UK development: Where next?
Thomas Bidaux, Paul Mottram, Nick Baynes and David Amor discuss Brighton, Britain and the boxed business
As part of our continuing focus on the Brighton industry community in preparation for Develop this week, GamesIndustry.biz conducted a roundtable discussion on issues currently affecting the city and the nation's industry.
Featured are Relentless co-founder David Amor, Nick Baynes, ex-Black Rock game director and co-founder of new start-up RoundCube, Zoe Mode's studio head Paul Mottram and ICO Partners CEO Thomas Bidaux. Read on for their views on where to look for opportunity, profit and success, improving the quality of life for developers and empowering staff.
Q: Let's begin by outlining your various approaches to the current industry. You all advocate quite different approaches to the challenge. Nick - you've just formed a new team from the ashes of Black Rock, as have a couple of others, I understand you're looking at high-end console, possibly boxed product?
Nick Baynes: Yes, although not necessarily boxes. I think everyone would agree, even the biggest advocates of boxes, that they're dying. The main thing with us is that we don't want to jump and say, that's it, boxes are dead, big teams are dead, we're just going to work on two or three man projects. I don't think we'll do that.
We want to remain working in a space which has technology which is exciting to us. The interesting thing is, for a lot of developers - THQ just closed its studio in the north - it seems that a lot of the start-ups that come out of these collapses immediately say, "okay we've had it with the big projects, we're going to work on the smaller things."
But, the interesting thing is, whilst the technology that's there on tablets, browsers, what have you, is somewhat behind what AAA console is, that stream is coming in our direction. I think it would be a shame for any AAA console developers to throw that away and aim for a target down there when the target's moving towards them.
My world has got a lot wider because I'm trying to make games for a lot of other people other than just gamers
David Amor, Relentless
It works differently for different people, but as far as we're concerned we want to carry on doing stuff that's exciting to us. I think in terms of boxed product, no we're not aiming for that, but in terms of staying in a place where we can be well positioned when the market settles down in two or three years time - when we know what format boxed product or the equivalent big projects are going to take - being well placed to get involved in that again.
In the mean time, delivering the console style experiences that we're used to delivering, but maybe on platforms that wouldn't necessarily have those kind of production values .
Q: David, you've perhaps not had a huge change of ethos in terms of the type of games that you're making at Relentless, but there has been a shift in terms of the way they're being made and published.
David Amor: We're still making console-based games, as we have in the past, but we're also making iPhone games. Quiz Climber has just released, our first iPhone game. Our ethos has always been about, not really the platforms that they happen to own, but the customers that we're aiming for. My world has got a lot wider because I'm trying to make games for a lot of other people other than just gamers and whereas ten years ago there was X amount, there's now double what there used to be.
I'm celebrating that fact, that I can sell my games to a lot more people than I used to before, but it also turns out that those platforms are not exclusively console. It'd be foolhardy to say we're only going to work on console platforms because not everybody has those. We need to find out what systems our customers own.
If that happens to be an iPhone, then there's no point in coming at it with a multi-million dollar budget game, because that doesn't stack up commercially. So we have to change the way we approach it. But it's all about working out how we can reach our customers.
Q: Paul, you've just picked up a potentially huge licence at Zoe Mode for Zumba Fitness 2. You're very much in that boxed product, work for hire role - is that where you see the studio's future?
Paul Mottram: Well we've always been, apart from Chime - our first self-published game, which was released I think three days before PSN went down - we've always been work for hire. Where we see the problem is that we have to convince publishers to fund us to make the games - so the problem we're seeing at the minute is too many platforms.
It used to be that ten years ago, it was PS2. So you'd just do PS2 and then maybe some others. But now we're finding that everyone is not knowing what platform is going to succeed - we did our first 3DS title - we got Crush onto that, but we had to delay the release of that because of the success of the platform.
Publishers want to spend XBLA budgets but are expecting retail content
Paul Mottram, Zoe Mode
So it's hard for us because none of the platforms are dominant at the moment. The Wii is on the wane, obviously Zumba's done really well on that, and we hope we see some success there, but there's a nervousness which we're seeing from publishers who are traditionally funding some of our products. With the move to digital, what I've seen is people wanting to spend XBLA budgets but expecting retail content. Unless we can address that it's going to be very hard for us to deliver the games we want to make.
