VG247 Scotland continues with a look at where the nation's developers weigh in on the changing tides of game distribution, the bursting Steam Greenlight bubble and how best to get Scottish games into the hands of players.
Missed VG247 Scotland issue #0: Why Scotland is more than GTA 5? Just hit the link to check it out.
Last month, I held a discussion panel focused on why Scotland is more than just Grand Theft Auto. Sure enough, our nation did spawn arguably the biggest gaming franchise to date, but it's got much more to offer. The question raised by many readers was, 'If that's the case, then were are these games you speak of?' That's exactly what we're attempting to cover in this issue's panel session.
Of course, this is a prominent matter not just the Scottish industry, but the wider market. On one hand you have saturated mobile hubs like iTunes and Android, where visibility is hard-fought given the sheer influx of games releasing on both stores each day. Steam was once heralded as a champion of the people; a place for the uninitiated to make their bread with ease. Some would argue that Greenlight has back-fired, flooding Valve's service with vast quantities of games that push many releases to the bottom and quashing their potential.
In something of a surprising twist, Sony and Microsoft each announced indie initiatives last year. Suddenly, the big, nasty corporate world of PS4 and Xbox One appeared a little big brighter, but we're yet to see the true potential of both schemes. So while it's clear that the sands are shifting right under developer's feet, where can creators release their games with the highest hope of success? Find out what we thought about these and other issues in our panel session below.
Bodycheck coming to PS Vita later this year
Ludometrics has announced that it's releasing Bodycheck on PS Vita later this year. In a post on PS Blog EU, director David Thomson explained that the game was based around the conception of football, back when there were 500 players using a pig's head as a ball. It won't be that brutal or vast, but the game will take a rough approach to the beautiful game, with plenty of punching and scratching.
There will be four-way matches, magical attacks, crushing body-blows and more. Here an early Bodycheck trailer for you to check out. We'll have more on the game soon.
Lucky Frame brings Bad Hotel to Android today
Hot off the heels of its superb Tacos, Bluegrass and Videogames event last weekend, Gentlemen! developer Lucky Frame will roll out its mobile smash Bad Hotel on Google Play today, January 17. The game sees players defending their newly-acquired hotel against Tarnation Tadstock, the Texas Tyrant and his army of seagulls and other beasts. You can repel his forces by building your hotel wisely and by unloading a range of powerful weaponry.
There's a musical twist however, as depending on your hotel's set-up, you will also be composing the game's soundtrack as you go. Check out the Bad Hotel homepage now and keep your eyes peeled for the Android release today.
Scottish parliament holds third meeting with Scotland's game professionals
Back in December, the Scottish government held its third cross-party meeting with members of Scotland's games industry. The minutes for the meeting have now been released, courtesy of the Computer Games Journal's Dr Malcolm Sutherland. The meeting gave game-makers a chance to voice concerns and make suggestions directly to government, with a view to further improving parliament's support of the sector. You can get a full overview of what was discussed through the link above.
TigerFace Games up for iKids Award
Edinburgh-based studio TigerFace Games has been short-listed for an iKids Award. The awards champion educational games and websites for children, and the panel has chosen the studio's head-to-head mathematical game Cosmic Reactor as one of its top picks. The iKids award ceremony will take place in New York next month. Check out the game's trailer, synopsis and screens here. Best of luck to TigerFace!
Via The Scotsman.
Eldevin and Power Up appear on Steam Greenlight
A pair of Scottish games have appeared on Steam Greenlight and are now accepting votes. Hunted Cow's fantasy MMO Eldevin is first, and is poised to launch on PC, Mac and Linux. The RPG is available now in browser form, and has been in continuous development for the last eight years, bringing hundreds of quests and many new features into the mix. Browser update 1.03 recently launched, and you'll find the patch notes through the link.
Next up is Psychotic Psoftware's retro-styled shooter Power Up, which hurls your tiny space ship against gigantic robot behemoths and swarms of nasty aliens. It's big, loud and full of bullet-hell action. You can check out a collection of Power Up trailers here.
Lub Vs Dub featured as Apple & Starbucks' app of the week in America
Apple and Starbucks often give away iOS apps in-store to customers. Over the holidays, the coffee chain's North American stores featured Jon McKellan's endless runner project Lub Vs Dub. The game was created as part of the 2013 Scottish Game Jam and can be downloaded on iTunes for £0.69.
McKellan's a member of indie outfit Futuro, and I'm guessing he and his team are pretty chuffed at the news right now. I checked the game out in Dundee before year's end and it looked like a stupidly addictive and challenging take on the endless runner format, complete with a competitive multiplayer mode that sees you trying to ruin your friend's run. Go check it out now.
Thanks to Scottish Games Network for the tip.
The retro-tastic Ducky Fuzz is out now on Android & iOS
Ducky Fuzz is the next game from Smiling Bag, otherwise known as solo coder Stew Hogarth. It's a retro-themed arcade title on iOS and Android that sees you manipulating pixelated waves to steer a gang of rubber ducks past water mines and storms while trying to collect coins. If you're not careful the cute little buggers will get maimed, which is just really sad to see. You can watch the Ducky Fuzz trailer here.
