Friday, February 13, 2015

Region Specific: Finland – overview


When writer William Goldman pronounced that nobody knows anything, he was talking about the movie industry, but it feels increasingly applicable to the world of videogames. When Apple launched its App Store, for example, no one projected that the company would pay revenues of $10 billion to developers of iOS software in 2014. Before Palmer Luckey emerged from his workshop with a working Oculus Rift prototype, no one talked about the game industry being on the cusp of a virtual-reality revival. And who, as the concept of free-to-play was being circulated as a business model, proposed that it would so quickly become not just a viable proposition for the mobile gaming industry but the dominant one?

The oil tankers that are EA and its ilk, with their mile-wide turning circles, will always struggle to adapt to the kind of change that burns through the game industry. In such a pacy, unpredictable environment, the most nimble participants are the ones best placed to succeed. It’s one of the reasons why Finland has become such a powerful force in recent years. Rovio was one of the first companies to successfully unlock the potential of modern mobile platforms in taking gaming to a massmarket audience, famously earning billions in the process. Meanwhile, Supercell was launching Hay Day, Clash Of Clans and Boom Beach, a succession of free-to-play strategy games that have pulled in millions of players around the world only too happy to spend to help them progress in the company’s continually evolving worlds.

The fire-and-forget model of publishing, by which games are released to live or die and forgotten about until the sellthrough numbers turn up, is clearly a dying one. The most successful strategy for game makers today is to create a revenue model that sees consumers sticking around. And when you depend on consumers sticking around, you have to give them more than an online discussion forum and a clutch of cash-grabbing DLC components at some point down the line. It means that the relationship between creator and consumer is becoming closer than at any point in videogame history, as developers take on player feedback in order to continually shape their games for the better. Companies such as Supercell are leading the way. Its Hay Day may be nearly three years old now, but the game’s community is thriving, not ailing.

Tristan Williams, a senior programmer at Supercell, has worked at various traditional game studios in the past, but his experiences at the creator of Clash Of Clans illustrate the positives that exist for both players and developers in this new era. “When I was at Splash Damage I worked on Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, and I was always bitterly disappointed by the fact that we couldn’t properly support our community,” he says. “I mean, it made sense, business-wise, that we got the project out there and moved on to the next one, but when I saw the community building, I wanted to keep supporting it and keep improving the game. So it was really exciting to come to Supercell, where you can put things out there, see what player feedback is like, and then respond to it. We try to attract new players, but it’s also about taking care of the players who have been playing for a long time, people who have invested so much of themselves into the game.”


In order to be this responsive – to be flexible enough to be able to evaluate feedback and, if required, implement changes quickly – requires close-knit teams built on a small scale. None of the development teams we visit during our time in Finland for this Region Specific has a head count beyond 15 – even in the case of Supercell, whose finances could support thousands. Most teams sizes are much smaller than 15. Keeping things compact is key – as is the ability to work without rigidly enforced hierarchal structures. Fortunately, these things come naturally here.

“In Finland, organisations are generally very flat. We are very democratic in a way,” says Neogames Finland’s KooPee Hiltunen. “We don’t have a king or queen, and we don’t have these kind of burdens from big organisational structures. If you want, you can actually see the ex-president of Finland having a cup of coffee in one of the cafeterias in Helsinki. I don’t know if that sort of thing exists anywhere else. The Finnish way of thinking is very pragmatic in many respects. We want to keep things very lean.”

Finland has just about everything a burgeoning game development community could ask for. Investment has been pouring into the region to allow startups such as Next Games, PlayRaven and Small Giant Games to flourish. Its reputation as a strong engineering nation continues to build, with streams of programmers emerging from its progressive education system. It is home to a diverse range of veteran studios with sterling reputations, from Remedy to smaller-scale action-game specialists such as RedLynx and Housemarque. In Neogames Finland, it has a fiercely committed industry body supporting studios big and small; in Tekes, it has a funding agency with an enviable track record. And alongside those looking to follow the success of Rovio and Supercell in the mobile game market, it has the wave-making Fingersoft alongside up-and-coming teams focused on VR and even

the tricky issue of game discovery. All of the pieces are in place. What happens next?

“It really feels like it’s delivery time now,” says Timo Soininen, CEO of Small Giant Games. “With Rovio and Supercell, and with the success of individual games like Hill Climb Racing, Finland has generated lots of revenue. It would be great to have a third company to join Rovio and Supercell on that scale – maybe a fourth?”

Who will deliver, and in what form? We’ll keep Goldman’s words in mind by not making concrete predictions, but the following pages offer guidance into some of the leading candidates.

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Region Specific: Finland – Fingersoft profile


Founded 2012
Employees 14
URL (publishing enquiries:

Selected softography Hill Climb Racing, I Hate Fish

Current projects Planet Racer (working title), Free Racing (working title), plus TBA

Starting out with novelty camera apps, Fingersoft enjoyed steady success until the release of Hill Climb Racing, at which point it shifted into a different gear. With installations of its Android/iOS games now beyond the 350m mark, the developer/publisher has a huge, and hungry, audience. VP of publishing Jaakko Kylmäoja tells us more.

In such an incredibly competitive market, how do you think Fingersoft stands out?

We’re kind of like a punk band, fighting against big corporations in the game industry. We have a small team making games, and some of them might look a bit rough, but hopefully they’re all fun, and they break the normal industry rules a little bit. For example, Hill Climb Racing doesn’t have any interstitial ads in it, even though we know that if it did, we would make lots more money. For us, it’s more important that the experience is good for the player.

What do you think it is about Hill Climb Racing that’s given it such an incredible amount of success? Have you analysed it to the nth degree to break it down?

Not in such a formal way, but we do have an idea about why it’s so successful. Originally, our early camera apps cross-promoted the game, which gave us the original downloads, but it’s two years old now and it’s still getting something like 300,000 downloads a day, so it’s about more than that. Performance-wise, for example, it was important that even the most low-end devices would run the game smoothly. There are so many cheap Android devices that basically don’t have any games, but Hill Climb Racing runs on them, so it keeps us in the charts. Also, we believe in fair play. We refund every time we’re asked to make a refund – when a child has been allowed to buy things by mistake, for example. We don’t ask why, we just do it. In everything we do, we try to be as fair as possible.

On the publishing side, how do you sign up development partners?

There are two ways. First, I travel to conferences, attend parties and meet people, and I also have lots of friends who know that I’m around, and if they find game companies they pass on my contact information. And then our web page makes it clear that we publish games, so we also find people that way. I pass games to our in-house testers to ask their opinion, but I also want to meet the team – it’s very important that the team is good; it’s not just about the game. Because the most important part in game development comes after you have released the game: how are you going to react to feedback from the players? How are you going to update the game to keep it alive, not just for three months but in Hill Climb Racing’s case two years, and it’s still growing? In the case of SixMinute [the Dublin studio behind the Fingersoft-published Pick A Pet], we met them in San Francisco at GDC 2013 and I asked John [Halloran] to come to our suite and have a meeting. We checked out the game and it looked great, then we came back to Europe and I went to visit the team in Ireland, and we went out and drank together in the pub. Then those guys came to Finland and we went to a sauna and stuff, and we got to know each other. Our mentality is that our partners must be good guys. It’s not about trying to come into the game industry just to benefit from the money available. At Fingersoft, we’ve all been hobbyists since we were kids. Games are our lives. We hope that the people working with us share that same kind of mentality, that same kind of enthusiasm for games.

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Region Specific: Finland – Small Giant Games profile


Founded 2013
Employees 10

Current project Oddwings Escape

Having worked at Habbo Hotel during its boom years, Timo Soininen knows his way around a successful brand. Today, he’s heading up a new studio looking to build hits of its own, starting with Oddwings Escape.

How did Small Giant get started?

The company was founded in early 2013 by a bunch of Habbo Hotel veterans, including Otto Nieminen and Markus Halttunen. After leaving Habbo, Otto started to put a new rock band together, and we were really lucky to get two of the best animators and graphic designers in this country, Tommi Vallisto and Ilkka Juopperi, to join the team. Our first prototype was built in the summer of 2013, we got the first seed financing after that, and now we have a team of ten with solid VC financing backing us up. And it’s a truly multinational team – Russian, Spanish, Hungarian, Finnish.

The idea of the company, as the name suggests, is to keep the team size to an absolute minimum, because we think that small can be big and beautiful. And keeping things simple keeps you focused. It’s more meaningful and fun for top, talented guys to have full responsibility

and accountability for what they do.

Is it just coincidence that your debut game has birds in it?

