“Any Questions?” – At BAFTA’s ‘Games Question Time’

last night I managed to get myself into the BAFTA Games Question Time. It’s not that impressive. Tickets were free and open to the public.

Ian Livingstone, Peter Molyneux , Dave Baily and Alice Taylor gave their opinions and thoughts on the current state and the future of the gaming industry. To read what was discussed, you know what you need to do.

Click on.

There was a lot covered in last night’s talk, so I’m only going to go over the areas that I found interesting or that got an interesting answer. Bear in mind, I’ll have to paraphrase some of this, as I was too busy enjoying myself to write down what people were saying verbatim. To make it easier on myself to write (and also because it’s the way I took my notes) I’ll divide this piece into different sections. One for every question asked. Clever, no?

Is there Moral divide between payment options?

The evening started off with asking the panel if they thought that there was any difference to the morals behind the different payment structures that are popping up within the industry.

It was pointed out that different structures have been around for a while, with subscription based games being around for well over a decade.

Of course freemium was the main focus of the discussion. The panel widely agreed that games needs to be designed with the payment in mind. Zynga do this, choosing how people will pay for the game before designing it, and as long people enjoy it, where’s the harm?

Whilst there’s nothing morally wrong with these payment structures, if they’re poorly implemented there are problems from a gaming it makes them tricky to fully get behind. For a start, it’s important to have these paid for products to act as a way to show off. In our other hobbies, such as cooking, we use money to show off to our friends via expensive ingredients or kitchen gadgets. If we like cooking, we don’t pay someone to cook. Same goes for games. If we like a game, we want to show off in the game, we don’t pay to have the game played for us, to level up our character quicker.

There’s a strong need to build a relationship and not rip off players if the freemium model is to grow and become seen as legitimate. The crux of the conversation agreed that there’s nothing questionable from a moral stand-point, but there’s still a way to go to have them widely accepted.

With payment methods out of the way, gaming mechanics came under scrutiny, with ‘Gatcha’ recently being outlawed in Japan. It was also interesting to note the many similarities between games and gambling (who call themselves gaming also), with gambling only being regulated because money is exchanged both ways.

This topic couldn’t be spoken about without mentioning Peter’s £50,000 DLC. As part of his new ‘game’, ‘player’s have the opportunity to chip away at a virtual cube to get to its center. Someone can pay £50,000 to buy a ‘super chisel’ that gives them a much greater chance of breaking into said cube. He said he’d be “shocked” if it’s bought though claimed it’s worth breaking the cube.

Is there a way to sell games that would change the industry that doesn’t exist?

With people convinced that digital is the be all and end all of selling games, does this mean there are opportunities that aren’t being developed or pursued?

It was mentioned that a good way to sell would be directly though TV, and with Apple rumoured to be working on an ‘iTV’, could this be a possibility? It’s not as crazy as you’d think, with Samsung recently signing a deal to have games streamed through their sets.

One thing that everyone agreed on is that the marketplace’s of today are overcrowded. Alice also mentioned that Apple have too much control over what does well within their marketplace, as discoverability is a huge problem for this type of game.

Mr Molyneux, never one to avoid a controversial stance, suggested that advertising needs to be better and that this would change the way that we consume games. He reckons that there’s enough data held on us and our playing habits that analytics should be better used to allow for more targeted marketing.

Whilst I initially dismissed the idea of having adverts ‘target’ me with regards to gaming, it makes sense. Peter explained it best that adverts, when they’re done right, are actually helpful. If you need a glass of water and someone says “hey, want a glass of water? Only 50p.” That’s incredibly helpful. If analytics could be put to better use to make adverts less intrusive and more helpful, I’d be down for that.They can be great if they offer something as you need it. The data is there, but needs to be put to better use.

Is Smart Glass allowing cross-platform support a threat to next-gen if not offered?

