Column: 'The Euro Vision: Gamecity And The End Of Empire'

Back from five days of the Nottingham Gamecity festival, the latest edition of Gamasutra's 'The Euro Vision' column sees Jon Jordan tracking the rise and birth of developers as well as final days of UK ownership for publisher Empire Interactive.
Having fully recovered from Nottingham's Gamecity event, it's time to take stock of how over 30 different events can coalesce. Of course, I was lucky in a sense because as the official photographer, I got to attend most of them, as well as a bit of the behind-the-scenes stuff. But what really struck me, and hopefully the general audience, was the sheer expanse of what game culture is now about. From Lord Puttnam's opening speech on education, to the work of ratings organisation the BBFC, a guy wandering around town in a Sonic suit (pictured), one man's obsession with breaking the world record for the highest ever score on Missile Command, a performance of classic Sega game music in a candlelit church, Lorne Lanning's personal analysis of what games mean to him, and finally grumpy old games industry men mouthing off in a curryhouse, it was all a celebration of sorts. Even (or should that be especially?), the grumpy old men had fun. Place For The Indies There were even some interesting nuggets about how some UK developers are evolving. First up were onetime student coders Introversion Software. Three computer science graduates from my old alma mater, Imperial College, they released hacking game Netlink in 2001 to moderate success. Like all good bands though, their difficult follow up Darwinia almost killed the company. Once again, like all bands, they only survived by throwing themselves on the good graces of the UK taxpayer (or going on the dole as we like to call it). A couple of years of unemployment benefit later however, Darwinia, thanks to its Steam-powered digital distribution, has set up Introversion to the point where the just released Defcon is its best selling game. OK, so Defcon only costs £10 ($17.50) and Introversion remains a relatively small company of seven employees (including one dad and one sister). Still, with the expectation that its next game will be released on one of the big console manufacturers' online service, it does demonstrate that indie development, like indie music, continues to have a place in the wider industry. Straight Outta Guildford Another, different, example of how indies can thrive came with the now ex-Lionhead artist Mark Healey's talk about the development of Rag Doll Kung Fu. A part time project to teach Healy how to program in C++, the direct mouse-controlled 2D action game took three years and help from a couple of Lionhead staff to come to fruition. Once again, relative commercial success came from Valve's Steam distribution system: Rag Doll Kung Fu was the first non Valve product to be thus delivered. But while Introversion is building slowly, Healey has gone into overdrive as creative director of new Guildford startup Media Molecule. Together with ex-Lionhead coder Alex Evans (the company's technical director), who joined him for his Gamecity talk, it's already signed a deal to develop a full Blu-ray disc-based game for PlayStation 3. "We knew a guy who knew Phil Harrison," said Healey, somewhat sheepishly, when asked how he got the deal. "It's a more ambitious game than Rag Doll Kung Fu, although it also has an innovative control method," Evans revealed. But having experienced Lionhead's dangerous combination of philosophies such as 'boom-and-bust' when it came to staff numbers and 'it's ready when it's ready' when it came to shipping, it will be interesting to see if the company can tread the planned narrow path between indie and major. Currently 12 months into development, Evans said he hoped the company's focus on rigorous control of the development process, plus scheduling backed by the stern hand of ex-Burnout producer Siobhan Reddy, meant staff numbers would peak at about 30. Viz Becomes 4J Outside the confines of Nottingham, the end of October has also proved to be busy time for various startup and buyout announcements. Onetime Viz Interactive head honcho Chris van der Kuyl returns to development with 4J Studios, which is located in the same building as Viz used to be. It's working on The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion for PS3, Star Trek: Encounters for PS2 and Viz's old virtual horse gambling simulator, now called Breeders' Cup. A smaller resurrection comes courtesy of Shadow Light Games, three twenty-something ex-members from Demis Hassabis' Elixir Studios, who have set up developing 3D mobile games. Little Fish Swallows Big Fish But the main action continues with the UK publishers. The ongoing deal between Warner Bros. and SCi/Eidos continues to rumble on, in the way those sort of corporate deals tend to as lawyers get stuck into the small print. The only other publicly owned UK publisher, Empire Interactive, finally concluded its own longterm waltz to find a buyer with blackhorse, NASDAQ-listed Silverstar Holdings picking it up in an all-cash offer. With the two major shareholders, CEO Ian Higgins and MD Simon Jeffrey - who between them account for 62 percent of Empire - agreeing to the deal, the only decision to be made by the remaining shareholders is bread today or a slice of cake tomorrow. This translates to a one-off payment of 7p ($0.13) per share now, valuing Empire at $7.2 million, or the alternative, which is an initial payment of 4.9p ($0.09) per share with a further 5.1p ($0.094) subject to certain conditions on October 31, 2007. That total worth is $12.6 million. Either way, the deal is a big one for Silverstar, which bought back Canadian publisher Strategy First from bankruptcy in April 2005. Alongside its games businesses, bizarrely it also owns Magnolia Broadband, a fabless semiconductor company which designs radio frequency antennas. Still in the early stages of building revenues in both businesses, Silverstar made an operating loss of $1.9 million on revenue of $3.3 million for the year ending 30th June 2006. Empire, on the other hand, had a turnover of £26.5 ($50.6) million and an loss of $2.4 ($4.6) million in its financial year 2006. Integrating it into Silverstar’s operations looks to be a complex undertaking. [Jon Jordan is a freelance games journalist and photographer, based in Manchester, UK. He was invited to be a grumpy old developer but isn't any of the above just yet]

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