Q: Thomas - you're in a slightly different position again as a consultant, with a specialisation in online. Those business models have undergone arguably the greatest upheaval of late, especially now that free-to-play seems to be the almost inevitable conclusion for any major online product. What advice have you been giving people?
Thomas Bidaux: Well, we can't be absolute in the way that we talk to people. I think there's going to be boxed for a long time, I think there's going to be console for a long time. My speciality is online games, but I think that's a definition which is getting broader and broader.
A few years ago we just did MMO. Now we're doing MMO, free-to-play, browser games, social games, iPhone games... That definition is getting more blurry, more wide in its scope. So it's exciting times for us. It's also getting a bit more complicated because of all the new platforms.
I think free-to-play is an extremely powerful model, I think online is a very powerful platform, it think that there's lots of things to be done online but there's also so many things to do. You need to have a good plan because just making your game free-to-play isn't going to make it successful. You can have the best game in the world that might not be a good free-to-play game. Equally you can have a very bad game that might not make more money as a free-to-play, but less money.
The whole principle of free-to-play games is that people can try it first, if it sucks, then they don't spend. With pay-to-play at least you can scam people into buying the box without them realising it. I wouldn't recommend it but it's been happening!
I think that online's definitely where the opportunity is at the moment. I'm not saying that you should go and do social games - actually I think that online is wide enough, and sometimes clever enough, to not go where everybody is at the same time. I think there's a bubble coming on Facebook games that's going to be painful, especially in the US, but our remit is wide enough to explore a lot of potentially profitable things.
I think it's going to be the main part of the growth of the game industry in the future, online.
Q: Paul, you raised an interesting point there about the lack of obvious target thanks to the proliferation of platforms - there's no big cash cow to attach to at the moment and it feels like people are really searching for that - Trip Hawkins thinks it'll be the browser, others think it'll be iOS or streaming. Do the rest of you see that spread as an opportunity or a limitation?
David Amor: I like the fact that being able to play games in your browser and on your phone appears to have enabled a much larger audience. I'm sure that most people didn't buy their PC to play Farmville, and that most people didn't buy iPhones to play Angry Birds. But now they have them, we have a wider market.
I think there's a bubble coming on Facebook games that's going to be painful, especially in the US
Thomas Bidaux, ICO Partners
So should we be sore that there's a wider proliferation of platforms to be working on? Well, no, because with that came a whole new section of people to be making games for. I don't see that as a negative. Obviously that has an impact on the way we think about creating games... I don't think it's going to settle on the PC because in my house, like many others, I play some games there and there's a different kind of game that gets played in the living room on my television, so I don't think it'll end up completely 100 per cent there.
Nick Baynes: I think it's definitely made things more challenging. Ten years ago when Black Rock was Climax Racing, one of our big things back then was focus. That was partly genre but also the platforms we were going to support. Now as a start-up, speaking obviously from the very front line, I don't think you can afford to say, this is exactly what we're going to focus on in terms of any platform, unless you've already got something up and running, ready to go.
The flipside is that there are things like Unity and Unreal which means that, for our team's approach, that minimises the challenge. I think that the general level of talent in the UK is a lot higher now than it was ten years ago. The general bar has been raised so people can learn a lot of new platforms, but it does add a challenge in terms of focus though, definitely.
I think the hardest challenge really with the variety of platforms is really sort of what I think David was saying earlier: it's about the audience. Obviously some platforms attract a very different audience to another, whereas some obviously have a lot more of a crossover.
I know some people are saying browser, there's a growing support for tablets as the next big platform. You can already plug your iPad into your television and play Real Racing HD through HDMI and then take it away and play it on the move - that kind of thing is going to grow and grow. Is it the iPad that's going to be that platform? Who knows? I don't think anyone truly knows, that's why it's quite exciting, and scary, to see how it all pans out over the next few years.
Thomas Bidaux: The thing with more platforms is, the bigger the market, the bigger the industry. So those are positive things. Once you're in the position to choose a platform then this is where the chance comes. How do you pick? Are you picking up 3DS? Everyone's talking about connected TVs at the moment, or cloud gaming. They've seen Facebook, they've seen iOS and they're thinking maybe it's the next big thing.