Yeah, it is actually a complete coincidence. Some of our upcoming characters are definitely not birds, but they can still fly. It, for sure, has nothing to do with the other birdy companies of this country or any other. It just happened. You know, we didn’t want to do yet another racing game, we wanted something that from a story perspective can resonate with a lot of users, young and old.

Given that you’re a small company, is everyone here free to put forth ideas for game concepts and so on?

Oh, absolutely. I’ve often said that some people, especially people outside of the business, use words like ‘coders’ for certain people, but that’s not what they are – these guys are all game developers and designers in their own right; they have all the influence over what’s happening. I think that makes the work much more meaningful, rather than being put in a cubicle and told to code to a spec. That’s so old-fashioned – it doesn’t yield any good results.

The mobile game market has never been more fierce, so how do you stand out?

The only way to survive and stand out is to differentiate. Rather than trying doing yet another match-three game, or trying to imitate Clash Of Clans, it’s better to try to create something new. We’re firm believers that you have to use tested and proven techniques and features, but blend them together in a new way. It’s important to not be bounded by category definitions, but to really try to create new types of games while borrowing a little bit from other areas. It’s about creating new soup from old ingredients, if you like. A key component for us is taking the animation and visual quality in these casual games to a completely new level in terms of detail. We’re also focusing more [than other games of this type] on the story depth, which adds longevity to our games. Finally, we firmly believe that multiplayer and social features are key in making games even more fun and engaging. We build our games from the ground up with social and multiplayer features in mind, so they become an integral part of the experience.

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Region Specific: Finland – PlayRaven profile


Founded 2013
Employees 16

Selected softography Spymaster
Current projects Convoy Commander, Nano

Once the head of the Alan Wake team at Remedy, and with experience dating back to 1998, Lasse Seppänen is a relatively old hand on the Finnish development scene, with countless projects under his belt. Having shipped Spymaster in 2013, his ambitions for PlayRaven are gathering steam.

When we previously visited, you were about to launch your first game, Spymaster. How did it pan out?
We were very worried about discovery. Everybody says it’s so hard to be discovered – to get downloads you have to buy them; you have to have a million dollars in the bank just for buying users. But we didn’t spend one cent on getting downloads. So discovery was fantastic, and we think it’s because it was a one-of-a-kind thing: if you just see the game’s icon and the name ‘Spymaster’, it already creates images in your head that no other game is doing in the App Store. So we got a ton of downloads and we went straight up the charts. During the launch week we were in the top ten strategy titles in 99 countries; we went past Clash Of Clans and Star Wars: Commander and so on – past these very big games spending a lot of money on user acquisition.

In some respects, Spymaster broke a few rules as an iOS release – do you think if the game had come out of a big studio it wouldn’t have taken those risks?
It’s hard to generalise that way. I think it’s a choice in those companies in terms of what kind of culture they’re fostering and what kind of ideas they’re encouraging. If you look at Pixar, it’s a big company –especially now that it’s part of Disney – but they have always managed to foster new ideas. Actually, the book Creativity, Inc is sort of one of our bibles here, because they fostered a certain culture where even the most junior guy can go and say to John Lasseter, “I don’t think this movie works,” and not be punished for it.

You have two games in development right now, but what’s the strategy for the company in the longer term?
We are very much inspired by several companies, including BioWare, Blizzard and maybe Rockstar, because they all have a distinctive flavour to their games that you recognise. Even in the case of Hearthstone, which is quite different from Diablo, it’s still recognisable – it has this flavour and this quality bar, and so on. That’s sort of our ideal future, to see the company grow to become big but be very respected and to keep innovating, even when we’re big. Pixar is, of course, also a big inspiration. And also CCP, in its own way, because they are independent – they have built sort of a self-publishing model for EVE Online, where they’re able to sustain it without selling the company. I mean, it’s possible that we’d sell PlayRaven at some point but it’s not written in stone – we definitely want to grow and we want to be a recognised player in this industry. This is not like a mom-and-pop lifestyle thing where we just like to make games and hang out with good guys, even those are important things. Creatively it gives so much more latitude when you are a company like Blizzard: people want to work with you, you have the resources, and when you have an idea you can pursue it with really good funding and good-quality talent and so on. We would love to get into that position, where we are the number one strategy games company in the mobile space, to the extent that if you want to work on strategy games, you want to work with us. n

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Region Specific: Finland – Supercell profile


Founded 2010
Employees 150

Selected softography Hay Day, Clash Of Clans, Boom Beach

Current projects TBA

The free-to-play mobile strategy game market is hardly short of options, but few match up to the biggest hitters in the genre, which Supercell has the handy knack of supplying. Clash Of Clans man Jonas Collaros tells us how the company keeps its games at the top of the charts.

Clash Of Clans has been an incredible success, and spawned lots of imitators. What do you think is its secret sauce?

Well, I think when people are trying to figure out what’s the secret recipe, it’s quite often that they look in the wrong places. They look very much at the values that we put in our billing packages and the values we put in the troops in the game, and things like that, but in reality it’s not a numbers thing. It’s hard to quantify. I would say a lot of the strength of the Clash Of Clans team comes directly from the Supercell culture as a whole. It’s partly about keeping the team really small – the original team was just five or six people, and it’s still only 15 people. It’s been something we’ve been completely uncompromising about the entire time. Having a small team that’s very independent and has passionate developers that play and care about the game is really the secret. It sounds a bit fluffy, but lots of times, when you’re deciding what the next features of the game will be, and what our next release is going to look like, you have to have this sense for what feels good not only as a developer but also as a player. For me, it’s mostly about the fact that we all play the game and care about the game – we’re designing it from the perspective of players as well, and we want to enjoy the changes that we’re making. It’s very, very rare that we spend time in our day-to-day work talking about monetisation models and retention funnels and things like that. I mean, they’re very important graphs, but at the end of the day we’re focused on designing the game.

It’s easy to focus on the successes, but has it always been smooth sailing?
No, that’s pretty much the universal thing in the game industry – it’s never always smooth sailing; there’s always something you can be doing better, and there’s almost always something that you’re doing wrong. One thing that we’ve been trying to get better at is making the company more flexible in terms of getting new ideas out and getting new games out there. There’s no shortage of ideas, and lots of prototypes come up all the time, but very few of them ever make it to a beta stage. So a lot of discussion at the company has been about how we can get faster with this. How do we find the good ideas faster? How do we kill the bad ideas faster? How do we get people who are interested in the right ideas together at the right times? And how do we manage this with the live games, and the successes that we have at the moment? That’s a very difficult challenge, especially for such a small company, and we’ve been constantly having to improve.

Other companies with Supercell’s revenues might well have released more games by now, right?

This way of working is very much more geared towards making games that will last in the long term, games that we can work on for the long term. I can’t see us working in a mode of just throwing out games as fast as we can just because we have a lot of momentum and we want to sort of burn through it. That’s very much contradictory to the sort of long-term approach we want to take.

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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Edge is moving to GamesRadar+


In late February, Edge is moving to GamesRadar+. We’ll be joining CVG, Official PlayStation Magazine, Official Xbox Magazine and GameMaster to create the most comprehensive gaming website in the world.

Articles from the Edge archive will be available alongside new interviews, opinion and features and the best content from the website will be migrated over to our new GR+ homepage. Our print and digital editions will remain unchanged, as will our Facebook, Twitter and Google+ pages.

Alongside games news, reviews and features, you’ll also be able to find film, TV, comic and book coverage from Total Film and SFX. We’ll have more news regarding the launch date, and more detailed information on what you can expect, in the coming weeks.

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Friday, November 7, 2014

4J Studios scoops Game Of The Year prize for Minecraft at TIGA Games Industry Awards

4J Studios picked up the Game Of The Year award for its console versions of Minecraft at last night’s TIGA Games Industry Awards. The UK trade body held the event at the OXO 2 building in London.

The GOTY award, which is voted for by the public, exceeded last year’s record with just under 12,000 votes submitted.

“Huge congratulations to all of tonight’s winners as well as everyone that made it on to the shortlist,” said TIGA CEO Dr. Richard Wilson.

“It is incredibly rewarding to see how positively the UK video game community responds to the TIGA Awards and the opportunity to gain recognition for their achievements and showcase their work.”

4J Studios also won the gong for Best Arcade Game – Large Studio (FuturLab took the equivalent small studio prize for Velocity 2X).

The full list of nominees and winners can be found here.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Region Specific: Berlin – overview

Berlin is a city defined by unification. This year it celebrates the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a barrier that separated East from West Berlin for nearly 30 years, and in the time since the city has become an international hub for European trade, finance and politics. The videogame industry here, meanwhile, is leading the way when it comes to integrating traditional and new business models, as veteran studios rub shoulders with hugely successful mobile and browser-focused developers, exchanging staff and knowledge while a thriving startup scene swells around them.

