On the eve of the release of a new generation of consoles from Microsoft and Sony, Martyn McLaughlin examines whether Scotland’s industry of game developers stand to benefit from the Xbox One and Playstation 4.
THE pace of change in the games industry over the past five years means that it takes a combination of bravery and fortune to predict with any accuracy what the future has in store. Ever since the emergence of mainstream digital distribution platforms such as the App Store and Steam, the science of prophecy and prognostication has proved inexact. Mobile, tablet and browser gaming have irrevocably changed the marketplace, but from suggestions that the seventh generation consoles would be the last to the idea that long-established publishers would embrace a free-to-play model en masse, hindsight reveals innumerable predictions to be rash. Gaming, simply put, is an arena where futurologists would be advised to tread lightly.
With the impending release of a new generation of consoles, the range of platforms available is unprecedented, and what little space remains will be squeezed further come the launch of Valve’s Steam Box, notwithstanding any inroads that might be made by the likes of the Ouya, Nvidia Shield and GameStick. For consumers who value choice, these are halcyon days; but for developers operating in an ever-fragmented market, the choice of which platform to focus no longer as straightforward as it was a decade ago.
A report prepared by analysts, Superdata, and released last month by Digital River, capture a snapshot of an industry ebbing and flowing. Back in 2008, home consoles were at its vanguard, a platform favoured by 42% of gamers surveyed. The PC contingent came a close second with a healthy 37% share, while mobile accounted for just five per cent. Fast forward to 2013 and the deck has been shuffled. Nowadays, just 30% of consumers regard consoles at their primary gaming platform, with more than half (51%) plumping for PC and an increasing proportion (13%) choosing mobile.
As the tectonic plates continue to shift, what opportunities are offered by Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s Playstation 4? In Scotland, where a resounding 97% of developers worked on digital only titles last year according to the Scottish Games Network trade body, the question may seem extraneous at first. But the power and profile of such machines and their triple A rosters means that, for better or worse, they continue to be synonymous with gaming itself in the eyes of many. As Brian Baglow, SGN’s founder and director, explained: ”As far as the ‘games industry’ is concerned, the consoles are still where it’s at.”
As things stand, only one of the country’s 96 games development firms, 4J Studios, has confirmed it is working on titles for the new generation. In addition to the imminent release of a Playstation 3 version, the East Linton developers are producing Minecraft for Playstation 4 and Xbox One. “For us guys in the software industry, the consoles raise massive opportunities,” the company’s chairman, Chris van der Kuyl, told Scotsman Games last week. “Consoles are here to stay and they’re not going to be defeated by people using tablets or mobile, which is a different type of gaming.”
It would, meanwhile, be inadvisable to presume against Rockstar North entering the fray. The only uncertainty is with what game, be it an updated version of Grand Theft Auto V, an expanded Grand Theft Auto Online title, or an entirely new intellectual property - admittedly an unlikely prospect any time soon, given the Herculean resources that went into its California-inspired blockbuster. What, though, of the other companies, the vast majority of whom are denied the luxury of multimillion pound financing and lengthy development cycles?
Glasgow’s Firebrand Games is a firm with extensive experience in developing across every major console platform, up to and including the Wii U. For the lion’s share of its seven year existence, it has worked for publishers on major franchises, putting its proprietary cross-platform Octane 5 engine to use on titles such as Need for Speed: The Run and Fast & Furious Showdown. Recently, however, it has focused on its own IP, such as the critically-acclaimed Solar Flux HD. Having straddled both sides of the fence, it is a firm well positioned to offer a reasoned assessment of what Xbox One and Playstation 4 have to offer.
“For many small indie developers the main reason for choosing mobile and or PC is the lower barrier to entry,” explains Pete Shea, Firebrand’s creative director. “Anyone can develop on these platforms and you don’t need either a publisher or an office to gain entry, or large testing costs to cover platform certification as you have in the past on consoles. Make a fun game, publish it yourself, promote and update it after launch - it’s a very different model to the one games for consoles have traditionally followed which was always: make a bug free finished game, market it for many months in advance and then release it.
“For us, however, as an established developer we don’t really face these same barriers to entry, we have many published titles behind us and had already published games on Steam for example, so once we’d shown Solar Flux to Valve we did not need to go through their green light process. The decisions about platforms then for us are about exposure and size of market.”
Like many developers, Firebrand were greatly enthused the digital marketplace for indie games during the formative years of Playstation Network (PSN) and Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA). Over time, though, the appeal of the platforms lessened as the virtual shelf space became cluttered courtesy of a weekly slew of releases. “While the indie games markets on PSN and XBLA on Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 were great initially they soon became flooded with titles and sales outside of a few very successful outliers were not great,” reflects Shea. “Likewise with the 3DS Store and Wii U. It seemed the vast majority of console gamers really wanted AAA console game experiences. So this led us and others focusing on mobile and Steam where indie games seemed more accepted and could flourish.”
