The Eutechnyx View
Darren Jobling on the economic situation facing independent developers, and what the challenges - and opportunities - are
With the plight of the wider economic climate on everybody's minds these days, the shape of things to come could be different for differing parts of the industry.
While a lot has been written about publishers' strategies moving forwards, GamesIndustry.biz spoke to Eutechnyx' business development director Darren Jobling about what the future looked like for independent developers.
Here, the GameHorizon advisory board member looks at what the challenges are, but also explains where he sees the opportunities to come.
Q: What games are Eutechnyx working on at the moment? Any news on release dates?
Darren Jobling: A few, yes. Ride to Hell - a free-roaming biker game set in the 1960s, which will be published by Deep Silver on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC. It's something very different for Eutechnyx.
There's also Supercar Challenge for System 3, due for release in 2009. And we're also developing on an under-wraps online community game, which we're looking to release in 2010. So it's fair to say we are pretty busy...
Q: What do you think are the most challenging issues facing developers in general right now? And what are the biggest opportunities?
Darren Jobling: We all know right now the global economy is in a bad shape and that there are bad times ahead for many. But there are also a lot of opportunities: the lay-offs and cutbacks in development staff at other companies is actually a positive for an independent developer like Eutechnyx, as there are a number of very talented individuals out there now looking for work.
Yes, being made redundant is a terrible thing, but it also gives people a fresh focus and an opportunity to develop their career within companies like Eutechnyx.
Also, people are staying home more to save money, so they're spending more on home entertainment, including games. I think we'll see an increase in videogames sales as people look at more cost-effective ways to spend what spare cash they have. Videogames not only offer great value for money, but also offer the same escapism cinema offered people during the Depression.
So although we're all aware of these woes and it all seems like doom and gloom in reality there are a number of positives to be found in the current situation if you look for them.
Q: Following on from that, how do you find being an independent developer in the current climate?
Darren Jobling: Established independent studios like Eutechnyx don't have a guaranteed revenue stream like a publisher-owned studio and I think that actually makes us more astute when it comes to making decisions about which projects we'll work on and who we'll work with. We have the choice to work with multiple publishers and that puts us in a stronger position.
Independent studios are used to this current financial flux and it's something you plan for, even at the best of times. So we've seen this happen before and I’m sure we’ll see it again, but for Eutechnyx it's pretty much business as usual.
Q: What do you see as being the key trends in the industry over the next 2-3 years?
Darren Jobling: I think we'll see more consolidation between publishers and developers, and more mergers.
I also think we'll see a lot more closures in terms of publisher-owned studios. Some publishers see remote development studios as a drain on their resources and when it comes to cost-cutting, they're usually first in the firing line.
My worry, though, is that we're going to see the decimation of the British game development community. Just as the British game publishing industry was hit by a bunch of buyouts and closures in the 1990s, the late 2000s may see the publisher-owned development community being hit every bit as hard.
Q: Practically everything online at the moment is free for consumers. Do you think we'll reach a point where even top games are free to play? What will the business model be?
Darren Jobling: This is already happening. People are exploring other methods beyond simple subscriptions or one-off purchases. Ideas like in-game advertising, product placement and RMT (Real Money Trading) are very much at the fore right now. So long as the pricing is right, people will pay for such content.
The philosophy is to make the transaction worthwhile, though. Don't charge a large sum for something that's not that interesting. Make the item or service attractive by ensuring it's useful and great value.
European research has shown that the average European free-to-play gamer will spend EUR 20 per month on their favourite game!
If you look at some of the micro-transaction games that are popular in the Far East, you understand how they generate millions of dollars each month when you see that their in-game items are attractively priced. Players will notice having to spend USD 15 for an in-game item, but if you can sell them items or services that cost less than a Mars Bar, you'll see them taking up that offer, as it's not cash they'll miss.
That's the key to making RMT work: quality at an affordable price. Eutechnyx aims to be at the forefront of this market with our 2010 release.
Q: Is technology or creativity now more important?
Darren Jobling: Creativity is king. While technology is a useful delivery method, people don't really get that excited about it for its own sake. That's not taking anything away from the technology that drives the game, but it's like people getting excited about the camera used to make a movie. Nobody watches a movie simply because it uses a specific type of lens. They watch it for the entertainment value.
Sure, good technology can contribute, but without the fun-factor that comes from creative writing, engaging characters and fun design, all you have is a tech demo.
Q: Quality writing is increasingly being seen as an important part of making a game. Do you think we'll reach a point where screenwriters are pitching ideas to developers or publishers?
Darren Jobling: It's already happening. The movie industry right now is looking at the gaming industry with green eyes, as we've overtaken box office sales in terms of the amount of revenue we generate.
There are a lot of investors looking at movies and then looking at games and seeing we're a better investment. Not only are games becoming the number one leisure activity but we're also a far safer bet in terms of risk versus reward.
Q: Recent reports suggest that the life cycle of the current consoles will be longer than that of previous machines. What does this mean for developers?
Darren Jobling: Good news! Every time a new console is introduced, it's like starting over. Sure, some principles remain the same, but new hardware architecture is always the hardest thing to get to grips with. But if we have longer to work with an existing console, then it means we can keep improving our engine and wring every last drop of performance out of the console on our future titles.
For the gamer this means better games and also helps improve consumer confidence: you're investing in a games console that will give you years of enjoyment, not a technology that will be obsolete or superseded a few months down the line.
Q: How do you see recent trends in the industry - such as digital distribution and in-game advertising - affecting things for developers?
Darren Jobling: With a move toward direct digital distribution, we'll see developers like Eutechnyx being re-evaluated as content providers instead of service providers, meaning we'll become the focus again and hopefully that will see a return to more creativity in games, as developers will be free to work on more unusual or niche titles.
Sometimes it's difficult to get a new IP going when you're dealing with a lot of the powerhouse publishers, as they - understandably - want safer returns on their investment for their shareholders. So in an online system, where a lot of the distribution, marketing and manufacturing costs are cut, it means we're able to take more risks and develop quirkier games without having to worry too much about it being a gamble.
It also allows a closer relationship with the gaming public. Eutechnyx is actively pursuing the audience for Supercar Challenge and garnering their opinions during development, as System 3 are a company who realise that you should design for your audience and give them what they want.
So as a result, Eutechnyx is doing all kinds of beta testing and forums getting the potential audience to chip-in with their ideas and comments. It's probably the most gamer-driven title we've developed yet and having that ability to communicate with the audience is something I see happening more and more as we look at new routes to get our games to them.
Q: How do you think digital distribution will affect the industry? Will it, for example, cause the high street to suffer further? And is it good news for developers?
Darren Jobling: The high street unfortunately is in a mess right now. With Woolworths closing and a number of other big names in a bad shape, it doesn't look too good for the bricks and mortar stores. The industry needs to evolve and weather it. If we can adapt and modify our way of thinking, then it'll be a good thing for developers, as it means a more open, direct line of communication with the audience.
However, we can't dismiss the impact such losses have, not only in terms of the financial burden such closures hit the publishers with, but also the simple fact that there's something to be said for the whole shopping experience. I'm sure future generations will find it odd that we used to have to leave the house to shop, but there's definitely something special about browsing shelves of physical games compared to the online experience.
But it's not a case of if digital distribution takes off, rather when it does. We need to be aware of this and plan accordingly. Those who can adapt will benefit but those who can't adapt will find themselves left behind. But for those who are able to adapt, it could open up an entire new way of developing games and hopefully lead to a second boom in gaming.
Darren Jobling is business development director at Eutechnyx. Interview by Lewis Harrison.