Local studios are welcoming foreign investors too: the past two years have seen an influx of international companies looking to stake their claim in Berlin’s vibrant development community. Its increasing appeal to game companies has been catalysed by a number of extremely supportive government and privately funded organisations keen to capitalise on its growth and present the location on the world stage.

One of those bodies, Medienboard Berlin Brandenburg, has been drumming up excitement for the past seven years. Founded in its current form in 2004, Medienboard offers a range of services, including project funding, and is involved in many of the industry events that take place in the region. “Berlin is a big metropolis, a city hotspot, while Brandenburg is a rural area surrounding it,” Medienboard’s Ina Göring explains. “It made sense to combine the two federal states, so we merged them. That’s unique, because Berlin and Brandenburg are separate states with different politics and politicians.”

Another initiative Medienboard set up is, a network established in 2012 which, among other things, provides a database of those working in the local game industry. “ is the most important network in the region,” Goring continues. “It’s under the umbrella of, and we already have more than 50 companies listed. sets up a lot of networking events, helps with the exchange of ideas, and organised the Gamescom booth for Berlin Brandenburg companies. It’s mainly funded by Medienboard, and we work together with them a lot.”

In 2006, Medienboard set up a fund called Innovative Audio Visual Content, which was created to help developers fund their projects. The first year saw two applications, but it has since grown to be a key resource for both local startups as well as companies moving to the area. And there is more help for foreign investors from Berlin Partner, the city’s economic development board, which promotes the region internationally and softens the landing for new arrivals.

“We help find a location, establish what subsidies are available, help to find talent, provide information on the recruiting process, and organise tours for new employees,” Birgit Reuter, media project manager at Berlin Partner, tells us. “We try to make the bureaucracy of moving a bit less terrible for international people! Many companies employ up to 75 per cent of their staff from other countries, and part of why I think a lot of companies come to Berlin is because it is so international and it attracts international talent.”

One of those international companies is Candy Crush Saga creator King, which has recently opened a development studio in Berlin headed up by Gabriel Hacker, who formerly worked for Bigpoint, Take Two Interactive and Perfect World Europe. King Berlin is an autonomous studio working on mobile game prototypes for its parent company, and it’s in good company. California-headquartered Kabam, one of the world’s leading and most adaptive mobile game producers, has also opened an office in Berlin – albeit one focused on supporting existing projects rather than creating new ones.

“We have this really amazing mixture of creatives and technologists all trying to push boundaries in different ways, and all doing it in a city that supports that really well,” Kenneth Go, senior director of studio operations, tells us. “And I think that’s one of the best things about being in Berlin: being able to experience that energy of change, but also experience a city that is supporting it and reinforcing it in many ways. You walk down the street and every single month you’ll see different things happening, whether it’s different people, different cultures coming in, or shops changing. That feeling of constant change and replenishment and energy – it kind of imbibes you in your daily life and the work that you do. It gives you more energy to push forward, and to push the boundaries as well.”

Bigpoint is no stranger to change, having transformed the way it approaches development in recent years, flattening its hierarchy and handing greater creative control to its team members. The Berlin office is focused on the company’s core browser games, such as Drakensang Online, Dark Orbit and Game Of Thrones, all produced using the studio’s Nebula 3 engine – tech which has been iterated over a ten year period since first powering the Drakensang series’ retail releases. Yager’s history stretches back to the ’90s, too, and the studio behind Spec Ops: The Line and Dead Island 2 now represents Berlin’s last remaining traditional triple-A studio. But while Yager’s business model might appear old-fashioned to its local peers, it’s no less capable of transformation, as we discover during our visit.

It’s perhaps the Berlin-founded mobile game studio Wooga that best represents the region’s vibrant energy and creative churn. The company has instigated a filtering system that sees a large number of teams working on multiple projects with a view to launching only two or three of them. But while other companies might not be so explicit about it, there’s an intoxicating atmosphere of pioneering spirit that pervades every studio we visit – this is a collection of developers that’s very aware of its place at the forefront of an evolving industry, and one that looks set to grow at a relentless pace over the coming years.

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Region Specific: Berlin – roundtable

The most striking aspect of the offices of Berlin Partner For Business And Technology, the location for today’s roundtable discussion, are the elevators that move between the floors in the building’s large glass atrium. Constructed of brushed steel and wood, with a hint of simplified Art Deco to their shape and design, they suggest that we’re about to descend to Rapture. With no plasmids to hand, however, we rely on coffee to fuel the discussion. Gathered with us are Kenneth Go, head of Kabam Berlin; Yager’s co-founder and director of development, Philipp Schellbach; head of Berlin’s newly opened King studio, Gabriel Hacker; Bigpoint’s Jonathan Lyndsey and Dan Olthen, Drakensang and Game Of Thrones producers respectively; Wooga’s head of studio, Alexander Mamontov; CEO Andrea Peters; and Berlin Partner project manager Birgit Reuter.

One common thread that ties together all of the studios here is your willingness to take risks

and embrace failure. What’s behind that?

Alexander Mamontov
It comes mostly from the startup scene. It’s what you do – you start with an idea, you invest all of your efforts into it, and if it doesn’t work, all right, I’ve got my knowledge, I’ve got my experience, I’ll start something new. And here in Berlin, the startup culture is really awesome. There are many companies from Berlin, from the UK and US, from Europe; they create their startups here, and I think this also influences the local game industry. That’s why we all want to fail as long as we take in all the lessons.

Philipp Schellbach We can’t do that in triple-A development, of course, but we have kind of the same system within a game’s development. We prototype very early, very often. ‘Fail early, fail often’ is something that’s known to the game industry. It’s your first achievement in learning; you have to fail to see what works and what doesn’t and to learn the tools and so on. So actually we have kind of the same culture. It’s about efficiency – if you fail early, then you’re much more efficient, because you know something doesn’t work, so you can do other stuff instead and not try to do something that at the end doesn’t work out and has had a lot of resources wasted on it.

Kenneth Go So, at Wooga, do you have the people working on the projects making that decision, or is an unbiased party trying to support them in that decision?

AM All the decisions concerning the game are made only by the team.

KG What I found at Kabam, and maybe this is true in other companies as well, is that it’s very hard. The hardest thing to do is shut down a project that you’ve spent countless hours working on. And to make that ultimate decision that it’s not going to work out is something that you have to be very disciplined to do. Not many people are.

AM Yeah, it’s a big challenge with many parts to think about because, as you say, you work on a project for several months and if you stop it you wonder what’s going to happen to you. First of all, the team should be really transparent, and they should have a clear role, they should know they’re working on a potential hit game, they should question themselves always. Secondly, they should not be afraid of losing their job after a project has stopped. And the more projects you start, the more common it becomes. It’s a difficult system, and we’ve been working on it for a very long time to establish this culture, and we still are. We introduced Lab Time so that people who weren’t on a project could learn new skills, and feel like their job is safe.

Dan Olthen One of our philosophies is fail fast, too. It’s like, OK, there’s a feature, let’s prototype it on paper, with Lego or whatever. And we test it out, and if we’re happy, it gets to the next stage until it eventually gets into the game – or not. Everything gets a postmortem. If it worked, why did it work? If it didn’t, why not? What can we do better? We also look into what we’re doing with people – we want to retain talent; we want to offer them a chance to grow within the company. It helps with loyalty, and I really truly believe that we have to invest in those great people.

Gabriel Hacker Absolutely. And we have to fail fast because we have to innovate. The time to market is crucial, so we have to be fast. It’s one of King’s core values – to be fast, to be problem solvers, and to get things done. And in order to innovate you need to fail because otherwise you won’t find the gold nugget you’re looking for. You need to find that fun core gameplay loop that hooks people for hours, months or years, and you can’t find that by simply writing a design spec and then working according to that. This is something that I guess every game company needs to learn, and I agree with Ken when he says that it can be tough on the team. But then I guess management comes into play as well – trying to find good solutions like Lab Time that you mentioned. And also within King, we grew quite a lot in the past two years, and we now have studios all across Europe and we acquired Nonstop Games. There are opportunities for people to work on something else, even when a project has been stopped or cancelled. But innovation is key to that, and started this whole ‘let’s fail fast’ culture.

Jonathan Lyndsey I think we learned a lot from the web industries, right? For years, they’ve tried stuff, tested it, and if it doesn’t work out they stop it and go and try something else. And games haven’t worked like that for very long, right? Only in the past couple of years have we seriously been doing that. A lot of the most interesting blogs you can read about how to optimise and how to fail fast aren’t from the game industry. We’re still miles behind, actually!

