Rory Cellan-Jones

British games: Small is beautiful?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 16 Oct 09, 09:50 GMT

How easy is it for a small British games developer to take on the world - and actually make a living?

We hear a lot of doom and gloom these days from our games industry - it feels unloved by the government, burdened by higher taxes than the likes of Canada, and squeezed between American and Japanese giants on one side and hungry young start-ups from Eastern Europe on the other.

But I met a remarkably cheerful developer the other day who explained to me how the new economics of mobile and casual games were giving him a chance. Charles Cecil is an important figure in the British gaming industry.

He has been in the business for 25 years and at one time employed more than 40 people, creating big hits like Beneath a Steel Sky and Broken Sword. But now he's really a one-man band bringing in collaborators on a freelance basis.

Beneath a Steel Sky

He says that by the mid 2000s development costs had grown so high and the market so focussed on blockbusters that publishers would cancel development of titles at any stage if it looked as though they might not be huge hits.

When he had a major project ditched in 2004 he couldn't afford to carry on paying a big team so scaled right back.

In any case the economics of being a developer were unattractive. Charles Cecil told me:

"You effectively get 10% of the revenue... which is set against the development costs. It means you very rarely recoup your costs."

But two things have come along to make this developer more cheerful - the growth of casual gaming and the arrival of Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch as a new gaming platform.

This week a version of Beneath a Steel Sky went on sale in Apple's App Store. Now at £2.49 a download, it's going to have to be a huge hit to make Charles Cecil rich - but then again he says the development costs were a fraction of the budget needed to launch a game for a console or PCs.

What's more he gets to keep 70% of the revenues, although it's up to him to do the whole job of marketing and financing the game that is usually down to the publisher.

Casual games sold on the web are also a much more low budget area, where small-scale British developers could find it easier to make an impact.

They're just beginning to wonder - like musicians a few years back - whether they can now cut out the middlemen and talk direct to their loyal fans. But there's a cautionary note from Charles Cecil:

"To be clear, this model works well for smaller, more innovative games. For the hundred million dollar blockbusters, the traditional publishing model is absolutely appropriate."

Britain can be proud of the creative record of its gaming industry - and there are still centres of excellence spread across the country from Brighton to Dundee. But those parts of it which remain independent may increasingly find that small is beautiful.


  • Comment number 1.

    There's currently a debate on how Steam is, as a platform, for smaller and independent developers. Fits in quite well.

  • Comment number 2.

    It's worth noting that Beneath a Steel Sky was released as freely redistributable and runs with the free software ScummVM engine, so anyone on a less locked-down system than the iPhone can just download it and play it for free.

  • Comment number 3.

    One of the most innovative and entertaining games I've played in recent times has been an indie game called World of Goo. The chaps who made it (2DBoy) have delivered something with all the polish and depth you'd expect from a big software house. From what I can gather on the interweb they released it via their own site and also via Steam for PC/MAC and WiiWare for the Wii. As mileshayler mentioned the Steam platform seems to be a good way to deliver these independent games.

    The game is as good an example as any I can think of where talent, original ideas and drive have created something really special. Probably not the sort of game a major would have invested in and promoted as it is too 'different' from their big game models. I really think it is with this sort of development that the future of PC gaming lies as the big companies seem to be focused heavily on the XBox/PS3 crowd. I'd be happy with that if games like World of Goo are the future!

  • Comment number 4.

    Speaking of World of Goo (Hevster_uk), it's on birthday sale, name your price, at the official website.

  • Comment number 5.

    "There's currently a debate on how Steam is, as a platform, for smaller and independent developers. Fits in quite well." - mileshayler

    Indeed, and not just Steam. I'd like to know what effect digital distribution channels (e.g. systems like Steam, Direct2Drive, GamersGate, Impulse, as well as self-publishing on the web) are having on the PC games market, especially with respect to independent developers and smaller software houses.

  • Comment number 6.

