Are smaller indie studios beginning to direct the videogame business?

Develop Jury: Big studios on the decline?

This week’s jury service looks at two important trends in the game industry.

Bigger publishers continue to reduce workforce and output, while more and more high-profile developers are defecting to form their own microstudios, usually for platforms such as the iPhone.

The responses, copied below in full, went on to explore if those trends mean that large-scale development has hit its peak.


Develop Jury Service#10

Have we passed the peak of large-studio, large-scale game development?

Adam Green, Managing Director, Assyria Game Studio

I don’t think we’ve seen the peak of large scale studios, I just see this as an alternate segment of the market. Digitally distributed games are becoming ever more popular, both from a publisher and consumer perspective.

At the moment digital games are quite small in scale and a one-to-seven man team can quite happily produce a game and get it out on the iPhone, and to an extent also the PSP using the PSP Mini’s distribution network.

What I would say, however, is that as broadband and cellular data network speeds increase, this market and the size of games in it will gradually increase.

This will lead to increased consumer expectation of digital distributed games and therefore more difficulty for a small team in terms of getting noticed on these kinds of platforms.

Examples of this can already be seen on iPhone as the likes of EA and Ubisoft dominate the top 10 slots of the App Store. A year ago it was full of unique independent games.

Without very careful monitoring and design of the online stores, I can’t see the small developers managing to get sufficient exposure next to the likes of Assassins Creed in the future; therefore I think it is the small developers that manage to grow and match their product offering with the expectations of the market that will ultimately survive.

Constant production of small-scale games, while ok at the moment, is unlikely to be very sustainable as consumer expectation grows.

Having said that, however, I think Sony’s move to differentiate their small digital products, and larger scale digital products into a separate category of “Minis” has some potential in terms of creating some longevity in small game sales. It will just be a case of whether other platform holders follow suite in creating a good, visible distribution platform for these kinds of games.

Ed Daly, General Manager, Zoe Mode:
Games development has always felt over-supplied, perhaps that’s just because it’s a fun job, so it’s no surprise that studios come and go in response to changes in demand over the platform lifecycle.

As to long-term trends, the peak for small independents seemed like it was before the clear-out at the end of the PS2 generation. But no, I don’t think the days of large-studios are behind us, there is a solid audience for big games that push technology that’s not going away and could grow again.

Stewart Hogarth, Denki
We’re strong advocates of the small, multi-disciplinarian approach at Denki. Smaller teams are cheaper to maintain, and more efficient.

Five or six people who can cross between disciplines is preferable to twenty people each specialising in a specific area. One guy, with an idea, designing and prototyping a game is better than lots of people, with lots of ideas, trying to communicate their ideas to lots of other people, who have none.

It’s the basis of our ‘Mucky Hands’ design philosophy.

With new ways to cheaply self-publish, for the foreseeable future we’re definitely going to see an increase of teams who want to break out on their own. But it’s worth remembering that success on these platforms is still wildly unpredictable. It certainly isn’t a risk-free gold vein ready to be tapped!

I think Dene Carter was on to something when he asserted that bigger teams cause an “increasing sense of distance between design work and actual craft that goes into making a game”.

Often, it’s not the lure of money which drives people to crave smaller scale development, but disillusionment with large-scale development methods. If someone has the skills, why would they work for a company as a cog in a machine, when they can make a potential killing on their own, minus the stress? Being from a bedroom developers background, I can definitely see the appeal.

But it won’t kill off large scale development. The blockbuster releases will always be the domain of the large companies. You can’t make GTA 4 in your bedroom, it’s impossible. Games like that will always require big teams. That said, I hope we’ll start to see more of an overlap between the ’developers’ and the ‘thinkers’ in terms of skill set, something which is sadly lacking from a lot of games companies today.

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