Darren Jobling – Chairman of the GameHorizon advisory board, Director of Business Development at Eutechnyx
Darren Falcus – Managing Director of Atomic Planet
Simon Prytherch – Managing Director of DevelopTrak
Nick Rooke – Account Manager, Xbox and Games for Windows 3rd Party Publishing at Microsoft
Carri Cunliffe – Head of Sector Development at Codeworks GameHorizon
Nina Cliff – Business Development Manager at Codeworks GameHorizon
The UK has reportedly become one of the most expensive places on the planet to develop a game. How can UK independents remain competitive in that climate?
Darren Jobling, Eutechnyx: When it comes to making great games, I think money is not the deciding or limiting factor. There tends to be two tiers of developers – the bread and butter work-for-hire developer and then a higher realm of companies altogether. If a publisher wants Eutechnyx to develop their game, they just want them. It doesn’t matter within reason how much it is, as long as the quality is there. I think we’ve gone past the stage where development expense is the deciding factor. Return on that development investment is the key.
Simon Prytherch, DevelopTrak: I think also that UK studios tend to be good at delivering on time, design and creative gameplay, programming and so on. If you’re working with partners in Europe and the Far East you’re actually able to keep the costs down.
Darren Falcus, Atomic Planet: I think through collaboration and working together locally – that’s another way you can do things more cost-effectively.
DJ: The UK independents historically have been through some bad times so they know how to make the most of the good times – they have become very cost effective at what they do. Like us, some have got subsidiaries in lower cost base areas of the world or employ sub-contractors in those regions. Although salary costs might be high in the UK, I think independent developers are still competitive and offer great value for your money.
Carri Cunliffe, GameHorizon: UK networks like GameHorizon are helping smaller independents work with larger companies
in their regions to gain a track record and industry contacts. On the other hand, the larger companies can benefit from smaller regional companies who can offer reliable outsource services.
Nick Rooke, Microsoft: As a whole, the UK as a place to work and live retains its talent very well. I know there’s migration to Canada and Far East, but looking at the talent pool I’d say we’re well placed.
DJ: Personally, I don’t see any sort of crisis. In reality, most independent developers they feel like they’ve been working all of their careers to get to this point. You feel like you’re on the crest of a wave.
Much attention been put on what the games industry may learn from the Web 2.0 world; but that industry is arguably more spontaneous - it invests small and targets growth after a product or service is launched. Does the games industry, with
its big budgets and dominating corporations, have it in its blood to create games in that way?
DF: I don’t think that the Web 2.0 industry is necessarily spontaneous. This industry can develop downloadable games in a short period of time enabling us to react to the latest trends and interests.
DJ: One of the real opportunities going forward is using the skills we’ve learnt in games and applying them to the Web 2.0 world. I think that’s where indies can really shine. I think we can learn a great deal from a lot of the community stuff. Web 2.0 isn’t relying on the technology – it’s ingenuity that creates the really good sites and the games industry can learn a lot from that.
CC: I think you could argue the games industry is actually more creative and they are developing real community products with social and entertainment capabilities.
DJ: Someone is going to create a casual game that has 100 million subscribers and it’s just as likely to come from downtown Newcastle as it is from downtown New York. Some studio somewhere is going to use the skills they’ve learnt in the games industry, apply them to Web 2.0 and make a lot of money. That is the opportunity.
SP: The small independents are still where the real creativity and innovation comes from because they can afford to take more risk.
CC: The big global players such as Warner Bros, Disney, Viacom also have their part to play in the games industry, but it will be interesting to see if they merely buy the smaller creative companies or they can actually recreate this creativity internally.
DJ: I think we’ll always have big players, but we see them pile into the industry and pile back out again shortly afterwards. For me it’s one of the cycles we go through. I think this time it’s a little different. I think the indies with the stomach for the challenge will succeed as they now have access to the delivery systems. If you’re a content provider your value will go through the roof over the next five years, so I think it’s a great time to be an indie. The deals you can do and the big budgets are a great opportunity.
NR: One of the great things about Web 2.0 is the fact that products can launch and then receive added content. We’ve seen that work successfully in the games industry with Guitar Hero and Rock Band, which are constantly added to during their lifetime. But, evolving from that, we have games like Halo 3, for example, which has a full online mode in there for creating levels, sharing this world, and to me that’s what Web 2.0 represents. I don’t think that being a big budget company precludes you from doing that kind of stuff.
DF: In the past you just didn’t think about serving that community once your game was out there. An online scoreboard was about as much as you did to serve the community who were playing your games.
DJ: Historically you used to just put the game out and that was that. We are now in an era where a new mindset has taken over… thinking about serving an online community with ongoing content.
NR: In the future, we’ll see much more of things such as blending social networks with gaming. Spore, for example, will have YouTube directly integrated into it. That sort of thing is going to be huge in the future.
How are emergent sectors like the casual games market and the rise of mass market gaming impacting the business for games developers?
NR: The biggest thing for me is validating ‘approachability’ in gaming – people paid lip service to casual gaming before, but they weren’t focusing on user interface and physical peripherals to bring people into games. Now that’s been validated through the motion-sensing controllers and Guitar Hero and suchlike, so I think it’s made people open to the fact that technology is not the only thing that’s going to drive things forward – it’s the accessibility. It’s about bringing things down to allow more people in, reducing complexity but retaining depth, and I think that will be a good thing for games generally.
