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Arcade Mode - Part One

Blitz Arcade director Chris Swan on the future of digital distribution versus retail, and the benefits of Dare to be Digital

Blitz Games Studios is one of the longest-standing independent development companies in the UK, and in 2006 it announced the formation of an Arcade division to specifically target the emerging digital distribution platforms.

Here the division's director, Chris Swan, talks about the impact on retail outlets of digital distribution, and offers his opinion on the Dare to be Digital competition - of which one of his forthcoming titles was a winner a few years ago. We're talking in the build-up to Game Connection - what are you hoping to get out of the event as an exhibitor?
Chris Swan

Well, actually it's quite tricky for us to know. We've been an exhibitor this year, last year we were buyers, and in San Francisco this year we were buyers. But I guess we're exhibitors because we've got our fingers in many pies.

So there's the buying side for outsourcing and that kind of thing, and then there's the selling side to publishers.

But generally speaking, it's intense and really tires you out, but it's so productive. Is it that the right people are there, or is it the format that helps?
Chris Swan

I think it's probably a bit of both factors - you've got everyone there in one place, but also the system means that it's organised so that you get to see the people that you want to see.

Whereas before, with the likes of GDC and E3, you try and catch each other in a restaurant here or a hotel there, and then you didn't know what people looked like, you'd all be late, and you'd never get to see the people you wanted to see.

So it's definitely a lot more productive. So how have things been going with Blitz Arcade?
Chris Swan

Things have been going very well. We've got five games at the moment that are all about to come out - they're all alpha/beta/submission phase. And I think the goals that were set up for the division have been achieved nicely so far. We've got a lot of games, some are self-funded, some are work for hire. Some are our own IP, some aren't, and we've even got a couple of games on the One-up Programme - which is where we can help some of the small developers get to market through supplying some QA, or a bit of funding, or some introductions to clients.

So we've now got a really good, wide raft of games where they've all got a standard of quality that you can't pigeon-hole us into any one genre - they're all the way across from casual games which is a nice word-based game to a real hardcore shoot-em-up. So it's going good. Hectic, but good. More and more companies are looking at PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade and WiiWare, and you must believe that there's a compelling business model in working on those kinds of platforms?
Chris Swan

Yes, we do. In the longer term I think it's all going to get very blurred. You can already get games on the PlayStation 3 now that are full price retail, just downloaded and bought out of a box.

I just think, as we move forward in time, that the whole thing is going to become very convergent. So you'll be able to buy games of all shapes and sizes online, and we definitely see that the future business models are going to be around that - just like as happened in the music industry. Do you think digital distribution will have an effect on retail?
Chris Swan

I think it will affect it, but I don't think it's going to be the end of it by any means. It's just going to shift things a bit. Again - look at the music model, and you can see that music stores are still there, and they're still lovely places to go to and browse.

So you're still going to want that element, but you're going to get those people that just want the easy buy of download-and-pay, and get content right now. More retailers have embraced second-hand game sales recently - is that what those companies need to do to counter digital distribution, to protect revenues?
Chris Swan

That's an interesting question. I hadn't really thought of it too much like that, but you could be right. That is an angle with which they can capture a lot of profit, on that approach.

Certainly as a developer we don't see royalties often because of the resale nature. That could well be their strategy to try and make sure they keep more of the market that way. Is the videogames industry mature enough to be able to deal with that strain - that publishers worry about second-hand game sales, and retailers worry about digital distribution?
Chris Swan

It may strain relationships a little bit on the publisher side, but then I think for a while there was a bit of a fear that perhaps publishers weren't going to be needed in digital age - but I think people can obviously see now that's not the case.

The publisher is still needed in a digital age, and they probably welcome more things going online, and less things going to retail - because there's the resale returns element, and it's just been so hard for them to get real data on it. CodaChain was announced earlier this year, and was originally a Dare to be Digital winner back in 2005 - what's your perception of the Dare competition?
Chris Swan

I can honestly say that I think it's really good. I went up there last year to help mentor one of the teams for a while, and get a feel for it, and it's quite an impressive cooking pot of development.

With only ten weeks, and the way the teams are all empowered to really battle it out with each other - they absolutely fling themselves at it full pelt. It is like having the alpha-to-master crunch that you get in most games being developed, and the results they get from ten weeks is absolutely fantastic.

We've had a look at a lot of the games this time around, and we're still in discussions with some of them to possibly work with them on their IP and do something with them - but I think it's a great system. What are the key things that Dare teaches the entrants?
Chris Swan

It's all the soft skills I think, that it really shows you. Like using your initiative, being a bit flexible around your discipline, so you don't just stick to one job spec and maybe you test for bugs one minute, helping an artist here, and then doing some audio there.

It's all the little bits that you need to pull together to make a game actually happen - and that's the skill that you really get out of the Dare to be Digital stuff.

The formal education stuff might teach you animation, or modelling, or programming - they don't really teach you how to get together and make it happen.

Chris Swan is director of Blitz Arcade. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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