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The decline of the British gaming industry
For an entire generation of gamers Sensible Software was synonymous with innovative, funny and downright addictive games. As the likes of Cannon Fodder, Mega-lo-mania and Sensible Soccer wowed gamers and topped the charts, it was perhaps the pinnacle of the British gaming industry.
Sensible founder, Jon Hare, can certainly be counted among the men who were most responsible for the past excellence of British games production, and it is with a heavy heart that he has watched the steady decline into what he sees as an Americanized market, where games are stripped of the quirkiness, innovation and humour that marked the high point in the days when the likes of Commodore and Atari were giants in the gaming world.
“In those days it was fun,” Hare told Tech & Gadgets, “It was cheaper to handle things. For instance, when we did Mega-Lo-Mania we realised that we could do our own PR for the game. So we rang the magazines and organised a photoshoot at our offices.
“The Bitmap Brothers were doing the same kind of thing. We did our own coverdisks for the magazines and the videos that got in the game. It was fun to do, didn’t take much time and people picked up on it. Now a lot of people who are in the industry don’t need to be there.
“The problem is that, by having a small team that basically run things themselves, we were seen as uncontrollable and that made people nervous that we would make a wrong move. But we didn’t make many wrong moves.
“It really bothers me when people say we ‘needed to be more businesslike’; businesses are about increasing profit and decreasing loss everything else is bull*** and we made an average 49% profit a year. That kind of mentality means that you bring a whole lot of people in that you don’t need to.
“Publishers like Renegade and Virgin, and even Ocean, were good to work with. They were all British which is a key thing, but in my mind Brits don’t do corporations that well and we have been slowly undermined and that influences the chances of getting a game like Sensible Soccer made.
“People are more interested in retro than the next game you make; people say to me ‘I really love Cannon Fodder and Sensible Soccer, when are you making a new one?’ But what I used to do was make games – not sequels – and I don’t really understand why people don’t want a new thing without knowing what it is.”
It is the erosion of the British publishers that Hare believes has most contributed to the lack of games that are aimed squarely at the UK market, and it is a similar story across much of the world.
“Something that is not often talked about is just how Americanized the industry became when the big media companies came in. The American approach is seen as good business, but in a lot of cases the American side of things just don’t understand our humour. I tried to make a game called Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll. It was a British game with a sense of humour that I would describe as a bit like Viz magazine.
“It was very hard to convince people that it was a joke. Even if you look at Grand Theft Auto which is probably the most successful British developed product in recent times it’s still very Americanized. It’s not really what you could describe as British style, even the humour, and that’s the problem that we have. European cultures are generally quite hard to sell to a market dominated by America. The only country that has kept its own style outside of the US is Japan – and that is very different.
“We just don’t have UK-centric publishers. I’ve worked with Codemasters and you’ve also got Eidos and Empire. I know from Codemasters that they need that world market to keep things ticking over and Eidos seems to manage that very well. They have licences that they know work on a world market and they just aren’t focused on Europe. It’s very hard to sell the classic British style games or a classic French style game to the world market.
“What’s been hard for me as a designer and team leader is how difficult it is to get people to trust you. Not just publishers either, but often people within your own team. I honestly believe that the quality of programming has gone down. People like [Sensible stalwarts] Chris Yates, Chris Chapman and Julian Jameson – they virtually did the big games on their own.
"It was a different environment back then because the hardware was more stable. You didn’t need loads of people running the graphics, programs just ran at 60 frames per second – so the onus was on the creative and not about fighting with the display.
“You had a smaller team and that meant you started to get some of the subtle little things done that made such a difference to the final game.”
Nintendo’s family friendly approach has changed the gaming landscape in the past few years, and Hare believes that this is a positive thing, but wishes that the Japanese company would break with its traditional distrust of third party developers.
“Nintendo is my favourite company, but what’s been difficult for me is that it has always worked for itself, it’s always been a loner, and at the end of this year you saw that emerge again. The manufacturing problems that came because it needs to do everything else impacts on the third-party developers and publishers – especially the smaller ones.
“They want to work with Nintendo, but you are looking at investing reasonable sums to know that you have a stabilised income and by restricting the publishing the company are squashing the smaller publishers.
“I do hope that it sorts the problem out because, along with Xbox Live Arcade, it’s the best chance we have of seeing new and original games coming out.”