Postcards From The Clipping Plane: how to make Britain’s games great again

James Leach

James Leach is a veteran videogame writer and regular Edge columnist. You can find all of his writing here.

The studio is buzzing. For some reason, everyone is crowding around someone’s desk, looking and talking excitedly. Valuable man-hours are being lost because there’s something worth seeing. But what could it be? Surely nothing as simple as a new female French animator? No, the correct company-wide approach is to ignore Claudette pointedly while mentioning to others how great you are at paintball. This is something on a screen.

Even the boss has come out of a ‘meeting’ to see what the fuss is about. As he joins the throng, it’s clear why he’s the boss: he has no idea what he’s looking at. But he’s assuming a judgmental frown, because, as the boss, it’s his job to understand everything the team is creating and to be able to create it better and faster. If, of course, he wasn’t busy being the boss and using work time to get his car riced up.

We must rise and shuffle over to see what this digital magnificence is. Not that it’s important, but should we remain in our seat we would look like uninterested drones who don’t get the core culture of game design and who don’t delight in the creation of something truly groundbreaking in our midst. Peering
over the sea of T-shirted shoulders, we finally see the pixelly holy grail. It looks like a group of Lego men bouncing around, playing football to a primary school level.

We dare not comment. The stubbly fellows clustered here are not mocking. Nor are they reminiscing about their primary school days, spent learning C++ at lunch and looking out of the window at their healthy, football-playing classmates. No. We hold our peace.

“Adjust the cohesion,” says a coder. It’s the first time he’s spoken since he joined in 2009. He has a northern accent, which nobody suspected. The cohesion is adjusted.

Over the weeks and months to follow, we realise that what the screen showed was an entirely new and marginally more efficient way of programming flocking behaviour. And it doesn’t matter that the game we all stopped working on for 20 minutes is a platform-based sidescroller. That wasted time is insignificant because everyone will be in at the weekend, pretending to crunch to get it finished on time. No, what we saw was the coming of age of the programmer who created the flocking routine. It’s his first kill. It’s proof he’s pushing envelopes, boundaries and limits. Up until now, he’s demonstrated the bare minimum of what every game developer must – the ability to type very fast, with quite a lot of rapid backspacing to correct his manifold typing errors.

All this sounds condescending, but that is because I am. And if you’re annoyed by this, well done for knowing what condescending means. However, it highlights something excellent. Britain is truly great at making games because it’s held on to the Bletchley Park idea that if you assemble the talent, wonderful things will occur. In games-making, there’s always a war on. Milestones loom, alpha dates close in like U-boat wolf packs, and the money is running out. But by letting people not do their jobs all the time, but do something better, we’ll win through random cleverness and it’ll all be over by Christmas. My history is shaky, but the Internet confirms that when Turing invented the Enigma machine, he knew it’d unlock the atomic secret that would end the Nazis’ stranglehold with two small but marginally more efficient bombs. (Citation needed.) He was allowed to do so, despite using the tech solely to solve the Daily Telegraph crossword for years, because he was trusted to eventually get the job in hand done.

Having worked alongside very talented developers in America, I suggest that their drive and skill matches ours, but their focus is, well, focused. “Let’s finish this game,” they say, “and unerringly slick high fives, massive coffees and perhaps a single small glass of beer will be our reward.” So they do it for the team, and as a team. But we do it the hard way. We hire the programmer who lives 25-hour days because he read once it’s more ‘natural’, and spends half his life coding (and eating breakfast) in the small hours. Boeing may turn out ranks of milled-to-perfection airliners, but it took an English bloke in a shed with a chewed Helix protractor to create Concorde.

Money, though. That’s the problem. Who can justify flocking boy’s lone genius when the result’s not going to be used this financial year? The economy has spoken in a whiny voice and wayward genius becomes a rapidly discarded luxury. We’re all in it together, although Claudette has collected up her Dragonball Z figures and gone to a better job in Canada. My solution is bold yet simple: massive tax evasion perpetrated by all UK game studios. Let’s make Britain’s games great again.