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Expert Comment: Liverpool's games industry

Computer chip Tuesday 23 September 2014

Dr David Reid, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science, looks at the long history of Liverpool's computer games industry. 

On September 9th Bungie, one of the premier software houses in the world, launched Destiny. It was a colossal work, which 400 people took five years to develop (Paul McCartney wrote and performed the game’s ending song). It was rumoured that Activision (Bungie’s parent company) invested $500 million in combined development and promotional costs-this has since been denied. In its first week it took $356 million, but this is seen as mediocre; its low-ish GameRanking on Metacritic of 77 could cost it $2.5 million in sales. In comparison GTA 5 has sales figures of 32.5million and nearly $2 billion.

Late last year a small software house in Finland called Supercell produced a free to play game called Clash of Clans. It remains at the number one spot and recently reported $829 million sales, over half of which is profit. Supercell produced Clash of Clans with six developers.

In Liverpool in the seventies and eighties a number of small companies started up in the home computer boom fuelled by Atari, Acorn, Sinclair and the BBC. It is said that at that time there were only two jobs a young person could do in Liverpool, join a band or join a games company.

Gradually these got taken over or became bigger and bigger until eventually a mistake was made, development costs exceeded sales or simply the market or technology moved on. Liverpool game companies like Pysgnosis (under Sony), Rage, Bug-Byte and Imagine have a fascinating history. Each developed for consoles or PCs (like Bungie), and each closed.

However, today numerous smaller game companies exist in Liverpool like Ripstone, Sawfly and Red Ninja who have risen out of the ashes of the bigger console companies and have used their talent to develop (like Supercell) mobile phone games.

So now we have a games industry that has a squeezed middle. A very few massive slow moving behemoths producing consoles games that would put the budgets of small countries to shame, and little minnows darting around trying to distinguish themselves from the shoal.

It’s been like this for a few years now...and it’s a little bit boring...however one thing is certain: the games industry is incredible dynamic, and we are once again at the dawn of a new era.

A number of companies have started using Kickstarter crowd funding to cover their more risky development ideas. The idea is that if you back the early development phase then you will be entitled to access to exclusive content or have first dibs on the final game.

The most notable games company doing this is one from yesteryear. Thirty years ago David Braben (CEO of Frontier Games) produced a game called Elite. It was a revolutionary space trading game that at the time was truly ground breaking. Roll forward 30 years, in 2012 he used Kickstarter to fund Elite:Dangerous. This is a game that will use VR technology using a new VR platform called the Oculus Rift (to be launched next year), to produce a truly new gaming experience.  Sony have also going to launch their own VR headset next year (Project Morpheus) for the PS4.

All of a sudden we have a new developmental middle ground, we have a truly new platform and environment, we really don't  know what will and will not work, and we don't know what type of company will produce the content.

One thing is for certain, after a long period of the “same as usual” suddenly the gaming industry feels new and exciting again. It should be a fascinating 2015. Lets hope the wealth of gaming talent that exists in Liverpool can exploit this new and exciting medium.

(If anyone wants to try out an Oculus Rift we have a couple in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science!)


0198 Dr David ReidDr David Reid is Senior Lecturer in Computer Science in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science.


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