Everyone likes to see the little guy triumph. Ask any child what their favourite bible story is, and there's a good chance that they'll name David and Goliath; rooting for the underdog has been a natural part of human nature for thousands of years. That said, it's not every day that you see the David and Goliath story being played out in the real world - and especially not in the business world.
For example, you just don't expect a small publisher and even smaller developer to come out of nowhere and challenge a market leader which not only completely dominates a specific sector, but actually created that entire genre in the first place, and walk off with anything other than bruised pride. But yet that's exactly what publisher BigBen and Welsh developer Broadsword Interactive did with Dance:UK last Christmas, challenging Japanese giant Konami in the dancing game market it had created with Dance Dance Revolution several years ago - and by February, the two companies had shipped a massive 500,000 copies of the game in the UK.
"Big Ben were looking to produce software to help sell their hardware and liked the idea of a dance game," explains Broadsword managing director David Rowe, on the topic of the project's genesis. "But once they'd seen what we'd done, they were so impressed that they quickly revised their plans upwards."
Initially devised as a simple project to help shift dance mats, then, Dance:UK quickly became a key part of BigBen's portfolio - and took centre stage on the publisher/distributor's stand at ECTS last Autumn. This focus on the product was a key part of the success of Dance:UK, Rowe believes.
"Brilliant and committed development team combined with superb marketing and distribution by BigBen," is his instant response to a question about the key factors in the success of the chart-topping title. "It just goes to show that two relatively small companies can create a big success - I dare say that had we taken this to a larger publisher it may well have got lost in their huge portfolio."
Last Year's Toys
Of course, Dance:UK isn't just a success story for BigBen and Broadsword - it's also a telling example of how successful titles for the venerable PSone can be, even in this day and age, and it places the two small companies on the surprisingly short list of firms which have recognised the potential of the older hardware for selling specialist products.
The decision to develop Dance:UK for the PSone was "purely a publisher decision based on demographics," according to Rowe. "The game was devised to appeal to a younger audience and in particular girls. It seems that when new hardware appears, the previous kit gets passed down to younger brothers and sisters, so we decided that there must still be a healthy market of younger players just waiting for something new."
While many companies talk about the need to broaden the demographic target audience of the games industry, then, Broadsword has been doing exactly that, with the key to reaching the elusive female audience being to create a game that appealed to them - on hardware which was accessible to them. "There are definitely still huge opportunities [on PSone] for the right products," says Rowe.
"In the main we targeted the younger girls, and youngish (early thirties) parents who are aware of consoles. It was certainly a popular Christmas present in a lot of UK households this year. We were surprised by the number of boys that bought and played the game - the numbers were much higher than we would have guessed."
Of course, none of this is strictly speaking news - since Konami's Dance Dance Revolution games (repackaged as Dancing Stage in Europe) have already laid the groundwork for this market to a significant degree. Dance mats, however, represent a very significant shift for console gaming, one which is being perpetuated by the likes of Sony's Eye Toy and SingStar titles - a move away from joypads, and towards a more physical and social way of enjoying videogames.
Indeed, Broadsword is even thinking about Dance:UK and its progeny (an expansion pack for the game launches today in the UK, an Italian version with some localised songs is almost finished and further titles in the range are a near-certainty) in terms of health benefits.
"We are actively exploring opportunities with the Sports and Science Department of Aberystwyth University, which has fantastic facilities and a desire to work closely with us," reveals Rowe, "so I'd say that yes, there are definitely other ways to expand upon what we've already done."
In fact, the relationship with Aberystwyth University has been an important one for Broadsword (which has its origins in the Broadsword TV production company responsible for popular UK kids game show Knightmare) for several years. Rowe describes the company's ties with the university as a "fantastic relationship", pointing out that as well as the obvious benefits of working with an education and research institution, the company also has access to the university's extremely fast communications network and cutting-edge motion capture facilities, which were used extensively in the creation of Dance:UK.
Although all the pieces were certainly in place for a success with Dance:UK - an ignored market crying out for products, a genre of game that has an appeal well outside the traditional demographic, a focused publisher and a developer with the talent and resources to bring it all together, it's still hard to escape the feeling that Broadsword must have been intimidated by the concept of taking on one of Konami's most lucrative divisions.
"Naturally Konami are a great inspiration," says Rowe when we pose the question directly. "We relished the challenge of coming up against a publisher of their stature and we racked out brains on how to improve on the display of the step triggers. We wanted to make the whole game much more contemporary and appealing with 3D graphics, which is why we went on to produce the points of a compass with arrows coming towards you, and rotate the whole set 45 degrees and hey presto - an eight-way dance mat was born."
Of course, it wasn't all plain sailing, and Rowe highlights an extremely short development window (with deadlines driven by retail demands) and the difficulties of sorting out clearance for music tracks as the main challenges the company faced. But in producing what is probably the first bona fide hit videogame title to come from a Welsh studio, small size was an advantage, he believes. "Being small and committed, we were able to meet those demands and maintain a degree of flexibility," he says.
Of course, the proof of the success of any project - stellar sales figures aside - is the willingness of a company to do it all again. "Absolutely!" enthuses Rowe, asked if the company is planning to work on any similar projects in future - perhaps with other peripherals that have an appeal outside the core games market. "Watch this space."