    The game industry started out with one man bands so why not go back to them. In the past with a small team decisions as to the game being good or bad took no time at all..

    And the point of music and musicians doing the same type of thing, well maybe demo time for a track? 2 of 3 hearings then you could buy or it would disappear off the platform?

    Sorry too simplistic an idea. I could go on............

  • Comment number 7.

    The British games industry seriously needs a tax break or we risk losing out to other nations. Yes it is a bit doom and gloom and at the moment we do still have many independant developers, but it bothers me that the Government is lacking in its support for the industry. Hopefully that might change when we get a new Government next year.

  • Comment number 8.

    Not to mention Xbox live aercade and the PSN network.

    Which now has the glorious Monkey Island, anotyher graphic adventure classic.

    Not to mention Peggle- a game so addictive it's rumoured that Doherty and Winehouse's blood is 93% Peggle.

  • Comment number 9.

    Right now the British games development industry doesn't seem to be doing too bad. Most of the companies that have moved to or invested heavily in Canada are those studios guilty of creating mindless coder farms that don't support innovation.

    This should not be a suprise though, as any company that is willing to move based on such tax breaks forcing it's staff to either lose their jobs, or leave their family behind is clearly not a developers oriented studio. When developers stop getting treated as such, and stop being given the freedom to be creative whilst also living healthy lives then such a company is not worth working for anyway.

    What it really boils down to is this, every country is capable of having great developers in it's population, the question is what companies do to exploit that. If companies head abroad (the likes of EA) then some of those developers will get left behind, they'll either start their own studio, become independent, or join the companies that don't leave and look after their staff, companies that cater to and support innovation- companies like Lionhead.

  • Comment number 10.

    I absolutely loved BaSS and Broken Sword and really pleased that Point and Click adventures are having a bit of revival on the app store and on Steam in particular. The Wii's interface has obviously enabled a revisit to the control system in a modern way, though there's absolutely nothing wrong with using a mouse!

    I write business software but I've always had an interest in game development. Back when I started programming the Amiga was popular. You could read the credits of games and see that just a handful of people where involved (in some cases there'd be just a programmer and a graphics guy). That really appealed to me, having such a closeness to the product that you'd get a lot of creative control. Nowadays I think it's harder to crack into game development. And if you do get in to the industry, it's much more corporate.

    Having said all that. It is getting easier to crack the casual market, as the games there are usually simply a clever hook without too much depth (not necessarily a bad thing).

    One more point to highlight is the game Machinarium, which came out today, on Steam. It's an example of amateur developers breaking through. The game is a beautiful, thoroughly interesting and spectacular game, which has an interesting development history. I suggest people look up Samorost and have a go for free to see what Machinarium has to offer.

  • Comment number 11.

    The point about modern game development is that it is not just about British, or American or anywhere else - especially the small games.

    I compose the music for and work behind the scenes on an MMO called Wurm Online.

    The game was first created by two friends in Sweden part time. Now the main developer, Rolf Jansson makes his living full time from the game. However, I am in the UK, the main graphics chap is in the US, and there are all sorts of volunteer coders, artists and people who run the game that are from all over the World.

    Admittedly it is a very small game, but the fact that it is more or less a one-man-band, with help from friends, means that it can offer and play with ideas that games from the big budget companies simply wont touch.

    They make massive investments and need returns as quickly as possible so they invariably take the safe route. So they all stick to more or less the same formula - you can turn your character into a super hero (if you pay enough), you will spend vast amounts of time trying to beat other people up and there will always be some really bad scripting to help it along! But, it is familiar, you get lots of players jumping in there quickly knowing exactly what to expect and how to play it and everyone is happy.

    The small games producers dont have those budget advantages - they HAVE to offer different, and they must make their own niche because it is really difficult to compete - almost impossible.