So they jump on it, but maybe it will die, for whatever reason. More opportunity, more risk. I think it's good. It means more dynamism, it changes people's positioning for what they're doing, more opportunity overall is a good thing for the industry as a whole - for individual studios things are changing.
Paul Mottram: I think it's difficult. I'm not sure I think it's a bad thing. I pretty much do all my gaming these days on my iPad, and I never thought that would happen. I'm spending more on games on that, even at 59p, than I was on retail games at €80 or something. Now I'm spending £25 a month on getting games every day just to see what they're doing. I think that's good.
I think the problem we've come up against, and it's not going to go away, it's something that everyone needs to solve, is that if you want to hit as many platforms as possible then there are technical challenges, there are artistic challenges. Obviously you don't want to have to do all your art work eight times for all the different platforms. It's making us think differently about the different type of games we're going to be doing and how we're going to be implementing them, how we're going to get them on as many platforms as possible.
Some of the games we've done have been gesture-based. That initially limited it to the Wii, or the Eyetoy originally, but now there are three platforms we can do that on. That's good for us. It's a good challenge to have, but it is harder.
Q: Nick, I wanted to pick up on what you said there about the UK's talent bar being raised - we still hear a lot about brain drain, about talent moving abroad. Brighton seems to be a nice example of a hub that's doing the opposite of that. Thomas, you've just moved your UK office here, as has Unity. Even the demise of Black Rock lead to a number of great opportunities and studios - Do you all see this as a chance to build a community here?
Nick Baynes: I hope so. I think it actually started to happen a few years ago, then it shrunk a bit and now it's started to grow again. I think it's probably fair to say that we're all much more focused on things like having flexible workforces rather than necessarily trying to secure full time staff. I think a lot of us have always had that intention but now it's become a necessity for our long term survival.
If we were in California, the whole of the south east, people would be saying it was a vibrant, bubble community
Nick Baynes, RoundCube
So obviously the more successful studios that are in close proximity, the bigger the core of talent that's able to work for six months at one studio and six months at the next - obviously you have your core in-house team, but you also need to grow and shrink based on the demands of the current projects. That needs a successful community and I hope it's going to grow.
It's sort of ironic, and I think reflective of the UK attitude - if we were in California, the whole of the south east, people would be saying it was a vibrant, bubble community. Because in the UK if you travel more than 20 minutes it's seen as a long commute, that's not the case. Really, we're all on each others' doorsteps.
Looking more broadly you've got the south east, with Guildford and London, and particularly Brighton, that's growing more and more. But I think it's less of a mentality shift for the studios, and more for the team members who are realising that actually, doing a six month contract here and a six month contract there isn't a bad thing. If the community you're in is a healthy one then it's no less secure than working in a nice, safe, full-time job for Disney. [laughs] Or anyone else for that matter!
David Amor: Yeah, the industry has changed. Whatever your view on it, less games using 100 people over three years are being made. Things have to change anyway. I think that the best environment for the games that are being made now, which are shorter projects, smaller teams, is using a more flexible workforce. If there are, what, four or five developers working in that way in Brighton, well that sounds like a perfect storm for that set-up.
So while I'm sad to see the demise of a quality studio like Black Rock, what I hope for is something that's a little bit more future-proof. We've already had social events where we've been a bit more open about what we're doing, what opportunities are coming up. Saying to each other, "I know this great guy, I know he's coming to the end of a six month contract, you should speak to him, he'll be perfect for that." I think we can keep a level of openness between the companies, not completely but enough that we can work together. I think holding on to 100 plus full time staff isn't going to be the future for many UK developers.
Q: Paul, that's perhaps even more relevant to you?
Paul Mottram: Yeah, it's very relevant to us. I think this is the year which has seen the biggest change where we've been getting people on very short-term contracts. We've found people are much more willing to do that. Two years ago it was very hard to get people on a three month contract. This year we've found seven or eight people that way and they've been very happy to do that. They've seen that it's potentially the way that the industry is going. If we work that way it's likely to allow more companies to survive longer, if they've got that more flexible workforce. It's better for everyone.
I've seen it happening much more recently and that's really good for us. One of the good things about Brighton as a hub is that I think it's going to continue to be that way. We've seen a lot of changes here, companies closing and things like that, but the people who are going to work in London or Guildford are commuting up there and still living down here.
