Just as the games business begins to get back to work, GamesIndustry International gathered together a roundtable of development talent and asked them to reflect on the past 12 months, and more importantly, the year ahead. Top of the agenda was Nintendo's launch of its new home console and relevance to other upcoming hardware, the issues of next-generation consoles, what role traditional publishers play in the business and the strength and competition in the independent development scene.
Sitting around the table were Andrew Oliver, chief technical officer of Blitz Games, Dan Marshall of Ben There, Dan That developer Size Five Games, Remode CEO Ella Romanos, Hot Sauce Interactive's Georg Backer and Boss Alien's Jason Avent.
Q: GI: Let's open by talking about the Wii U launch, certainly the biggest recent event on the calendar. Is it enough to rejuvenate the console scene, acting as it does as a bit of a bridge between this generation and the next? Is Nintendo's policy of marketing it first to long-term, core fans sensible? Is it an attractive enough prospect to Wii owners?
Andrew Oliver: It's really interesting - I'm a massive Nintendo fan, and they've got a big, hardcore fanbase, but I do wonder if it's enough to sell a fairly expensive machine to people. You just see every TV advert, it's tablets and phones, tablets and phones. The general population is just going, 'I can play games on these sexy devices. It's coming round to Christmas where I can get a device and once I've got it, I can get all these games for free or nearly free'. I think that's skewed things so massively. It's a tough market for anyone, so it's going to be difficult for them.
They've gone with the idea that people like tablets, so they've made a tablet controller. Yeah, they do love tablets, but the problem is that they're probably going to buy one.
"Nintendo's problem is actually one of software rather than hardware. I played Mario Galaxy 2 for about an hour before I was bored shitless"
Ella Romanos: There will be a niche group of gamers who will buy it because it's a Nintendo device, but I wonder if that's going to be enough to justify the cost of doing it. I think things have changed so much since the Wii. If the Wii was coming out today we'd be having the same conversation, because the people who bought the Wii are today spending all of their time on tablets and phones and at the time they weren't.
It all comes down to the fact that all those people who already have a tablet, or a mobile phone - which you can get on contract, which makes them look cheap - whether there's going to be enough people left to make it worth it. I also think the fact that it's a tablet type thing - people who aren't in the games industry or don't know it well are going to be quite confused by that.
I think they'll be thinking 'why don't they use a tablet which already exists on the market? Why that specific one? Why can't I just connect mine to the TV? Why buy one which I then can't use for anything else?' People use tablets for multiple things.
Dan Marshall: I'm not sure about the Wii U because I haven't touched one, but I bought a Wii on launch day and got my £179 worth of joy out of it by playing tennis with my mother. That was enough for me. I think Nintendo's problem is actually one of software rather than hardware. I played Mario Galaxy, and enjoyed it, but played Mario Galaxy 2 for about an hour before I realised I was playing exactly the same game and was bored shitless of it. After a while, the Wii's core buckled under its own success.
It didn't have the hardware for many games like Call of Duty to justify making a port, so it was basically lumbered with Nintendo's software for a large part of its lifespan.
Jason Avent: People who buy Nintendo buy Nintendo products - what you're saying about it is true, though. My wife thinks that the Wii is for Wii Sports, she doesn't think it does anything else.
Dan Marshall: The problem is, Nintendo end up putting out Mario, Zelda, Mario Kart, Metroid, all these staples over and over again to the point of self-destruction. I think the Wii U looks good in terms of the fact that it's got Batman and Darksiders and LEGO all coming out for it, but because it's suddenly going to find itself a hardware generation behind again, it's going to suffer from the same problems.
I haven't turned my Wii on in three years probably - it's been gathering dust because it's all Mario games that I'm not interested in. So I worry that, because of that hardware gap, the software is going to be lacking in the same way for the Wii U.
