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Chris Kingsley: Part One

Rebellion's CTO on GDC Paris, the impact of casual games, and why the videogames industry is performing so well

Ahead of next week's GDC Paris event, advisory board member Chris Kingsley - the CTO of one of the oldest developers in the UK, Rebellion - talks to about a number of key topics the industry is currently facing.

Here, in part one, he addresses the impact of casual games - "Core and Casual" is the theme of GDC Paris - and discusses his views on why the industry is performing so well. Part two will follow later. So you're on the advisory board for Paris GDC?
Chris Kingsley

Yes, it's a great honour. There are some very smart ex-industry professionals involved in it as well, so it's been a really interesting procedure to be involved, and help select, the talks. It's amazing how much work goes on in the background.

It can be quite tricky, because there are some people that love to talk, and go around spending their lives talking at one event or another - and lot of them are very good. But it's also important to make sure that other people who have a voice and an opinion also get their chance to put forward a view. Why did the organisers approach you, do you think?
Chris Kingsley

Only they would know what they see in me, but I guess it would be that as CTO of Rebellion I'm technical, and the founder of a company that's grown significantly in the last few years - but I've also made games for many years, and now I'm doing the business side. So I guess I've got a reasonably broad range of experience.

And I speak a little bit of French. Looking at the 'Core and Casual' topic for the moment - your company's games have sold very well recently, although they'd probably be considered core even though the Star Wars license for example is hugely mainstream?
Chris Kingsley

Yes, I think that would be a fair thing to say. It's an interesting problem - there's definitely a range of games out there, probably a wider range than there's ever been before, and that's really exciting - there is a difference between core and casual.

A lot has changed in the last couple of years, and it's great to see the innovation coming back in a lot of things. A great thing about casual games is that because they tend to be a lot smaller it's easier to just try something new.

When games are big, the sort of 100 plus people that we do at Rebellion, it's difficult to take a risk when the budgets are so high. But when there's a healthy outlet for casual games, it's a chance to take that risk - maybe in a small way, but you can try innovation, you can be incremental, and you don't have to put all of your eggs in one basket.

It means there's a variety of game for all types of people, from young to old - some people just don't have the time to play hours and hours of a game, and it's nice that there are titles out there that recognise that. Other people do, they want to devote hours, weekends, weeks to something, and there are games for them too. I think it's just great, there's that variety that helps the industry - people will just try stuff. Maybe they'll be drawn in one way, but then they'll discover something they hadn't thought about. You talk about a range of games - there's also a wider range of gamers, so what do you think has helped bring that about in the past couple of years?
Chris Kingsley

I think that generally more people are feeling comfortable with games, and one of the reasons is that people are more comfortable with the Internet. Then there's a greater availability of games available for download, which means there's more impulse buying - for a lot of people, especially the casual gamers, a lot of them probably haven't been into a games shop, or bought a games magazine, so it's actually making them aware there are things out there. I'm sure there are a lot of people who have heard of Grand Theft Auto, and even if they had they wouldn't be interested in it.

So I think the Internet has helped a lot, I think the Wii has helped, the DS has helped, but also I think that people see others playing games more - it's become socially accepted. We've got several of generations now who have grown up with games - they're just another form of entertainment now, potentially a very rewarding form, and people come home at night at wonder if they should watch telly, read a book, listen to some music, watch a film - or they might play a game.

One of the great things about games is that they're quite sticky - we present challenges to people, and it's much more of a 'sit forward' type of thing, rather than the 'sit back' type that a lot of the other media are. We ask people to make choices, we present them with options, and I think the best games are the ones which challenge people and make them think, maybe even without them realising it. Do you think that expansion of game audiences is what has allowed videogames to buck the economic downturn we're beginning to see in other sectors?
Chris Kingsley

It's interesting isn't it, the videogames and economic trends? I think the great thing that videogames offer is a good return for your money. While people might say that games are expensive - GBP 20, 30, 40 - movies are also getting expensive these days, particularly with the popcorn and drinks…probably the tickets are the cheapest bits.

