Column: 'The Euro Vision: London Games Week Revisited'

The latest edition of Gamasutra's 'The Euro Vision' column sees veteran UK journalist Jon Jordan revising the ambiance of London Games Week, while considering a birth and a death among the British development community.
A longtime member of the Lake Wobegon diaspora, I’ve always wanted to start a column in the immortal (adapted) words of Garrison Keillor; “It has been a quiet week in Euro Vision land”. And finally I can, although, my current lackadaisical attitude may just be a reaction to the enormous amount of activity that was London Games Week. Frankly, even now, it’s hard to take in everything that occurred. Officially there were 20 different events, of which I only managed to get to five - you can check out organiser Frank Boyd’s Flickr photostream from a wider selection of what occurred. That Was The Week That Was From my point of view, the week started out on Monday at the Tiga London Content, Outsourcing and Middleware market (which ran Monday to Wednesday), while Tuesday through Thursday was spent shifting between GDC London, the London Game Summit and the London Game Career Fair. For good measure, I also made the launch of the ‘Unlimited Learning’ research document by ELSPA, the European publishers’ trade association before collapsing in a heap of nervous exhaustion. That microcosm was enough for one brain. My main conclusion was publishers get better lighting than developers, as GDC London was held in a grey box of a room with little ambient lighting, while the Game Summit and ‘Unlimited Learning’ launch were held in a proper conference theatre with stage, branded lectern, spot lights and everything. Of course, my particular interest in the quality of the ambient atmosphere was to do with my role as official photographer to the events in question. Even with a camera with an ASA of 1600, steady hands and an image stabilization system that can cope with exposures of less than a tenth of second and a reasonably fast lens, the GDC London setup often had me waiting for latecomers to open the doors to let in some daylight to partially sidelight the speakers. Well, it was either that or annoying the speaker and audience by continuously shooting flash. More relevant to the stated purpose of this column, however, is the sort of remix of the various talks you hear as you flit between venues and conferences. With Sony delaying the launch of PlayStation 3 in Europe until March 2007, its keynote speakers, vice presidents of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios, Jamie MacDonald and Michael Denny didn’t really have the opportunity to say anything groundbreaking. In fact, they even shared presentations - well, at least one of their Powerpoints was the same. I was more interested however by the talks from two recent EA hires; Wayne Stables (ex-Weta and PDI Dreamworks), and Will Byles (ex-Aardman creative director), and not just because Stables patiently explained that high dynamic range lighting provided the equivalent of seven stops of photographic exposure (including 3.5 at the top-end), as I flashed away in the gloom: there were no latecomers to his talk. Both also expressed their enthusiasm on entering the games business - something that should shame some of the more cynical veterans, for whom next-gen development seems to be equivalent of Eeyore’s exaltation: ‘It’s my birthday? Oh hooray...’ Enter The Men In Suits Another broad-brush take-home was the increasingly openness of the UK government to dance some sort of two-step with the games industry. While we all know that the majority of the £500 million positive balance in terms of the value of UK-developed games compared to imports is down to the lucky location of Rockstar North and its GTA cash generator, nevertheless seniorish politicians such as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Science and Innovation, Lord Sainbury and Minister for Creative Industries and Tourism, Shaun Woodward did turn up to talk up the importance of the games industry to the wider success of UK plc. Lord Sainbury’s speech in particular got down to some nitty-gritty with detail about knowledge transfer between developers and academia, EA’s support for Futurelab’s research into games as educational tools, and the wider issues of ensuring university games courses are accredited by the industry. One Down, One Up But despite my opening salvo, there has been some action in Euroland; notably one acquisition and one start-up. The strangest news was emerging publisher powerhouse Buena Vista had bought out Climax’s Brighton Studio for an undisclosed sum, but presumably more than than the standard £5 million that UK studios seem to go for these days. The bizarreness of the deal works both ways. Firstly, as far as I can make out, Buena Vista has never released a racing game, while Climax’s Brighton studio is renown for racing games such as Moto GP and ATV Offroad Fury. Similarly from Climax’s point of view, its Brighton studio, which is the second largest of its four outfits, is also the best run and most focused. Financial analysts might say it’s a lose-lose deal, but clearly both sides are pragmatically happy with the situation. Presumably, Climax needed the cash and Buena Vista a tight development team to develop 10 decent SKUs for its next big racing title. Where it leaves Climax, which is one of the UK’s bigger independent developers, is another matter however. Its Portsmouth HQ is currently busy with the graphic novel license Ghost Rider for 2K, and there’s plenty of PSP development work on licenses such as Silent Hill, Oblivion, Mortal Kombat: Unchained and Steel Horizon. There’s also the intrigue of the next-gen title The Fixer, which has been announced on its website, but whether that’s enough to keep 300-odd developers in gainful employment will be intriguing to see. More strategically, the company’s dilemma has always been the risk of developing the original content that if successful would make the big bucks. One-time hope Sudeki, a first-party Xbox title, flopped ignominiously, forcing Climax back to its work-for-hire hinterland. On another scale entirely, but equally playing to form was Zee-3’s announcement of the digital release of its first title, Naked War. The third development company to started by UK veterans and brothers Ste and John Pickford, it’s a characteristic northern England operation, which cocks a snoot to the big boys and gets down to the business in hand. “What excited us was the freedom to get back to making the games we wanted to,” Ste told me. “We’ve started off with something ambitious. I think it might be the best game we’ve ever made.” And considering the pair have been involved in over 150 SKUs including the Wetrix series, Sticky Balls, Mario Artist, Max Headroom and Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, in-and-of-itself that isn’t an unambitious statement. Check out the game at Naked War. And that’s all the news that’s fit to print this week from the continent where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the game developers are above average. [Jon Jordan is a freelance games journalist and photographer, based in Manchester, UK. An honorary member of the Sons of Canute, he’s not related to Myrtle Krebsbach, but sometimes feels as if he should be.]

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