“Apart from that Mrs Lincoln, how was the rest of the play?”
Any review of the games and gaming sector in Scotland in 2010 is going to be a little like reviewing the Titanic’s first cruise. No matter how impeccable the service, or exquisite the canapes, there’s a big incident round about the middle, which tends to overshadow everything else.
So let’s deal with that from the get go…
The hideous and catastrophic implosion of Realtime Worlds following the failure of APB has been reported, discussed, debated, argued, summarised and analysed many times over the last several months. From a business perspective, from a games perspective, from an investment perspective – the whole story was ugly.
Over 200 people lost their jobs. Over 100 million US dollars, raised over several rounds of venture capital funding had gone into the creation of two incredibly ambitious projects. APB – a contemporary online shooting/driving crime game and Project MyWorld – a… real interactive 3D representation of the world (or something along those lines…)
APB came out to general indifference. Key aspects of the game (namely the driving and shooting) were generally considered to be poorly implemented, leading reviewers to mark it down as ‘might have been’ or, if they understood the online games market, as a ‘might yet be’ – with a bit of work anyway.
That bit of work never happened. A few weeks after the game was released, rumours and mutterings around the various pubs in Dundee indicated that things were badly wrong at Realtime ranch. The investment money was gone. Jobs were shed. Then, suddenly the whole company collapsed.
Prior to this, in a last desperate move, Realtime announced Project MyWorld. Their big secret. The project which made them sound positively loud-mouthed about APB. It turned out to be a technology rather than a game. A way of modelling the real world, in 3D, so you could play games in it. “What would it look like if Nintendo built Google Earth?”
The tragedy with MyWorld is that, with some attention and push in the right places, it could, potentially, have made Realtime more money than they originally raised. As a technology rather than a game, it could have been introduced to Google, or Facebook, or Microsoft, as something which could be licensed out to developers, publishers and media companies worldwide. Instead, it received its first public outing on Kotaku, where it was labelled interesting (but not really a game…)
The saga isn’t over yet. APB was acquired by K2 Network, a free online games company, who have publicly stated they hope to released a new version, as a ‘fremium’ title at some point this coming year. MyWorld was acquired by Kimble Operations, a company formed by former Realtime Worlds director Ian Hetherington and is, to date, still under development – and back to the zero information policy for good measure.
A lot of the former RTW staff have moved on. Many moving overseas, taking their experience and expertise to some of the biggest studios around the world. Others are still in Scotland. Considering their options and in some cases, asking whether the games business offers any sort of security or long-term career.
The fall out from the whole sad story will affect the games sector in Scotland for years to come. Institutional investors have now seen two large companies – Realtime Worlds and VIS (and Red Lemon and Inner Workings), fail within a decade. This could make it far more difficult for developers – traditional console developers at any rate – to find that sort of funding for specific projects. The media in Scotland, never a firm advocate of the games sector as an industry of note, now has no figurehead or ‘major’ studio to point to, making it all the harder for smaller companies to get any attention paid to them.
Realtime Worlds was not the only company to run into problems over the course of 2010. Other companies were also forced to reduce headcount and found they had problems with the industry’s existing business model.
(There is a far more positive bit coming up. Promise. Stay with us, people…)
Denki too ran into problems in 2010, when Quarrel, the company’s first title for Xbox Live Arcade, failed to find a publisher. Only weeks after the company’s 10th birthday, it was forced to shed more than 3/4 of its workforce. As Colin Anderson, the managing director wrote eloquently on the company website: ‘The obvious first question is “Why has this happened?” – the answer, unfortunately, is rather less obvious. The main reason is that Denki has been running on an old business model. We rely on “the industry” for funding. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except we’re making games for people who love games – which isn’t necessarily “the industry” unfortunately.’
Finally, the news emerged that the embattled Edinburgh-based development studio Outerlight had all but vanished, thanks to an ongoing struggle with publisher Ubisoft, over the completion of Bloody Good Time, the Xbox Live game based upon Outerlight’s original premise from The Ship (killing specific people, unnoticed, for fun and profit).