Panel Session: Where's the best place to sell games?
This month I'm joined by Stewart Gilray, CEO of Oddworld developer Just Add Water, David Thomson, director of studio Ludometrics, and Yann Seznec, director of Gentlemen! and Bad Hotel developer Lucky Frame. During our chat we discuss the pros and cons of various markets including PSN, Xbox Live Arcade, the App Store, Google Play and Steam. We also talk about how easy it is to get on these stores and how likely it is for a project to remain visible once there.
If you're a developer who has experience of these marketplaces, we'd love to hear your own personal stories below
The topic of next month's VG247 Scotland panel session is 'Educating Scotland,' and will look at the range of educational courses offered to aspiring game makers, musicians, artists and more across the country. We'll also touch on the state of Scottish game education as a whole, the potential for finding work after graduation, the viability of setting up as a new indie team or solo creator, and much, much more. Expect it in Issue #2, sometime in February.
Developer Interview: Pete Shea
(Note: since this interview was conducted, Pete has left Firebrand Games. Sometimes these things happen, but it's still a cracking interview with many valid points about the global industry and Scotland at large. As such, I've left it in.)
Last, but my no means least, we have an interview with Pete Shea, former creative director at Glasgow-based studio Firebrand Games. They're the team behind artful and incredibly addictive space puzzler Solar Flux. The game tasks players with re-igniting dead stars using solar energy, while conserving fuel by sling-shotting between the gravity wells of planets. It's both charming and aesthetically pleasing, with a calming tone and wonderful art style.
”Outside of Rockstar there are very few, if any, companies with more than 30 staff. Instead there are close to 100 micro developers that have sprung up around the country; all making indie games or creating unique games businesses in different areas.”
I recently spoke with former Firebrand Games creative director Pete Shea to get a handle on the team's foundation and projects, as well as some feedback on the Scottish industry at large. The studio was formed following the collapse of Dundee's DC Studios in 2006, which is not to be confused with the Batman lot. CEO Mark Greenshields and seven of his colleagues decided to take the plunge and set up a new company. Years later, the developer is still going strong, with its own proprietary 'Octane Engine' tech, several multi-platform releases under its belt and a second site in Florida.
Over time the team found its focus with racing games, and has worked alongside Codemasters to create Nintendo DS ports of TOCA and Colin McRae DiRT, as well as TrackMania and three Need for Speed titles. Firebrand is now working on its own IP, starting with Solar Flux. Shea told me that focusing on one genre had helped the studio make a name for itself and gave it scope to branch out into its own projects.
"We’re definitely taking a wider approach to development than we have in the past," he explained. "A few years ago specialising in one genre was a real strength for a small developer- in our case handheld racing games- but now changes in the market have meant this is no longer desirable. There are far fewer racing games being made than there were seven years ago, and really only the huge franchises survive on the most powerful hardware.
"It’s very difficult for a small company like Firebrand to compete with the likes of Turn 10 or Polyphony Digital on next generation hardware so it seems inevitable we will probably make less racing games and turn our attention to other things. Fortunately, we have people in the studio with a broad range of game development experience - adventure games, character based games and puzzle games, and also a real love and passion for all types of gaming- from hardcore RPGs to obscure Indies to casual mobile puzzle games.
"While we are still always on the lookout for work for hire opportunities, in part our destiny is much more in our own hands now so we are looking for game ideas that can either offer something new and interesting or something with a big chance of commercial success. Or ideally both."
It's a big world out there, as we found in our panel session above. There are now so many options available to developers, regardless of team size, location or focus. It's clear that many teams out there want to be the next Angry Birds, but many of them still try to emulate Rovio's format and success, rather than attempting a new, refreshing concept. This is partly why mobile stores are awash with clones and over-familiar prospects. Firebrand was keen to avoid that pitfall when conceptualising it's first new IP, Solar Flux.
Shea told me that the idea came two years ago, and was born during an internal incubation process designed to encourage new ideas. "We’d always wanted to develop our own games - our own IP," he recalled, "but had been too busy up until this point to really focus on this. Three new ideas were developed to a proof of concept stage and of these, far and away the best idea was a game called Solar Flux. This combined classic 8 bit thrust game mechanics with cool puzzles and a unique ambient aesthetic.
"Over the following 18 months we continued to work on Solar Flux occasionally while working on larger paid projects and then finally released the game on iPad in August 2013. The older veterans in the studio fondly remembered classic titles like Lunar Lander, Asteroids, Zarch and Oids, while others loved more recent thrust games like Osmos. The appeal of making a science fiction game that wasn’t about blasting or trading or space opera appealed to everyone."
”Unless you are brave enough to start up on your own, there just aren’t the opportunities for graduate developers in Scotland due to the small nature of the majority of companies. Apart from Rockstar, Scotland has none of the vast AAA studios found in Montreal, mainland Europe or the Far East.”
