Colin Anderson, managing director of Dundee-based developer Denki, discusses why we could be on the brink of a new era of game development - and why publishers had better be ready for it...
The games development sector has had a bit of a tough time recently. If someone made a film of the last five years, it would be a disaster movie, with death and widescale destruction and our hero on his knees, crying "Why!" to the uncaring turbulent skies.
No wonder many people predicted the end of independent developers. At the low point, studios were closing down at the rate of around two per week. Even now, the statistics are not great for companies involved in creating videogames.
However, like all unstoppable waves of disaster, there have been survivors and we may yet see a sequel: Development Mk II.
The biggest factor is the rapidly evolving environment for playing games. Fast Internet connections, the ubiquity of broadband and the appearance of non-dedicated games-playing platforms such as mobile phones, set-top boxes and internet browsers are changing the business model for games - and game developers - in strange and eerie new ways. Even the new generation of games consoles promise to contribute to this sea change, with services like Xbox Live Arcade and online marketplaces available and allowing unorthodox and (gasp!) unusual new games to emerge.
The traditional or mainstream gaming market is stuffed with titles, jostling and competing for space within the same rigidly defined genres. Brands, licenses, franchises and sequels are the order of the day and the call for innovation and a fresh approach has been heard for so long that it's no longer even acknowledged.
Good games exist, lots of them - and some games will even make money, but the vast majority of titles are lucky to break even. The industry's blinkered view of what constitutes a 'real' game is allowing huge areas of it's potential audience to escape. More and more titles are competing in the same, tired genres. In many ways, the market is close to stagnation.
It's not all doom and gloom though; we shouldn't all be looking for jobs in banking or insurance just yet. The dominance of the major publishers has reached its crest and the balance is starting to shift back in favour of the development community.
Denki is a fair example of this - how a small, independent developer, working in the mainstream sector, came very close to a short and messy end. In 2001, Denki's first title, Denki Blocks!, was released for the Game Boy Advance. We were excited. Denki Blocks! won Game of the Show at ECTS, which we thought boded well. Reviews were universally positive, with all of them coming in at over 90 per cent. Everything looked fabulous.
Then it went on sale. On the plus side, both of the people who bought it really enjoyed it, but as far as sales or chart success went, we were behind the Scotland World Cup squad karaoke singalong album.
Looking back, it's fairly easy to see why. Faced with dozens or hundreds of games for the GBA, all at the same price point and all presented the same way, the consumer would go for something recognisable over something unknown and potentially a waste of cash. Familiarity was the key, with punters going for something they knew and understood - rather than something new and strange which might be good.
This is the key to everything we know and love about the games industry. The dominance of brands, sequels and franchises, the clones and tweaks to existing games and the suspicion of anything that smacks of originality. It's all down to making the customer comfortable parting with his or her cash. "You've played this before, you know this game. You'll probably have (some) fun. Go on. Don't trust that new title down there, it might be rubbish..."
So Denki Blocks! was outsold by almost everything on the market. High sales of games like Mario and F-Zero were totally understandable, but inept fourth sequels of any old game with a brand name was slightly harder to swallow. So might Denki Blocks! have ended - and Denki along with it, were it not for an unusual and frankly ridiculous move on the part of the publisher (Rage, in case you were wondering). They negotiated a version of the game for Sky television's new interactive gaming service. Seriously - games on digital TV? We were, honestly, a little suspicious.
But lo! A mere six months after the game went live on Sky, Denki Blocks! breezed past its millionth paid download. The number of people playing the free version was estimated at around ten times that, but the number of people putting down around one dollar for the privilege of playing hit the million mark.
For us, the reason was obvious. People could play the game for free before they decided to lay out any cash. They could decide whether or not to spend money on the game - once they had played with it for a while. It gave them the familiarity they needed, without demanding an up front payment. It wasn't the game that was the problem, it was the market. Unless players know what they're buying, they're very conservative. Let them try something for free and all of sudden they'll dive in, wallets open...
Based on these results, Denki moved wholesale into developing games for digital interactive TV. The results were astonishing (even to us). In less than a year, the company had a number of games on the market - all of which could be played free before buying. Shortly after that we became the principal suppliers of games for a number of very large broadcasters. This is still the bulk of the company's output today. With Sky alone having nearly nine million subscribers in the UK, the market is a significant one.
This experience has give Denki a unique insight into the casual gaming market, which is only now being talked about at trade events and making it into features in the games press. For nearly five years we've been making games for an audience which is so far removed from the 'hardcore' gaming audience they probably only meet at the breakfast table in the morning.
It became obvious very quickly that the audience on Sky was a huge distance (and a whole generation) away from the console market. The average player of a game on Sky was likely to be female, over the age of 30, with no more than 30 minutes MAXIMUM spare to play a game, who really didn't want to spend half of that trying to understand the controls and wade through the options.
It's either a developers worst nightmare, or a challenge that means redefining your approach to game design from the ground up. Denki was established as a 'digital toy and game company' and had been looking at ways to change the design and development process since day one.
For over five years now, Denki has been creating games for an audience of busy females aged 30 and over. The company has worked with almost every major media company, from Sky through to Cartoon Network, DreamWorks, Universal Pictures and Celador. Not to mention Namco, Taito and Eidos (plus we're also producing our own IP, just to keep things interesting).
Until recently though, there was no way to bring this treasure trove of gaming goodness to a console audience. The business model, publisher control and retail opportunities meant that the small, quirky, fast and fun games Denki were creating just wouldn't translate to any console on the market.
A new hope
The creation of online distribution services such as Xbox Live Arcade and more importantly, viable business models around them, has changed this. There are now ways for developers to address the mainstream games market without huge amounts of publisher funding, enormous teams and/or expensive brands. All of a sudden there is an opportunity for short, small, casual 'snack' games. Developers can play with episodic content, customisation, convenience and all of these other strange and unusual concepts which are confusing and upsetting the traditional developers and publishers.
Combined with ongoing evolution of mobile games and the growing recognition of browser based games as a viable new channel, it's looking like the games market might once again be quite an exciting and fertile field for developers.
The creation and evolution of these services is bringing about a state of affairs unknown in the games industry since the very earliest days, when all you needed to get a game on the market was the technical ability and a good idea.
This in itself is another tipping point for the industry, which promises even more upheaval. Not the doom/gloom/giant meteor destroys all life in a cataclysm of woe type, which we've seen to date, but a far more positive change, in which publishers and retailers might find things a little more difficult, with their audience able to choose a huge range of sources to pick games from.
This is not to say the publishers are in any immediate danger. The console market will continue to grow and thrive, but the total monopoly over the games which are released will end, which has to be a good thing, for developers, for games and ultimately for gamers everywhere - casual, hardcore or otherwise.
Yes, there is some question over how much control the manufacturers and publishers will exert over the online markets, but the genie is out of the bottle now. Games have already appeared on the online services which have come 'out of nowhere'. The audience has already shown they're willing to pay for new, exciting and original content. The bottom line is, as always, money talks.
We're the ones who make the games and if we do our job well, we could be taking back the future of the whole games industry.
For the first time in years, we can honestly say: what a great time to be a developer.