In September two of the UK's most successful development studios — Project Gotham Racing team Bizarre Creations and MotorStorm creator Evolution Studios — were snapped up by Activision and Sony, respectively. Less than a month later and Electronic Arts swooped for BioWare Pandemic, the US super-developer who between them have been responsible for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Neverwinter Nights, Full Spectrum Warrior and Destroy All Humans! And then shortly after the release of Microsoft's biggest game to date — Halo 3 — it was announced that developer Bungie would be doing the opposite and break ranks from its paymasters to once again work as an independent studio.
All of these studios have spoken publicly about the reasons for such upheavals in their business, and while there are certainly some truths in their statements, GamesIndustry.biz took the opportunity to talk with a veteran independent developer to hear another take on some of the year's biggest stories.
David Braben, chairman of Frontier Developments, was at the GameCity festival in Nottingham last week to show off some of the concepts and ideas behind The Outsider, his action thriller set for release some time in 2009. Not only did David have plenty of thoughts on recent acquisitions, he was also willing to discuss how they affect his own business, why remaining independent is at the very heart of the company, and why he's waiting to see if Bungie will announce a PlayStation 3 project...
GamesIndustry.biz: The number of independent developers in the UK is being whittled down again, you're becoming something of a dying breed now...
David Braben: It's interesting because I think we are benefiting from what is probably a short-term thing. Because a lot of independents are changing — Bizarre, Evolution, BioWare Pandemic — that actually we're finding it reasonably easy to recruit. We're also seeing an awful lot of companies doing all of their new recruitment out of the country, particularly in Canada, so we're benefiting to some degree from that although I think it's a short-term thing.
Looking at statistics I think we're down to around 11 independent developers in the UK that have more than 100 staff. Saying we're a dying breed, well, fortunately we've been doing really well but we've got to look at the future. Britain is a much more expensive country to do our development in and we're aware of that. Hopefully we're selling ourselves on the quality of the games, but how long will that apply for? The dollar isn't exactly helping because a lot of our sales — particularly for something like Thrillville — are in the US. It costs us.It's not all doom and gloom as an indie, you're not fighting to survive, right?
We have certainly more opportunities that we can take advantage of. We've just got to think that we've been lucky enough to plan ahead for the long term with some great publishers. We've had projects that have sold pretty well so we've done okay with royalties and things — which I hear is not as common as I thought it was.
Because we've had publishers showing faith in us we've been able to plan long-term and work on technologies long-term and how different projects can fit together. We've been working on engineering tools for this generation for a long time now and it's paying off.But you've had to front the costs of the technology yourselves because you're independent, so costs must be a constant concern?
If we weren't completely independent, which is a huge strength of ours, you try justifying to shareholders the level of expenditure that we've done on tools with no signed project at the time that's going to pay for it. It's done on faith. Throughout the last 25 years I've been in the business it's always been like that. We've had to have the courage of our convictions, that we're going to make this game and it's going to be great. And over time that has paid off. That's the point of being independent. Actually, we're much more lithe and flexible. One of the things that interests me on that point is why is Bungie moving away from Microsoft? It's almost the flip side of the coin.That seems to have been quite a surprising move, almost a rare thing to happen these days, do you think?
I remember back in the PSone days there were issues with Psygnosis after Sony bought them, where you have a game that is cancelled internally and you've got a whole team sitting around on the payroll. I wonder if that's what happened with Microsoft, I don't know this, it's speculation, but that's the flip side of the coin that often publishers don't look at. Whether it was a falling out or a conscientious business decision. The key question is whether we'll see PS3 games from them. It may be a PR jaunt to see if there's any interest. Maybe we'll see a similar announcement from Rare.
The point about developers like us is that we are lean and mean and very efficient and we plan massively ahead. I haven't really seen that within publishers. If anything, I've seen knee-jerk development where a fortune is spent on a license and the poor old dev teams are given six or seven months to come up with a game that turns out to be so-so. That's tragic and leaves all involved burnt out.Your strength is in your reaction time...