So we're finding that the talent, even when it's not working down here, is staying. It's definitely not shrinking down here.
Q: Thomas I imagine you saw some of this when you were at NCsoft - it shrunk its presence considerably...
Thomas Bidaux: Well, we didn't get the chance to go through the stage where we shrunk the team gradually because the project got cancelled quite early. Keeping in touch with the guys, they've found work with Zoe Mode, or in Guildford or at Rocksteady in London, so they're all still in the same area. What's interesting is that the connection between all the people I know from NCsoft who have moved elsewhere is that they miss it. They all miss Brighton. Wherever they came from, they all miss it.
There's a bunch of German guys who moved back to Germany a couple of years ago. They're going to be coming back this week for Develop. To be honest, they don't care too much about Develop, but they know a lot of their friends are going to be around at that time, so it's a good reason to come and socialise with those friends. I think the positive thing that Brighton offered them was that they didn't know England, they didn't know the UK, but they wouldn't want to stay anywhere else but Brighton.
When we started NCsoft in Brighton I didn't know it either, but I was very happy to come here because I felt I could leave Paris and come here without losing anything, I could actually gain a lot in terms of quality of life. So if we're talking about the way things are going to evolve, then I think this is a really good basis. It's really solid. If you have that, plus a few successes here and there, then it should be a really nice environment and community for the industry to grow.
Q: That flexibility and community spirit which we've spoken about, that's painting a very different picture from that which we've been hearing about from the revelations at Team Bondi, which I don't think too many industry people were shocked by. Is the industry asking too much of staff?
David Amor: Well, if you mean will people react differently if they're on short term contracts, then it's certainly a change - I've only ever been salaried so I can't say how that feels, personally. I imagine there is some of that, but I also think that the flipside is that if you worked on L.A. Noire then you're involved in a seven year phase of creating something, something that's very high quality.
There's plenty of other examples where either a project gets cancelled or doesn't turn out to be what you'd expected. I'd hope that people would say "I'd rather be smart about the projects that I'd pick, go to the ones that I want and see a success because I'm seeing that those are running under this model, and successful studios are running under this model rather than exclusively salaried staff."
I can't speak personally about how people feel about a different set of working conditions - but I hope that can be offset by the fact that this is the modern way to get video games in successful studios.
Nick Baynes: I think in terms of working conditions then definitely I think it's about more choice for people. Obviously we're talking about a flexible workforce, and there's going to be a lot of full time people as well, but whether they're full time or on contract, having more studios in close proximity means that there's more choice.
I don't think any studios in Brighton have had working conditions as bad as those alleged at Team Bondi, but if people do feel that they're being taken advantage of then I think more competition actually empowers the staff more than the studio, because people are more likely to feel that they can get up and go elsewhere.
When e talk about brain drain the thing I worry about more is people just quitting. If they say, 'I'm done, I don't want to work in that industry anymore'
Thomas Bidaux, ICO Partners
I think that's an interesting thing, but there's a flipside. To answer the question about a balance between the staff and the company - obviously if someone's engaged on a contract and they're not really into what they're working on, they're not showing the passion, then they run the risk of not getting hired for the next gig. If the company isn't looking after them then they're not going to want to work for them again.
So hopefully, and maybe I'm being slightly idealistic here, but in an ideal world then I think the balance of power shifts slightly more towards the staff, but in a way that it should. A way that's more fair.
David Amor: Yes - so if you're unhappy at Team Bondi, where do you go? Brighton doesn't have that issue.
Nick Baynes: Exactly. The interesting thing is, that certainly, there's one studio in L.A. for example that has pretty appalling working conditions in terms of the hours and pressure etc, but people go there, stay there because they're looked after in other ways, be they financial or whatever.
David Amor: Stockholm syndrome!
Nick Baynes: Maybe! But there are other places to go, and people stay there. I think as long as people still have that informed choice, that's a good thing.
David Amor: Yeah, if they have their kinds in a local school, what have you, and that's why they stay, because they don't want the upheaval, that's the wrong reason to stay with a company. I think that would be a shame.
Thomas Bidaux: I think what would be even worse is if they decide to leave the industry altogether. To say, I'm going to go and make banking software because the working conditions are better. That's the other thing that the games industry is competing against: everybody else. There's a lot of passion, and I think that's the edge that the games industry has, but when we talk about brain drain the thing I worry about more is people just quitting.