"The Wii took off because the gimmick was really good and nobody had ever seen it before. Now, the gimmick of having a tablet in your hand isn't good enough"
Jason Avent: Do you think that because of that, these softcore Nintendo customers, who are not after the next Zelda or Mario, but the next Wii Sports and Wii Fit, are going to feel a bit betrayed because they don't want to buy another console that's going to end up sitting in a cupboard after a year?
Andrew Oliver: I think they sold to a lot of casual gamers, and casual gamers can casually game on tablets and phones.
Georg Backer: I'm actually looking forward to it, because I really just want one console in my living room. I like casual games and hardcore games, I like tablets but I also like the controller. I like all those experiences. Will it succeed? I don't know, we'll see - but I hope it does so that I can have all those games I want. For me, the thing that always annoyed me about consoles was the exclusivity this and exclusivity that - I physically don't know where to put another console.
Jason Avent: For me, it's not even the hardware. I find that I can't play all the games I want to. If you've got a console or two, a tablet and a PC, and you want to play full-price, cut price, digital games etc, there are so many games being made for different platforms. So many little bits and pieces, that I really don't need a third console. Right now, when I have my PS3 and my 360, I see Wii U as a third console. It's not in the running for me, when the next generation of hardware comes round.
Ella Romanos: Hardcore gamers have a 360 and a PS3 - they'll migrate to the next one when they come out. Casual gamers, when the Wii came out - it was almost the only way to play casual games, which is why they bought it. Now, they've moved on to tablet and mobile and maybe they still play the Wii. So the only people left are hardcore Nintendo fans and I don't think that's enough.
Jason Avent: When the Wii came out, I looked at it and thought, why would I want something that's half the power of my 360 and my PS3? Then we saw the wand and thought, okay, that could be interesting. We were wrong about it, because it did take off - but it took off because the gimmick was really good and nobody had ever seen it before. Now, the gimmick of having a tablet in your hand isn't good enough.
Dan Marshall: I don't think the tech behind it is good enough either. But I will say that the original Wii controller wasn't great technically, either. Everyone was expecting it to be 1:1 and it wasn't. Know everyone is expecting the GamePad to be like an iPad, and it's not.
Q: GI: And it doesn't support any multitouch controls, which people expect from any touch screen these days.
Georg Backer: Whenever new hardware comes along, as games developers we're always a bit sceptical, I think. Often you have to rethink the way that you're designing and making games. I remember when touch came along, for the first half year all we had was games with virtual joypads. It took us a while to adapt and make controls that would work with those games. It's like motion control, I don't know where we stand with it at the moment, but it's the same kind of vibe. It's a design adaptation, I think - there's so much to focus on for those platforms.
"The concept of second screen is interesting. I just don't think that you need a bespoke piece of hardware to do that, you could do that with an iPad and a TV"
Andrew Oliver: The Wii was often bought as a family machine, something that was very social. They sold a lot of Wiimotes. The people I know who bought a Wii have either got young kids or played it as a group. The tablet seems like a one off, I'm not sure it'll have that. Therefore you have the audience of the Wii who love this social machine, and I know that they've said you can have one person on the tablet and the others on Wiimotes, but that feels like you're not sharing the same experience.
Ella Romanos: And surely then the best thing to do would be to just keep your Wii and not have that one person on the tablet.
Georg Backer: But I'm really intrigued to see what developers can do with that.
Jason Avent: I'm pretty sure that most developers will ignore it, because it doesn't look like it will succeed.
Ella Romanos: The idea, the concept of second screen, is interesting. I just don't think that you need a bespoke piece of hardware to do that nowadays, you could do that with an iPad and a TV.
Dan Marshall: It is a bit of a pain having an iPad on your lap as you're playing though. There's something having a tablet in the middle of the controller that works. If I'm playing GTA and I've got GPS on the second screen, I don't want it on my iPhone that falls off my knee all the time.
Jason Avent: That's what they're going for, because trying to hold a thin, elegant iPad for any length of time is a bit annoying. Also, they've always made toys, or consoles that are like toys. A Gameboy you can drop and throw about, I'm pretty sure you can drop it out of a first floor window and it would still work. The GamePad is probably resilient to having water and crumbs dropped on it.