With Smart Glass, there are still many questions, though it seems that it will allow you to expand and access your XBox experience no matter the type of tablet or smart phone you’re using. Could this willingness to allow your experience to spread across different hardware and Operating Systems pose a threat to the next-gen if they don’t offer this ‘access anywhere’ feature?

Ian quick to point out that there’s many threats that already exist. Business models are changing and there’s been a shift from games being a product and turning them into a service. This is par for the course though, with the games industry being so fast-moving. Some of the biggest games in the world, like angry birds and Farmville, are on platforms that didn’t even exist ten years ago. So these threats need to be treated as opportunities.

Back onto the actual topic of SmartGlass, all agreed that it was pivotal to Microsoft’s pursuit of broadening their appeal and turning the XBox into a media hub for the home. Questions remain over the application to the second screen in a gaming context though.

Peter mentioned that one demonstration of zombiU asked him to look at the second screen. Why? If I need to look away, why not put the handheld screen onto the main screen. Worried that there’ll too much to handle, with touch screen, control and Tv.

This worry was further commented on by Alice, who said she feared for Nintendo as they didn’t seem to be embracing the new ways of doing business. The other members of the panel soon allayed these fears, claiming that Nintendo were a toy company with deep pockets. Even if their hardware fails, their IP is too strong to allow them to fall. This made me wonder though. Wasn’t that said of Sega?

Is the industry striving towards virtual reality?

I’m not sure where this question came from, though it did provoke a bit of a discussion. Peter seemed to think that it was coming back in vogue, with Steam’s thing. As with all new hardware ideas, like virtual reality, where’s the software that can support this? It’s always a case of what came first, the chicken or the egg – the hardware or the software.

Does new hardware cover-up the lack of new IP?

Maybe not as entirely relevant as perhaps I’d have liked, given that Sony and Microsoft failed to show ANY new hardware, but an interesting point none-the-less. Do we get fooled into thinking something is ‘new’ when it’s actually just the same old stuff but in a higher resolution with more polygons being pushed around?

The panel agreed that much new AAA IP was announced. They couldn’t say otherwise really, the evidence is all there. This was put down to the fact that the AAA market is just too expensive to be taking risks in. This was further commented on by Mr Livingstone who suggests that these sequels only get made because their predecessors get bought in such large quantities. If people stop buying them, people stop making them. Something which is pretty obvious.

That’s not to say that there’s no new IP whatsoever. Alice was keen to make everyone aware of the smaller developers who are constantly creating new products and properties. She also hoped that a new generation could lead to a spark of invitation, as people are generally more willing to try new things when faced with new hardware. Even though we’re seeing a lot of sequels being announced for the Wii U, I feel that point’s got some weight behind it.

Why aren’t there many women in the games industry?

With only one woman on the stage and 4 men, this seemed to be a somewhat pertinent question, not to mention the recent uproar that gender politics has raised in the recent weeks.

The discussion first went to Ian, who reminded everyone just how young the industry still is. It’s still struggling with the initial development problem that was games were made “by guys, for guys”. There’s also a reputation problem, where people still think it’s a very male orientated environment.

This is changing though. Through the explosion of ‘social games’, it’s now safe to say that the people who play games is 50/50, so the progression of women that play games into women that make games is bound to happen sometime down the road.

Alice seemed particularly confident of this, as she currently runs a company where 50% of the staff is female. The introduction of Raspberry Pi means that anyone has easy access to programmable machines and early trials of the Raspberry Pi in schools shows that girls are just as capable and engaged in programming as the boys.

Should game developers be more celebrated like directors are in film making?

A great question to ask considering that arguably two of the best know people in the industry were on stage.

Ian agreed that it’d be a great idea, though it’s hard to do. The benefits of being in the spotlight also come with dangers, as the press and the internet as a whole can be a vicious place, so no-one is particularly keen to do so. It’s also a matter of time, Dave was quick to point out that, as a developer, he wouldn’t mind spending time on generating some publicity and talking to press, though he’s often too busy actually making the game, rather than telling people about it.