DO I think we’re learning from different types of industries. For instance, game entry tutorial. The other day I was at a restaurant, sitting there on the terrace, but they had this concierge kind of guy and he was welcoming every single customer. Each customer was made to feel special. I was watching how he was working, how he was treating the customers and making them feel good the moment they stepped onto the terrace. This is how game entry should be. It’s how we have to create our games for every single user in order to create this special experience. I start Candy Crush and it says, ‘Hey, Dan, it’s good to see you back. We prepared this and this for you today. Do you just want to invest a little bit of your money to create a better experience?’ I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, that game knows me – of course!’ That is nice, that’s a great experience. And this is where we can learn from our surroundings. We’re making games for people, and playing games is one of the most basic human instincts. As long as we look at our human nature, that’s where we can make all of our customers happy and treat them like people and not just paying users.

Elmar Giglinger I love the game industry’s embrace of failure, because so far there is no culture of failure in Germany. Most often in Germany, if you fail, you’re out. We need a culture of failure here.

DO It’s about learning. Like Supercell – they open a bottle of champagne when they fail because they learned something. But just as important is doing a postmortem of what you did. Spoken word may not stay in everyone’s minds, so document it and make it available to everyone – kind of like a wiki. Put it there, make it visible for the entire company and spread the knowledge, because other projects might face the same difficulties. We all want to make better games and create better experiences, and if we keep the common-sense knowledge super secret, then nobody with profit from that.

Does the internationalism of Berlin help grow that knowledge pool?

When other companies started coming to Berlin, I heard the panic of, “Oh my god, King’s coming!” or, “Kabam’s coming – oh, no, let’s run!” Well, OK, the first reaction is, ‘Oh my god, what’s happening?’ but then you realise that it’s getting interesting for international talent to come here. And this is where we’ll all profit as we get people from everywhere. Maybe you’ll spend a year with King, and then go to Bigpoint and then Wooga. As we grow talent, everyone benefits.

JL If you go back to a year ago on Drakensang, I think there was one person who wasn’t from Germany on the team, and now there are more than ten – so I guess about 20 per cent of the team. Previously it was quite difficult to get people from the UK, Italy, France or the US to move to Berlin. Berlin has been a cool place to go for hipsters and arty people for quite a long time, but now it appeals to everyone. You can see that from the amount of stag nights in Berlin now! [Laughter.] But we have a much bigger pot of people to choose from now, and the more companies you have, the more we all benefit.

Andrea Peters How about your relationships with local universities? Do you work closely with them?

JL Some of our people teach there part time, and we offer internships to the students that we think are really good.

PS Same for us, and we have a couple of really good guys who were from Game Academy.

AM We also work with students, and we have people from Finland and all over Europe. The only way to get more talented people is to teach and share the knowledge.

Despite the success here, there’s a good deal of modesty. Why do you think that is?

I think that’s more of a European thing, at least from my perspective. I can compare and contrast a little bit from the Valley versus coming to Berlin. And it’s definitely refreshing to come to this area. When we first moved here, all the people here were very kind to us and showed us around, helped us set up, showed us their offices and shared knowledge. I don’t think I would get the same kind of welcome in San Francisco.

PS I think it’s also about the culture. Because in the US they often in the past tried to push more in the direction of Hollywood – there’s a star designer or game programmer – and that’s not common here. We’re more focused on the team because we know that it’s the team that does the work, not just one person who does everything right.

GH Of course, we do compete to some extent, because what we’re fighting for is players’ time. But it’s also communicated by the management team as well – since I joined King, I’ve never heard Riccardo [Zacconi, CEO] talking about the competition in senior management meetings. We’re completely focused on what we’re doing, and completely focused on the teams, as Philipp mentioned, rather than looking at what other people are doing. For us, that’s not important.

Berlin appears to be in a state of flux. Do you think this sort of constant change fits particularly well with game development?

Definitely, yeah. It fits with the industry: it’s fast evolving, creative, and there’s a ‘make something out of nothing’ attitude, which actually comes from a historical point of view. Back living in Eastern Berlin, you had to make something out of nothing, and this is what you can feel from Berlin’s culture – it just spills over into the industry, and goes hand in hand.

KG I think all the things that we talked about are creating this perfect storm that allows companies to be successful. So you have the really easy ability to recruit high-quality talent from all over Europe with support from the government. You have a lot of creative, highly qualified individuals all coming together in the city at the same time. You have a culture that’s about change. And you have a lot of great companies that are coming here from elsewhere and bringing their expertise. That’s going to spread across the companies already here, and it’s just a matter of time before you have even more success built on top of that. That’s one of the unique things that I’ve seen in Berlin compared to San Francisco: I feel like a lot of the things that happened in San Francisco about 20 years ago are starting to happen in Berlin because of all of these different effects of the environment. San Francisco’s already past that; it’s too competitive, too high cost, it’s a little bit played out. But Berlin is building, and that’s why people are coming here now and it’s only a matter of time until you have a huge major success just like in the Valley.

What about the cost of living here?

In Berlin, some people have been complaining about rising prices as the euro is not worth what it was a year ago. But when I looked at the prices here and compared them to Munich and Hamburg, and also internationally with cities like London, Paris and New York, we’re still not bad.

AM There is definitely a trend of rising prices, but when you compare the cost of living today with the places you just mentioned, it’s still low.

JL A friend of mine got a job in Shepherds Bush, and he was struggling to find a flat. It would cost £1,600 for a flat big enough for him and his wife – about 80 square metres or something. You can find the same in Berlin for half of that. It’s maybe not going to be in the centre, but it doesn’t have to be because the transport system here is awesome. Berlin is the capital of Germany and pretty much the economic capital of Europe, and yet it’s half the price of almost all the other major cities.

KG I wonder if that has something to do with the culture of embracing failure, because in a high-cost city if you fail you don’t have enough money to fail again! [Laughter.] Some people tell me they have friends who are paying €80 a month for a flat, and if you’re paying next to nothing for a place you don’t have to worry whether your project is going to be successful. You have the luxury of not worrying about paying for your basic costs!

What about governmental support here for existing and new companies?

For us, it was great. I think it’s a different question for someone who’s from Germany versus someone from outside. As a foreigner coming in, not speaking the language, there’s probably no way that we could’ve done what we did without the help of Berlin Partner, Birgit and everyone. And I think the main thing was creating this community in Berlin as well – I don’t know if it would exist if we didn’t have these organisations. So when we came, Birgit did a great job of introducing us to other gaming companies in the industry, and they were also very welcoming to us. It was a nice feeling coming into Berlin. It wasn’t like, “Oh, the Americans are coming!” It was, “We’ll help you in any way possible. If you have any problems you only need to ask. Here are the people you can talk to who’ve done something similar”. So it was a really nice, warm welcome, and we felt very supported, and I think that’s very important for an international company.

Birgit Reuter Mainly we’ve dealt with international companies so far in the games sector – I think 80 per cent of the companies we support are from abroad.

GH You were also very supportive for us. You we’re in contact with King before I even joined! Andrea and immediately invited me to their breakfast where I met other game companies, but then you also, for example, help ex-pats so that they could apply for a visa very fast. So there was a lot of help involved in setting up the studio – the decision to set up the studio in Berlin was made by the end of last year, and two days ago we had our opening party. It was a very short time, and without Medianboard, and Berlin Partner we couldn’t have done it.

EG When you look purely at the numbers, there’s no other region in Germany that’s putting as much effort and money into the videogame industry as Berlin. From our side, for the last year, around €1.5bn was invested in new content and projects, events and games awards, Gamesweek,, etc.

A lot of developers with experience at more traditional studios are moving here to work on browser and mobile games, which is something we’ve seen happening a lot elsewhere, too. What’s your take on that shift?

I think it’s also to do with the time frame, because most of the bigger triple-A studios were established in the ’90s, so we were the only one in Berlin back then. Now we see more and more browser and mobile companies coming and they’re bringing a lot of money, of course, and that’s why I guess, especially in Berlin, it’s now more attractive for these kind of companies to move here. I wouldn’t expect any triple-A company to open up a studio in Berlin today. Also, the triple-A market is separated, so there’s not much growth any more. If you really want to grow, you have to go to that mobile space.

JL In terms of hiring people from other regions, like the US for example, the work culture here’s really different. You don’t see anything like the tons of crunch that you’d see in the US, and you don’t have this pattern of expanding a project, then letting people go, and then rehiring a bunch of them for the next one. That’s the business plan for a lot of studios in the States – and the world, actually – and you just can’t get away with that stuff in Germany. I think Bigpoint is the only games company in Europe that has this Betriebsrat, or workers’ council. It’s basically a workers’ union, but more like a council. They have co-determination on management-level decisions. At the start it was super difficult, but now it works very well. It gives a certain amount of security to employees: they feel like they have a bigger say in management decisions, and it’s actually something that new people that we interview are really interested in. They’re like, “Oh, wow, the council says we must only do 40 hours and mustn’t do any crunch? That’s not like my previous job”.