    The developers of Wurm made a big difference by creating a game where you can actually change the landscape - that means digging, flattening, chopping down trees, planting them again (!), working out the shape of your house, planting your farms, fishing, building boats, and so on. You also have the choice of doing this without the neighbours pulling ray guns on you, or you can go join the war. Or you can look over some one's wall and talk about the weather.

    It makes for a very complicated, layered game and one that needs CONSTANT development, and re development and almost re-inventing at times. I cannot see ANY major developer doing that, putting a vast amount of time into a game that is so flexible it is guaranteed to produce bugs at every change - they simply would not tolerate it and would play safe.

    But the independent developers like us at Wurm Online, the people round the fringes, they are the ones that will truly innovate and really offer alternate experiences. They are the ones that will go and invent the game THEY want to play, rather than the one some marketing mad tells them to.

    I love it when new players come into our game and are surprised that you only have 1st person perspective. "How do I zoom out??? Where is the mini-map?" There isn't one. "How will I know if a bear is going to attack then????"

    You don't. That is when the real fun starts.

    All hail the small developer - I think we have more fun.

  • Comment number 12.

    I was working as a software developer and my wife in the games industry in Brighton for a number of years. In '06 we moved out to Montreal, Canada and I was surprised to see that a Brighton based company she had worked with had moved a number of their staff out there as well, no doubt to be near EA and the other games companies based in the city.
    I took a job with a firm that worked with a number of game development firms and have to say I was very disappointed with what I saw. It's no wonder Canadian games companies are able to compete when they outsource testing to firms who only pay their QA staff $8 an hour, 5 days paid holiday a year, sack people on the spot when they need to cut staff numbers down in the slow patches etc.
    Brighton really is England's silicon beach and the government should be supporting the industry there. Maybe sorting out our messy tax system would be a good start!

  • Comment number 13.

    What I do not get is why every Industry, successful or not always demand tax breaks.
    As far as I am concern tax breaks should be given to industries which are new to the country or something with potential to create a multi billion pounds industry in the future or industry which is struggling but which has plenty of prospects of expanding but have little to no international parterners or private finance help.
    As far as I know the game company is not struggling with either. An so in my book does not qualify for tax breaks.

    As to the main point of the article, small is beautiful, unfortunately I think it a short term solution for small game developers, the main reason why iphone games are small is because of storage limits on the iphone as a file size limit, and also physical limit to the storage on the phone. Also the phone memory and processor also limit the size an scope of the games. As time goes on both of these limits will be eliminated and size of the game will expand and so will the size of the developer teams needed to developed these and to complete in the market will sky rocket.

    I do think over the next 10 years the cost of developing game titles will level off, I think we already reach the cost limits with consumers and investors will simply not cross. The question now is more how we can decrease cost and development time for big titles and small titles and think the answer to that is much more development in the areas of tools used to build these games. A lot of games are still built from scratch, often building there own game engines and other design tools, the industry needs to move a lot further to reusing stuff from previous games and stop building everything from scratch like they do now.

  • Comment number 14.

    knowles 2, the main problem is that the same tax breaks that are given to the British film industry aren't afforded to the games industry. Games have the same or maybe even greater potential as an artistic medium than film but they're given lesser treatment. On a world scale I would say that the British developers are more successful than the film industry. When is the last time that a British film broke sales records like GTA IV? (developed by the Edinburgh based Rockstar North) In terms of talent I would still say that this holds true with developers like Media Molecule, Creative Assembly, Lionhead and the aforementioned Rockstar to name a few that produce outstanding, critically acclaimed games.

    At the peak of development big budget games can have several hundred people working on them so the effect on employment should be obvious. But there's a limit to how much the games industry can grow when the government denies it the same benefits that it grants other mediums. This in turn costs us talent that moves to countries like Canada where the games industry is better supported.

    To be more relevant to the article I think that games are in a fairly unique position to offer smaller budget games at a lower price through digital distribution ranging right up to bigger budget full retail releases- in contrast to other media where albums/movies cost about the same to the consumer regardless of cost of production.