I first played Solar Flux last year, and found it to be a calming experience. It's both slow and methodical, but also demands precise timing and close attention to resources. It's one of those games that really gets the concept of one-touch control, as you boost your probe through the colourful tranquillity of space using just one finger. It certainly offers something that looks, sounds and feels different to the glut of match-three and familiar endless runner titles out there today.
The game went up against Forza Horizon at the 2013 TIGA awards, but ultimately lost out to the racer. Regardless, that's still a grand feat for what some would readily dub a 'small' Scottish studio. Firebrand isn't small by any means, but this is a negative attitude we spoke about at length in the first issue of this column. The problem is that Scotland is often dubbed a one-game nation thanks to the dominance of Rockstar North's Grand Theft Auto franchise. Studios like Firebrand and the many talented and prosperous companies we'll introduce you to throughout this series prove that theory wrong, no questions asked.
"Compared to how Scotland was ten years ago things are very different," Shea said of the nation's industry,"on the surface much weaker, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. We still have the mighty Rockstar North in Edinburgh, of course, but there used to be a number of other big Scottish companies competing in the global AAA games field; the likes of Realtime Worlds, VIS entertainment, Visual Science, Red Lemon and DMA Design.
"Now outside of Rockstar there are very few, if any, companies with more than 30 staff. Instead there are close to 100 micro developers that have sprung up around the country; all making indie games or creating unique games businesses in different areas. Some of these like Firebrand, Tag Games and 4J Studios have made successful sustainable businesses that have survived for many years by staying small, finding business opportunities and managing risks, but the exact profitability of many of the others is unclear.
"Some of the Indies may be struggling to feed themselves, I honestly don’t know, and others who appear successful on the face of things may be heavily backed by external investment, which can be a risk. One of the difficulties I think is the lack of transparency in indie development. People look at the incredible success of games like Minecraft or Clash of Clans and believe they too can achieve that. But these are extreme outliers that hide just how difficult being an indie developer is in the modern market."
This brings us neatly back to the topic of this month's column. Shea cautioned that markets like the App Store may seem like easy money-makers, but the reality is less cheerful. Placing high in the iOS paid apps may sound like a dream come true, but how much money will you make at £0.69 per download, and what happens if you disappear off that chart as fast as you came? As I've said often on this site; after looking at the sales metrics of several mobile games, it's often a case of modest launches followed by rapidly diminishing returns.
Shea remains optimistic however, and championed the Scottish games industry's sense of community. "There’s a real sense now of companies helping each other out, collaborating, or just offering advice where they can," he added. "The games industry is arguably a tougher business than it ever has been, so this type of help and support can be invaluable to smaller companies." He also explained that while the solidarity among Scotland's game professionals is at its strongest, we're still losing graduates from our various educational establishments to overseas markets.
Shea continued, "Unless you are brave enough to start up on your own, there just aren’t the opportunities for graduate developers in Scotland due to the small nature of the majority of companies. Apart from Rockstar, Scotland has none of the vast AAA studios found in Montreal, mainland Europe or the Far East. If you want to learn your trade working in a big team in AAA development your opportunities in the UK, never mind Scotland, are pretty limited.
”Look at our heritage, look at DMA Design, not just Lemmings, but a company chosen to be in Nintendo’s Dream Team for the launch of N64. Then look at all the companies spawned from DMA and the range of games they produced.”
"Fixing this is far from easy, however, as companies will go where the cheapest, largest pool of skilled developers can be found and places like Montreal have become so established now as development mega-cities it’s hard to see a way back."
This migration of home-grown talent is also something I'll touch on in a future VG247 Scotland column, but despite all of the valid and pressing problems Shea has touched upon, he was keen to highlight the nation's high academic standards, and the sheer range of smaller studios that are working hard to grow and prosper in what is undeniably a highly-competitive market. Things can only improve from here.
When I asked what he'd say to someone who feels Scotland is nothing more than GTA, Shea replied, "I’d say firstly; look at our heritage, look at DMA Design, not just Lemmings, but a company chosen to be in Nintendo’s Dream Team for the launch of N64. Then look at all the companies spawned from DMA and the range of games they produced; many huge hits like Crackdown. Then look at the hundred companies around today making games for many different platforms and audiences; from educational games to cool indie games to bringing Minecraft to consoles. Then there is the not-so-small matter of the biggest console game in the world being made in Edinburgh: GTA.
"On the Education side, Abertay University led the UK in introducing dedicated game development courses over a decade ago and then gave birth to the fantastic Dare to be Digital competition for student teams which has also created many great games and developers. They have been followed by equally good courses at University West of Scotland, Glasgow Caledonian University and many smaller colleges."
I've often found it difficult to convince sceptics that Scotland has a valid and growing game industry, but the evidence is there to see if you care to look into the matter. I closed my interview with Shea on education, because this will be the key topic of February's VG247 Scotland column, entitled 'Educating Scotland.' It promises to be an insightful look at the nation's academic prowess within the field of game development.
For now though, share your feedback on this month's news, panel and interview with us in the comments, and as always, we're keen to hear from you on the Scottish industry at large. Thanks for reading.