What do you think are biggest issues in the contemporary games industry compared with the ‘90s?
Where do we want to start? Okay. Here is the big thing – and this relates to many people I’ve worked with in recent years. In the UK, in the ‘80s – which is when I started – and the ‘90s, we had a pretty solid games industry. One thing I never touched was the demoscene. I started making games when I was 19. I had no demoscene experience, however many people I’ve worked with, in many companies, since come from the demoscene. Especially in Europe, where there wasn’t such an ability to make games in their professional work at that time. The big difference I see with us old fashioned game makers – and there are not many of us – and people from the demoscene background, is that ‘demosceners’ tend not to be such perfectionists in every single detail of a game. They were making a demo or a piece of something which showed potential, but not dealing with every single dull part and planning it all from the start. I do see that and I miss that real perfectionist element you used to get from old programmers, the really good programmers.
Now, obviously the machines are easier to work on, but what demosceners seem to find harder to deal with is the realisation that everything is on them. No one’s going to do anything except me. Everything’s got to be planned out, I’ve got to understand every detail. That responsibility and that feeling of coordinating everything. I see many of these guys and it isn’t there. There was something with those older professional game programmers that was really hardcore. That hardness, I find it missing. There are a lot of brilliant demoscene programmers – I am not slagging the demoscene off at all here. What I’m saying is, it is a different attitude. It wasn’t their living, so they didn’t take it as seriously. That’s true with some of those demosceners even now. I’ve worked with different companies all over Europe where you get people from the demoscene. That’s just what happens; they’ve learnt their professional stuff from the amateur perspective, then gone professional.
What about the even younger generation of programmers and designers who don’t remember the demoscene at all?
With younger guys, the real problem we’ve got is – and now this is a slight departure, but it’s worth mentioning it. My father is a very good amateur actor and he has been acting his whole life. In fact, my dad is about to turn 80 and he is still acting right now as Santa. He is going on trains at the moment doing a performance of Polar Express, dressed up as a Santa who walks through train carriages and give presents the kids. So my dad’s been acting since before I was born. The reason he didn’t turn professional was because he decided it was sensible for him to have a solid job in an office – which is what he ended up doing – to have enough money to bring up the family. I’m very glad he did, by the way, as his child [chuckles].
But really the background to that is that in the 1940s to ‘50s when my father was growing up, Hollywood and the silver screen was big and everyone like him when they become adults were attracted to acting around the 1960s. Then I look at myself growing up. In the ’80s when I left school I wanted to be a musician, I wanted to be in a band. I told my dad I’d left college to be in the band with Chris, and it was only three or four years afterwards that we started to make games. But the same thing happens when you get to the ’80s; everyone’s influenced by the ’60s and ’70s and everyone wants to make music 20 years later, just like me and Chris did. But there was no room for us, too many people wanted to do the same thing at the same time, just like there was no room for my dad when he wanted to be a professional actor, and now we’ve come onto the same thing in this current era, but this time with games.
Everyone’s grew up playing games in the 90s and 00s and everyone wants to make games. The thing is, there’s not room for everyone to make games. But the difference compared to the eras when everyone wanted to do acting or make music is that nowadays there are a huge amount of university courses and the exhibition industry persuading people that yes, these people can make games as their job, when the reality is that most people can’t, because they can’t earn the money. So the difference between the current era and the eras in the 60s and the 80s is the lack of realism regarding pursuing a career in the art form you love. I am pretty good musician, but I am not a pro and I know my place. I am happy for the tracks from Cannon Fodder to be highly regarded by people. For me as a songwriter, that’s as much as I can achieve. But I’ve still got more talent as a songwriter than over 50 percent of people trying to make games professionally right now – many people who’ve got their stuff in the App Store, they are just not good enough to be professionals and there are far too many of them.
What or who is it to blame for that?
No one is telling people, ‘You’re not good enough!’ People are being encouraged because – unfortunately for games and all the other media – pretending you can be a professional game maker, musician, book writer or filmmaker is a huge distraction from the fact that there’s not really a lot of work for you anymore. Well, the governments have not quite figured out how to employ everybody, which is what’s really going on right now. So our industry is blighted by a university sector pandering to people’s fantasies and getting, in the case of the UK, nine grand a year out of them for the placement. The government sector doesn’t understand the games industry, never has done, and is just trying to do what it thinks is cool. It wants to have employment figures showing that there are jobs.
But we (games) are in an arts field and art is not a democracy. Most art is forgettable. In my opinion, the only art – that really is worth existing on a public level, is stuff which is either incredibly innovative and new or extremely good copies or versions of existing stuff. An example of that would be Candy Crush. It’s a brilliant Match 3 game, its not Bejeweled which was the original match 3 game, but both of those deserve to exist. But as for those thousands of poor copies of Candy Crush, what’s the point of them? Why are they allowed on the App Store?
To be honest, that very phenomenon makes me quite nauseous too.
It’s because right now, our problem stems from the channels. In the old days, we used to go to Virgin, Renegade, Ocean or Palace – whoever we were working with. They would sit back and go, picking Microprose here, ‘Okay, if we want to make Microprose Soccer, we need to manufacture so many boxes, wrap them in cellophane, stick them in the warehouse, put them in a lorry, drive that lorry to a shop and then get it sold.’ Making that unit is going to cost three or four pounds and sticking it in the warehouse is going to cost so much to store it, so there was a physical cost attached to making that product. That physical cost stopped the making of bad games, because if a game was terrible, they still had do a manufacturing run of 10,000 units, four pounds each, which cost them 40 grand say, so they didn’t make those games.