It was a depressing, savage and downbeat turn for an industry which had been fighting valiantly for the last several years for both recognition and acceptance.
Yet the industry isn’t finished. Outside the console sector, the game development sector in Scotland is positively thriving.
This can be hard to grasp if you’re used to the notion of the games industry as large studios building games for the mainstream consoles (Xbox, PS3, Wii, DS and PSP). Yet despite the ongoing success of the console market, these devices are no longer the cutting edge of the games world. Or even the most popular way to play games.
We probably need to qualify that before moving on. Consoles (and high end PCs) are going to be a very significant part of the games market for many years to come. But they are no longer the only way to play games.
New devices, new technologies and new routes to market are changing the games world entirely. Smartphones like the iPhone and Android are opening up gaming like no other devices ever have. Digital distribution networks like Steam are making it possible for developers to reach a massive worldwide audience far more directly. Even web browsers are muscling in on the consoles’ previously exclusive domain. Chrome now offers an ‘App Store’ very similar to those found on Apple and Android devices.
Scottish companies are already active in all of these areas – and 2010 saw many of them achieving considerable success. However, since it was outside the accepted parameters or devices which are part of the mainstream games sector, they’ve not been recognised as the achievements they assuredly are.
Here’s a quick list of the companies, releases and successes from Scottish games companies over the past twelve months…
- 3MRT – released their successful InQuizitor series of educational games for iPhone
- 4J Studios – the developer behind the critically acclaimed Xbox Live port of Perfect Dark
- Chunk Games – Founded a dedicated games division and released the first game – Snowball for iPhone
- Cobra Mobile – Released around ten new games for iPhone and PSP, including two in the hugely popular iBomber series
- Denki – moved past their problems earlier in 2010 to release Juggle, Big Cup Cricket and Denki Blocks! for iPhone/iPad and Facebook
- Digital Goldfish – Moved into larger, dedicated offices, signed a deal with Square/Enix, acquired the rights to create games based on the TV Classic Mr Men and released the latest title in the best-selling Bloons series – Bloons TD 4
- Dynamo Games – Launched The Crystal Maze for iPhone/iPad. Restructured to focus on Smartphone/Social gaming. Developed latest version of Championship Manager and original social title Soccer Tycoon. Won Herald Business Awards ‘Best Game’ trophy
- Electric Tophat – Expanded with new staff, launched Payday app.
- Haiku Interactive – Edinburgh-based indie developer released its third Xbox Live title: Space Police On Super Highway 9
- Hunted Cow – Launched new games, updated existing games, increased player base, won Moray Exporter of the Year trophy and were the first Scottish company to release a game for the new Chrome App store
- Ludometrics – (founded by ex-Denki staff) released Gary: Tank Commander app with The Comedy Unit
- Play2Improve – Launched alpha of the FPS Trainer service, to great acclaim from the gaming world
- Proper Games – Developed Final Fight: Double Impact as well as the downloadable content for Crackdown 2
- Rockstar Games – continued to be generally awesome (we’re told)
- Ruffian Games – Released Crackdown 2. Which was jolly good
- Tag Games – Announced a partnership with Channel 4, releasing apps including Come Dine With Me and Peep Show Quotatron. Released the first Doctor Who mobile game. Increased staff numbers, hit approx 0.5 million paid downloads for Car Jack Streets and started a dedicated non-gaming Apps label
- YoYo Games – Opened Dundee office, announced new publishing programme, started releasing original games for iPhone/iPad (Sky Diver Mach II, Maddening, They Need To Be Fed…) as well as continuing to sell Game Maker (oh and launched a Mac version of that too)
In fact, counting only the games released since August 2010, the industry in Scotland has released more titles than it managed across the whole of 2009.
