London's "Silicon Roundabout" is the beating heart of a resurgent UK tech industry, which really undermines the notion that first impressions mean anything at all. An unwieldy hunk of concrete, perpetually wreathed in traffic and dominated by a bizarre steel structure that is equal parts billboard and ill-advised public sculpture, the intersection of East London's Old Street and City Road is an oddly dispiriting substitute for an entire valley in Northern San Francisco.
But it's a start, and for the dozens of technology and internet focused start-ups clustered in this dubious location, a new start is exactly what the UK needs. The total number of companies is now thought to be more than 200, an astonishing rate of growth from the 15 or so back in 2008.
That number includes outposts from a number of larger, more established businesses, of course. Last year, Wired reported that more than 50 US tech executives from companies like Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon and YouTube have flocked to the area, but it remains defined by new companies and new ideas.
Companies like Bossa Studios, a social game developer with disruptive ambitions founded late in 2010. Henrique Olifiers, co-founder and "gamer-in-chief," rose to the head of game development at Jagex between 2006 and 2009, before moving to Playfish as studio director two months before EA acquired the company for $400 million. A year later, he left to found Bossa with marketer-in-chief Roberta Lucca, technologist-in-chief Ric Moore, and creator-in-chief Imre Jele.
"What I used to do at both Jagex and Playfish, they both felt like they were doing something different," Olifiers says. "Jagex was one of the first companies in browser MMOs. Playfish was one of the first companies to go into social games. They were leading the charge."
"What got me so disenchanted over time was that they stopped doing that. That's when I said, 'This is not what I'm about.' Social games for me were always on the cutting-edge until they became copycat, and after they became copycat I said, 'Well, this is not going anywhere. This will be like the Atari Eighties crash."
Social games were on the cutting-edge until they became copycat, and after they became copycat I said, 'Well, this is not going anywhere. This will be like the Atari Eighties crash'Henrique Olifiers, gamer-in-chief
"Everybody and their grandmother had a version of Space Invaders, and these guys are going to do the same thing.'"
The notion that the social gaming scene is rife with plagiarism is on-topic right now, but Olifiers isn't simply playing up to a trend. Bossa is predicated on the idea that, at their worst, social games are manipulative, shallow and rightfully spurned by the more discerning gamer. This has created a significant opportunity in an already vast market that Olifiers fears will stagnate without original ideas capable of reaching new players.
"There are 350 million people playing on Facebook, but there are another 450 million who are not. Who are those people?" Olifiers asks. "Are they hardcore gamers? Who are they and what are they doing?"
"The other thing is that the 350 million people play social games today didn't play anything before. Social games have taught those people how to interact with an isometric environment, a mouse, and interaction with a basic game."
And that's no small thing, as Bossa's affable lead designer Mike Bithell, a veteran of Blitz Games, points out. Most people with no experience of AAA games struggle with simply navigating a 3D space and pointing the camera in the right direction, but a FarmVille player could approach Command & Conquer with a basic idea of how it works. Not only is more than half of the Facebook audience ignorant or uninterested in what social gaming currently has to offer, but those that already play will "evolve" beyond the sort of games published by Zynga, Playfish and Playdom.
"Social games should be growing at the same rate as social networks are growing, but they are not," Olifiers adds. "There is something there to look into. Clearly, [companies like Zynga and Playfish] are churning players, but they are only replacing those players with the organic growth of the social networks. Where are these people churning to? Hopefully to us."
Bossa's first game is Monstermind, a real-time PvP strategy game - co-op, competition and general contact between players is one of Bossa's core design principles - where one player builds and fortifies a city against an onslaught of B-movie monsters controlled by their opponent. It is a simple and utterly compelling game with a beautiful art-style and clear core appeal.
It plays like a mash-up of SimCity and Rampage, yet it sits beside, and operates on the same business model as, products that figures like Ian Bogost and Jonathan Blow barely consider to be games at all. Additionally, and this may or may not be intentional, Monstermind doubles as a delightful nose-tweak to Zynga's all-conquering CityVille.
"Definitely, our audience is not social gamers in general. It is hardcore gamers, and those guys are difficult to convert," Olifiers says. "It is very difficult to make them try it, but once they do they stay, and they stay for a long time."
"It's a stigma," Bithell adds. "Facebook games have a stigma; understandably given the content the audience has had thus far. So trying to come in and present an experience that's tailor-built for them, while also hopefully trying to bring in a broader audience as well... It's a big sell."