  • Comment number 15.

    knowles2 wrote:

    A lot of games are still built from scratch, often building there own game engines and other design tools, the industry needs to move a lot further to reusing stuff from previous games and stop building everything from scratch like they do now.

    Smaller games companies reuse a lot of code, but only when it will do the job.

    For instance, with sound, many games are using either openAL or the non-free FMod.

    Wurm Onlin is written in Java, and we try not to reinvent the wheel if we can help it and will quite happily use existing nuts and bolts if they will do the job.

    However, game development is not a predictable beast and the technology changes and the increasing power of computers means that every new game has to be careful not to use old technology that will reduce the life span of the game - especially if there is a large investment. Game developers also want to push the technology as far as they can - and I see no sign of that going out of fashion. Nor do I see production costs levelling off, to be honest.

    The only disappointment is that despite the dramatic increase of available technology, the large games companies in particular seem to be incapable of coming up with new ideas and stories! The technology may have changed, but to be honest, most companies seem to be simply reworking old ideas.

  • Comment number 16.

    I agree with knowles2. The low-cost of these games is due to the fact that the iphone, and its competitors, simply don't have the capacity to run games with cutting-edge graphics, or those which take up outrageous amounts of disc space (many modern games are Gigabytes in size). There's also the size of the screen to consider - you're not playing on a 20" TV.

    Because of this, you can spend a lot less on development in order to be competitive - the sheer costs involved in developing a game with ultra-realistic, 3D graphics are prohibitively expensive for a small company, whereas a cheap background made in MS Paint over a lunch break is far less expensive.

    And I'll agree that we're nearing the limits now on how much the ultra-realistic will cost, mostly because there's a limit on how much people will pay. On the subject of engines, take a look at the Source engine. It'll be very difficult to develop anything better. There's player-made mods available, showing that it's at least possible to produce games cheaply, but it still costs money to produce new graphics and things.

    The difficulty is in creating new content. Not just designing it, but also the costs of testing can be expensive, unless you happen to have a huge volunteer army to do it.

  • Comment number 17.

    #13. knowles2 wrote:

    "I do think over the next 10 years the cost of developing game titles will level off, I think we already reach the cost limits with consumers and investors will simply not cross"

    Sadly the present 10 million pound/dollar cost of developing each game is unlikely to reduce. Throughout the history of computer software development almost all pundits predict a reduction in cost of development and the reduction in the number of lines of code - unfortunately this has very seldom happened. I read talk of tool-kits and Java and code reuse however these 'advances' are generally accompanied (and outpaced by) by new hardware capabilities in graphics cards or mathematics cards that offer the potential of greater 'reality' and this outweighs the advantages from all of the other advances.

    Low powered processors and graphics capabilities in portable battery powered devices (incl. phones) can sometime offer a market for simple games and applications, but as the devices lack the capabilities of the major rendering engines the result will always be very inferior (for so long as the quality and dynamics of the image and rapidity of 'play' is a major requirement).

    Games production is an arms race to make the best use of the graphics (and processor) capabilities available and for as long as this continues, games will cost more and more to make. (and take longer and longer.)

  • Comment number 18.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 19.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 20.

    Indie Games on Xbox Live are allowing bedroom gamers to release games and get them visible to the public which has to be a good thing. a friend and i recently spent an afternoon playing random games from the indie games section. Great Fun :)

    check out or
    my friend is releasing his second game Dysnomia soon and i am really looking forward to playing the full version after seeing the videos and blogs that he has been posting about it. i think things like XB Live and Steam are allowing smaller developers to get their content out in much the same way that myspace is doing for bands. Which allows for more new ideas than the 'safe' ones that are being put out by the larger software houses.

  • Comment number 21.

    I point to Rocksteady Studios, a tiny developer from North London, who recently had a massive success with Batman: Arkham Asylum.


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