Survival of the quickest
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