Publishers Buying Developers - A Good Thing?

Are consolidation and creativity mutually incompatible?

Posted by Staff
Mr Molyneux
Mr Molyneux
SPOnG has just noticed an interesting op-ed piece in today's Guardian, that bastion of the English liberal chattering classes, which looks at some rather fundamental issues surrounding creativity in games development. Keith Stuart asks how companies square the creative drive with those two necessary evils - money and discipline - in light of the recent flurry of mergers and acquisitions across the games industry.

Spring, as Keith points out is ?A time of frenzied activity in the natural world? which has also ?...proved equally as stirring for the videogame industry?. This is a good analogy, and one which we wish that we had thought of before Keith. Damn.

Last week, SPOnG spoke to Lionhead founder, big boss and all-round development guru Peter Molyneux whose legendary development studios have just been bought out by none other than Microsoft.

Two days before the Lionhead deal was announced, US mobile games giant Glu snapped up UK publisher iFone (which owns the 'license-to-print-money' rights Java versions of Atari and Sega classics).

The other well publicised buy-out was that of SEGA, who bought not one but two leading Western dev outfits ? Britsoft sports sim stalwarts Sports Interactive (of Football Manager fame) as well as San Francisco-based outfit Secret Level.

?Usually, industry watchers take a dim view of such corporate bustle, bemoaning the homogenisation of game development and the creeping death of the independent spirit,? observes Stuart.

He is, unfortunately, bang on the money with this. What with all the requisite grumblings and rumblings from the hardcore gaming fraternity, not to mention the aggrieved Sony/Nintendo fanboys worldwide, that this invevitably involves, Stuart goes on to pose the valid question ?Is consolidation such a bad thing??

?History has shown that developers, like ageing pop musicians, can become flabby if left to their own devices for too long?, Stuart wryly observes. Damn it, this guy is good with the analogy. SPOnG makes a mental note to file this under ?quotes to pass off as our own at dinner parties and that?.

Stuart uses DMA design as an example of a studio that has clearly benefited (creatively) from being given loads of money when they were bought out by Rockstar. It?s hard to see how they might not have benefited really, given that Rockstar is a publisher that understands the vagaries of the development process far better than most.

As Stuart observes: ?Responsible for the classic puzzler Lemmings, the company rocketed into a creative vortex in the late 90s, before being bought out by Rockstar. What emerged from the chaos? Grand Theft Auto III - one of the most important British games ever released.? Fair point.

He also cites as further proof that buy-outs are generally good things the cases of US developer Neversoft (who were having a simply awful 1990s, until Activision and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater came along); EA?s buyout of Bullfrog (which saw them ?abandon vanity projects in favour of big sellers Theme Hospital and Dungeon Keeper II?) and Infogrames buy-out of Britsoft legend Ocean.

?Mergers and acquisitions usually bring discipline, and when large numbers of people are involved - as is the case with modern videogame production - this can be a much more valuable driving force than creative freedom,? opines Stuart, claiming that the "It's finished when it's finished" approach rarely works.

?Id pulled it off with Doom III and Quake IV, Valve did it with Half-Life 2, but for each of those titles there are 10 bloated and pretentious failures.?

In a flurry of happy analogies, Stuart goes back to nature: ?Nature consolidates. It is the way of the world. What the industry needs is a corporate culture that nourishes quirky design - but within a strict framework. The tightly controlled Hollywood studio system of the 1940s provides a pretty good model. Sports Interactive, through its excellent relationship with Sega, has learned to trim its excesses, but at the moment Lionhead, a national treasure, is operating like a maverick auteur of the 1970s, spinning out its good ideas into confusing experiences. In this season of re-birth, it is time for a fresh approach.?

SPOnG spoke to a Lionhead rep earlier today to ask what they thought of being described as a maverick, out-of-control 1970s auteur. ?Well, of course Keith is entitled to his opinion, but it?s obviously one which we don?t agree with,? said our source.