If they say, I'm done, I don't want to work in that industry any more. That's something I think we lose a lot more people to than anything else.
Paul Mottram: One thing about flexibility and short contracts is, we've got quite a few people who do that, is that you're clamouring for the good ones to sign up for the next game. You're worried about them going somewhere else. They're actually very much in demand and they've got that ability to move around. As a studio you really want to keep hold of the good people.
One of the disadvantages, if you have a large development team and any significant downtime between projects that can be extremely costly and painful for everybody. Having that flexibility, and not getting rid of all of your permanent staff - being able to expand when you need it, that can really help everyone.
Q: The UK does have a few big players in the new markets like Jagex, Chillingo, Mind Candy etc - do you see these companies repeating the old model by growing larger again or will we maintain the more distributed model which we have at the moment? Are we going to see cycles of expansion and contraction?
Nick Baynes: I think as long as the market remains a bit volatile and no-one really knows what to expect then it will continue like that. If you look at the more traditional media where you have the big conglomerates who've been in power for fifty or more years, it's because they're dealing with a more predictable market place.
While there are new platforms and models springing up, I think that's where the opportunities are for new boys to come along and shake things up, and the big boys find that their power is being fragmented.
David Amor: I think what will happen, as Thomas has said, is that an interrupted market is a perfect time to say, I know how I can do this, and lead the way. I think in two years we'll see a big conglomerate EA looking at a company like PopCap again and saying 'that's how you do it' and you'll end up talking to EA again but you'll have experts in the form of the people who created the PopCap equivalent.
I'm sure it'll combine again, and as you say, there'll be some kind of cycle. But there's a good opportunity right now in this disrupted market.
Paul Mottram: A quick question about PopCap then. How do you feel they're going to get along as part of EA?
David Amor: Well, EA has, as everybody knows, had a bit of a patchy history of how it has handled the developers which it has pulled in. If they're smart, then they're buying PopCap for the brains that worked out what games to make and how to sell those games. So it remains to be seen if they'll make the best of that.
Do I think it's a bad acquisition? No, provided they do the right things with it.
Thomas Bidaux: Don't forget that PopCap and EA know each other extremely well. They've been working together for a long time. All of the PopCap boxes have been distributed by EA, I think. They've known each other a long, long time.
Giving developers more power over the pricing of their product is a very good thing
Paul Mottram, Zoe Mode
So when the rumours started about someone trying to buy PopCap, people where pointing to the fact that EA had tried to buy them already two years ago. So they've probably been talking for a long time. That's good, because they know what they're getting on both sides of the table.
Q: I'd be very interested to see how it affects PopCap's relationship with Steam, given the close nature of it in the past and EA's current attitude to them...
Paul Mottram: Steam has been brilliant for us - in terms of us letting us change our prices whenever we want. We've seen the advantages of that with Chime, seeing the hourly figures and being able to put stuff in sales and things like that. I think it's the same thing with developers self-publishing. Giving developers more power over the pricing of their product is a very good thing, I think.
David Amor: I think the thing we've learned most on the publishing side of things by putting games out on PSN is exactly that. We can play around with prices, change the marketing strategies, do this promotion. All of a sudden, by rolling up your sleeves and doing it yourself, you learn a lot about publishing.
It's great to have platforms like Steam that empower the developer to do what they want to do with their games.
Thomas Bidaux: I think you learn more in that position than a publisher would by publishing a game through those platforms because you care more. Working at a publisher inside a team that was doing it online, it was so hard to get out of the mindset that it was the boxes that mattered. When it's your own game, you look at the numbers.
You can say, if I change this, what is the effect? I can tell you, some of the publishers don't care at all about that. They push the games and then go to the next one. That's the difference I see between publishers and developers - how much they care about the long term results of their product.
Paul Mottram: You do get obsessed with looking at Steam, just pressing F5. It takes over your life!
David Amor: As a developer and a consumer, I absolutely love Steam. But I think it still serves a relatively narrow market of gamers still. The majority of people who play games don't get them through Steam.
I imagine someone like EA is saying, well, before Steam becomes the de facto platform for everyone to get their games from, why don't we take a run at it?