It's easy to categorise the UK development industry as an industry in crisis - and faced with regular reports of layoffs, studios closing, titles being cancelled and financial results disappointing, it's not hard to see why so many people choose to regard the industry in that way. It's a perception which may well be just as damaging to the UK industry as the actual difficulties they face in the current market themselves - but a few events over the past months have given cause to question whether it's actually a fair view to take.
This week, for example, saw the launch of Fable in North America - a title developed by a small studio in Surrey, Big Blue Box, albeit with a helping hand from larger (but still independent) studio Lionhead. The game has rapidly become one of the best selling Xbox titles of all time, smashing through 350,000 units sold in a matter of days. Not bad for a studio in a country whose development industry is apparently in crisis.
Only a few weeks ago, Burnout 3 was topping charts around the globe; and while Criterion may now belong to EA, it's worth noting that the vast bulk of the work on that title, and on the franchise which spawned it, took place while the firm was effectively an independent developer. They may not quite be producing chart-toppers to match Burnout and Fable, but many other UK studios are bringing in a wealth of solid, on-time and on-budget titles. From the far northern reaches which house Scottish development studios like Visual Science down to the (occasionally) sunny south coast, home to the likes of Climax and Kuju's southern studios, there are product success stories everywhere.
That's all very well, of course, but if the financial results aren't there to go with the quality of games being produced, it's not a lot of use to anyone - especially not to nervous publishers who don't want to hand over their projects to developers who might not be there in a few months time. Here, there's no doubt that there's a problem; some UK studios simply aren't coping, financially. Many have gone under already. Some more will probably disappear before Christmas, including at least one well-known studio whose demise is already being rumoured in development circles.
However, taking a closer look at the UK industry shows that it's not fair to tar the entire community of development businesses with this brush. We're exceptionally loath to describe the studios which have gone bust, some of which were hugely talented, as dead wood, but the fact is that the rocky road the industry has travelled in recent years has left behind a core of studios which are exceptionally talented, very well managed, and provide a shining example of how to run a development studio anywhere in the world.
Kuju is a perfect example of this type of studio; a company which has a reputation for delivering games on-time and on-budget, and which recently turned itself around and reported a fairly healthy profit figure. Argonaut, although beset by difficult financial results this year due to the late signing of a project, is a busy and industrious studio which has proven its worth to publishers time and again. And to pick a third studio - at risk of ignoring many of the exceptionally talented UK studios out there - Visual Science in Dundee is another company which has built an enviable reputation among publishers and which certainly shows no signs of being a firm in the midst of an industry "crisis".
Even those companies facing difficulty are braving it in clever and innovative ways. Take Warthog, for example; a firm which has felt the pain of losing much of its work for hire business over the past year or so, not least because of the weakness of the dollar which makes European firms much more expensive to hire for US publishers. Its response has been to develop a range of innovative and interesting intellectual properties - a gamble, certainly, but one which we sincerely believe that the company can pull off.
It's certainly likely that we're going to see at least one more UK developer go bust before Christmas. There may be more rounds of layoffs elsewhere, or companies struggling due to cancelled projects. However, before the hand-wringing starts over the state of the industry, it's worth looking at the many examples of success which still exist in the UK - all a testament to hard work, creative and business talent, and in some cases, downright bloody-mindedness. It's certainly no picnic in the UK development industry at the moment, but talk of a crisis seems misguided right now. The fittest are surviving, just as they always have.
Rob Fahey is GamesIndustry.biz' editor, and can be reached at [email@example.com].
This editorial originally appeared in the GamesIndustry.biz News Digest, a free email news bulletin which is distributed to subscribers every day of the week and features a round-up of the key headlines of the day, the latest major share movements from industry companies, and the day's new job postings. Each Thursday afternoon, this digest is presented in a special omnibus form with the week's game charts and an editorial focus piece.
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