Plus, as one SPOnG staffer observed: "I'm not sure "confusing experiences" is correct when talking about Lionhead's recent output, such as The Movies or Black and White. They may fall short of their original promises, but they are not confusing."

Yes, it?s a shame really, it's just a clumsy analogy. SPOnG would hardly liken the softly-spoken, easy-going Peter Molyneux to a cocaine-crazed Francis Ford Coppola, for example. But other than that, Keith has raised some interesting and important points about the nature of the capitalist beast that drives videogame design and production. Let us know your thoughts in the forum below.

Comments

thane_jaw 13 Apr 2006 16:13
1/5
I wouldn't necessarily say its always a good thing to bought out by a big publisher. It does appear to make things run smoother with finances for developers - to the tune that we see games announced and published fairly frequently - compared to developers with a more old school companies like ID and 3d Realms, ("Its done when its done" is great but begins to grate after a few years).

EA is a great example of this, for whilst it still churns out occasional sequelitis s**te, roses in the form of Burnout and Fight Night 3 do crop up frequently (perhaps a little too frequently, but generally the latest iterations of EA's IPs are solid games - paying for the next version with slightly spangly bells is not such a great flipside).
OptimusP 13 Apr 2006 16:35
2/5
I don't know... he has a point and he hasn't.
"It's finished when it's finished doesn't work" sure...except that the biggest and most profitable gamecompany in the industry does live by it (no, not EA, Nintendo) and expects his 2nd parties to live by it too (however, Nintendo has been a bit more pragmatic lately, and less hyperperfectionist)

GTA III was a very important technical achievement but after a few hours the game just gets boring because it has a severe lack of interesting and fresh content.

Also, what other game has Neversoft made besides Tony Hawk after they were bought by Activision? Nothing much...

Creative Assembly is now part of the happy SEGA family (owned or under contract, don't know exactly) and half their community forums for Medieval 2 is full of doubt that CA is dropping complex gameplay (what made Total War so great) for flashier graphics more and more.

Offcourse prime example that pumping a lot of money into a gamedeveloper doesn't work is...Rareware! (when bought by MS offcourse) It had it's staffed doubled and still couldn't improve upon the gameplay of a game that started development on the N64 (i'm talking about Kameo) in a period of 5 years.

It's more of a case that bought-out developers who happen to make one good game afterwards and then are doomed to keep churning out sequels of that game untill forever or creatively dry out (it seems this is the case with Blizzard after WoW) because all the talent dropped and made a new team.
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Joji 13 Apr 2006 18:07
3/5
I think this fella Keith is good with his words and makes a good point or two. but is missing a lot, guess I'd have to read the article to be sure.

I might be talking from the viewpoint of a gamer, who understands games more than the fickle world of business but I understand that both are needed to bring me what I love to play.

There two sides to consolidations that he's missing and I'm surprised he didn't point out. The likes of Sega are in a unique position where they have left making consoles in favour of concentrating on games. Having lost a lot of money Sega are looking to rebuild what they once had so aquisitions of Sports Interactive and Creative Assembly seem more necessary. Both are talented and trying something not so mainstream but still good gameswise.

So that's rebuilding from a financial blow. The other side is buying devcos left right and center when you don't really need to and are doing so out of greed. Working with Company A isn't enough in the face of competition, you have to buy them or have exclusivity contracts signed on dotted lines. Eidos were guilty of such pressure by Sony concerning Tomb Raider, even when it appeared on PC. Starngely Tomb Raider gets it's first outing soon on a Nintendo home console a full decade after it appeared on the scene. Save such exclusive stuff for another day though.

It all feels like a game of 'if I have more sugar in my cake it will taste nicer' but the truth is quite different. look at how many good game Rare made under Nintendo compared to now. Bungie were also doing pretty good before MS purchased them though their output might have been lower back in the days it was certainly more varied than it is now. Now it's all about Halo and little else. Halo is sweet but the true test of a developer is how many tricks they can pull out of a bag. I feel Bungie must raise their game as good as it is, more vaiety is needed.