Dan Marshall: Child-proofed.
Jason Avent: Exactly - and that probably works if you're making a decision between do I buy this or this, it's one of those USPs that might appeal to you. But if you've already got something that does something very similar in your house then I don't know. Especially now that you're going to be able to buy tablets for £50.
Andrew Oliver: Nintendo are famous as game designers and brand holders - I'm sure that many years ago they said that they weren't really a hardware manufacturer, that they commissioned other people to manufacture the hardware. I think that's interesting, because they make these very cool games and have all these brands, just like Sega did, and there comes a point where you have to ask: what has the value? Are they making money from hardware, or do they have amazing franchises and very cool game designs that maybe should live elsewhere.
Q: GI: You think they'd work better as a third-party publisher?
Georg Backer: How has Sega fared since it went out of the hardware business? Are they happy?
Andrew Oliver: They had to, to survive.
Q: GI: They didn't have the exposure for the IP, either - not much was iterated, apart from Sonic, which has been over-exposed if anything.
"I'd like to think that a tablet and a phone will be able to out put to a television and power a couple of controllers, then it kind of makes [the Occulus Rift] moot"
Jason Avent: They never had the breadth. Not in the design. Sonic is good, but some of the Mario stuff is absolutely inspired. The first few Mario games were phenomenally well designed, really out there. They made you think in lots of different ways. I think, to be honest, the last time that Nintendo released a game that I felt pushed the boundaries from a game design point of view was Zelda and Mario on the N64. Since then they've not made the same sort of leaps.
Andrew Oliver: I love the depth and breadth of their games, but that's a big price to buy a new console and expensive games. A lot of people are going to say: 'yeah, but I can buy an iPad and it'll do everything and I've got all these games for free'. Thing is, none of them are great - they're ok, but Nintendo games are brilliant. Would Nintendo ever bring a franchise over to an iPad? That would be great, you could sell that for an awful lot of money, but it'll be a brave day before that happens.
Q: GI: They've always insisted that you'll never see a Nintendo game on a non-Nintendo machine...
Jason Avent: Even if it was a closed shop on iOS or Android, make it their own store and make it so that it can only be installed on certain phones - that would certainly help to sell those phones.
Q: GI: Let's stick to hardware, but move on to something a bit more esoteric: the two gaming hardware projects which we saw succeed on Kickstarter this year, Occulus Rift and the Ouya. Are they doing enough to carve a niche?
Jason Avent: I think technologically we're interested in both, but I'd like to think that a tablet and a phone will be able to out put to a television and power a couple of controllers, then it kind of makes it moot. When someone comes up with an amazing set of apps or game that incorporates augmented reality, where you're completely immersed in it, I think that'll be incredible.
Ella Romanos: I'm not convinced that the average consumer will wear it.
Q: GI: I feel like a bit of a prat when I'm just wearing a headset.
Andrew Oliver: No, but that's the average consumer. I've talked to a few people who've played the Occulus Rift and they've said it's absolutely amazing. You stick it on your head and look around and you can see all around the world. I don't expect the average consumer to get that, I expect a load of hardcore FPS fans who want it. Frankly, that amount of people is a lot. I don't see it as a casual consumer item at all.
Jason Avent: If you could run in one direction, point you gun in another direction and look in a third direction, that'd be me convinced. Because it would mean that I'd be better than anyone else playing. [laughs]
Georg Backer: For me it's closure, actually, because I grew up with all those films and series that featured VR, people wearing those headsets and finally I can do it.
Jason Avent: You're going to walk around like Geordi La Forge aren't you? [laughs]
Ella Romanos: Well in the UK we're too embarrassed to even wear bluetooth headsets.
Dan Marshall: If only the Occulus Rift was like a bowler hat, with an umbrella controller.
Andrew Oliver: I think it's just going to be people sitting on the sofa, saying wow.
