Sony Liverpool; Free Radical; Dark Energy. Mid-range British game studios are closing shop left, right and centre, leaving top UK development talent out of work. Those that don't enter administration are being swallowed up by foreign publishers. Ubisoft bought Reflections in 2004, and in the same year Criterion, maker of Need for Speed, was acquired by EA.
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As a result, we're now seeing a proliferation of smaller UK studios, staffed by the former employees of AA companies that were either taken over or closed entirely. Hello Games, in Guildford is one of these. Founded in 2009 by four friends, the studio's known for Joe Danger, a series of racing games cum platformers for the Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network. Now in the midst of prepping its third title, a secret something for next-gen consoles, Hello Games is overseen by Sean Murray, himself a former technical lead at Criterion:
"We were quite gung-ho in starting up Hello Games," he explains. "It was led by the heart rather than the head. Initially we were just living off savings, but that ran out quite quickly, so we did what most people would try to do which was find a publisher for our game. However, we found that publishers would try and change what we were making, and seeing as we'd broken off to do our own thing, that was kind of eroding that.
"We made a tough and, what at the time seemed like a foolish decision. I sold my house and just went all in to fund what we were doing. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone else, but we were very lucky. When we released Joe Danger about 12 months later, we'd made our money back in a few hours."
So without risking homelessness, how else can these new, small game companies get by in the UK? Murray says it's going to take more support from government:
"In terms of the number of people working in the game industry in the UK, it's negative to see those big studios shut down. We're seeing a lot of key talent going from those larger companies to somewhere like Canada or the US in order to have the same roles as they did have here: Those roles often aren't available here anymore.
"So, the biggest thing is supporting the smaller studios, the people who are just starting up, who are where we were four years ago. That would be the best way to reinvigorate the UK industry; those studios are becoming the next big thing."
UK game development was at its peak in the 80s and early 90s, when titles like Theme Park, Dizzy and Elite dominated the software charts. Since then, it's tailed off some. More accommodating tax initiatives in Canada and France have sent a lot of companies abroad along with high-level development talent.
Murray, however, believes the UK industry might be on the rise again. Fuelled by eager and creatively independent studios like Hello, the British dev scene is going through a resurgence, he says, though if it's going to continue, companies like his need to keep focus:
"Over the past eight years or so, I think the UK game industry has been, in some very real ways, in decline. But in other ways, it's kind of going through a rebirth. What we're seeing is a lot of the larger studios shut down and from that, we're seeing something which is really exciting, which is a lot of smaller studios starting up.
"There's always opportunity for those smaller studios to become bigger. That's how the game industry works, it's tumultuous. And I think for maybe 10 years, the industry became really boring; we really began to focus down on first-person shooters and racing games. So now, it's easier to pick things that are part of what I'd call a large niche. If you think of people who like that 80s arcade style, real core game mechanics, that is an incredibly large niche."
It's a niche self-funded companies like Hello can cater to:
"One thing about people who play games that I think the industry forgot," Murray continues "was that they have a really broad and varied set of tastes: They want to play things that are new and fresh."
But even so, Murray warns, if a smaller company does do well from that niche, if it does gather enough moss to grow big, it's inevitably going to get stiffed by UK tax rates:
"Games, as an endeavour, are usually very long and risky. And when a game is successful, the maker needs to re-invest and take on that equally long, equally risky process again. Tax breaks make that a lot smoother.
"The problem now is that a lot of successful game companies pay a lot of tax, and find that it's very difficult to reinvest and compete again."
But that's not all. Over the course of this series, there are two things that have repeatedly been flagged up by UK game developers. First, as Murray talks about, the tax breaks. Despite Joaquin Almunia's EU inquest, tax cuts seem, to most studio heads, like the most cut and dry solution to their problems.
The second is more complex: Image. The mid-nineties press did well off of stories about Grand Theft Auto, Carmageddon and DOOM and videogames have since struggled to earn the public's trust. What a lot of developers are saying, Sean Murray included, is that games and game development need more attention from the mainstream:
"I think at the moment, most people assume that if they play a videogame it was made in the US: They assume games aren't made in the UK, or Europe. We should be really driving that message home. People are usually surprised by how large of an industry it is, and I think if people understood it fully, if they knew games were made here, I think they'd take a lot more seriously the industry as a whole.
"It's often taken in this hilarious way of 'you just sit around playing games'," Murray concludes "but, it's huge. In a lot of ways the games industry is growing faster than films or music or any other kinds of entertainment. And it's quite an exciting industry; it's a nice thing to know that the game you're playing is made down the road."