Now, since the digital era, we haven’t learnt to retain the publishing protocols in terms of quality control. What’s more, people like Apple and Google have exploited this and allowed everyone to make and publish games, which seems great, but it’s like mixing student work with professional work. It hurts. Can you imagine if Manchester United ran out onto the pitch with all the kids in their playground, who want to play for Manchester United, mixed up with a real team? That’s what I see, and I’ve worked with a lot of students. I’ve done a lot of university work and I know the difference in quality.
What’s your experience from the higher education perspective in regards to the issue in question?
Okay, so the truth is that in an average university class, 50 percent of the people are wasting their time and money and shouldn’t be there. About 30 percent, maybe, can get some benefit. Even if they’re not in the games industry, they can learn the skills of working in a team, technical and art skills, and planning skills. So there’s a lot of secondary education coming out of games courses which is valuable and worth something. Th next 10 percent of the students are people you might want to employ and the final 10 percent are the ones you would definitely want to hire. The problem from the games industry’s point of view is – and I’m a games industry person – that we only really care about that top 10 percent. The rest are just make-weight people; it doesn’t really matter if they’re there or not. But the education industry and the government doesn’t see it like that at all; they want their numbers to be up.
I remember sitting down for a meal next to a guy from the Estonian government in Tallinn. He was telling me that their ambition is to make this tech city and to have about 10,000 people there making games within two years. I’m like, ‘That’s crazy, 10,000 is about the size of the entire UK games industry, which is considerably more mature than Estonia’s. Plus the UK population is about something like 50 to 60 times as big as Estonia’s. The guy had no idea. With that volume of people, mostly from Estonia, with little previous training, what kind of quality and are you going to get? People find it hard to understand how specialised making games is. Everyone can try doing it. Everyone can try to sing or draw, but you are not going to stick loads of kindergarten scribbles in the Louvre and make it look great next to Mona Lisa. It doesn’t work like that.
Well that’s kind of ironic, but then there is the other side of the coin that you’ve already mentioned. The main digital distribution platforms are pouring hundreds of new uncurated titles each month into the consumer market. What improvements do you think should be made there?
I hope that we get a refinement of the processes Google and Apple work with. And there’s another dangerous thing which happened recently with Apple. The way they are filtering the games is by whether they run on the current operating system or not. Well, quite frankly, they should make their operating system work backwards to be compatible with old games. You don’t make a great library of the best games by throwing out the old ones, just because they don’t run on your system anymore. And guess what, now, some of the teams that made games in the past don’t exist anymore. They cannot update their games. We’ve got the same problem with Speedball right now. I don’t have a contract with Vivid Games in Poland anymore – I cannot update the game. So Apple are not filtering the games based on quality, but whether they work with their current technology – a bit like the leads that they change every few years for the sake of it. It’s really an abhorrent, horrendous way to vet a platform. I can’t wait for someone to break the mould and to have all the quality games in one place and ditch games based on quality.
I’m going to tell you what someone told me when I was in Turkey. I shared a cab with a Turkish banking guy once and he said to me, ‘You know the thing with Turkey as a country…’ And I think it’s the same in China as well. I am working out in China now. ‘…we are not really a country that innovates, we just copy stuff. We try and make as good quality as we can for as cheap money as possible and then sell it.’ That’s all well and good if you’re making a carpet, but if you’re making a game that is just a poor copy of Candy Crush, what’s the point? It doesn’t deserve to exist and clog the market up. So the big problem we’ve got is that it’s not just the people making the games; it’s the whole culture around how they’re made.
The people who suffer, having taught a lot of these guys, are those top 10 percent of students who deserve to get backing and are just lost in a sea of other crap. Especially when they’re making new games and trying to make their name. I wish the quality control was as vicious as in football clubs. They let the kids go through the under 12s, 13s, 14s,15s, constantly filtering them out. It’s only when they’re 18, they’re allowed to be professional and the top guys always get the job in the end. I think we need the games industry to be much more like that.
As you hinted, apart from your direct involvement in game development and publishing, you have also become a respected educator in the industry. Besides being a long time university lecturer, you are a co-founder of BUGS, the Business and University Games Syndicate, which launched in 2014. Was this perhaps the avenue through which you tried to improve some of the aforementioned issues?
BUGS was an effort to profile the best student work from different universities around the UK. We had 15 universities signed up from different cities. We presented these on a website to the games industry, to different publishing companies, so they could look at the work and then have a list of the people who made that work. They could directly approach those students and offer them internships, placements – whatever it might be – for whatever jobs they had. This was a brilliant idea and was backed by Ian Livingstone, which was nice. 15 universities and quite a lot of companies, but there was a reason we had to stop running BUGS: No one would give us funding to do it.
As usual, the universities kept their hands in their pockets and didn’t pay out money. They were happy with the help BUGS game, but they weren’t willing to put their hands in their pockets and pay us to have administrators to run the system. So after three years, myself and another guy, Professor Carlston Mapel, we stopped doing this. We were losing time and money trying to make something happen. Besides BUGS I worked with Westminster University for five years as a lecturer, I worked with Grimsby University to help design their games course and now I’m an honorary professor at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. Universities are both good and bad when it comes to games, but one thing all of them have in common is that it is very hard to release funding to pay for outside entities.
For an outsider, that’s quite funny given the amount of money being poured into them already each year by students. What’s their problem?
It was a discussion for me a lot of the time at Westminster, getting friends of mine in the games industry to talk to my games students about various things like programming, game production, law or whatever. Getting these guys paid for their time by the uni is very hard. If you’re lucky, you might get a train ticket paid. But if a guy’s putting out half of his day, or his whole day, that time is worth money. I’m a consultancy-thinking person. They should be paid. Often unis are kind of looking after themselves too much and are reluctant to help outsiders. There’s so much internal politics going on in the organisation. Interfacing with the outside world can be a problem and I’m hoping that’s something which I can help Anglia Ruskin with.