Ella Romanos: Yeah, as long as the business model is set up right. It's going to have be quite expensive, because it's for a core audience. It will all depend on how much content is made for it.
"As soon as digital kicks off properly on console, the middle ground will return - publishers just might not be with us to see that through"
Jason Avent: It could be an aftermarket thing that you release as an add on.
Q: GI: I think modding communities are are going to enjoy it.
Andrew Oliver: I do think it's come of age because the tech is now ready. We can have stereo, decent gameplay, no lag, full tilt sensors, wifi for multiplayer. You won't need that many games - some people already see the 360 as a Call of Duty machine. As long as you've got arena play, that's really all you need, look at all the people who used to just play Counter Strike.
Georg Backer: One thing you can say for these projects is that they have so much direct access to the consumer. So much access to the audience.
Dan Marshall: It's the great thing about the times we live in. People can come up with these mental ideas, give it a go, people fund it and we can all have a look. Previously someone would have said “oh, that'd be good,” and that would be it, because they assume that they were never going to get funded. Now we live in an age where enough people with a small amount of interest can get what they want.
Georg Backer: Whenever I think of something interesting now, I always check Kickstarter to see if someone's already done it.
Q: GI: Moving on from hardware, I wanted to ask you about something that Strauss Zelnick said about the generational switch resulting in “publisher casualties.” He was, I think, referring not very subtly to THQ. THQ are still hanging on, and have raised $5 million from the Humble Bundle, pushing up share prices. Do you see any companies going under because of the switch?
Jason Avent: But their burn rate must be something like $2.5 million... It's not going to last long.
Q: GI: Plus, they've already defaulted on a pretty serious loan...What about any others? Capcom, maybe?
Andrew Oliver: It's a time when big games are getting bigger and the other players are going to mobile and other platforms. For third party publishers, you have to make the really big franchises - there's no middle ground and a lot of these publishers occupy that middle ground. The interesting thing is, as soon as digital kicks off properly on console, the middle ground will return - they just might not be with us to see that through.
Ella Romanos: The average budget of XBLA games has gone up so much already, that you wonder where that's going.
Dan Marshall: If that does happen, it's going to be a bit like going to the cinema on a Saturday night and the only thing you can see is a Jerry Bruckheimer. Sometimes you want to watch something else. If the barriers to entry are that high, it's a worry.
Andrew Oliver: The Xbox LIVE market is going to be there, but developers can go to it directly. Thing is, if the developers are going there directly, where does that leave the publishers who set up their whole infrastructure on distribution and marketing.
Ella Romanos: But I think that marketing is still crucial. A lot of developers can't do that on their own. The publishers who will succeed are going to be either those that manage those huge franchises, or those who manage to adapt to the new ways of doing things.
"You need to be careful as a publisher - I want to have my Bruckheimer, I want to have my indie film, I want everything"
Jason Avent: Also, the huge franchises have teams of hundreds working on them. That's unsupportable for the mid-tier publisher - there are maybe four publishers in the world that can manage that. Some are going to fall away, some have already and I think that there are some who haven't admitted their weakness already that are going to go, or certainly move away from traditional games.
If that happens, then maybe the people that are still there will be able to be a bit more experimental because there will be more holes in the year. Otherwise you've got Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty and GTA and that's it. They all release around Xmas, so what are you going to do for the rest of the year on your Xbox? There's an opportunity there.
The games that I've been most interested in this year, that I think are AA, are fresh. They are Dishonored and X-Com. X-Com is an established brand, but it's been dead for 15 years or something. They're both fantastic games and they're probably $15-20 million dollar budgets, they're not $100 million dollar budgets. If you get the timing right and do something a bit cool and different.
Georg Backer: I think you need to be careful as a publisher - next year I want to have my Bruckheimer, I want to have my indie film, I want everything. I think that makes everyone make better games. You mentioned X-Com, Dishonored - Far Cry 3 is getting rave reviews, Hitman is getting rave reviews. My point is, it's the first time I can remember so many sequels coming out with really good reviews so close together.