DJ: I think the casual games market has revolutionised how traditional console developers are working. Eutechnyx has effectively split in half – one half working on next gen console games and the other working on an MMO targeted at the casual games market. I don’t think developers will drop everything they’re doing and jump headlong into the casual games market – but I do think you’re going to get this split that takes off within the casual games market. Being a content provider is generally a much better way of getting rewarded for what you’re doing.
DF: Even having broadband in every house now has made games more accessible to everyone.
Nina Cliff, GameHorizon: The target market is 25 to 40-year-olds but a lot of these people wouldn’t know where casual games portals are. Do they know that PopCap’s out there, for example? It’s how to reach that audience that needs to be addressed.
DF: It is difficult. I think, as Darren said earlier, until there’s an online game that reaches 100 million people, I don’t think we’ll have a game that’s truly mass market. I think at the moment we’re only ten percent of the way there.
DJ: What we should be thinking about is the possibilities behind simple games. Just look at what happened with online poker – £50m staked every day up until recently – that’s the possibility. It’s a question of thinking creatively about what you’re doing so that your games are not intimidating to the average person on the street. A good example is a driving game – just thinking of ways that you can easily control a car for a mass market customer.
NC: So how do you see the Wii and the DS affecting the market for developers?
DJ: I think Wii and DS are a bit of red herring – your average indie developer doesn’t make a lot of money from making Wii and DS games. Research has shown that once the average consumer has bought their initial Wii pack it takes them a long time to buy more games afterwards. I think casual games have a much greater scope for development.
DF: It’s worth noting, though, that the Wii and DS have whetted people’s appetite. They’ve opened the door for people who might not otherwise have been interested in games.
SP: Yes… the average 30-year-old woman would probably not have played games two years ago before the Wii and DS. But today, a lot more of them are – as well as others who would’ve been ‘non-gamers’ a short while ago. Free to play with micro transactions is also going to be huge.
DJ: Nexon, the Korean developer, were the size of most UK independents before the micro transaction game Kart Rider exploded, getting 60 million microtransations per month. This shows that an indie can come up with something unique and it explodes. MTV have bought Kart Rider for America so it will be interesting to see what happens there.
What needs to be done by studios to maintain a good quality level of staff coming in to the UK games industry?
DJ: If you look at what your average graduate is capable of doing when they walk through the door, and at what they’re doing nine months later, the difference is phenomenal. University is valuable, but getting them to apply it to commercial environment is a totally different skill set. Eutechnyx is forging stronger links with universities, getting to know the grads and taking a long term view. Running things like placements don’t give you a short term benefit, but they do give you a long term benefit. Historically there wasn’t a lot of communication between studios and universities, but I think it’s been transformed over the past three years. We’re now contributing to syllabuses, external examining and inviting universities on to studio tours. Grads think studios are these ivory towers and we are doing a lot of this activity to break down myths and barriers through Eutechnyx’ Level Up Development Programme.
DF: It’s just educating and communicating with universities. One on our doorstep – we got seven interviews arranged. It’s just something you’ve got to do to communicate.
CC: I think it’s important for games companies to actually market themselves within their region to universities so that students know where the games industry is in their region. Companies need to start forming relationships with key academics to ensure they know who are the good candidates as well as exploring opportunities to do project based work with students or placements. GameHorizon has been running a placement scheme for three years and it has enabled the industry to place more students as well as retain some of the better ones. The North East is a great place to develop a career in games.
DJ: In the past, the bigger companies were in there with their professional recruitment people grabbing people from under your nose. What the indies are doing now is being that little bit savvier to make sure they get as good a shot of it as the bigger players.
DF: When we exhibit at recruitment fairs we’re competing with Sony, Codemasters and EA straight off so you’ve got to be a bit more savvy. It’s necessary to constantly evolve the way you communicate with graduates coming into the business, and also with the universities.
DJ: I passionately believe that in terms of a career for talented people, independent development is streets ahead of its corporate counterpart. I see these big corporate development factories as like working for McDonalds. I see indies as being more like working at Gordon Ramsay’s.
SP: You can be a very small cog in a big wheel. At a small company you’ll get to work in a lot more areas.
DJ: If you are good, you stand a much better chance of being recognised and rewarded quicker at an independent studio.
CC: The UK is a bit of creative hotbed in terms of games development. A lot of graduates we talk to aren’t looking to move away, to the US, for example. People do see the UK as the place to start their career.
SP: The UK is streets ahead in creativity. You look at every creative industry – film, fashion, car design, they are all headed up by UK people. Over here we take it for granted that we’re creative. But when you go elsewhere it’s really appreciated.
DJ: There’s still a lot of work to be done. Every studio seems to have their own scheme that they’re starting up, so we are heading in the right direction in terms of getting better courses and better grads that are making better employees. Things are just getting better. There’s too much proprietary code in your average development company for graduates to be able to step out of university and hit the ground running. They’ll always face a steep learning curve. We’ll be sharing a lot of these recruitment ideas at the conference.