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2012: We Only Do Everything

Devs discuss bust to boom, free Vs $1000, hardware for rent and a solution to the death of retail

In hindsight our own brief was a little too ambitious: gather four respected and intelligent games developers in one room and quiz them on their thoughts on where the industry was headed in 2012. That's a big subject - too wide-reaching when you consider just how the games business has fractured, splintered, evolved and frankly, gone a bit mad, over the past 24 months.

But after 60 minutes around a table what we've come out with is as much a summary of how the industry has changed as it is predictions and hopes for the future. We've touched on many of these subjects before on, particularly over the past two years. There's no doubt still more to discuss, but there's plenty of meat over the next four pages: from bust to boom in the independent development scene, the evolution of the console business, the question of whether graduates are sufficiently educated for the reality of employment, the future of TV and the consumption of living room entertainment, the democratisation of distribution, developers as rock stars, how to justify triple-A development budgets, embracing free-to-play and $1000 business models, the hire-purchase of gaming hardware and a solution to the death of High Street games retailing.

All of this insight comes from our interviewees who gave up their time during December: Frontier Developments boss and Elite creator David Braben; Jamie MacDonald, a SCEE stalwart who saw projects like SingStar, EyeToy and LittleBigPlanet from start to finish and now oversees production and engineering at Codemasters; Simon Oliver, owner of Hand Circus, one of the first developers to see the potential of iOS with the creation of Rolando for iPhone; and Jason Avent, who before founding Boss Alien was game director for racing studios Black Rock and Climax. Let's begin by trying to sum up 2011, which is a big ask. What will 2011 be remembered for?
Jason Avent

That the UK games industry has gone over to Canada. The big studios have gone down by half. It's been a nasty year. But there's been lots of opportunity as well. The UK industry seems to have fragmented into a more and more agile market with smaller pockets of developers - is that a good thing in the long term do you think?
Jamie MacDonald

It's too early to tell, really. There are an awful lot of micro-studios that have shot up as a result of the larger studios closing down. And to be blunt about it, when their redundancy money runs out I just hope they are still viable businesses, most of them. Otherwise they'll be off to Canada.

There are an awful lot of micro-studios that have shot up as a result of the larger studios closing down. When their redundancy money runs out I hope they are still viable businesses

Jamie MacDonald, Codemasters
David Braben

Not necessarily, there are quite a few companies in the UK that are recruiting. There's an ironic parallel which is that very few students are coming through at the moment because of the way education is. So there are roles for those people in the bigger studios still, including us, and I know Codemasters is recruiting as well. The point there is, and I absolutely completely agree, it is too early to tell whether it's good or bad. It's a mixed thing and that's never not been the case. It's always been good and bad if you look back at 2010, 2009... There have been different causes. But we've been in a state of flux ever since this whole industry started. New things have happened, changed, platforms have shaken up the snow globe terribly. What's happening now is just that again. Every computer I've heard of has been called 'next-generation' at some point.

What we're seeing now is opportunities galore, where next-generation doesn't just mean performance, it means so many things, it means new business opportunities with things like the App Store which is turning things upside down. Things like in-game purchasing, that sort of thing is only two or three years old if that. The real point is the whole free-to-play thing is revolutionary. Making £40 games looks slightly anachronistic but having said that look how many sales Modern Warfare 3 had on day one. The world's biggest entertainment launch.

Jamie MacDonald

It sucked the oxygen out of the market for a lot of other products. It's been happening over the past few years but has been really apparent this year. If you're not one of those top five releases you're really going to struggle. This is a truism that a lot of the industry is reliant on those big slugs of revenue. Certainly for the console developers and publishers, they have to re-factor how they see their business and how the revenue stream is going to work because it's not going to come from those big slugs anymore. The games industry has always been unique in that it has an almost artificial boom period of one quarter a year. Is that indicative of an anachronistic approach of the business or is that dictated by consumers? Will there be a move to a more fluid model, a more continuous model - is that an evolution?
Jamie MacDonald

I think so. The death of the retail sales model has been over-exaggerated in terms of timing. Most of us here accept it's going to happen but it's not going to happen tomorrow. The console industry just has to change in the same way the music industry has, and hopefully more successfully. We've got to manage that transformation and the way we employ people and the structure of how we develop and publish games. We've got to take into account the economic realities. It's not going to go away; it's going to accelerate.

From left to right: David Braben (Frontier), Simon Oliver (Hand Circus), Jamie MacDonald (Codemasters) and Jason Avent (Boss Alien). There seems to be two real issues that affect the UK - the drain of talent to other, more attractive regions, and the lack of properly qualified students coming through education. How long can the UK sustain that shedding?
Simon Oliver

I've worked with an art director based in Finland and we've met in person maybe three times now and we have good chemistry, we work well together. I guess it depends on the type of game you're making on how you work together, but certainly as a small studio it hasn't been too much of a problem having some roles located abroad. Our PR agency was based in the US, our test agency was in Scotland.

Jason Avent

I've not had a problem with graduates because at the moment there aren't many jobs anywhere. A lot of the blue chip employers who would normally enrol hundreds of people into their graduate training schemes are just taking tens so there are a lot of first class honours guys out there with maths degrees and physics degrees and engineering degrees, so actually it's pretty good for hiring graduates. But there are a lot of experienced guys out there that they've got to compete with. As David said, there are companies like MindCandy and Jagex who are taking loads of people on.

Because it never let go of PC, Germany has really gotten ahead on social games and PC games as they've merged

Jason Avent, Boss Alien
David Braben

We have an interview test because these days it's very difficult to know, because people come in with first class honours degrees from a place we don't necessarily know. And it turns out their skills aren't very useful, that's the really depressing thing.

Jamie MacDonald

From a coding point of view?

David Braben

From a coding and maths point of view. We'd much rather take on a maths graduate with no coding experience whatsoever and teach them to code, than the other way around.

Jason Avent

It doesn't take very long to learn how to programme if you've got very simple programming tools and you know how maths works. That's always the hardest thing to learn. But as for things moving countries, we fell in love with games consoles and as a country we've been very successful at that because America, the UK and Japan were the biggest markets for them, and we're really good at making games for consoles. Meanwhile, Germany and the Nordics had a reluctance to adopt games consoles and PC was huge there. Gamescom has an entire room for PC hardware and an entire room for PC games. Because they never let go of PC, and because of the types of games they play, they really got ahead on social games and PC games as they've merged.

I used to play console games exclusively but then I played Starcraft for six months when it came out and League of Legends for nine months and I didn't turn my games consoles on. Battlefield 3 and Skyrim are better on PCs. We're at a point now where if you love games and visuals are really important to you, and the whole experience is important to you, then the best place to go is the PC.

Matt Martin avatar
Matt Martin: Matt Martin joined GamesIndustry in 2006 and was made editor of the site in 2008. With over ten years experience in journalism, he has written for multiple trade, consumer, contract and business-to-business publications in the games, retail and technology sectors.
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