Please Sir, can we have some games?

This post comes to us from fellow Brit Liam Sheasby, who has an axe to grind about the state of gaming in the UK. Thanks, Liam!

As UK customers tighten their belts, the games industry has to be more innovative and more appealing than ever. Gone are the days of buying a game to see if you liked it because people aren’t willing to take that risk anymore. In such demanding circumstances, can new talent even begin to find its way into the hearts and minds of British gamers?

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The British games industry is more popular than ever, but not more prosperous. For all the graphical brilliance and cinematic awe, recession has hit hard and disposable income has been greatly reduced. The best games like the Call of Duty and Halo series are still must-buys for most gamers but smaller, indie production studios find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place; go out of business – despite your talent – because the time wasn’t right to fight for acclaim, or be amalgamated into a larger company and find your ideas fiddled with and potentially warped.

Okay, I admit, this is a rather bleak view of how the market is, but we should be realistic; the gaming industry does make a lot of money, but it makes more for the countries of origin than the UK. Japan boasts Sony and Nintendo. The US boasts Microsoft. Britain? Exactly. Much like our car industry, we tend to shop abroad. In testament to the decline of game sales, Argos reported that their video game sales were down 25% between February 2011 and May 2011. This shows that people aren’t willing to just get the game; they want to get it at the best price, which is generally online.

Looking at the global sales figures from 2010 you will see that the Xbox360 is at 44.6 million and the PS3 at 41.6 million in terms of units sold. Close competition – especially given the price differences – but also indicative of the Asian gamer market showing loyalty to the Playstation. In the UK, we don’t have a console of our own making, therefore we don’t have loyalty. In a respect, this makes us the ideal market for trying new ideas; we’re more impartial and more than happy to criticise.

This is where the progress and foundations need to be set. If Britain isn’t going to be part of the competition then we should be a more significant and intrinsic part of the process that is finding new talent, developing their ideas, fulfilling these ideas and ultimately guiding them to production and getting them noticed.

Two years ago I bore witness to a debate at part of the University of Central Lancashire’s Open09 media debate event. This particular session was called ‘Games Create’. In the debate, business people – both gamers and not – discussed the basics of the gaming industry in terms of development, recruitment, marketing and sales. The themes were that this lack of risk taking was a big problem; there was no risk in terms of game style from the makers, and no risk in terms of deviating from a title because it’s better the devil you know.

The general consensus was that – in both the British games industry and in the government – there was not enough wisdom, i.e. there weren’t any coherent plans of action. How do you compete with games that sell millions of copies? How do you convince people that your game is a great idea and that people will love them? As I earlier said, we’re in a gaming age of unparalleled graphical brilliance. Only a minority of gamers will be willing to risk trying a game that’s unproven, rather than one that’s already popular, already well invested in, and already established.

There are solutions though, and I do agree with them. There need to be more demos. I’m an Xbox360 user and I do see demos available, but not often the sort of games I want to play. I want to be able to try a game out. I don’t mind if it’s brief, or if it has bugs, I just want to experience what they have to offer. I want to know that if I’m parting with £30 for a disc that my money isn’t going to be regrettably wasted.

With demos come feedback and with feedback come amendments. If a games company can have several thousand people passing judgement on their work then a true consensus can be developed on where and how they can improve. This judgement and evaluation role would allow new games to correct their errors before release, and that could be the difference between millions of copies sold or bankruptcy. To get this feedback, games companies and the studios need a forum for discussion. A messageboard, a Twitter page, a Facebook page… it doesn’t matter as long as they’ve got somewhere and someone to take note.

It’s all so simple, and yet this was discussed by normal people two years ago and we’re still in the same sort of position. Games are too easily picked on by politicians and it’s not on. Modern Warfare 2 took a beating because of the ‘No Russian’ level where you committed mass murder in an airport. The game didn’t make you play that level. It gave you the option. It’s also just a game – a game for 18 year olds and over I might add. The moral panic that spread from that was quite ridiculous and farcical. Tom Watson MP was a key figure in the defence of the game, but he shouldn’t have been the only one. This is an industry that serves great benefit to the government coffers. Back it up! Or even better, nurture it!

MediaMolecule, the creators of LittleBigPlanet, have proven that Britain can create innovative games and be profitable at the same time. The company, based in Guildford, only has a staff of around 40 people total, and yet LittleBigPlanet and LittleBigPlanet2 have become massive international titles because of their easy-to-use controls for user generated gaming. It can be simple fun for kids or complicated challenges for older gamers. Their story is one that should be being replicated. Their designers should be regarded as almost rockstar figures, because of their talents, and yet they are very much unrecognised.

If I were to write a letter to the Government it would be something awful and overly simplistic but ultimately it would say this; help the gaming sector and it will help you. Success breeds success, and where better to be successful than in a high tech industry.