Made in Britain: The UK digital games renaissance

Alex Calvin
Made in Britain: The UK digital games renaissance

To truly call something a trend, at least three things along a similar theme need to occur. This proves that individual events were not simply random.

And one trend this summer is that British indies sure know how to make a digital smash hit.

Over just a few weeks we had the launches of Size Five's The Swindle, Mike Bithell's Volume, The Chinese Room's Everybody's Gone to the Rapture and Sam Barlow's Her Story.

It does feel like there's been a few significant titles out this summer and that's really great,” The Chinese Room's creative director Dan Pinchbeck says.

There are loads of UK studios and teams out there - in reality a lot of those are working with mobile titles, so having a few bigger console titles hit in a short space of time might feel a bit like a renaissance, but there's always been a lot of great teams out there making terrific games. We're just part of the body of work.”

Her Story developer Sam Barlow adds: It's been in the works for a while – there's a whole part of the UK industry that has been in that traditional mid-tier, and as that business has dried up, it's seemed like digital is a place that those efforts can be repurposed. These have a scale of idea, or a range of budgets, that don't make sense for the traditional boxed product route.

So it's taken a while, but it feels like we're there now. We have mature marketplaces on PC and mobile where your audience is almost entirely digital. And the console manufacturers are embracing this new world and providing support for digital releases as a way to freshen up the sparse triple-A schedules.”

"The tax breaks which have come in
make our investment in games feel smarter."

Mike Bithell


But what in particular has brought along this sudden slew of British-made digital releases?

The UK has always been home to the ‘bedroom coder' mentality and so that's always there as a component of whatever is going on,” Barlow explains. Now the time is right. You've had a wave of medium-sized developers going under or transitioning, and people being set free or digging into redundancy packages; as well there's the second wave of work from the indies who rode the first XBLA and Steam wave. Of the games you mention, with the exception of mine, those are all titles by developers who made waves on digital earlier - Thomas Was Alone (Mike Bithell), Dear Esther (Chinese Room) and Ben There, Dan That (Size Five) - so you're looking at developers who know digital intimately, who've matured as the world around has caught up with them.”

Volume creator Mike Bithell adds: It continues to become easier and cheaper to produce polished games. Folks who had hits in that 2010 to 2013 indie boom had the financial safety net and publicity to double down and make something bigger, and we're seeing that investment pay off. It's worth noting that the games industry tax breaks which have come in make that investment feel even smarter.”

Size Five's Dan Marshall says that there's a good reason for this sudden surge in digital hits.

Honestly, I think quite a lot of this all just has a single answer: timing,” he explains. If I'd pushed, I probably could have had The Swindle ready May/June, but then there's E3 and you don't want to launch near E3 because all the journos are away and no one will pay attention to you. Then there was Batman, and you want to give everyone a few weeks to finish that and start looking out for the next thing, and then suddenly you're into July. Then there was a window before Metal Gear Solid comes out, and it's all downhill to Christmas with a lot of big hitters taking up everyone's time. It's sensible to try and avoid releasing in the run up
to Christmas.”

"The lack of physical releases in the
summer means there's a chance to
get noticed as an indie."

Dan Pinchbeck, The Chinese Room

Marshall's theory holds some water, because these games certainly benefitted from a sparse summer.

Little in the way of physical releases hit stores during July and August. The boxed games market even hit a 19-year low in the last week of August.

The lack of physical releases means there's a chance to get noticed, or get decent storefront placement, which is the absolutely critical thing,” Pinchbeck says. There's a good little window for digital titles in the summer it seems. Obviously we'll have to wait and see how the games all perform, it's early days for that, and in terms of business sustainability, visiblity and renaissance are nice, but we've all got bills to pay.”

Bithell adds: Summer is a great period to launch a game without a massive marketing budget. I can't compete with the noise of a triple-A launch, so releasing in a period away from that helps. Platform holders are also keen to find good games to get behind in those months, so that's a big help.”

But no matter what the scientific reasons are, it's clear that UK indie development is maturing, and that the digital market is inspiring a renaissance for British-made games.

THE BRITS OF SUMMER

This last few months has seen a slew of high-quality British-made titles - and the critics have loved them...

Project CARS – Metacritic Score: 83

The crowd-funded new racing IP launched on PS4, Xbox One and PC in May, and sold 1m copies globally in its first month on shelves.

LEGO Jurassic World – Metacritic Score: 75

The latest title from Traveller's Tales was themed around blockbuster film Jurassic World, and spent most of the summer at No.1.

Batman: Arkham Knight – Metacritic Score: 87

Rocksteady's latest Batman game had the best Week One sale of any title in the UK this year.

Her Story – Metacritic Score: 91

Sam Barlow's first indie project was murder mystery, Her Story, which came to PC and iOS in June and sold 100,000 units in its first month.

F1 2015 – Metacritic Score: 85

Codemasters new F1 title made its debut on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, as well as PC, in July with a brand new game engine.

The Swindle – Metacritic Score: 74

Size Five's first console title was a procedurally-generated heist title, and has come to PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, PS3 and Vita.

Everybody's Gone to the Rapture – Metacritic Score: 78

From Portsmouth-based The Chinese Room, PS4 title Everybody's Gone to the Rapture was the best-selling release on PSN in August.

Volume – Metacritic Score: 71

Mike Bithell's acclaimed stealth-themed follow-up to Thomas Was Alone hit PS4 and PC last month.

Rare Replay – Metacritic Score: 85

To celebrate the heritage of one of the UK's most prolific studios, Microsoft re-released 30 of its titles during August.

Tearaway Unfolded – Metacritic Score: 82

Media Molecule has brought a remixed and updated version of Vita classic Tearaway to the P

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