Last year there were two or three in Skyrim and Uncharted.
Dan Marshall: And Uncharted was getting good reviews, but not all great. Some 8s.
Q: GI: Assassin's Creed 3 and Far Cry seem to be the best in their series so far.
Georg Backer: Exactly. There are so many 10s in the last month or so. I think that shows that if you've got a good IP, you've really got to take care of it. You can't just turn anything out.
Q: GI: I wonder how much of that is down to trying to preserve an IP's reputation across that generational gap? Last year, franchises had some leeway, but this is basically the last roll of the dice before the next wave, and people need to be left with good memories.
Andrew Oliver: I think there has been a psychology to it - the games that survive are the really big ones. They're cutting away the lower tier games and putting the money into the really big ones, making those really big. It kind of worked for Activision a couple of years ago, I think other publishers are doing that now.
Dan Marshall: There's one sentence that keeps cropping up in the indie sphere over the last year over and over, which is: why would you develop for anything other than Steam? They've got it so right. Barriers to entry on XBLA are so high - patching costs an arm and a leg. You can tell any indie developer who's going through XBLA certification by the look on their face, because they look dead.
PSN has similar stuff. Wii and Wii U you can't even get on unless you've got an office. There are big barriers. So I think that Zelnick might be right about big publishers biting the dust - but there are so many opportunities for really interesting stuff as well. Basically I think the console holders can help by lowering the barriers to entry.
Q: GI: Do you feel like that will change this generation? That you're going to be looked after as an indie developer?
Dan Marshall: No. I can't see them changing it. They should be looking at Steam - they've got so much money they don't even know what to do with it.
"You can tell any indie developer who's going through XBLA certification by the look on their face, because they look dead"
Jason Avent: I think they need to protect their brand. If you buy a game on a console, occasionally you get something that's a bit buggy but generally it's pretty tight. Certainly more so than stuff you buy on PC or phone.
Georg Backer: But you should be able to approach them. It shouldn't be too easy, because then everyone is going to walk through the doors with their ideas, but if you're serious then you should be able to approach them. You shouldn't look dead when you're trying.
Dan Marshall: You do hear people who've released games on PSN or XBLA that do okay, who say you're completely at the mercy of Microsoft and Sony's marketing and placement. This is sort of a bugbear of mine, people who blame a platform holder for their own lack of marketing. It's not Microsoft's job to make sure it's on the front page.
That said, these games go through one Steam sale, and they're laughing!
Q: GI: One last topic, then. We're starting to see the first wave of UK developers which were formed from the break ups of other companies come to fruition now. Jason, Boss Alien is a great example of that. It seems like a great time to consolidate and set out the stall for UK development over the next few years. Do you think we're going to need a UK publisher to be able to do that?
Jason Avent: What for?
Ella Romanos: Agreed - I think big publishers are sort of irrelevant now. I do believe that a lot of small studios are unable to deal with that sort of thing, and need companies to help them with marketing etc, so I'm not saying publishers per se are unnecessary, but I think larger publishers with traditional ways of doing things - there's no need for it.
Georg Backer: I'd rather have a strong British development community that works together to help each other out and put the great games we make on the map - to make sure people get those opportunities to stay here and fulfil their ideas. I think that's better than any publisher.
Ella Romanos: Some of these cross promotion systems, like cross-play are quite interesting, because that's a community based thing where people can support each other.
Georg Backer: I think we do have that, in the indie dev scene. Every time I go down to Brighton for Develop, it's such a lovely community. You meet everyone and they're all just developers. Nobody is arguing about who's an indie or not, nobody cares.
Dan Marshall: And nobody says, “oh, I can't really talk about that.” Can you imagine EA and Activision meeting in a pub and saying, “I'm having a really hard time writing a nice shader for this.” “Don't worry, I've got something you can use for that.” That happens with indies - you tell someone that your AI path-finding is useless and they say “are you using Unity? I've got something I can send you for that.”