GH I think there was the old gaming industry, and the new gaming industry, and I remember the time when Bigpoint and Innogames came up and were pretty vocal in the game industry and talking about revenue growth of 2,000 per cent. And the old industry was like, “It’s just a bubble”. And I think they were scared for their jobs and for other things. Because there was a shift in the market and the boxed market became more and more difficult. A lot of traditional developers also faced insolvency, like Ascaron, for example – a very traditional game company in Germany that I worked for. Phenomic went down as well. A lot of studios in Germany went down, or had very difficult times, but now they’ve simply adapted and adjusted, and that is the reason that the two sides are now growing together, because in the end we all want to do the same thing, right? We want to work on great products that are challenging, motivating, fun and entertaining. We now have the business model thanks to Korea, Japan and other countries where it was invented, and some clever German entrepreneurs picked them up and made them big in Germany, and reinvigorated the PC market. So we needed those entrepreneurs, in Germany in particular. They are the people that are driving the two sides getting together again.

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Region Specific: Berlin – King

King’s Berlin studio held its opening party just a few days before our visit, as evidenced by the balloons that still decorate its work spaces. Not that they feel particularly out of place: the office’s most striking feature is the slide that wraps around its spiral staircase. After a couple of tests of that feature – for investigative journalism reasons, of course – we talk to head of studio Gabriel Hacker about King’s new expansion.

What does King Berlin handle?

We are working on casual games, of course – free-to-play games. We’re currently in the prototyping stage, and our first people started around mid-March and we are adding more people to the team all the time. I’ll be able to talk a little bit more about the details of our game once we get the green light, but so far we’re playing around with new gameplay mechanics in the casual space. It’s a very exciting stage, and we can’t wait until we’ll be able to get the first reactions from our network of 345 million players.

As a King studio, how much say do you have in what you do?

We’re an autonomous studio just like any other King studio, but we really value the sharing of knowledge between the other studios. King has been making casual games for over ten years, and that is a real strength. Our culture is actually a lot about sharing and being humble and open. We believe we are fast and fluid, and we are very passionate about what we do. We have so much knowledge in this company not only because of our recent success but because we have been in the business for over ten years, so it would be a shame not to use that experience. We now have a rather big organisation of game professionals, with experience from across the industry, but in the end it’s ultimately our decision, here in Berlin, how much we put into the game.

And how closely do you work with the other King studios?

We work very closely with the other studios across Europe, and in particular with our CCO, Sebastian Knutsson, who’s overseeing development worldwide. Sebastian is basically co-ordinating the portfolio, and he’s also an integral part of the group of people who greenlight prototypes. King has also just acquired Nonstop Games in Singapore, so now also having a studio in the Asian market is very exciting for us.

How would you define King’s games?

Bite-size brilliance. When you start Candy Crush, Farm Heroes or Bubble Witch Saga, there’s aways something new, and you always require a little bit of luck as well. Even though I’m hundreds of levels into Candy Crush Saga, I still spend so much time on it. Whenever I have any downtime, even if it’s about 30 seconds in an elevator, it’s, “Awesome, let’s fire up a level in Candy Crush”.

What do you think the future looks like for King in Berlin?

We still have multiple positions which we’re looking to fill, from game designers to game developers for both mobile and Facebook. We’re really proud and happy about our new office space, and we’re excited to fill it with talented people. I see this as an exciting opportunity for us to form the Berlin studio from scratch, with fantastic support from King, both from a corporate perspective and also in terms of knowledge and access to a huge network of players.

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Region Specific: Berlin – Kabam

Kabam has grown from a handful of people creating games above a dim sum restaurant in Mountain View, California, to a global operation with more than 800 employees worldwide. Perhaps even more impressively, it has done so in the space of five years. Its recently opened Berlin office is headed up by Kenneth Go, and handles live operations, player experience, localisation, quality assurance and marketing. We ask him to describe how Kabam does business in his own words.

What is Kabam about?

Kabam is the leader in free-to-play games in the western world. We believe in making triple-A quality games for mobile platforms, and creating long-lasting franchises with a deep relationship with our customers.

What does triple-A mean in terms of mobile free-to-play games?

Free-to-play sometimes has a connotation of being lower quality in the traditional game industry, and we really want to change that. Some of our games in the past have been somewhat low fidelity in some people’s minds, and I think that’s been the case for a lot of companies. Especially in emerging platforms, with new business models, it’s mostly about speed. We’ve shifted our focus recently to focus more on triple-A-quality games. We have a really amazing 3D fighting game with the Marvel licence called Contest Of Champions coming. And we have two really amazing action-RPGs coming out, one built by our San Francisco studio from guys who worked on the Diablo franchise. We have another game called Moonrise, which is coming from Undead Labs, founded by some of the people who did Guild Wars. So we’re really trying to invest a lot in the quality of games.

How has Kabam evolved to become a publisher of other studios’ games?

Publishing is relatively new to us; we’ve only been doing it for a couple of years, but we’ve invested a large amount of resources into it. We have two different business units, completely separated, and they have different budgets and different resources, so there’s no conflict of interests between the sides. So we can push as much as we want, and it’s forecasted to be a large portion of the business going forward. But here at the Berlin studio, we’re mainly focused on supporting the firstparty games.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

TIGA’s 2014 game industry awards open

TIGA logo

Game industry network TIGA has opened entries for its third annual awards, aimed at recognising achievements in creativity and technical innovation throughout the UK across big and small companies alike.

This year’s awards feature a total of 31 categories and include Edge/TIGA’s Game Of The Year, which will be chosen by the UK development community via a public vote, and a Special Recognition award. New categories for this year include the TIGA Accessibility Award, Best Game Engine, Middleware, Tools and Technology, and Best In-House Studio.

This year also marks the introduction of a Best Independent Studio category, recognising the continued rise of indie production. “For the first time, micro studios now make up the majority of our industry,” says TIGA CEO Richard Wilson, “so it is essential that we not only ensure the achievements of these and other smaller games businesses receive the recognition they deserve, but that we encourage and reward best practice in business.”

The full list of this year’s categories is below. For more information, and to submit entries, click here. Entry deadline is September 19.

TIGA will be providing updates on the awards via Twitter, and the award ceremony itself will be held at London’s OXO2 on November 6.

2014 TIGA Awards categories

Game categories (free to enter and open to all)

- Best Action/Adventure Game (Separate awards for small and larger studios)

- Best Arcade Game (Separate awards for small and larger studios)

- Best Casual Game (Separate awards for small and larger studios)

- Best Social Game (Separate awards for small and larger studios)

- Best Game With A Purpose (Separate awards for small and larger studios)

- Best Student Game

- Best Debut Game

- Most Original Game

- Best Marketing Campaign

- Accessibility Award

Business of Games Categories (free to enter and open to TIGA members only)

- Outstanding Leadership Award

- Best Publisher

- Best Independent Studio

- Best In-House Studio

- Best Art Supplier

- Best Audio Supplier

- Best Animation Supplier

- Best Recruitment Agency

- Best Accountancy Firm

- Best Legal Services Firm

- Best QA Provider

- Best Educational Institution

- Best Education Initiative

- Best Start-up

- Best Game Engines, Middleware, Tools and Technology (Separate awards for small and larger businesses)

-Best New IP

- Best Visual Design

- Best Game Design

- Best Audio Design

Special Awards (not open for entry)

- Special Recognition Award

- TIGA & Edge Game Of The Year Award (chosen by the UK development community in a public vote)

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Abertay’s ProtoPlay gears up to showcase the brightest new videogame talent

Dare To Be Digital, Abertay University’s annual student coding competition, kicked off in June and will see 15 teams of five students attempt to create a game prototype in just nine weeks. The results of their work will be showcased at ProtoPlay, under a large marquee in Dundee’s City Square, which is taking place August 7–10. ProtoPlay also allows more established indie developers to show their games for free (interested parties can apply at, and this year they’ll be in nearby Caird Hall.

On the last day of the competition, three winners will be announced, voted for by an independent panel of industry judges. The winning teams will be nominated for the BAFTA Ones To Watch award and receive a £2,500 prize.

