The Next Level

It’s not just consoles, but digital TV and mobile phones that are presenting games designers with ever greater challenges. We have the technology…

The computer games market has evolved into a multi-million pound industry in the UK, with British games designers ranked as the best in the world alongside their peers in the US and Japan. But, although games consoles represent the cutting edge of games design, developing computer games is becoming more than simply designing for formats like the Sony PlayStation or the Sega Dreamcast.

On the one hand, a dedicated games studio, or developer as they are known, might easily employ 20 staff to design a game over a two year time frame. But there are increasingly imaginative applications for less sophisticated games too, particularly linking them with brands. The Internet affords lower budget opportunities for consultancies to try their hand at game design, with quicker turnaround times and a different end objective. Such games are generally promotional projects offered free to a wider public. As time goes on, digital TV, next generation phones and conceptual electronic devices will be able to handle forms of interactive entertainment that we can only dream about.

At the top of the professional circuit developers such as Electronic Arts, Infogrames, Sony, Nintendo and Sega have spawned many of the current generation of games studios and, unlike some design disciplines, these are well interspersed across the UK.

Warrington-based developer Spiral House was set up last year by Kevin Oxland, who takes the title of studio director, and technical director Bobby Earl. Oxland left games giant Infogrames with a deal to develop the sequel to the adventure game Silver, which is now in production and will be launched under a new name.

“The industry breaks down into developers, which design and develop the games, and publishers, which commission them. Usually the developer comes up with an idea for a game and pitches it to the publisher. They then go into pre-production and if all goes well production follows,” explains Oxland. The pre-production period might take six months, while full production can often take 18 months to two years.

“The funding for a game can be sourced in several ways, often the publisher will advance against royalties to develop the project. A royalty agreement based on sales is agreed with the publisher,” he adds.

The bigger houses often fund their own product design and can then go to a like-minded publisher with a finished game in tow. Many developers have a niche of some kind, explains Oxland, such as developing licenses from films like Toy Story 2, or developing sports titles such as football or racing games.

The production budgets and long schedules of top games projects are even beginning to rival the film industry. And this comparison is apt in other ways. Unlike traditional design disciplines, the skills required to operate much of the software involved are not generally taught at any college. And just like the movies, for those that succeed, the rewards and stardom are there as well.

“We are starting to compete with the film industry to find the best animators and creative staff. Good quality animators are very hard to find and one of the hardest things to do is establish a good team,” continues Oxland.

“The budgets can be astronomical, but the rewards are there once you become established. The difficulty is getting started. It can be hard for people to get into the industry.” Oxland himself started by designing and programming games in a bedroom and sending them off to publishers when the industry was in its infancy.

Further down the games ladder the ripples of the console games developers are certainly felt. Web design groups such as Deepend, Agency.com and Razorfish, and digital TV specialists like Static 2358 and Nykris Digital Design are the first to acknowledge this influence. So too are interactive advertising shops such as Soho London, which has designed branded games for Nike and Ovaltine.

Razorfish senior designer Paul Cleghorn suggests that powerful design concepts created for console games often inspire designers developing smaller scale games for the Web. “The design ethos of games designed for PlayStation or Dreamcast is being increasingly applied to on-line games,” he says, such as making them a lot more colourful and much easier to use. “My personal favourite is the map feature on Gran Turismo, which is really well laid out using 2D graphics. You always know where it is taking you and it is easy to use. I haven’t ripped it off yet but I would do,” he says.

The future of TV games looks set since Static 2358 announced it is developing a games channel for BSkyB, its new stakeholder. It also plans to design quick play TV games, sponsored by appropriate brands, for other digital TV platforms. They will target an untapped, captive audience of TV viewers with increasing control over their TV viewing.

The design of the games will start off very simply, developing as the technology advances. According to Static creative director Mark Rock, while you cannot beat the constraints of the technology, the aim is to target the enormous TV viewing public, rather than a minority video games community.

“We are developing something that casual users can play. We are trying to develop a model where it makes sense for broadcasters to develop our games. By giving it to them cheaply and taking a share of the advertising revenue we can make it affordable for them,” says Rock.

He feels that too many digital media groups developing games are pre-occupied with the technical aspects, rather than the design itself. “There are a few groups doing on-line games, but a lot of them often don’t have the design values that we do,” he says.

Rock points out that the low level of technology available with which to design TV games rekindles the design challenges of years gone by. The cult games of the 1980s had a firepower not so very different to that of present day digital TV platforms.

“You need to look back to the early games like Asteroids and the multi-level games of the 1980s. They were simple games but they were massively popular. Of course, the technology for TV games will improve with time. Ultimately the field will be content-driven,” he says.

But there is more in it for designers than just games. Nykris Digital Design creative director Nikki Barton says the influence of computer game design is much more widespread. More and more designers presenting information digitally are using a games-style format for hosting information-rich products, “One of the big things that has influenced us in interface design is games”, she says.

Barton suggests that in the past the trend was for multimedia design with dazzling and complex functionality. But this is moving on with the realisation that there is often too much in the way of peripheral. For its recent 3D atlas project for Electronic Arts, Nykris reversed the thinking. “We wanted an uncluttered, simple, fun look to it, so we used quite a slick screen design with game-style buttons to access the content. At the end of the day it is the content that people are interested in. It is important to make it as accessible as possible,” she says.

As further proof she cites Microsoft’s recent Web TV trial. “One of the findings of the trial was that whatever the information, if it is represented in a fun-like way it will encourage repeat visits,” she says.

What is certain of the future is that electronic entertainment is shifting its shape. What is less obvious is exactly what this shape may be. New generations of games consoles will wire up whole communities of game aficionados. Some predict the emergence of GJs (game jockeys) to co-ordinate gaming sessions globally. The games experience will begin, they say, to blur increasingly with real life.

That computer games will proliferate is also certain. The imminent arrival of smart set-top boxes that personalise TV viewing is already causing TV advertisers to dream up replacement branding concepts for the screen. BSkyB’s games channel could be a major manifestation of this trend.

Whether you see the popularisation of computer games as a powerful commercial vehicle with valuable brand spin-offs, or join the class of disillusioned pro-gamers or disinterested non-gamers, games entertainment is coming to a home near you.

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