As a freelance journalist, you quickly come to realise that, in the words of grumpy indie songsmith Will Oldham, there is no-one what will take care of you - apart from yourself of course.
Similar sentiments, albeit it with rather more impressive scale and success were on display at the recent one day conference held in Newcastle, in north east England. Entitled The Future of Independent Game Development, and organised by GameHorizon, the local collaborative network for the games companies, it brought together some of the key players in the UK game development scene to talk about the future of their industry.
Most had the odd gripe - who doesn't - but the fact remains, the UK development scene is as strong as it's been for a long time. One local example is Eutechnyx. This specialist racing studio was set up in the 1980s by a bedroom coder. Since then it’s experienced a typically tortuous history involving being bought out by rich Texans, bought back with the help of Infogrames, and then finally brought under management control. It now employs over 90 staff.
But as commercial director, Darren Jobling (pictured), explained, thanks to commercial outsourcing, plus owned studios in Hong Kong and China, its effective manpower is actually 250. That sort of integration doesn't come easy. Not only was Eutechnyx one of the first UK developers to get involved in outsourcing, it's also invested heavily in collaborative authoring and management tools to ensure the quality of external work.
The result is Eutechnyx is a busy studio.
"I think now is best opportunity for developers in the 16 years I've been involved in the business," Jobling said with a broad grin playing across his face. And well it might. Eutechnyx's is working on some interesting brands including next-gen title MTV's Pimp My Ride
for Activision, Cartoon Network Racing
, as well as finishing off The Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift
for Namco Bandai (published by EA in Europe). Atypically for a UK developer, 80 percent of its games are sold in North America.
2000AD Is The Future
A different way to create a successful business, via intellectual property, was discussed by Jason Kingsley, CEO and creative director of Oxford-studio Rebellion. As well as building up its own development muscle with the acquisition of companies such as Core Design and Strangelite, to the stage where it's over 150 staff strong, one of the defining points in the business in recent years was the acquisition of graphic novel publisher 2000AD, which owns the license to Judge Dredd amongst many other. Despite being a heavily-UK centric outfit (think a UK version of MAD for teenage Brit sci-fi fans), 2000AD has enabled Rebellion to start carving some niches in the market, with a strong local performance from the recently released Rogue Trooper game one example.
"Eidos has the rights to future games in the Rogue Trooper series, but we've retained the IP in terms of comics, statuettes, t-shirts and movies," Kingsley explained. "IP isn't just an idea. It's something that you can sell to fans over and over again."
So both Eutechnyx and Rebellion demonstrate, in their different ways, how indie developers can thrive in the current commercial climate. When it comes to UK publishers though, independence is a more ambivalent factor. For publicly owned companies such as Eidos/SCi, which is rumoured to have sold a minority percent of its stock to TimeWarner in exchange for access to the IP of New Line Cinema, the endgame isn't ownership rights (it gave those up when it floated on the stock exchange), but profitability.
Codemasters To The Fore
In this context, the UK's other great publishing hope is the remaining privately held publisher, Codemasters. Its CEO Rod Cousens gave the opening keynote at the GameHorizon event. In general he was confident in the ability of the UK to punch above its weight in terms of culture and creative industries.
"People say the UK is the world's tallest midget," he said. "It accounts for 14 percent of the Western console market and 41 percent of the European console market."
Nevertheless Cousens pointed out the structural imbalance of publishing - less than five percent of third-party Western publishing by revenue comes from UK companies - does cause problems. Another issues for all European companies, whether publishers, developers or tools companies, is the relative weakness of the European venture capital market.
"Go global," was Cousens’ retort, in terms of the type of content created, as well as the location of your company and infrastructure. Of course, Cousens knows all about dealing with such issues. Before joining Codies (as we like to call them), he found himself 'promoted' from the European division to global CEO of Acclaim during the company's long decline.
Money For Nothing
Perhaps most revealing however was his claim that post-Acclaim he'd attempted to put together a deal with investment outfit Francisco Partners to buy Eidos, Lionhead and Codemasters and roll them into one uber-UK gaming entity. It didn't come off however, so instead Francisco sunk up to $150 million into the acquisition of The Collective, Backbone, Pipeworks, ImaginEngine, Digital Eclipse, and Circle of Confusion, creating uber-US gaming entity Foundation 9.
Cousens still thinks there's plenty of opportunity for publisher consolidation so the likes of Take Two and THQ can try to compete with EA. "The only reason these deals don't come off is the number of egos involved," Cousens says.
Now heading up Codemasters, which sold a majority stake to the increasingly game-involved investment funder Benchmark Capital, he now has a two year plan to prepare the company for a UK IPO. Cousens' philosophy is to build up from the company's core products into the casual online market and the massively multiplayer online market. "I've spent £9.5 million on servers so far and I'm not finished yet," Cousens boasted. He says the company is now profitable; something roughly triggered whenever turnover is over £50 million.
Floating on the stock exchange is only for large game companies reckoned Ian Baverstock, CEO of UK developer Kuju. It raised some public cash in 2002, something Baverstock says the company now regrets."Private equity is much more flexible, but you'll have to go to the west coast of the US to get any," he said.
But in terms of how independent UK studios can survive and prosper, he says it's key to focus on emerging areas as the next-gen development breaks down in a more movie-style production process with many smaller outfits working together under a larger prime contractor. Examples include creative agencies which work on initial game ideas, character and settings, and specialist development companies - Kuju one has a division which just develops online functionality, for example.
"Eventually everything except creativity becomes a commodity," Baverstock claimed, which has to be good news. Even for grumpy independent freelance journalists.
[Jon Jordan is a freelance games journalist and photographer, based in Manchester, UK. He's so indie he once ran a record label that only released 7 inch singles.]