This year’s Develop: Brighton conference will mark a ten-year run in which the industry has changed beyond anyone’s imagining, says Owain Bennallack, who has served a decade on the event’s steering committee

A decade of development

Ten years ago, Develop: Brighton opened to the sound of indie band Razorlight playing a flash gig across the road. Conference attendees were amazed that the inaugural event was already such a draw.

The gods of pop are fickle and for all I know, Razorlight are plumbers or English teachers today – but Develop: Brighton has gone from strength to strength. Of course, the conference has had to evolve.

“The diversity of teams and creators, the games they produce, the platforms they run on, and how they’re funded has increased enormously,” says Develop: Brighton advisory board member Richard Bates of SCEE. “It would have been easy to predict the industry would move in one direction or another, but it’s more surprising that it seems to have moved in every direction at once.”

When Develop: Evolve was added, the phones that enabled Razorlight to summon their fans were becoming games platforms. Before long mobile games – and the business models they thrived on, such as free-to-play – were rivalling traditional games for revenues and encroaching on the conference proper. 

Indies off the endangered list

Perhaps Razorlight went on to make mobile games. Everyone else has. Indeed, along with the rise of ‘play anywhere’ platforms like mobile and social gaming and the broader demographics they encouraged, the indie explosion is the most notable feature of the last ten years. And nobody saw it coming.

“Pre-App Store, pre-Steam, there was barely any indication we were about to see such a glorious profusion of small independent teams making games,” admits Jonathan Smith, now of Gamecity but back then ushering in his own revolution with LEGO Star Wars for Traveller’s Tales. “Designers crave novelty, and industrial structures tend to reward predictability.”

Revolution’s Charles Cecil adds: “Ten years ago we faced a bleak future, as did most independent developers.” 

It’s perhaps a depressing memory for veteran developer William Latham. Now an academic at Goldsmiths, Latham’s studio Computer Artworks was closed in 2004.

“Ten years ago, games publishers behaved like medieval barons closing down talented independent development studios at will, with impunity,” Latham recalls. 

No surprise then that the advisory board meeting for the first Develop: Brighton conference was almost on a war footing, as smaller developers banged the table for survival sessions to support struggling independent developers.

Yet just a few years later, Latham says: “The developers finally got back in control.”

Cecil reckons: “Everything changed with the iPhone. Apple swept away the mobile hierarchy. The iPhone’s touch screen proved to be an ideal device for games. The ubiquity of broadband and the existence of iTunes allowed digital distribution on a mass scale for the first time. And the revenue split was so, so much fairer than anything that we had managed to negotiate previously.” 

Challenged to change

There can be a contradictory attitude when it comes to change in games. On the one hand, gamers have always wanted the next new thing, and games creators can be as faddish as any pop band when it comes to mimicking what’s hot.

Yet games developers are only human, and according to Boss Alien’s studio head Jason Avent, human beings “inherently don’t like change, because moving away from what you know can be dangerous”.

Avent’s start-up created the multi-million dollar franchise CSR Racing for iPhone. Yet he admits that as a hardcore gamer he initially struggled to see the appeal of mobile platforms. It was an attitude typical among the Develop Conference’s attendees in its initial years.

But everything was changing. “It was a steep learning curve and required us to shake off old prejudices but it was worth it,” Avent says now. “Without change, there’s no progress and there are fewer opportunities. Prejudices can blind you and unless you’re willing to invest the time to fully assess emerging technologies and new ways of doing things, it’s easy to miss out.”

Every child born in the last decade has grown up with games as their primary entertainment medium.

Keiran Connell, Microsoft 

Engineering a difference

Former Sony London Studio head Jamie Macdonald is now working at a start-up, Fosse Games, which is applying game smarts to healthcare applications. So perhaps it’s not surprising that he doesn’t see technological change as a difficulty for games developers.

“I think we deal with technological change very well – it’s kind of dialled into the DNA of our industry,” Macdonald says.

Veteran Develop: Brighton advisory board member Keiran Connell of Microsoft takes the same view: “We’re the first industry to see the potential of new technology – mobile, Kinect or VR – and we’re always excited to get our hands on the next generation of hardware to see how far we can push the limits of the machine.”

However as gaming’s reach has expanded, different issues arise. 

“Sometimes we don’t realise our level of influence on society,” Connell continues. “Every child born in the last decade has grown up with games as their primary entertainment medium. We have a unique opportunity to make diverse and meaningful experiences that can be expressed in no other medium.”

Macdonald voices the same concerns. There aren’t enough women in our industry, and too few games with mass appeal. “We’re still too often stuck in the ghetto of a teenage boy’s bedroom,” he says.

Blocking photorealism

Ten years ago, Spilt Milk MD Andrew Smith had only recently graduated from a teenage bedroom himself. Yet even this relatively youthful entrepreneur has seen great changes.

“I think the biggest surprise is not that we’ve become so huge, but rather how quickly it all happened,” Smith says. “We’ve gone from being a cool but geeky pastime to something that is literally the biggest entertainment industry on the planet. It’s amazing, incredible, and a wonderful time to be making games.”

What surprises is how readily Smith’s generation of games makers has been able to put aside the relentless focus on visuals.

“Who knew that ten years later the most popular game on the planet would be a modern equivalent of LEGO with eight-bit graphics?” Sports Interactive boss Miles Jacobson marvels.

Develop: Brighton audio track curator John Broomhall says this doesn’t just apply to visuals: “Music and audio people once again have to evangelise the role sound and music content play in an interactive experience,” he says. “The advent of many more small-scale teams, though hugely welcome, has changed the landscape.”

Of course, money and technology have always been weighed against creative ambition in games, but Andrew Smith sees the proliferation of Unity, GameMaker, and the Unreal Engine over the past decade as having helped settle the argument.

“I’m all about getting easy to use tools into the hands of creative people,” Smith says. “The more games that succeed on their content, mechanics and stories and the fewer on the thrill of the new – technologically speaking – then the better things will get.”

Pre-App Store, pre-Steam, there was barely any indication we were about to see such a glorious profusion of small independent teams making games.

Jonathan Smith, GameCity

Back to the future

So what does the next ten years hold? Virtual reality, dovetailing with wearable computers and the Internet of Things that could make everywhere a space for games – most forward-looking devs agree that’s where the cutting-edge is taking us.

But Cecil – a man who has seen many cycles – suggests the future might yet look a bit more like the past: “Moving into the next phase, portals will start to flex their muscles, and the balance of power will move away from independent developers.”

Perhaps we’ll know if he’s right by Develop: Brighton 2020.

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