And that’s just the people making the games. Outside the ‘industry’, Scotland continued to do extremely cool stuff with interactivity and digital media…
The Dare to be Digital competition is awesome. Why it’s not recognised more widely as the games world’s most unique, special and innovative event, we simply can’t imagine. Teams of students, given 10 weeks to build a game. Then they have to show it, in public, for three days. This doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world. Seriously – anywhere. If it took place in North America, it would have the backing of the world’s biggest games companies and receive 24-7 media coverage across the course of the event. As it happens in Scotland, it’s recognised as having ‘something to do with games…’
2010 was the competition’s biggest year yet, with 15 teams from across the world, more platforms, creativity and innovative new projects than ever. The ProtoPlay event, which took place during the Edinburgh festival fringe attracted several thousand people – families and gamers and featured the first ever public showcase of the new Kinect technology, the BAFTA Young Game Designers workshop and a particularly fine award ceremony. We need Dare. We do. We should pay more attention to it.
The team behind Dare was also instrumental in creating a series of two day game design workshops for teenagers as part of the Edinburgh Science Festival. Taking place at Edinburgh’s Stevenson College, the workshops gave kids aged 12-16 two days to build a game. Using commercially available XNA software and a choice of two simple, 2D line drawing templates, the kids had to pick a game, pick a name, pick a genre, build levels, create artwork, animation and design the entire game. Having been involved, we can confidently state that it was one of the most inspirational and exciting events we’ve ever been involved in. The kids loved it. They walked away with their own game – AND the software needed to carry on working on it. It’s something that should not only be repeated, but expanded into every school, college and classroom in the country.
Last year also marked the second year for the North East of North or NEoN festival in Dundee. A ‘digital arts festival’, NEoN in 2010 was a week long celebration of digital creativity spanning a number of events. First up was a three day AppConference and AppJam, organised by Dundee College. Alongside speakers from Nokia, Apple, etc. around a dozen teams took part in the three day jam, creating apps covering everything from travel, to gaming, to the eventual winner, which promoted and facilitated people giving blood. Like Dare it showed the passion, creativity and talent which exists, out there in the wild. This is a good thing.
The AppConference was followed by the two day NEoN conference itself. This featured a host of speakers, most from outwith the world of games, though Iain Livingston and Dino Dini kept the games flag flying as speakers. Alongside the conference Nicholas Lovell delivered one of the best sessions your editor has ever seen. Addressing the current and forthcoming changes in the overall games market, Nick outlined exactly what developers (and individuals, indie studios and massive global publishers) should be doing to give them the best possible opportunities in the new world of gaming.
The total number of game developers there was of course, zero. Which does make one pause for thought (that thought being ‘What, the F…?’)
It behoves us to mention the Edinburgh Interactive Festival too, though we’re not entirely sure why. It takes place in Edinburgh, granted, but is organised, planned and finalised in London. It did tie in with the television festival this year though. So, umm, yeah…
2010 also marked the year that indie developers finally raised their heads in Scotland. From the Global Game Jam in January, to the indie games workshop in August, through to the AppJam in November and YoYo Games offering publishing opportunities to indie developers, the year was a new high water mark for smaller, developers. Take a look at the Who’s Who page on this site and reflect that once upon a time (1998-ish), the sum total of the games sector in Scotland was six companies.
It also seemed that communication and networking became something worthwhile in 2010. New organisations including the Greater Glasgow Games Group and Game Dev Edinburgh started up, promising opportunities to get out of the office and meet people convivially, possibly with alcohol as a social lubricant.
Overall then, despite everything, we got through 2010. The surviving companies are clever people and are looking at the new platforms, routes to market, ways of playing and (in some cases) business models. There’s more recognition of the games industry and its contribution to the Scottish economy than there was at the end of 2009 – though for all of the wrong reasons. We have more young developers, indies and gamers than ever and there are opportunities for them to learn the skills behind designing games and then put them into practice, either as part of a company, or independently.
It’s not perfect. Parts of the industry in Scotland remain, in some ways, insular and tied to the past. Large scale console development is not going to be the ‘normal’ model in the future. Developers are going to have to consider new business models, self-publishing and new platforms. However, if we can come through a year as tough as 2010 with as much activity and diversity as we have, just imagine what will happen in a simpler, more positive year – like 2011 for example…
Happy New Year.