If you look at the calculation of how much you spend per hour, games are actually a very cost-effective way of entertaining people. Expansion of audiences is currently benefiting the industry on a number of levels, but obviously that can't continue forever - do you think that videogames will start to replace other entertainment or media forms over time?
Chris Kingsley

It's an interesting thought. I suppose the way to think of it is that every consumer has a certain amount of money they can spend on things, and we're competing for their entertainment dollars - so I guess we are in competition.

But I guess it depends on how people feel, because watching TV or a movie is quite a different experience - playing games is really quite unique in terms of levels of involvement. Movies are great, but after two hours they come to an end. With games you can play them again, and have a different experience.

Maybe you play it on easy to start with, then medium, then hard. Or with some MMOs you play once as a magician, because you already tried it last time with a barbarian - so the great thing with games is the offer a lot of variety, and people see that.

There is competition for entertainment dollars, but games seem to be weathering the storm. Plus of course there's a range - so if people are constrained for money at the moment, there are a lot of titles out there that aren't that old, but are at a very good price.

I think as we see more and more digital download options that will help the industry further, because it will give games a longer tail. I think one of the problems that the industry has faced until now is that if your game is on the shelf, great - but there are an awful lot of other games coming, and it will gradually get sideways.

But then I suppose you'll get another problem - how much screen space do you get [for downloads]? I think part of the problem for some people is that they're looking for certain things, and if those things aren't on the shelf, you just can't buy it. Maybe those people won't mind taking a bit longer to browse electronically, because it's certainly a lot quicker to look online than it is to go find somewhere to park and go to the local games shop. Do you consider MMOs a threat to consumer spend even within the games industry? Has there been an impact from monthly subscriptions, for example?
Chris Kingsley

Well, you have to look at the PC market, because that's really where they are at the moment, and there does seem to have been a weakening there, particularly compared to the consoles. Maybe that could be put down to the MMOs?

But I think MMOs are a different prospect to other types of titles - I think they're incredibly addictive, but I think you'll find lots of people get involved with them mainly for the social element, and playing the game in some ways is almost secondary to the fact they're having fun interacting with their friends. Do you think consoles work better for a wider audience market, because of the consistent price points, lack of having to always think about upgrades - generally - and some sort of guarantee of a game's quality between consoles?
Chris Kingsley

Playing PC games is a much bigger step for a lot of people - it's quite a complicated thing to do, for the amount of times when the game doesn't quite work, so you've got to go and download the right drivers, and then update it with a patch, stuff like that - there are some quite significant barriers to entry for consumers to play a PC game.

One of the great things that consoles do is present somebody with a disc, which they put in the console, and then they play the game. It's much, much easier for people to get started, and until PCs can really get that, it is going to be difficult.

But then PCs are great value - you can get a PC and upgrade it, and in some ways it's got this great strength in terms of flexibility and range of components. But then, it can also be a great weakness, because it does add complexity to the world of playing games.

As a developer, working on consoles games has its issues, and there things you have to work around, but developing PC games also has its issues. So whichever group you choose there are always a decent number of challenges that make it tricky in general. As a multiplatform developer, what's your view of how the next-gen console scene is panning out? It's quite a different place from maybe 12 or even 6 months ago.
Chris Kingsley

It's fascinating, isn't it? What I love about the console market is that you can never bet on someone from one generation to another. Looking back to the earliest days of Nintendo and Atari, companies have come and gone. Sega got out of it, there was Mattel - and Atari in its various guises over the years.

But there's still a demand for games consoles, and I suspect it will keep going because people like the easy-to-use machine. They like the buying of a disc, and it will be interesting to see how digital distribution works out for people.

But it's interesting, based on the previous generation, that you can never guarantee you'll be successful on the next one. You think someone has a great advantage on one generation, then someone else comes in, and it's great for the consumer because the competition is incredibly fierce.

As a developer we're quite agnostic about the platforms we work on. There are advantages to being a multiplatform developer if the platform you're working on isn't as successful as you'd like - because you're not dependent on it doing well.

But there are disadvantages as well - sometimes the type of game you can do can be constrained effectively by the lowest common denominator. But then again, that's an issue that PC development has as well.

Chris Kingsley is the CTO of Rebellion. Part two will follow later. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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