Postcards From The Clipping Plane: the cyclical nature of game development

James Leach is a BAFTA Award-winning freelance writer whose work features in games and on television and radio. You can find all of his columns here.

To a certain extent, developers are people too. This isn’t a popular view, but it’s backed up by growing amounts of evidence. Like humans, they once emerged from their domiciles, went into further education and then got jobs within global game-making corporations. Here they thrived, put to use for up to 18 hours a day making huge games, which got released every three to four years.

The developers were assimilated into the wider world, a fact that barely registered with the real people there. A few learned to drive cars. And there’s at least one anecdotal report of cross-breeding with the general population. The integration persists to this day, only highlighted when games get blamed for real-world violence, or a developer appears on TV and the audience wonders why they seem odd.

Developers do have brains; doctors have confirmed this. But they work differently. They’re solution-finding machines. They solve conundrums and invent things. Solutions are vital in their line of work, but elegance is revered. They’re engineers, mathematicians and artists, toiling in an abstract space, using languages that to me, after 20 years, still look like a toddler’s been at the keyboard.

“Developers are engineers, mathematicians and artists, toiling in an abstract space, using languages that to me, after 20 years, still look like a toddler’s been at the keyboard”

But the world has changed and now everyone’s all about apps, mobile gaming, and web-based entertainment. Some of the developers, having watched this in detached bemusement, are now wondering whether they should be getting involved. It’s likely that – after years of leaving their mountain bikes in giant car parks and working in huge buildings with HR departments – some erect shrines to the god Notch, hoping to entice his spirit into their untidy flats. Others apply their creative skills and start inventing apps in the 20 minutes after they get home and before they have to go to bed. And some band together like meerkats and leave their jobs to start new companies.

What all the new game startups have in common is a lack of cash, a largely unsuitable working environment (above a barber’s shop or a floor of a crumbling Georgian mansion are popular), and masses of liberated enthusiasm.

Another thing new startups don’t lack is ideas. I can think up five great little games I’d love to play and that no one else has done. I’m not boasting, because you can too. And that’s just puzzle games. Add in all the other things just begging to be made, such as integrated calendars, location-based helpful things and productivity software (whatever that is), and you’d never run out of great things to code.

The best thing about all this? Nobody else is doing it! Oh, wait. Everybody else is doing it. We’re back to the early microcomputer days, when the pages of Popular Computing Weekly and New Computer Express were packed with lists of things you could buy on cassette for £5.95: small ZX Spectrum space games, slightly larger Commodore 64 driving games, and tax planning programs if you had an Amstrad. Nobody had any money to properly advertise these things, but if you did and what you were selling wasn’t utterly moribund, you could succeed. Just ask Kevin Toms.

We have returned to those times, and our brave meerkat/developer hybrids are throwing code at great ideas, then throwing those ideas at the app stores. And, yes, the market is there. It’s huge. Where once we thought big PC and console games were getting so popular that every man, woman and child was becoming a hardcore gamer, that’s changed too. We’ve reverted to a time when hardcore gamers do exist (and in numbers), but the rest of us are playing tiny games on our phones and iPads.

“We’ve reverted to a time when hardcore gamers do exist (and in numbers), but the rest of us are playing tiny games on our phones and iPads”

On the whole, the developer meerkats surge on, free of big company meetings, and the fear that someone they worked with and loathed three monoliths ago will be parachuted in as their producer. Life is good, and they don’t even worry about money. I used to work with a guy who, without fail, referred to pounds as ‘credits’. The last I heard, he’s in prison after stealing a link of sausages from a shop.

Then the money runs out. The first three apps, while groundbreaking, were 99p, and who in their right mind would pay that for several hours of puzzling fun? The developers sadly unplug their PCs and that triangular phone conference thing in the meeting room and the CVs go out to the giant corporations again. This time, though, our heroes have added ‘Co-founder, Shingoo Entertainment Ltd’ to the top. They’re not going in as they left – they’re looking for much more. These guys are now entrepreneurs. They bring a wealth of new experience to the table. Except it’s not a table. It’s the same desk they left in 2011. And, yes, that’s the same PC they’ll be coding endless sequels on. Hello, old friend. Let’s see if you take as long to boot up as you used to.

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