We're very flexible and we don't have to justify in quite the same way. Decisions can be made in minutes, not in hours, weeks or months. A lot of decisions at bigger publishers have to go to shareholders meetings and they don't have the litheness that we have. Also, we can do things in other fields. We've been recruiting continuously since we started, we don't recruit in bursts so we are able to be fussy about the people we take on and fortunately we get loads of people applying.
The problem that we have when it comes to licensed products, is a lot of publishers look at it as "what are you man-month costs?". We have a particular figure and there's no denying we're more expensive than Canada. We're already on the back foot at that point so we've then got to justify it. Fortunately we've been able to retain the IP that we work on or at least own jointly, and that's very powerful. But look what happened with Tomb Raider and Crystal Dynamics taking over the licence. I'm sure it was the right thing to do because the game had gone down hill but was it also because development was cheaper?Speaking to Bizarre Creations, the justification for becoming part of a bigger company is that it's now free to concentrate purely on making games rather than worrying about the day-to-day business dealings.
I suspect there was a king's shilling in there somewhere that isn't being recognised. But having said that, whatever people say it's going to mean some reduction in flexibility in terms of what game to work on a when to work on it. Generally there will be a honeymoon period of six months or a year but there will be a crunch time and there will be a game that needs developing and the whip will get cracked. Looking at it, they can both be very professional about it. I think Activision is a great company so I've got every hope that it will work well. But what you're really doing is trading some flexibility for security.Are you ever tempted to take the money and run?
[laughs] Yes!Seriously though, have you been at that point in the past where it has been 50/50 as to whether you could carry on being an independent development team?
No, not for a long time. We have in the past. Things don't go quite how you expect them to go, but fortunately it hasn't happened for quite a long time. Who knows what's around the corner? It only takes one project to not perform to forecasts. Hopefully that's not going to happen, fingers crossed, but it's a high risk business.
So yes, for that reason a huge wedge of cash is attractive. But the flip side is that I really love what we are doing, and the things that we are doing now, could we do if were weren't independent? A lot of our flexibility comes from the fact that we've got our own tools that are unique. If we had to integrate with some massive tool chain, well, just look at some of the bigger publishers that are forever licensing third-party solutions which never actually solve their problems other than for perhaps one or two games. You're trading one set of problems for another and whilst you may think that you've gotten rid of one problem you don't realise the iceberg you've just acquired.Would The Outsider have gotten as far as it has today if you weren't independent?
I would be astonished if it had ever been allowed to get off the ground because if you look at the scale of what we had to do from the very start, we didn't even begin to try selling it until we knew it was saleable — that we had enough to show that it is a great game. At the start it was a twinkle in the eye. Imagine presenting something to a board that wants a vertical slice of gameplay, they want this, they want that. It just wouldn't get green lit internally at a big publisher.How can you justify sticking your neck out on a project like that?
Well, you justify it because the prize is huge. Look at something like Grand Theft Auto. It was first conceived as a 2D top-down game which worked quite well and was a surprising seller. Again, Roller-coaster Tycoon initially didn't sell well but gradually grew into a huge seller. But there was mass scepticism within the industry. People forget that. EA almost didn't publish The Sims. They thought they'd humour Will Wright because he's done good stuff in the past and it ended up as the world's number one seller.
That is exactly the point. These things would not get embraced by big business. In terms of return on investment you've got to be able to forecast, usually based on an existing title. Perhaps that's why we have so many first-person shooters. Because it's easy to forecast the levels of sale based on a combination of previous sales, focus tests and how well it's likely to score. Whereas, with something that's got a unique element it's much, much harder to do. What it takes is the unusual publishers, someone like LucasArts, who were happy to go with Thrillville — a new IP, a new approach — I take my hat off to them. It doesn't apply to all publishers, some are very perceptive. There's plenty of hope for Activision and Bizarre, Activision is not a bad publisher so there's every chance that relationship will work.
David Braben is chairman of Frontier Developments. Interview by Matt Martin.