Friday, December 02, 2005

Game City

I've been talking to a friend of mine about his job and having been in it only a short while, he thinks that he's not gong to stick it out because of the commute. For reasons that are non-negotiable, he's not able to move close to the job, but he's able to get there via car or train. This being Britain though, that basically means a 4 hour round trip. I sympathise, and I asked him whether they would allow him to distance work for some or all of the week. He doubts it.

In Britain especially, game developers and publishers have a singularly annoying tendency to locate themselves off the beaten track, preferring to set themselves up in small towns and on the edge of cities and so on right across the whole country. There are usually a combination of reasons for this. The first is the cost of renting, but the second is usually something like it's the company founders' home town (especially in smaller companies). Thirdly is the confusion that many developers and publishers seem to still experience over identity. They want to be like entertainment companies in the marketplace, but still instinctively use much of the methodology of software engineering firms without realising the enormous differences. The games industry is an entertainment business, not a technology business. It's amazing how many developers still don't accept that.

This is the sort of behaviour that is fine for young startups, but there's a real problem that the industry has to face up to, which is that development staff tend to move around between companies because of costs, but they also get older, form relationships and families, and it's unrealistic for companies to expect them to move house every year from Aberdeen to Cardiff, Cardiff to Brighton and Brighton to Birmingham any more.

At the same time, it's unreasonable for the prospective employees to look for long term (or even permanent) employment contracts with games companies any more, because of the costs issue. This is what leads to a strange scenario where games companies are on the hunt for staff who'll move across the country for 6 months. Fine enough if you're a youngster, but once you hit 30 it becomes about as attractive as scabies. It's one of the chief reasons why something like 90% of games industry workers leave the industry within 6/7 years, never to return.

It's also hugely inefficient for the companies to work this way. Hiring is an expensive and time-consuming process, and has become even more so with the proliferation of employment agencies charging their 20% cut to get the people in the door. Maintaining large office spaces is also not for the financially faint hearted, and the impact on schedules from sudden departures, staff who don't work out, and sundry other reasons is hard. Finding quality staff tends to become very expensive as a twenty-year experienced programmer will charge the Earth for his services and you'll have to pay it if you want him to move to your office in Slough or Leamington Spa or Croydon. Add in travel costs to visit publishers, problems with an inability to find very short term workers (like quality sound engineers), and the companies have painted themselves into a corner where everything costs a fortune without any flexibility. Development companies (and publishers lately) can moan about costs and industry conditions as much as they like, but it's their own strategic decisions of location that breed these problems.

In the US, Hollywood is known as the place to go if you want to work in the movies. New York is the center for the financial industry, the news industry and business in general. San Francisco is where you go if you want to work in technology development. In Britain, London is where television is at. London is also where magazine publishing largely operates out of. In fact, in many industries, especially entertainment industries, a common location is vital to the relative success of everyone, and with good reason.

A common location reduces the price of doing business by encouraging flexibility.

It makes hiring staff much easier and cheaper because they demand less and are more willing to work under shorter term contracts. This allows both developers and publishers to maintain smaller facilities and thus be more flexible if projects collapse. A common location allows for a better freelance culture to emerge, which encourages workers to stay in the industry for longer. If I, as a worker, have three four-month contracts during the year then I am much more likely to be excited by the prospect if each one is commutable from my house. If, on the other hand, the first one wants me to move to Swindon, the second one to Scunthorpe and the third one to Dundee, I'm just not going to seriously entertain the idea.

Common locations increase contactability between publishers and developers, allowing for a much more co-ordinated industry. It allows for real business networks to develop and a community of companies to establish themselves. It encourages better working practises as the reduced timeframes encourage more focused work and therefore productivity. It makes the prospect of using remote workers far more palatable and therefore reduces the inherent risk of moves like outsourcing. Mostly, it encourages both competition and collaboration on a realistic level. Development companies can collaborate on projects, for example, if they're only up the road from each other, while it also facilitates the creation of service businesses like art and animation houses, design consultancies and engine specialists. A common location would encourage PR agencies to seriously court the games industry as a set of viable clients in ways that e-mail communications never do, and also encourage a more vibrant and in-touch industry media to develop.

The best part is that all over Britain, urban regeneration projects sponsored by local councils are practically crying out for industries to set up in their area, providing all manner of discounts and tax-rebates to businesses that do choose to relocate.

The big question is where should Game City exist. Realistically, it should be a major city that has international airports. It should be a city that has representation in other media industries on whom the games industry relies for much of its licensing etc. It should have good transport connections so that staff can get to and from work with a minimum of fuss. This realistically means that the Game City should probably be London, possibly Edinburgh, or maybe Manchester at the outside. Or, if anyone feels like a trip abroad, Dublin.

London is not as scary as it sounds. While the rent in London is supposedly high, south London is less expensive and is replete with councils looking to get business to move in. Southwark, for example, is only just across the river Thames and yet the rent there is really very cheap by comparison to the rest of the city. Southwark is also 15 minutes by Tube from Soho, Shoreditch and the media capital of the UK. Or there's Lambeth, Croydon, or any one of a number of areas in East and North London.

Regardless of which city and which council, the question is whether the British industry has the sense to club together for change. There is an enormous lack of trust in the British games industry, and a deep level of organisational inertia pervades many companies that have gone too far down the route of establishing many remote studios (a costly and questionable move). There has also been an enormous level of closures and company collapses in recent years in the UK, and would-be industry-wide associations like Tiga are hugely worried about the permanent prospects for UK development yet heavily mistrusted by the companies themselves.

The key word here is 'entrenchment'. The established UK games industry is too entrenched, stuck in its old form thinking and essentially being torn apart by its own intransigence. This applies to managers and employees, publishers and developers alike. They're just too cynical perhaps to do it differently. Nonetheless, I think Game City will eventually happen. Old companies will die out, new companies with more nimble philosophies will rise in their place and they won't be so tied to the old garage days mentality. There's a younger generation of creative staff who never worked in the bedroom coder universe, and they have less qualms about trying something different.

This is why I think 5 years from now the UK games industry will rise again in a new form, a better form representing a shift in the generational mindset. As the winds of the current and next generation continue to blow their harsh message, these proto-company owners are experiencing first hand what it is to work under the current regime and they know that things can work much better if they are only given a chance. That chance will come soon.

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