), but here are a few extra tidbits I got from it:

Sarah Chudley:

You’re only as good as your last game, whether internal or external. If PGR5 had flopped, noone would have wanted PGR6 (publisher or fan), and we’d have ended up doing Barbie Racing

Paul was extremely sceptical of studios that do make games like Barbie Racing, and even came off as a bit of an idealist; very passionate about what games should be and what studios should be doing. In response, Ian had some words to the effect of

That’s fine, as long as you keep rolling sixes. Roll a one and you’ll be thinking “Shit, I wish I’d sold”

and also pointed out that for every independent like Valve or Epic, there are probably another 100 studios that have taken the same high risk approach to IP and failed. Andrew Oliver also weighed in from the audience with “When there’s only one offer on the table you’ve got to take it, and if that’s Barbie Racing, so be it”.

An interesting dichotomy emerged during the panel, with Ian and Sarah both telling Paul he’d probably feel different if he had kids. Some studios are suited to young, single people, whereas Bizarre have found that the more people they have with families, the more flexible they’ve had to become, with some odd shift patterns designed to accommodate parents.

Overall there was a lot of pragmatism there, though it may have been a bit stacked to have 2/3 of the panel from studios that have sold. Overall, the consensus was that selling a studio grants a certain amount of financial security to the organisation itself rather than just the owners. Of course, though, that’s not necessarily the case when a global publisher needs to trim down and starts shutting studios.

(Image: Enemy Territory, Quake Wars, by Splash Damage)





Games:EDU Jonathan Blow

31 07 2008

Jonathan Blow gave the closing keynote for us at Games:EDU on Tuesday. The most interesting point he raised for me was conflict between dynamical meaning and narrative.

Dynamical meaning is the meaning generated by the game rules themselves. The way the game encourages you to play sows values and motives in you as a player, automatically generating meaning around game elements. This can often conflict with story.

One of the examples he gave is the character Kate in Grand Theft Auto IV. Unlike many of the characters, she gives the player no kind of perks or bonuses, so the player is unlikely to care about her more than nearly any of the other characters. However, the story calls for Nico Bellic to care about her a lot, creating a massive dissonance between the feelings of the player and the protagonist.

Another example: Saving Little Sisters in Bioshock grants you less Adam than harvesting them, however, because it’s a game the designers felt the need to balance both choices. Overall, the choice of whether to exploit or assist has little effect on the situation the player ends up in. Many grokked this evenness after a little experimentation, and realised that it negated the narrative importance of choosing to save versus harvest, rendering the drama built up around it meaningless.

Dynamical meaning often seems to trump narrative due to its influence on player actions, Jonathan contended that the dynamical and narrative meaning can be harmonised, but often aren’t.

We’ll be posting more from Games:EDU in the coming week.

(Image of Jonathan Blow by me)