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The Great Debate: The Imminent Death Of The UK Games Industry

The Great Debate: The Imminent Death Of The UK Games Industry

August 12, 2011 | By Phill Cameron

August 12, 2011 | By Phill Cameron
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing

In a room full of British games developers, it's perhaps not the best idea to suggest that their industry is on its last legs. It's perhaps not the best idea to claim that they're being screwed over by their government.

And it's especially ill-advised to point at the hollow streets of Doncaster's derelict industrial quarter, then look at them with a note of sadness in your eyes.

At the Gamasutra-attended Edinburgh Interactive conference, there's a tradition of The Great Debate. An ever so slightly exaggerated argument tackling a potentially sore subject within the UK Games Industry.

But the blunt claim that the industry itself is "one life away from a Game Over," no matter how pithy, is going to press some buttons. And not the good, fun buttons of a healthy games industry. The sticky, contempt-filled buttons of a long abandoned Dreamcast controller.

Four panelists sat either side of the Chairman of the discussion, founder of Games Workshop and life president of Eidos, Ian Livingstone. On his left, supporting the claim, was Fred Hasson, executive director of Games Capital Ltd, and Sean Dromgoole, CEO, Some Research & GameVision.

And on his right was Graham Brown-Martin (pictured right), the founder of Learning without Frontiers, and Robert Lowe (pictured left), the marketing manager of Nintendo UK.

While the arguments were delivered sequentially by either side, the crux of the problem revolved around semantics rather than a true, solid argument. Both sides agreed that there was a serious problem within the games industry, with Hasson opening with the statement that the UK's "problems were structural. The development community is not prepared for the changes. For too long it was tied by the bollocks to the publishers."

This isn't an argument about the talent of the UK industry, or whether we can make good games or not; instead, the talk revolved around the role of publishers in all this.

Recent events support this claim. Bizarre and Black Rock were pointed at, symptoms of outside control of British companies, treated with less care because they weren't part of the American industry, weren't protected by a shared nationality to the publishers that owned them. Black Rock was lauded as an excellent developer, who was closed not because they weren't capable of putting out good titles, but because they weren't American.

"We're going to end up with a games industry that's full of talented individuals that's working for the profit of multinational companies that are based elsewhere, not for the benefit of the UK," said Hasson.

The Orwellian idea of Airstrip One, merely a subsidiary of American capitalism, is an uncomfortable idea, especially in a conference room in Edinburgh. That there are no major British publishers any more, where ten years ago there were three in the top ten, is telling. While we have the game studios, and are developing the games, they're generating revenue for companies that owe no allegiance to this country.

So far, so sombre. That the old way of doing things, of creating AAA experiences for fixed hardware, is dying, isn't a particularly surprising idea, especially when the majority of those titles are created outside of the UK. The alternative theory, however, is that while the old industry is dying, there's a new one rising up from the calamity.

Brown-Martin was the man who in 1995 told the music industry that Napster was due any day now. That's not being stated as a credential, but because that was the example he led with. Napster may have fallen, but the music industry is no longer the same beast as it was 15 years ago. Apple is now the largest distributor of music in the world, and they did it all digitally.

While one form of games might have a limited shelf life, that doesn't mean that games are going to cease to be. And just because the UK games industry, on the surface, is struggling, that doesn't mean it's going to wink out of existence.

"Let's not forget the Kinect was born in Cambridge," he noted.

It's a good point, and a salient one. More than anything, this argument revolved around the idea of innovation and adaptation. Even if you were to accept that the UK games industry only had "one life left," it's when you're on that last life that the game itself comes alive. The same is true here; adapt or die, and we're already seeing signs of adaptation. Media Molecule were referenced more than once, on top of the current best selling DS game Art Academy, developed in the UK. All that's not to mention the dozens of indie games companies thriving right now.

No one wants to proclaim an industry's death. The idea itself was deliberately controversial, to stimulate discussion. That things turned so serious, so quickly, belied the fact that there is a genuine fear here that things aren't how they used to be, and that we can't rely on the fact that we rose up on the BBC Micro 30 years ago, or point to Rockstar North as an example of the national industry's health. However, that doesn't mean that there's just one last gasp left.

Neither side could bring themselves to go that far. Both of them were coming up with alternatives, with Hesson and Dromgoole imploring the government to create a "fair playing field" for games developers and publishers. Even things out with France and Canada, which, while not necessarily meaning tax breaks, definitely required something done.

On the other side, with Brown-Martin and Lowe, there was just a shrug. Everything's fine. It's different, but it's fine.

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