Sophie George, who opened this year’s Dare proceedings, was a winner of 2011’s competition with puzzle game Tick Tock Toys and went on to become the Victoria And Albert Museum’s first game designer in residence. She is currently working at Abertay on a game called Strawberry Thief. “When I competed Dare To Be Digital, I had only recently graduated from my undergraduate degree,” she tells us.”So winning the competition gave a boost to the first steps in my career. I feel that being able to showcase an award-winning game at the age of 21 was key to developing the next stages of my journey into game development.”

For the Dare To Be Digital finalists, the experience can be invaluable. “Winning ProtoPlay meant a lot for us,” says DOS Studios’ Mattis Delerud, who was one of last year’s winners with twitch action game Size DOES Matter. “It enabled us to be visible to more people and for us to gain a lot of confidence in ourselves as developers. When we saw that a large number of people enjoyed the game, we were amazed! We thought for a while that Size DOES Matter was a niche game. ProtoPlay proved us wrong.”

According to Delerud, Size DOES Matter, which sees you adjusting the size of a block and manoeuvring it through gaps in an unholy union of Flappy Bird and Super Hexagon, is driven by its music. And winning ProtoPlay lent DOS Studios the credibility it needed to work with the artists it admired, including Chipzel, Eirik Suhrke and Savant. “In other words,” Delerud says, “without Dare To Be Digital and ProtoPlay, DOS Studios would not be where we are today.”

It’s an event that transcends the typical audience for a videogame show, and this year’s ProtoPlay – which we’ll be covering in two issues’ time – will surely build on its success to date. “I think these events expose the videogame medium to a wider range of people than it usually does,” Delerud says. “This is my favourite part. We had 50-year-olds come up and play Size DOES Matter, as well as shy children. In my opinion, society benefits from this; it’s our responsibility to show society that videogames can be everything, and that it’s a medium that will be here for a long time.”

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

When will the game industry’s representation of women change?

It’s curious what can happen when you don’t write something. There are obvious things, like you don’t get paid, and nobody reads it, but sometimes, as in the case I’m about to describe, the thing you didn’t write gets more interesting for not having been written; as though it’s silently accruing wisdom while shuffling through magazines in the gloomy waiting room of pre-existence.

All of which is, of course, a grasping overcompensation aimed at convincing everybody – me included – that the piece you’re reading now, which I first pitched just after the BAFTA game awards in March, is better and more insightful these many months later. This is desperately self-indulgent, but then so is taking four months to write a blog post, and, luckily, I also think it’s true.

The piece was conceived around the different lives that games imagine for my son and daughter. Specifically, it was conceived at the moment I heard my daughter, who’s eight, explaining that she had just “earned” a footballer as a boyfriend in the salon styling, make-up and accessorising game she was playing on her tablet. Normally my reaction to this kind of gendered cultural ick is to explain to my daughter why the thing she’s just encountered is limiting or offensive, without destroying her enjoyment of the thing itself. But this time, in the same room in which my patient bit of super-liberal parenting was to go down, my 12-year-old son was playing FIFA.

Those of you with 12-year-old sons will realise this isn’t a huge contrivance of fate, as playing FIFA is often what 12-year-old sons will be found to be doing at all times and locations. What struck me, though, was the aggregate potential being revealed by games to my children in this moment. My son was being told, is told every day, that he can join the ranks of the elite athlete superstars we have elevated to the highest strata of the cultural firmament; that he can earn the instant adoration of thousands with a sharp turn and a kick of the ball. That he can win the World Cup. My daughter was being told that, if she got her eyeliner just so, and matched her clutch bag flawlessly with her earrings, she could fulfill her own potential by becoming an accessory in turn for the protagonist of a different story.

And, well, fuck that idea.

“Fuck that idea” was to be the elegant core of the original piece, although tempered by some positivity and hung on a hook of timeliness. This is where the BAFTA game awards enter the story, as this positivity was provided by two awards nominees: Gone Home, the exploratory firstperson drama from indie studio The Fullbright Company, and Left Behind, the short prequel to PS3 blockbuster The Last Of Us, both of which tell stories about the awkward wonder of adolescence from the perspective of young women.

Here were two games breaking dramatically with the standard tendencies of character, perspective and sexuality in our industry. They won awards, I arranged interviews – this was going to be a positive piece about how things might be changing.

And then I didn’t write it. Initially because I was waiting for interview responses, and then, when they arrived, because of the tumbling inconveniences of life (which now include rigorously vetting the games installed on various devices around the house). And these tumbling inconveniences of life turned out to be a good thing, perhaps not for the editor who was patiently waiting for the piece, but certainly for me and – I’m willing to concede, more importantly – for the balance of residual truth. Which is to say that the passing of time revealed that things weren’t really changing, as the ending I had originally planned hoped they might.

First, Tomodachi Life happened. A vibrant circus of life and all its possibilities which drew criticism because, in the corporate imagination of Nintendo, those possibilities did not extend to people of the same sex falling in love with each other or even having a bit of a kiss. This was a strange moment, because Nintendo had produced a game which many saw as characteristic of the company itself, devoted to playfulness and joy, only to find that the irreverent playground was underpinned by a rigid set of unspoken, uncool values.

The Tomodachi episode made it obvious that issues of representation were still pervasive in games, but actually before that Steve Gaynor, the creative director of Gone Home, tweeted something which made me question my own approach to these issues. It was about the kind of request I’d made to him in the wake of the BAFTAs, about how journalists typically approach him, rather than the others in his small, diverse team, to speak about his game. And it was a totally legitimate thing to point out: “Hey, Steve, tell me, a guy, about how you, another guy, are sorting representation in games with that team of whoever it is over there.”

Of course it does make a certain amount of sense to contact Gaynor – he’s the creative lead on the game and the most visible member of the team. But the fact I did so uncritically without exploring the alternatives was also indicative of exactly the kind of biases and tendencies I was writing about. In the same way it’s tempting to see award wins for unusual games as a handy end-point to a discussion, it’s equally tempting to see ourselves as existing outside the things we discuss.

I’m pleased that laziness and fortune prevented me from doing either. In the end Gaynor had the much better idea of me talking over email with Kate Craig, Gone Home’s environmental artist. Among the many interesting things she said, one which struck me as particularly relevant to the way my daughter experiences games is how she described playing Left Behind with her wife: “I didn’t know how much I needed to see a story like that in a mainstream game.”

So often this is what my daughter is refused – the chance to see herself in the stories games tell. When she found me playing Bioshock Infinite she asked if I could “be” Elizabeth, and wandered away disinterestedly when I said no; when she walked in on me during Beyond: Two Souls and asked, “are you the girl?” she responded with a fist-pump and a “YES!” when I said I was.

Helpfully underlining this issue of representation in the meantime was E3, where Ubisoft offered us the co-op bro force of Assassin’s Creed Unity and the hostage theatrics of Rainbow Six: Siege, in which women were invited to play a role often filled by a flag, briefcase, or bag of money. A thorough and destructive takedown of the various positions taken by internet commenters in defence of Ubisoft, which accumulate in to a depressing miasma of cultural conservatism, can be found here.

For me it’s simpler – I want my daughter to grow up able to play games which offer her a vivid, diverse, ridiculous set of adventures and ideas which make her think about the kind of person she could be and the things she could do. Yes, girls can and do identify with and enjoy playing as male heroes. But this would seem like a more creditably balanced and rewarding exchange if female leads and perspectives weren’t in the overwhelming minority.

So I’m glad this is the latest piece I’ve ever written. This is a long game: the fight for representation and equality will never be won, just swung this way and that, and like Nintendo, Ubisoft, and me, we’re all involved in this fight whether we recognise it or not. To put it another way, Kate Craig sums up where we were, and where we should be heading to: “…the creation of a game (or any media) centered around women or girls isn’t always a statement or a response to something else. Sometimes it is, certainly, but I hope one day games about women and girls can be created without them being considered a response, and can exist in their own right.”

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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A history of videogame hardware: Sony PSP

Year: 2004 Manufacturer: Sony Original Cost: ¥19,800

Much of the PlayStation 2’s ubiquitous success could be attributed, not to its games or graphics, but to the fact that the machine doubled as an inexpensive and stylish DVD player. In 2004 convergence was the new slogan in video game hardware manufacturing and marketing. Games? Games were no longer enough, so the story went. As such, Ken Kutaragi’s focus when developing the PlayStation Portable was primarily on what the system could do when it wasn’t playing video games.

It was this focus that drove the decision to use an optical media disc as the system’s storage media, Sony devising the Universal Media Disc as a kind of mini-DVD on which both games and movies could be stored and viewed. To emphasize the cinematic ideology behind the system, the company placed a lavish 4.3 inch widescreen display at the centre of the handheld, one that, with 16,770,000 colours, appeared to have skipped several steps ahead on the evolutionary scale to any handheld games technology on the market.