It is a modus operandi shared by Stormcloud Games, a Dundee studio launched by Frank Arnot, Andy West and Pat McGovern, who between them can draw on over five decades of development experience across a spectrum of platforms. The prohibitive development costs for the premier consoles, says Arnot, means that the company simply has no interest in throwing its hat in the ring for the new generation. “The fact of the matter is that AAA console development is incredibly difficult and incredibly expensive,” he explains. “With the exception of Rockstar North there are no other studios in Scotland capable of developing original content of right quality for these new consoles.
“My own company does not view these new devices as platforms of interest, and neither do I believe do most other Scottish studios. The reason? There is a thriving market for games beyond these two consoles – mobile, tablet and PC, all of which have much lower barriers to entry. Indie PC gaming, and Steam in particular is going through something of a renaissance, and already we have Scottish developers such as Cobra Mobile and Blazing Griffin exploiting these channels successfully.”
The mobile market may well allow for greater affordability and experimentation, but it is in no way a panacea for developers in Scotland. The App Store and Google Play, just like PSN and XBLA, have become increasingly crowded, with numerous titles offering the same core gaming experience with a few cynically tweaked bells and whistles. Lest anyone be in doubt as to the scale of the deluge, metrics analysis by 148Apps show that while there were just 36,941 items in the App Store in October 2008, of which 33,185 were games, the tally had spiralled to 774,441 and 174,787 respectively last month.
As a result, developers need not only focus on designing and coding the best game possible, but reinvent themselves as wizards of publicity and business management. Success in the mobile market is dependent on a dizzying array of factors, and the quality of the title is just one of them. Timing, pricing, word of mouth and even the design of an app icon must be well-judged if a firm is to be heard above the clamour and stand a chance of emulating the success of HalfBrick or Rovio. “You have to be the equivalent of the one man bands you see busking on high streets,” bemoans one native developer.
How then, will the new consoles from Microsoft and Sony impact on this disruptive market? The vast public relations drive on the part of both firms has had mixed success so far and the courting of the indie community is no exception. The Redmond giant suffered a backlash in May amid doubts over whether the Xbox One would permit self-publishing. The public struggled to hear a clear and definitive message on the issue and the ambiguity proved damaging, incurring the wrath of well-known indie developers like Phil Fish. “Let me tell you something, most indies I know already don’t want to publish on a Xbox console, publisher or no publisher,” tweeted the Fez creator. “Microsoft doesn’t care about indie developer[s].”
A fortnight ago, however, the company embarked on a major charm offensive, revealing the the add-on for the powerful game creation tool, Unity, will be given free to developers who register for the Xbox independent developers program, ID@Xbox, with special Xbox One-only Unity Pro seat licenses for Xbox One developers. It was both grand gesture and statement of intent, resulting in favourable, if vigilant responses from indies the world over.
Sony, meanwhile, has adopted a more consistent approach in its courting of developers, perhaps buoyed by the success of titles like Journey, a system seller for the Playstation 3. It announced at an early stage of the Playstation 4 marketing juggernaut that indies will be able to work with the multinational to nail down release dates as well as promote their titles via Playstation-branded blogs and social media accounts. It also revamped its submission process, meaning that microstudios need only have the concept of a game approved as opposed to an alpha version. The approach looks to have reaped dividends already; five of the Playstation 4 launch titles come from independent companies.
Luke Dicken, founder of Glasgow-based Robot Overlord Games and a director of the global International Game Developers Association (IGDA), believes the charm offensive is to be tentatively welcomed. “Both Sony and Microsoft are offering great opportunities for indie developers to have their work released on their respective platforms,” he says. “The recent announcement that Xbox One developers will also receive a license for Unity Pro for that platform is a major step. Unity is the tool of choice for many game developers and allowing us to use workflows we’re already familiar with - and which allow us to make games for all the major platforms - is a significant breakthrough in enabling great cross-platform support.
“Sony have also pledged support for the Unity platform, so in a sense, the core focus isn’t an either/or proposition - with the caveat of adapting for the difference between touch and controller input, a lot of core gameplay code can be shared between games targeting a range of platforms. This a very pro-developer move by the major platforms, allowing a lot more openness and inter-operability such that developers can focus on the games themselves, leading to higher quality products.”