I'm glad that Sony have began a big push to create new IP over the last year or so in the brilliant form of God of War, Shadow of the Colossus. Keep it up Sony.

Back to the smaller devco, i still agree we miss a lot of games. Freedom of expression is to create games. I think a lot of smaller fish will be able to create good games. What Keith misses is that GTA started life as a smaller game and it appeared at the right time when gaming went fully 3D. I do agree devcos can get lazy, big or small, but it what they do to fix the problem that defineds them from the chuff.

The big question Keith should be asking is how the japanese can put out crazy n' cool games with ease and other nations sometimes struggle. Is it down to better schooling in game design or/and a cultural difference? What do they do with a lack of money that we sometimes lack? Are they more passionate about games?

Perhaps my view is kinda rosetinted in places, but I hope you understand what I'm saying.
thane_jaw 14 Apr 2006 11:11
4/5
Joji wrote:
I feel Bungie must raise their game as good as it is, more vaiety is needed.


Well they're apparently working on a new ip, so hopefully something different and cool.

Joji wrote:
I'm glad that Sony have began a big push to create new IP over the last year or so in the brilliant form of God of War, Shadow of the Colossus. Keep it up Sony.

Back to the smaller devco, i still agree we miss a lot of games. Freedom of expression is to create games. I think a lot of smaller fish will be able to create good games. What Keith misses is that GTA started life as a smaller game and it appeared at the right time when gaming went fully 3D. I do agree devcos can get lazy, big or small, but it what they do to fix the problem that defineds them from the chuff.

The big question Keith should be asking is how the japanese can put out crazy n' cool games with ease and other nations sometimes struggle. Is it down to better schooling in game design or/and a cultural difference? What do they do with a lack of money that we sometimes lack? Are they more passionate about games?



One thing about I noticed about successful Japanese games is that they tend to focus on a single simplistic theme throughout, whereas western developers appear to try and squeeze everything and the kitchen sink in and generally fail abysmally at everything. I doubt that this is down to schooling, the experimental gameplay project shows we can do quirky/crazy things, but that we're unable to develop them into successful retail games. Psyconauts is a good example of a game trying something different, getting great reviews and being almost universally ignored by the common man. Japan's great gaming strength is the ability to create games that appeal to a broad spectrum of the population, not just the 20-39 male demographic targetted over here.

I think one thing not really mentioned in the article is the rise of casual gaming (aside from the brief mention of mobile games) - which is going to be such a more profitable market then the "hardcore" stuff we play. My gf is currently addicted to Hexic, yet won't play big budget games. These smaller games in the form of mobile, xbox live arcade and browser based formats have a much greater penetration of the population as a whole.

Out of anyone you know who owns a p.c. a quick poll of people who've played counterstrike vs freecell will show overwhelming that freecell is played more. I realise the argument is slightly flawed in that freecell is ubiquitous on windows, but people are more willing to pick up and play those kinds of quick instant gratification game (and for longer, my close family and flatmates have all spent days playing freecell)then your more complicated bigger budget titles. The money isn't in what we percieve as games, but what everyone else doesn't think as a game.

In this vein, I don't think that we'll continue to see the rampant purchasing of big dev studios by publishers. The industry seems to be getting very top heavy, especially since expectations for a full retail have increased so much, resulting in bigger studios, budgets etc.

I believe we now have the facilities, in the form of organised "trustworthy" (as in backed by a big company that won't vanish with your money over night) digital distribution systems ala steam and Xbox live Arcarde and not forgetting those mobile games which cost a few quid each, in which smaller indie development can flourish. It is now financially viable to become a "bedroom coder" again, making lower budget games with more room for experimentation, without necessarily needing a big publisher to back you. Microsofts' XNA package allows for development accross a variety of windows based platforms whilst Ninty are trying to get smaller development interest in the Revolution with their $2000 dev kits. Hopefully this'll create a new golden era of experimental games accross all game playing devices.

fingers crossed

vault 13 14 Apr 2006 22:06
5/5
Here here!
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