When Sony revealed the handheld’s design at E3 2004 and attendees had the chance to see the machine while running, the curious hardware innovations of Nintendo’s rival DS seemed irrelevant. The PSP was a cinema in your palm.

This feature is an extract from Simon Parkin’s book, An Illustrated History of 151 Videogames.

The feverish excitement surrounding the machine’s Japanese launch on December 12, 2004 seemed at odds with Japan’s plunge into recession. Chinese importers employed the services of Akihabara’s homeless to buy up units to sell back home for astonishing profit. 171,963 units were sold on launch day with nearly 500,000 units shifted by the New Year.

But the PSP’s initial signs of success did not bear out in the long run. At the time few would have bet against Sony’s decision to pack the most advanced technology into their first handheld in favour of Nintendo’s decision to eschew power in favour of what were ostensibly seen as gimmicks. But in commercial terms Nintendo’s courting of non-traditional game audiences paid off as the DS comfortably overtook the PSP in sales.

The final boot in the PSP’s prospects (in commercial terms, at least) came on June 15, 2005 when hackers disassembled the PSP’s firmware and released a hacked version for download on the internet. When installed the new software allowed PSP owners to run homebrew software and pirated games from the memory stick – with a clutch of emulators available for playing out-of-print games as well as titles currently on the market. The homebrew scene’s gain was Sony’s loss, as rampant piracy eroded game sales and disheartened developers abandoned the system en masse.

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Monday, June 30, 2014

A history of videogame hardware: Nintendo DS

Year: 2004 Manufacturer: Nintendo Original Cost: ¥15,000

For a while it appeared as though Japan’s booming video game business was immune to the country’s drawn-out economic bust. As Japan slumped into a deep recession, the industry flew an inverse trajectory, reaching a dizzying peak in 1997 thanks to the invigorating success of Sony’s PlayStation. But soon enough the long winding lines of consumers that greeted each new high-profile game release in Akihabara also began to shrink as the nation’s previously insatiable appetite for electronic entertainment waned. In 2002, America overtook Japan as the world’s biggest consumer of video games and in 2003 Europe nudged into second place.

Of all the video game console manufacturers, Nintendo had the most to fear from this decline. Just as game sales were in dramatic regression in the company’s key home territory, so Sony’s PlayStation 2 had cast a long shadow over the GameCube, with Microsoft’s newcomer selling 2 million more units of its Xbox than the one-time Japanese leader of the home console market. Moreover, for both Sony and Microsoft, video games were just one component of a sprawling empire. If their respective game divisions performed poorly for a time, other areas of the business could take up the slack. For Nintendo, as with Sega before it, there was no fallback. If the company couldn’t turn its speeding decline around, it would have little choice but to follow Sega in turning its back on the console hardware business to focus exclusively on publishing.

It was into this tumultuous landscape that Nintendo’s new president, Satoru Iwata stepped in 2002, replacing Hiroshi Yamauchi at the helm of a company headed for disaster. In November 2003, for the first time in the company’s history, Nintendo announced a loss for the beginning half of the fiscal year. In the same breath, Iwata-san proclaimed that the company was developing a new system, neither a successor to the GameCube nor the Game Boy Advance, but a system that would “go back to basics” in the hope of attracting gamers of all ages, and players with no prior experience of games.

This feature is an extract from Simon Parkin’s book, An Illustrated History of 151 Videogames.

With the growing success of adult-focused games and online connectivity, the direction made little sense. While the desire to widen the boundaries of the games industry to encompass a broader mass market appeared logical, Iwata’s statement that “you can’t open up a new market of customers if you can’t surprise them” seemed cavalier in Nintendo’s immediate context. A year later, when the Nintendo DS was unveiled, method still seemed to have been overtaken by madness. The silvery, somewhat bulky handheld system – decidedly not, as Nintendo was only too keen to emphasize, a successor to the GBA – opened like a book to reveal two screens, one of which was a touch screen that could be interacted with using a stylus. Despite the in-built microphone and wireless connectivity there seemed no way that this Game & Watch style throwback could be anything other than a side-project for the company. Sony dismissed the system as a gimmick, ‘a knee-jerk reaction’ to its futuristic, widescreen PSP handheld system, while many developers seemed equally sceptical and confused as to how to employ the system’s idiosyncratic capabilities.

Within 12 months, Nintendo had not only proven its detractors wrong, but had turned around the company’s fortunes. In the space of just one year the Nintendo DS sold 13 million units while the handheld accounted for 45 per cent of all software sold in Japan in 2005, enabling Nintendo to leapfrog Sony’s control of the software market. As with the Game Boy, Nintendo began to iterate on the hardware, releasing the DS Lite and then the DSi in various incarnations, and by 2010 over 135 million units had been sold globally.

Most significantly, the Nintendo DS had proven Iwata’s assertion that chasing innovation rather than technological superiority was the key to Nintendo’s future, a simple ideological shift that would have a profound effect.

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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Retrospective: Virtua Tennis 3

Format: Various Publisher: Sega Developer: In-house/Sumo Reviewed: E174

The last few years have seen developers of sports games become increasingly obsessed with the notion of realism. Despite the annual FIFA game outselling nearest rival Pro Evolution Soccer every year, licence-guzzling giant EA talks openly about trying to emulate the realism that its closest rival offers. So it’s ironic that Virtua Tennis 3 – a sports title that flaunts its arcade style at every possible opportunity, with its players diving all over the shop and its mini-games bordering on lunacy – currently sits pretty as the first, some might say only, great sports offering on the new generation of consoles.

By simplifying the sport down to its most basic form, Virtua eschews any notion of reality. Its control system borders on crude, with the three face buttons used to hit lob, topspin or slice shots, and the left analogue stick in charge of player movement and shot direction. That’s it. No using the shoulder buttons to add extra spin to the ball like old Super Nintendo favourite Super Tennis. No option for the player, even, to decide when to smash or volley or dive. The AI makes those decisions for you contextually, depending on the position of your character.

Yet this simpleton approach actually enhances Virtua Tennis 3’s charm. Ask someone who’s never played a football game to play Pro Evo and it would take them months to learn every strange nuance, every tactical possibility, every intricate skill. Plonk a Henman-hater in front of Virtua and they’ll be serving aces and drilling passing shots within minutes. Like past titles as varied as Sonic The Hedgehog, Guitar Hero and God Of War, the key is its ‘easy to pick-up, hard to perfect’ approach. And like those titles, its masterful usage of this method earns it a place in gaming’s upper echelons.

But it’s not the only factor for which it deserves grand praise. Visually, it’s as good as just about anything we’ve seen on PS3 or 360 to date: from Tim Henman’s ever-familiar rabbit-caught-in-headlights expressions to Maria Sharapova’s luscious golden locks to Lindsay Davenport’s fascinating belly, players are almost threateningly lifelike, and multitudinous crowds in the game’s myriad arenas from around the globe look the part, too.

They’re still some way off being photorealistic, but VT3’s licensed sports stars are among the best in their field.

The cuckoo mini-games that have become a Virtua tradition cement its lofty standing. Found within the game’s plump career mode, in which you transform a cack-handed also-ran into a John McEnroe clone by completing training exercises and winning tournaments, they’re an integral part of the Virtua experience because they are the training exercises which have to be completed if your player is to make it on the world stage.

Some are favourites from Virtua Tennis’s past, like Pin Crusher. Working to the same scoring system as ten-pin bowling, you serve balls towards skittles in the opposite half of the court, trying to earn spares and strikes and improve your player’s service attributes in the process. Others are completely novel ideas. Feeding Time sees you protecting oversized meat chops from the chomping jaws of a hungry group of alligators. Each reptile is attached to a rotating panel via a chain; smashing balls into the panel causes the respective ’gator to be dragged backwards a few feet, keeping the meat intact for just a precious few more seconds. Almost as surreally, Avalanche sees you improving your character’s movement attributes by collecting fruit while guiding him out of the way of the oversized tennis balls that come hurtling off a giant conveyor belt.

Seven of Virtua Tennis 3’s mini-games are also available to play in multiplayer, and the impact of this can’t be underestimated. In previous titles, there was little to do once the created character had reached number one in career mode. Multiplayer was fun, but with matches limited to a single set it felt limited. Virtua Tennis 3 – in one of its few concessions to reality – now features three- and five-set matches, and with those barmy mini-games also factored in, it packs one hell of a swing in group play.

