Brothers John and Ste Pickford are veteran game designers, having founded Zippo Games in the eighties and then Zed Two some ten years later. In October last year, they announced plans to launch two new independent games companies.
The first of these is The Pickford Brothers, described by John as "more than a laboratory than a studio" and a means for the pair to develop original game ideas together. Then there's Zee-3, a "virtual company" whose low overheads mean that only moderate sales are required for a title to be financially successful.
GamesIndustry.biz sat down with Ste Pickford to find out more about Zee-3, and why he believes it's developers who are suffering the most as a result of recent changes in the games industry.
GamesIndustry.biz: What was the thinking behind the foundation of Zee-3?
Ste Pickford: Self-publishing, basically. My brother and I had just been made redundant and we were experiencing real difficulty in getting original game ideas off the ground in the mainstream industry. There was so much hostility towards doing anything that wasn't a sequel or licence based game that we decided to do it ourselves.
That in itself isn't unusual, but publishing it was a different challenge. So we thought we'd call ourselves the Pickford brothers when we were developing, but Zee-3 when publishing online - which kept it separate in our heads.Why did you find it hard to get that original game off the ground?
Risk aversion really, over the years, as budgets have climbed, so has the risk of failure and the value of that failure, up to the point where the industry has got itself into a bit a mess. Everybody is incredibly risk averse, pretty much to the point where there's almost a complete shutoff of new ideas getting into the games.
Nobody planned it that way but the industry has flung itself headlong at the Hollywood business model. Movies have got support structures for new ideas like TV, theatre, arthouse, independent and short films, which allow new ideas and talent to filter up into the big budget movies. By chasing the Hollywood model without establishing these alternative routes for new ideas, the industry has cut itself off from them.
I think it's happened by accident, I don't think its an evil plan by anybody, but a lot of developers such as myself are dropping out of the mainstream industry and doing indie games - and we're having to do that because there's no other outlet.What are the key factors that are pushing developers to go indie?
I think it's just access. It's all down to the Internet, basically. A few years ago there was a bit of a shareware scene, even games like Doom started out as shareware. They were a route into the industry.
But for ten years or more there was room in the industry for innovation and new ideas alongside the safe big hits. It's a combination of the room for experimentation being squeezed out completely and the lack of space for creativity. There's literally almost no space for creative input on a title like FIFA '07, for example, and that's the bulk of development work going on these days.
At the same time, the Internet has opened up a possible avenue, an outlet that allows you to distribute your own games. If you keep your budget small, you don't need to sell that many to make a living. It's possible to reach a worldwide audience, which wasn't really practical 10 years ago.What about XBLA? Does that offer the same kind of opportunities as the Internet?
Well potentially it does, and it's an exciting development. But from what I've heard - and I'm not that clued up on it - Microsoft has been quite limiting in what will come out and the number of games that come out.
Potentially, for people like us it's brilliant, but at the moment I think the door is closed. There are very few people allowed to release games and I think it really comes down to who you know, and whether you're friends with the gatekeeper at Microsoft.Do you think Microsoft is too reliant on familiar games like Uno and Texas Hold 'Em?
It's a bit disappointing that they're being so conservative about it. There's absolutely nothing wrong with Uno coming out on XBLA and it's great that it's a success. It's great that people are making money out a simple game, even if it has got a brand attached to it.
It's good that people are happy to play a game which doesn't have a ten million dollar budget and a 50 man team spending two years on it. People are happy to play a game because it's fun and simple, not high tech.What kind of impact do you think the increase of the size of budgets and teams has had on gaming?
I think its been an absolute disaster. I don't think the implications have been quite clear for people outside the development community, but it has pretty much destroyed the business model for independent games developers.
They've not all gone away, some are still limping on, but the numbers just don't make sense for independent console developers anymore. When the budgets are huge you're so reliant on the publishers, you're not really an independent business - unless you're someone like Lionhead or iD who has had a huge success in the past with a lot of money in the bank as a consequence. T
The cost of development is just too high to compete as a business any more. It's a bit different for publishers but for developers you just wouldn't choose to enter their business now if you had any sense.Is digital distribution part of the solution?
For us it's not just the best way of getting a game out, it's the only way. I think it's a great thing and I think it'll replace retail. Some people aren't sure but I think that producing a game on a physical media, pressing discs in a factory, putting them on a ship or a lorry then taking them halfway round the world just doesn't make sense anymore when you can turn on your computer or console, press a couple of buttons and have the latest version of a game.
It also allows you to update games and to keep developing them in response to your customers' experience. We've seen the negative side of that in the past - PC publishers will release unfinished games and charge full price for them then release the patch, and that's dreadful.
What you see with MMOs is that the game can change in response to the way people are playing it. That's a genuinely new thing for videogames and a fantastic thing in itself. I think once you can distribute content digitally then it doesn't make sense to do it any other way It'll take time to change over because the business model is in place, but to me it just doesn't make sense to sell discs in shops.When do you think the changeover will happen?
I don't know, it's incredibly difficult to predict things in this business. I just think that it is inevitable, whether it's 5, 8 or 10 years.
Most of the arguments against are really from people lacking in imagination - that's the way it is because that's the way it is. Okay, people like buying physical things and I don't think we need to imagine that shops for gamers won't exist anymore, just that it's not the actual games that you'll be buying there.
I can imagine books and concept packaging, maps for adventure games for example, but the game itself would get squirted down the Internet straight to your computer or console.So it seems you perceive there to be significant positives and negatives for the games industry at the moment. Where do you see it heading in the next few years?
Again, it's very difficult to predict and I don't consider myself a sage or expert predictor. But the massive increase in development budgets, which isn't something the developers have got themselves into - it's something that the publishers have brought about because of the way they've gone about fighting for titles, with consolidation and the battle for better graphics - has dragged developers along. And it's been disastrous.
As a developer i see the industry as being in a dreadful state at the minute. The development business has been decimated. But the optimist in me also sees us surviving in the future by returning to small teams - not exclusively, big games wont go away, but I think we'll see a turn toward the smaller products being alllowed to exist alongside.
I think they aren't allowed to exist now because publishers are reluctant to publish them, retailers are reluctant to stock them... These people are the gatekeepers and they haven't allowed them to exist. It's not that gamers haven't shown interest or wanted to play them, they haven't been allowed.
The rise in Internet distribution, indie games and things like XBLA has opened the door again and allowed smaller budget games to exist and succeed.
Also the incredible success of the DS over the PSP has shown that there don't have to be flashy graphics and big budgets. People want a fun game that's simple, can work and will sell and be commercially successful. I hope that all that continues into the future and we get a multi-tiered industry where smaller games can exist alongside the big budget AAA games.
Ste Pickford is co-founder of The Pickford Brothers and Zee-3. Interview by Ellie Gibson.