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Revolving Doors

Studio closures aren't a sign of crisis - just part of the landscape, argues Rob Fahey

In the famous Lloyds building in the City of London, there is a two hundred year old ship's bell which, traditionally, was rung whenever an overdue ship was confirmed to have sunk. Its sonorous tones told the insurers working in the building to cease any transactions on that vessel - while the bell's own history, salvaged from the sunken wreck of a Royal Navy frigate in the mid-1800s, was a reminder of those souls lost to the ocean in this latest maritime disaster.

This past week or so, it's felt rather like we need a similar bell for the games business. A single ring for Stormfront, developers of Neverwinter Nights. A ring for Pseudo Interactive, creators of Full Auto. A ring for the former Blizzard North team at Castaway Entertainment. Last and by no means least, a ring for the Sega Racing Studio in the UK.

In around eight years of writing about the videogames business, game studio closures have been a recurring theme. I distinctly recall, only weeks after starting work for a trade newspaper for the first time, having to make a somewhat harrowing call to a studio boss who had just seen his entire business - and the livelihoods of his employees and friends - being pulled out from under his feet.

It doesn't get any easier, and the human costs of these closures shouldn't be understated. A great many studio bosses do try to do the best they can for their staff in such difficult situations, with the best bosses ensuring that employees are paid and kept informed about the situation as it progresses. (Of course, the industry doesn't lack its fair share of cowboys who don't bother telling anyone anything until the paycheques just dry up, but they're thankfully in a small minority.)

Regardless, it's a tough time for everyone involved - financially, emotionally, and of course, creatively. Nobody works in game development for the jet-setting lifestyle, fast cars and loose women (or men). For many, even those working on projects they wouldn't choose themselves, it's a vocation, a labour of love - and watching the harsh reality of the industry's business destroy the fruits of that labour is tragic and heartbreaking.

Even accepting all of that, however - and with the utmost of sympathy and best wishes for those who find themselves looking for a new beginning after the past fortnight's closures - I think it's absolutely vital to be pragmatic about what such closures mean for the industry.

There's a tendency, when closures are grouped together like this, for the development sector to navel-gaze a bit - pondering the harshness of the business environment, the fickle nature of publishers, the spiralling costs of next-gen development and the assumed bleak outlook for independent developers that results. Although, of course, one of the most high-profile closures of this batch was Sega's own internal Racing Studio, who were by no means independent but seemingly no more secure for it.

The reality, however, is that such closures - regardless of whether they're spread out or clumped together, with the timing largely influenced by a combination of unfortunate coincidence and synchronised project evaluation sessions by publishers - are part and parcel of the industry landscape. Indeed, they're part of the natural lifecycle of development - studios are created, they exist for a certain amount of time, incubating the creative talents of their staff in the process, and then they dissolve, releasing their staff back into the workforce to disseminate their talent to other studios, new and established alike.

Sometimes, the dissolution happens because of a publisher take-over of an independent studio, which inevitably results in a significant number of creative staff leaving over time. Sometimes it simply comes about as a process of attrition over many years at a successful independent studio. More often, however, it comes about because a project is cancelled, and a studio goes bust. It's harsh, but it's the reality of this kind of industry.

Consider, after all, how many movies never make it past the green-light stage - or how many albums are recorded that never end up on the shelves in HMV. Creative industries are, ultimately, not the right place to work if you're looking for stability and security in your employment - and the games business is actually doing better than many of its media industry peers in this regard.

I don't think it's fair, then, to look at how many studios are failing and pronounce an atmosphere of doom and gloom about the industry. What those figures don't tell you is how many new studios are starting up - some of which we'll never hear anything about until they announce a game. It doesn't tell you how many studios are getting funding, or how many have just signed new projects with publishers. Moreover, it doesn't paint the full picture regarding how big team sizes are becoming, with staff who had previously worked at small studios being absorbed into creating huge next-gen titles.

The figure I'd like to look at instead is the one showing how many people in total are working in the games industry - and that, according to just about every measure I've seen in a decade, is rising. More games are being sold, more money is passing through tills, and more people are employed - in the face of that, despite the unfortunate shake-up to the lives of those involved, the bubbling on the surface of the studio landscape is not only immaterial, it's also perfectly natural.

There are things that still need to be addressed in this corner of the industry - concerns over work practices and life/work balance remain pressing despite the lack of attention in the media of late, for instance. However, the future prospects for game development studios aren't something to lose sleep over. Individual studios will always face a fight for survival - but the sector as a whole is in rude health and seems set to stay that way for a long time.

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Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.