The biggest surprise with Virtua Tennis 3 and its predecessors? That no one has yet come close to emulating it. Sony’s Smash Court Tennis titles on PS2 were excellent tennis sims, but their starchy-around-the-collar feel made them inaccessible to anyone looking for a super-immediate game in this particular genre. For as long as that remains the case, Virtua Tennis 3 will reign supreme as gaming’s answer to Roger Federer: an all-conquering beast, yet one that moves with beautiful panache and majestic grace. Those other sports games endlessly searching for something called reality could learn a lot about fun from this particular arcade-bred example.

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Friday, June 27, 2014

A history of videogame hardware: Xbox

Year: 2001 Manufacturer: Microsoft Original Cost: $299

When Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, took to the main stage at the Game Developers Conference in San Jose, California on 10 March 2000 to announce the company’s long-rumoured entry to the home video game console market, he was full of hyperbolic promise. The X-box (as it was written at the time) was to be a system three times as powerful as Sony’s PlayStation 2, transforming the way in which we consume media in the living rooms of our homes.

It was bullish enthusiasm that few industry watchers shared. Sony was at the height of its success, having clambered over rivals Nintendo and Sega to lead the video game industry into the new century. Each of these three console makers had its own niche on the gaming landscape: Nintendo as purveyor of primary-colour game worlds that fired our childhood imaginations; Sega as the creator of adrenaline-rich arcade thrills; and Sony as the mainstream giant in whose slipstream the others were pulled. There appeared to be no room for another to muscle in on the bright-lit frisson of home video games, let alone a developer of routine office software.

The idea for the system came not from the top, but from the middle of the corporation. In the run-up to the launch of Sony’s PlayStation 2, a number of Microsoft engineers became concerned at the Japanese company’s claims that their new console was set to wipe the PC from the home. Ted Hase, Otto Berkes, Seamus Blackley and Kevin Bachus came together to design a home games machine, one based on PC architecture, but that could compete with the traditional games consoles in the living room. Originally known as the DirectX-box, the project took off when James ‘J’ Allard joined the group. An avid game player Allard was sceptical that an ‘eMachines for games’ device, with a custom version of Windows would be able to compete in the console market. He argued that the console shouldn’t run Windows, the company’s ubiquitous operating system, but instead something tailored to the machine’s strengths. Likewise, it was Allard who maintained that the systems should ship with broadband-only Ethernet connections, sidestepping the dial-up modem users to ensure that online multiplayer gaming was fast enough to allow for competitive play.

This feature is an extract from Simon Parkin’s book, An Illustrated History of 151 Videogames.

While Allard is often cited as being the ‘father’ of Xbox, in truth, there were many creative minds responsible. It was Ed Fries who managed the team that would design and build the system over a course of 24 months, while it was Seamus Blackley’s experience in game development that convinced game makers of the system’s potential. A video game console is only as good as its games, and without Bungie’s exclusive launch title Halo: Combat Evolved, a game that brought about a sea-change in console-based first person shooters and added legitimacy to Microsoft’s bulky box, the story may have been very different. But even with a skilled team of visionaries behind it, Xbox’s place at the console gaming table was, to a large extent, paid for. Following the system’s launch Microsoft fast muscled into second place in the console arms race, but at a cost to the wider company of $6 billion in losses, a financial punch that few corporations could take.

In part, the long haul success of the machine was down to Xbox Live, an online service that allowed subscribers to play online games with others around the world and to download new content directly to the system’s hard drive. While Sega’s online Dreamcast service predated Xbox Live by some margin, Microsoft benefited from a proliferation of faster internet speeds, enabling games such as Halo 2 to be played at a competitive level remotely.

The system suffered in its later years at the hands of modders, who circumvented Microsoft’s system protections to install their own operating systems and run pirated games. But arguably modding helped build grassroots support for the machine, which by the time of its discontinuation in late 2006 had sold 24 million units worldwide. In five short years Microsoft established itself as a leading developer of console hardware, finding success through a combination of deep pockets, tall luck and a clutch of strong games.

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Grid: Autosport review

Publisher/developer: Codemasters Format: 360, PC, PS3 Release: Out now

We’re in the middle of the pack on the second lap of a touring car race when something other than our shunt-happy opponents hits us: this feels like TOCA again. With its continual reinvention of cherished series, Codemasters has been nothing if not brave, but the UK studio has returned to its roots for Autosport, stripping away the glitzy distractions of its recent releases in the process.

The pared-down design starts with the front-end, which dispenses with Codemasters’ usual interface flair and sticks with simple, clean (and fast-loading) menus set against a black background. There’s no garage, no collection of cars to accrue (unless you count the custom setups you can define for online racing), and no narrative – rather than focusing on your own racing team, you are simply a driver choosing which team offer to accept each season.

It’s a shock of clarity that will prove as divisive as Grid 2’s swerve into bombastic arcade territory, but anyone hankering for management elements should feel adequately compensated once they get out on the track. Codemasters has gone all out to address the criticisms levelled at Grid 2 by players disappointed with the game’s attempt at appealing to a broader audience, and created something rare: a racing game in which you actually have to race.

Leave the difficulty on its default Medium setting and you’ll find yourself up against uncommonly challenging opponents. Reaching the front of the pack is a Herculean effort as cars shunt and weave, defend their line and constantly look for opportunities to pass you. It makes qualifying (on the events where it’s available) a genuinely worthwhile endeavour, and even once you do make it to first position, the pressure never lets up. It’s telling that the lowest difficulty feels most like other racers, allowing you to thread through 16 positions over the course of three laps with little resistance; switch things up to Very Hard, however, and you can spend a whole race exchanging 13th and 14th positions with another car.

Autosport’s damage modelling is a triumph, with even the slightest bump sullying the sheen of your car. You can ask your teammate to be more aggressive or defensive using L1 or R1.

Crucially, Autosport’s career structure and nuanced vehicle handling combine to alleviate any potential frustration for players weaned on effortless victories. The career is split into five disciplines: Touring, Endurance, Open Wheel, Tuner and Street. Taking part in an event will earn you XP in that particular discipline’s strand, and larger Grid tournaments become available once you’ve reached a certain level in all five.

XP is earned in several ways: Team Targets ask for a minimum finishing position in the Team Championships (but you’ll only lose XP, not progress, if you miss this); Team Bonuses offer secondary objectives such as a finishing position in the Drivers’ Championship or finishing ahead of a particular driver; Sponsor Objectives offer smaller amounts of XP for, say, driving above 120mph for three minutes in total or improving on your previous lap time during a race; and finally Discipline Rewards award you for your finishing position, beating your rival, posting the fastest lap and any bonus earned from racing without driving aids or limiting yourself to an in-car view.

Yes, Grid 2’s most contentious absence, cockpit cam, has been rectified, and you can now choose between dash and driver perspectives. The dashboard itself is made up of textures seemingly ripped directly from the PS1 era, but they’re disguised by a pronounced depth-of-field effect that blurs the interior and focuses you on the road. It will look ugly to bystanders, but the effect is pleasing if you’re in the driving seat.

The return of the in-car view will please players who take their racing games seriously. Violent camera movements makes the game feel alarmingly fast, too.

The same goes for your sense of connection with the road. Autosport has been built from the wheels up, boasting a complex grip model that underpins handling which, while still approachable, offers considerable depth. Traction is paramount in Autosport, and knowing when to break it and when to maximise your power transfer is key to moving your way up the grid. The weighty cars are prone to understeer, but rather than insisting on a powerslide to correct, they realistically respond to your throttle and braking inputs, making every honed cornering manoeuvre feel balletic. You can still get sideways, of course, but it’s rarely your fastest option outside of street races. Together with your opponents’ AI, such lively feedback makes for an intense, and satisfying, drive.

That boisterous AI does throw up some of its own problems, however. While opponents are noticeably less aggressive in open-wheeled races compared with touring and street events, they don’t always concede in the same way a human driver might, sticking to their chosen route even though you legitimately out-braked them into a corner. It’s less of a problem once the pack has spread out a little, but in a game that asks so much of you it can be frustrating to have your skilful manoeuvre met with apparent obliviousness – especially when some Sponsor Objectives ask you to complete a race with no collisions. Adjust for this, though, and the sense of speed and danger more than makes up for the occasional duff AI decision.

Codemasters has painstakingly tuned its flagship series, reducing weight by stripping it of unnecessary luxuries, and created a leaner, race-focused machine. While it can’t compete with the fidelity or detail of Gran Turismo 5, Grid: Autosport instead uses broad strokes to create a vivid impression of what it’s actually like to be bumper-to-bumper at 140mph as a hairpin comes into view. It is ironic, then, that for all Codemasters’ attempts to make the player feel like a race driver by building up a fiction around them, it is Autosport’s barebones, abstract interpretation of a driving career that proves its most successful.

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