The second edition of Gamasutra's new 'The Euro Vision' column
sees UK correspondent Jon Jordan in thoughtful mood, as he wipes away the tears watching Saving Private Ryan
, not playing games. But cheers up mightly by finding evidence of the adoption of Hollywood production models in European development.
"When it comes to famous quotations, several-time UK prime minister Harold Wilson's 'A week is a long time in politics' is one of the most beloved of journalists. How Wilson would have augmented his views with respect to Internet columns isn't known - he died in 1995. But this columnist finds a week a short time, as I start at much the same place as last week; the Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival, or at least one small part that's continued with me.
For, during the past week, I've had several conversation with developers about various conferences; were they any good, would you pay to go, what's the point of them etc? Perhaps more interesting however is; Have you ever had your views changed by something you've heard at a conference?
It has happened for me, if rarely. Nevertheless I've been thinking hard about Edge editor's Margaret Robertson's talk at the EIEF
entitled 'Games That Make You Cry', or what should really have been called 'Games That Make Margaret Robertson Cry'. It was a well-presented, even brave speech, as she revealed the games that had bought her to tears. On one occasion, a screenshot was enough to induce lachrymosity.
Sniffling Over Spielberg
I've particularly been thinking about this because I've never been moist-eyed playing a game, but for the third time found myself crying while watching Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan
, which was recently shown on UK TV.
Intellectually, I found the situation strange, as I knew tears were going to flow as the aged actor playing James Ryan salutes the grave of Tom Hanks' John Miller at the end of the film. If I watched the film again tomorrow, it would happen again too. Yet when it comes to games, especially WWII games, I'd laugh at someone who cried playing one of those. And without getting too engrossed in the differences between active and passive media, it's remarkable how as an industry we can praise the visceral thrills of EA's Medal of Honor: Allied Assault
, which mirrors the opening of Saving Private Ryan
, while having none of the pathos which actually makes that film great.
Still, Hollywood remains important to the games industry, and to segue effortlessly, it's also having an impact with respect to UK games development. Thankfully, I'm not referring to games based around film licenses, of which Eidos' Reservoir Dogs
is merely the latest in a long line of vapid examples. I mean, really; how can you buy the license for one of the most brutally inverted films, soaked in themes of betrayal and the sickening effect of violence - after all the film's entire pacing is the deaththroes of a man plugged in the guts and bleeding to death - and make a straightforward shooter, especially one which no one will complete without firing their gun, even though they can?
No, thankfully, what I'm referring to is my first experience of the long-awaited emergence of Hollywood production models within game development.
Hollywood, Meet Video Games
It happened as I ran into an industry chum I hadn't seen for a while. I was interested to know what he'd been up to. "I've sent up a production company," he told me with a grin. I laughed too but stopped when he explained his team had just signed a multi-million dollar deal with a well-known publisher for a next-gen game that only existed in terms of paper-based documentation.
"We had a big design bible but it was meaningless so we just wrote one page about each level," this future game auteur mused. "We'll work with the developer to pin down the detail." He then told me which company has been outsourced to make their game, and I had to check it wasn't April Fool's Day. You will have heard of them.
Which isn't to demean my soon-to-be-ex-chum. He's worked in the games industry for decades, but never in development. He and his business partners are plugged into people who matter, but even so - a multi-million dollar deal on the back of sheets of A4 and some sales talk - I was told those days were long gone.
Pixie Dust Into Completed Titles
Now, it seems, they're back. And why not? This is exactly how films are made in Hollywood. Scripts are written - in the case of Reservoir Dogs
by someone working in a video store - sent around, optioned, rewritten and sold on to other production companies. Stars are attached, and cash raised on that basis. Scripts are then rewritten, new stars attached and budgets adjusted. Millions of dollars spent and all on bits of paper, which end up containing few of the original words which started the cycle.
This financial model has made a one-time dusty suburb of Los Angeles into one of the most famous places on the face of earth. It's also something that promises to reinvigorate the game industry in the UK and Western Europe, which finds the basic activities of game creation being squeezed by low-cost competition in the East of the continent.
And that's why I certainly don't cry when I read about UK game studios going bust, because just like steel-making and ship-building before, the only thing being lost is increasingly low margin grunt work. The clever stuff such as design, characterization, new genres and gameplay innovation remains. In fact, the possibilities expand as new creatives get their opportunity to do something new.
Hope Despite Instability?
The fear of corporate failure remains a real concern for many, however. Talking to Fred Hasson, CEO of Tiga
, the trade association for games software developers in the UK and Europe, he bemoaned the number of developers, especially independently-owned ones, that had either been bought or had gone bankrupt during the past couple of years. I guess as someone who runs a trade association, it's more of a numbers game. Despite this, though, the total number of jobs in the UK games industry has steadily grown, even as the total number of companies has fallen.
Even in the case of 100-strong Scottish company Visual Science, which went bust suddenly at the start of 2006, three startups have since spun out of the debris. One person who worked at the company told me he was glad when it finally collapsed. 'It hadn't been a nice place to work for a long time,' he pointed out, in the tone of a kindly vet putting an aged mutt out of its misery.
So as long as this new breed of gamemakers manage to keep their hands on their intellectual property, or get appropriate recompensate in terms of royalties when handing it over, for me at least the future for European game creators seems brighter than it's been for a long time."
[Jon Jordan is a freelance games journalist and photographer, based in Manchester, UK. He's just doubled his megapixel capacity thanks to a Canon EOS 30D, but prefers using his old Canon F1.]