OPINION: Independent development in crisis in the UK
Hallow'een is only just past us, but a quick glance at the UK sales charts reveals that Christmas is already getting into full swing at videogame retailers across the country. By all accounts, it's going to be a hell of a Christmas too - with publishers and retailers alike confidently predicting the largest quarter ever for the industry's revenues, and a strong possibility that videogames will finally overtake music sales at retail for the first time.
Our industry is doing well - better than ever before - but that's little consolation if you're working in the UK independent development industry, or, as is entirely likely, if you worked in that industry until a few weeks ago. The past seven days has seen yet another respected independent developer with a solid track record and some well-received titles to its name go into liquidation, with Guildford-based Mucky Foot shutting its doors last week following reports that its main project had been pulled by its publisher.
What's more, this wasn't even a risky original IP project; it was a movie license based on a big budget Hollywood action film, and hence the kind of project that's meant to be a safe bet for developers and publishers alike. Mucky Foot's demise is just the latest page in a depressing chapter for UK development, with Lost Toys, Computer Artworks, Silicon Dreams, Attention to Detail and HotGen all also in the dead pool for the past six months, to name but a few.
What's going wrong? Some of these casualties have been victims of mismanagement or poor quality control, but many were properly managed, fiscally sensible and extremely talented companies which should by all rights have thrived in an industry that continues to grow at such an alarming pace.
The problem is that the relationship between developers and publishers is changing - and independent studios appear to be becoming increasingly irrelevant. It's not a popular viewpoint, but it's hard not to look at the current state of the industry and wonder if there's any future at all for small independent developers. Companies like EA, Microsoft and Sony don't really need them any more, as large publishers increasingly focus on internal development and suck much of the best talent into themselves. Smaller publishers aren't in a position to take risks on the kind of innovative games that small developers do best. Is the future of independent development simply to be a case of working on film licenses until such time as one of them is cancelled and the firm goes belly up - or is there another way forward for the kind of talented small teams which have made the UK into such a powerhouse for the global games industry?