Sur­vival of the quick­est

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Do the prospects of UK stu­dios lie in their abil­ity to change course?

As high-pro­file clo­sures hit hard, do the prospects of UK stu­dios lie with their abil­ity to change course?

The clo­sures of two of the UK’s most highly re­garded stu­dios has raised new ques­tions about the re­gion’s abil­ity to flour­ish in the ever-evolv­ing videogame in­dus­try. If the Mi­crosoft-owned Lion­head and Sony-owned Evo­lu­tion can’t find suc­cess on th­ese shores in 2016, what does it mean for Bri­tish com­pa­nies that don’t have the back­ing of multi­na­tional, plat­form-own­ing cor­po­ra­tions?

In Bossa Stu­dios, cre­ator of Sur­geon Sim­u­la­tor and the forth­com­ing Worlds Adrift, we find an op­ti­mistic, al­beit re­al­is­tic, per­spec­tive. “It’s a great time here [in the UK], and then there are chal­lenges,” says Hen­rique Oli­fiers, the com­pany’s co-founder and ‘gamer-inchief’. “If you look at things like the tax breaks the UK in­dus­try re­ceived, there’s some ad­van­tages we have now that we asked for over many years, and we fi­nally got some help there. At the other end of the spec­trum, there’s less need to use mid­dle­men and pub­lish­ers, and that’s great. But then the mar­ket out there to­day is very noisy, with a lot of com­pe­ti­tion. So it’s hard, but it’s also a time when it’s eas­ier to do what­ever you want.”

Steam’s ex­plo­sion con­tin­ues, along­side an un­re­lent­ing tide of mo­bile re­leases, while con­sole gam­ing grows in­creas­ingly ac­ces­si­ble for devel­op­ers. Mean­while VR and AR stand as ris­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for devs, while games con­tinue to have com­mer­cial roles out­side of en­ter­tain­ment. But so broad are the op­por­tu­ni­ties, and so nu­mer­ous are those em­brac­ing them, that the real chal­lenge is know­ing where to place bets when the lead­ing plat­forms and mar­kets are so over­crowded. Plac­ing all of your chips on a mod­est range of IPs, gen­res or tech­nolo­gies is a risky strat­egy, as il­lus­trated by the clo­sure of Lion­head and Evo­lu­tion, two stu­dios with ex­tremely nar­row ar­eas of in­ter­est.

“I think it’s a tough time for any­one in a large stu­dio that’s 100 per cent re­liant upon one IP to sur­vive,” says Deb­bie Bestwick, CEO of Team17, the UK com­pany that was founded in 1990 and has evolved its pub­lish­ing am­bi­tions in re­cent years, sup­port­ing a ros­ter of up-and-com­ing in­die teams, in­clud­ing Play­tonic, whose Yooka-Laylee it will pub­lish this year.

“It’s high-risk, hence why we’re see­ing the clo­sures that we are,” Bestwick says. “When you hear crazy sto­ries of game X or Y need­ing to sell five or ten mil­lion copies to break even, that’s an in­sane sit­u­a­tion to be in.”

Bestwick notes that stu­dio over­heads – of­ten adding up to 50 per cent be­yond the base cost of a game’s ac­tual de­vel­op­ment bud­get – borne by some first­party stu­dios and large pub­lisherowned oper­a­tions make it tough to em­brace the ex­per­i­men­tal spirit that has re­sulted in so much suc­cess within games in re­cent years. Oli­fiers recog­nises the in­creas­ing need for flex­i­bil­ity. “We’re in an in­dus­try of tran­si­tion,” he says. “It al­ways is in the games in­dus­try. Ev­ery cou­ple of years you might need to re­boot your whole thing as a stu­dio. Maybe that’s a prob­lem for some. Per­haps some have been set in their ways for too long.”

The abil­ity to adapt has de­fined Bossa’s suc­cess. Since its for­ma­tion, the stu­dio has worked on small mo­bile games, tech­no­log­i­cally am­bi­tious VR projects, and jam-made cu­rios that have de­fined the Let’s Play move­ment, along with count­less con­cepts that never made it be­yond the draw­ing board. Bossa’s ap­proach – be­gin with a di­verse range of cre­atively in­ter­est­ing ideas, then look at if they can be suc­cess­ful, and if the prospects look un­cer­tain, let go – has given it the flex­i­bil­ity to flour­ish while other com­pa­nies, man­a­cled to sin­gle con­cepts and de­fined by them, have strug­gled.

“It’s Dar­winian,” Oli­fiers says. “You have to be pre­pared to evolve to sur­vive. There’s a place for spe­cialised stu­dios, of course, but spe­cial­is­ing too much to­day can prove ex­tremely dif­fi­cult. There’s limited space for those who can’t change.”

But then that’s eas­ier said than done – a fact Bossa knows well. “Things just go badly some­times,” says Imre Jele, the stu­dio’s co-founder and cre­ator-in-chief. “And some­times it can be hard to pivot the di­rec­tion of the stu­dio, ei­ther be­cause it’s not in the na­ture of the peo­ple that run a stu­dio to make that choice, or be­cause the com­pany is locked into a con­tract, limited by its owner or some­thing. The game in­dus­try is in con­stant change, so we have to be ready to change, too. Some com­pa­nies in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions – whether it’s their fault or some­body

“I think it’s a tough time for any­one in a large stu­dio that is 100 per cent re­liant upon one IP to sur­vive”

FROM TOP Bossa’s Hen­rique Oli­fiers, Re­bel­lion’s Ja­son Kings­ley, and Bossa’s Imre Jele

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