Peter made a good point that if games were sold on the strength of the developer’s name, it could allow for more risks to be taken. At the moment, publishers are keen to churn out Call of Duty games, because it’s the Call of Duty name that sells. However, if people realised that it’s Treyarch or Infinity Ward. Linking this back to films, you don’t often get directors that move from sequel to sequel. Directors take success and use it to promote their new ideas. Why can’t games do this as well?

How can the government further promote the uk games industry?

With Ian Livingstone on the panel, it had to be him that addressed the question.

Given his recent success in getting changes made to the national curriculum and of course the announced tax breaks, it was suggested that, despite the overall support for the government being poor, they’re doing well in this regard. Advice has been taken on board and the government are realising the value of the games industry to the British economy.

Will the tax breaks and incentives be good just for big businesses or will everyone benefit?

A fair question, seeing as a lot of tax breaks and funding option contain caveats about number of employees and annual turn-over.

Ian was quick to re-assure people that these tax breaks were obtainable by all types and sizes of company, with Alice noting that there’s more and more types of funding becoming available for those in the industry. Plenty of firms are looking to support start-ups with grants and other types of funding, though often small companies fail to secure this money, not through poor ideas or practices, but because the lack the experience or knowledge on how to present their business.

Ian suggested that more ‘indie’ developers need to learn how to raise this money, as the traditional forms of obtaining funding, like going to the bank, just don’t work as the banks don’t have an understanding of what this sector’s about.

Could publishers help small developers more?

Keeping on with the subject of funding and getting your games made, someone put to the panel that publishers should be doing more to help out small developers.

This was pretty much rejected, as Ian stated that it’s really down to the developer to make the publisher believe in the product. He may be somewhat biased in his opinion, what with being Life President of Eidos (a publisher), but all in all he suggests that publishers have done more good than harm for small developers.

Looking on XBL or the PSN, you’d have to say that a lot of publishers have embraced this new small-scale type of publisher and long may it continue.

Can the UK ever compete with Canada?

With a large migration of talent to Canada taking place, there was a question as to whether the UK can ever compete with them, given that Canada have much larger tax breaks and rewards on offer than we do.

Whilst everyone agreed that competing with Canada in terms of government rewards wasn’t possible, it’s still possible for the UK to remain competitive through investing in the education system, as Ian was keen to point out.

Do the layoffs we’re seeing mean that AAA is unsustainable?

Big studios have closed and at best, most have had to lose employees.

Dave recognised that there was a change going on in the games industry. New platforms were emerging and old platforms were being challenged. He called this a “painful shake-up”, though with the losses that large studios are seeing, smaller studios are springing up in their place.

A real concern to the panel was the eradication and unsustainability of mid-level developers. Marketing costs are stopping these types of developer get the recognition and attention they need to survive. This has left the industry in a state where big companies make big games and small companies make small games. Ian called it a case of “the rich getting richer”.

Peter agreed with the shrinking of these types of company, as at this year’s E3, 500 games were shown compared to last year’s 1,000. Where making a game consisted of producing, publishing and then selling, it’s become more complicated. Post-release support is now more important than ever and costly, leaving developers with spiralling costs that make mid-level games a costly business.

If there was a gaming Apocalypse and gaming ‘started again’, what would you like to have happen?

Ending on a less serious note, some put to the panel the idea of a ‘game apocalypse’. The big 3 have vanished and gaming has to start again. What would you like to happen with this fresh start.

3 of the speakers considered that allowing the hardware to be more open-source would be a good place to start. Alice mentioned that Nintendo release great hardware, though often restrict the access that developers have to it on a programming level.

Of course, Peter Molyneux had a different idea. His dream re-start would involve gaming consisting of only one game. One game that everyone can enjoy together. He couldn’t give any further details or description than that, but the idea was nice and pure Molyneux.

With that, question time ended. A big thanks to the people at BAFTA who arranged this great event. Be sure to check out their site regularly as these types of event are being posted on a regular basis.

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