Post­cards From The Clip­ping Plane

Con­ve­niently ig­nor­ing the se­ri­ous side of videogame de­vel­op­ment

EDGE - - SECTIONS - JAMES LEACH James Leach is a BAFTA Award-win­ning free­lance writer whose work fea­tures in games and on tele­vi­sion and ra­dio

James Leach con­sid­ers the cycli­cal na­ture of de­vel­op­ment

To a cer­tain ex­tent, de­vel­op­ers are people too. This isn’t a pop­u­lar view, but it’s backed up by grow­ing amounts of ev­i­dence. Like hu­mans, they once emerged from their domi­ciles, went into fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion and then got jobs within global game-mak­ing cor­po­ra­tions. Here they thrived, put to use for up to 18 hours a day mak­ing huge games, which got re­leased ev­ery three to four years.

The de­vel­op­ers were as­sim­i­lated into the wider world, a fact that barely reg­is­tered with the real people there. A few learned to drive cars. And there’s at least one anec­do­tal re­port of cross-breed­ing with the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion. The in­te­gra­tion per­sists to this day, only high­lighted when games get blamed for re­al­world vi­o­lence, or a de­vel­oper ap­pears on TV and the au­di­ence won­ders why they seem odd.

De­vel­op­ers do have brains; doc­tors have con­firmed this. But they work dif­fer­ently. They’re so­lu­tion-find­ing ma­chines. They solve co­nun­drums and in­vent things. So­lu­tions are vi­tal in their line of work, but el­e­gance is revered. They’re en­gi­neers, math­e­ma­ti­cians and artists, toil­ing in an ab­stract space, us­ing lan­guages that to me, af­ter 20 years, still look like a tod­dler’s been at the key­board.

But the world has changed and now ev­ery­one’s all about apps, mo­bile gam­ing, and web-based en­ter­tain­ment. Some of the de­vel­op­ers, hav­ing watched this in de­tached be­muse­ment, are now won­der­ing whether they should be get­ting in­volved. It’s likely that – af­ter years of leav­ing their moun­tain bikes in gi­ant car parks and work­ing in huge build­ings with HR de­part­ments – some erect shrines to the god Notch, hop­ing to en­tice his spirit into their un­tidy flats. Oth­ers ap­ply their cre­ative skills and start in­vent­ing apps in the 20 min­utes af­ter they get home and be­fore they have to go to bed. And some band to­gether like meerkats and leave their jobs to start new com­pa­nies.

What all the new game star­tups have in com­mon is a lack of cash, a largely un­suit­able work­ing en­vi­ron­ment (above a bar­ber’s shop or a floor of a crum­bling Ge­or­gian man­sion are pop­u­lar), and masses of lib­er­ated enthusiasm.

I used to work with a guy who, with­out fail, re­ferred to pounds as ‘cred­its’. The last I heard, he’s in prison

An­other thing new star­tups don’t lack is ideas. I can think up five great lit­tle games I’d love to play and that no one else has done. I’m not boast­ing, be­cause you can too. And that’s just puzzle games. Add in all the other things just beg­ging to be made, such as in­te­grated cal­en­dars, lo­ca­tion-based help­ful things and pro­duc­tiv­ity soft­ware ( what­ever that is), and you’d never run out of great things to code.

The best thing about all this? No­body else is do­ing it! Oh, wait. Ev­ery­body else is do­ing it. We’re back to the early mi­cro­com­puter days, when the pages of Pop­u­lar Com­put­ing Weekly and New Com­puter Ex­press were packed with lists of things you could buy on cas­sette for £5.95: small ZX Spec­trum space games, slightly larger Com­modore 64 driv­ing games, and tax plan­ning pro­grams if you had an Am­strad. No­body had any money to prop­erly advertise these things, but if you did and what you were sell­ing wasn’t ut­terly mori­bund, you could suc­ceed. Just ask Kevin Toms.

We have re­turned to those times, and our brave meerkat/de­vel­oper hy­brids are throw­ing code at great ideas, then throw­ing those ideas at the app stores. And, yes, the mar­ket is there. It’s huge. Where once we thought big PC and con­sole games were get­ting so pop­u­lar that ev­ery man, woman and child was be­com­ing a hard­core gamer, that’s changed too. We’ve re­verted to a time when hard­core gamers do ex­ist (and in num­bers), but the rest of us are play­ing tiny games on our phones and iPads.

On the whole, the de­vel­oper meerkats surge on, free of big com­pany meet­ings, and the fear that some­one they worked with and loathed three mono­liths ago will be parachuted in as their pro­ducer. Life is good, and they don’t even worry about money. I used to work with a guy who, with­out fail, re­ferred to pounds as ‘cred­its’. The last I heard, he’s in prison af­ter steal­ing a link of sausages from a shop.

Then the money runs out. The first three apps, while ground­break­ing, were 99p, and who in their right mind would pay that for sev­eral hours of puz­zling fun? The de­vel­op­ers sadly un­plug their PCs and that tri­an­gu­lar phone con­fer­ence thing in the meet­ing room and the CVs go out to the gi­ant cor­po­ra­tions again. This time, though, our he­roes have added ‘Co-founder, Shin­goo En­ter­tain­ment Ltd’ to the top. They’re not go­ing in as they left – they’re look­ing for much more. These guys are now en­trepreneurs. They bring a wealth of new ex­pe­ri­ence to the ta­ble. Ex­cept it’s not a ta­ble. It’s the same desk they left in 2011. And, yes, that’s the same PC they’ll be cod­ing end­less sequels on. Hello, old friend. Let’s see if you take as long to boot up as you used to.

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