The question remains, however, as to whether the problems of visibility that have plagued the mobile market and the console digital platforms will be repeated on the new generation of Microsoft and Sony machines. “The major hurdle to overcome on the new platforms from a developer perspective remains the same on the existing platforms,” admits Dicken, also director of the IGDA’s Scottish chapter. “Having a route onto the store is just the first hurdle, which is being solved well, but it remains to be seen how the new platforms will allow players to find the games that are releasing, which is the main stumbling block when thinking about profitability.”
Baglow believes there are a great many other questions that require clarity before a robust assessment of the new consoles can be made. While he says many developers will be “very interested” in working for the platforms, their relevance to small and medium sized companies remains “a little up in the air.” High costs, he points out, may preclude developers from pursuing their own IPs, possibly leading to more work for hire contracts, while issues like revenue share, price points, platform exclusivity and the actual process of browsing and purchasing a game are as yet uncertain.
“None of these questions are entirely clear yet,” he concludes. “So, yes, developers are gamers, so they’ll be really keen to see what they can do on the new devices, but it’s going to take a while before any developers in Scotland jump in, because they don’t know what the market will be like, what the audience will be like or what they’re likely to make from their games until the new consoles are well established on the market. Clearly developers already working on projects, or with games they can port straight to the new consoles will make earlier appearances, like 4J and Rockstar North, but for everyone else, it may be late 2014 or early 2015 before you see any original new titles from companies in Scotland.”
Other industry veterans told Scotsman Games that with the “waning” interest in consoles and a decreasing circle of publishers, creativity will continue to be stifled on the major platforms in favour of guaranteed revenue generators. Lol Scragg, co-founder of Binary Pumpkin, predicts that most Scottish developers will probably get involved with the platforms via the indie channels, and even then, “maybe only with ports of their existing products.” That aside, he expects “the same old, huge selling blockbusters every year with only a few pieces of innovation appearing here and there,” arguing that Microsoft and Sony have to switch to a digital distribution model at some point in the consoles’ life cycles.
For Shea and Firebrand, the outlook regarding Xbox One and Playstation 4, as well as the growing Wii U market, is indicative of the stance many are adopting - one of cautious optimism. “Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are making big efforts to change, but I think there still remains a scepticism [over whether] there are genuine opportunities for small indie companies to thrive there,” he explains. “Like many others we are very much taking a wait and see approach, although we are discussing bringing Solar Flux to consoles and are in the fortunate position of having our own cross-platform technology that makes porting our games to these platforms relatively easy.
“The key challenge for any indie developer is no longer, how do I make a cool game but rather how does anyone find out about my game in the first place, never mind decide to buy it. So this is where developing indie games for console could really help them get exposure - the games media still largely likes to write about console games, and you need all the exposure you can get when you don’t have the marketing budgets of huge publishers.”
He adds: “Given just how difficult all games markets are for indie developers right now, and [it is] likely to get even tougher, I’d urge indies to try and get their games on as many platforms as they can, including consoles. You need as much exposure and opportunities for sales as you can get. You can have a big hit on mobile only, but it’s becoming increasingly unlikely, no matter how good your game is, unless you are very lucky, catch a zeitgeist or manage to be in the right place at the right time with the right product.”
Dicken agrees: “It’s still far too early to tell if the Xbox One or PS4 will prove to be great opportunities for developers in Scotland, but so far things are promising. We could easily see a resurgence of console game development, but likely alongside our great existing mobile development, rather than in place of it.”
Given that the new consoles are likely to enjoy a lifespan of around a decade, it is nigh on impossible to predict how the industry will look in 2023. What is clear that the technical architecture of each allows for deep integration with their supposed rivals - smartphones and tablets - as well as social networks. The potential is there for a complementary process of development with major studios focusing on a triple A game, while smaller developers work on the likes of accompanying Smartglass applications. That scenario, however, is dependent on any number of assumptions about how the next few years will pan out. The truth is, no one knows.
In Scotland, there is reason to be hopeful that companies will thrive following the emergence of the Scottish Games Network. Under Baglow’s tutelage, the trade body is exploring concepts like pooled promotional activity, a heightened media presence and dedicated Scottish indie gaming bundles. Certain factors, such as visibility in digital marketplaces, are problematic for the industry at large, and it remains unclear if the SGN can hit upon an elusive answer to age-old problems. But by targeting the areas of the Scottish industry where it can have a tangibly positive impact, its growth stands to be beneficial.
Scragg, meanwhile, offers a delightfully Rumsfieldian ‘known unknown’ that should give cheer to one developer from these shores. “There will be at least one Scottish studio that isn’t Rockstar that will do some great things on these new consoles,” he suggests. “There always is, and we probably have no idea who it is at the moment.”