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The best of British gaming

Submitted by on Saturday, 1 May 20106 Comments

The UK’s position as a world-leading developer of video games is under threat. For years it has been the third largest employer of development staff in the world, with the USA and Japan in first and second position, but recent times have seen the UK overtaken by the Canadian games industry.

Much of this is down to the Canadian government offering huge fiscal incentives and tax breaks to its developers. France and Korea have taken similar approaches with much success. The UK, in contrast, has been an expensive place for developers to work and as a result its games industry has declined – even though on a global scale the industry has actually grown.

According to TIGA, the trade association representing the UK games industry, 44 companies went out of business between July 2008 and July 2009. It’s a worrying figure. Can Britain arrest the decline and continue to be one of the major players in games development?

There are reasons to be optimistic. Back in March, Alistair Darling, the UK Chancellor, introduced a games tax relief in his final budget before the election. His statement read:

“I will offer help to the computer games sector, similar to the steps which are helping restore the fortunes of the British film industry. This is a highly successful and growing industry, with half its sales coming from exports, and we need to keep British talent in this country.”

TIGA has been lobbying hard for tax relief and the outlook for the UK games industry does appear a lot more promising with it in place. TIGA believes tax relief could end up creating or saving up to 3,550 jobs. Nevertheless, plans for tax relief could still be scuppered with an election coming next month.

A new government could decide that the games industry is undeserving of tax breaks. The Conservatives are expected to come out on top at the election and their MP Ed Vaizey has told Develop that they plan to support the industry with tax relief, but no plans were outlined in his party’s manifesto. It has led to some doubts regarding the Tories’ commitment to the games industry.

With emerging nations posing a threat and a global recession leading to studio closures, it’s been a difficult time for British developers. Yet, this hasn’t stopped them from continuing to prove that they are some of the best in the world. In fact, the Develop 100 report from May 2009 said that nearly a quarter of the most successful studios worldwide came from Old Blighty, with Rockstar North coming third. They have proven they can still be bankable.

This generation has seen them produce some of the best and most innovative games around. Read on to find out some of our highlights…

Grand Theft Auto IV (Rockstar North)

This sandbox game needs no introduction; it’s had unanimous praise lavished upon it from all quarters. On the day of its release it managed to shift an impressive 3.6m units and over the course of its lifetime it’s had over 15m copies sold worldwide. In 2008, the GTA franchise generated a massive $710m in revenue.

Grand Theft Auto is a massive franchise with proven mainstream success, but it was still a gamble for publisher Take Two. Development costs skyrocketed as they entrusted Rockstar North with $100m of their money, making GTA IV the most expensive game ever created, according to Digital Battle. GTA may be a big name but there was no guarantee it would sell well enough to justify that sort of cost. To roll out a cheque of that size you need to have a lot of faith in your developer, so it’s clear Take Two trusted Rockstar North.

What a game it was as well. It was a joy to experience Nico Belic’s rise through the criminal underworld of Liberty City, a massive open-word city with lots to do and see. Even two years on from its release, the game still has the ability to surprise us whenever we fancy a game.

This month saw the release of Episodes from Liberty City, which includes The Ballad of Gay Tony and the Lost and Damned. Each offers around 10 hours of excellent gaming. They’re fantastic value and add new depths to Liberty City.

Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady Studios)

“Yay. A Batman game’s on the way. That’ll be great.” Yes, that was the sarcastic thought that ran across many heads when Arkham Asylum was announced. Can you blame them for their cynicism? It’s so rare to find a good superhero game after all.

Arkham Asylum wasn’t just a good superhero game, it was a rip-roaring adventure that stood shoulder to shoulder with the best games on any console. The game was near flawless with great voice acting, immense ninja-style fighting and stealth sections that didn’t feel the slightest bit tacked on. Rocksteady also managed to capture that distinctive urban gothic feel associated with Batman. It was the most fun we’ve had being Batman since we were kids with our bed sheets around our neck as a cape. No, we don’t do that now. Nope.

Rocksteady picked up the respected Best Game award at the BAFTAs with the Caped Crusader managing to beat the mighty Uncharted 2. This decision managed to stir up some debate and many argued that Uncharted 2 should have been the winner, but few begrudged Rocksteady their moment in the limelight. Rightly so. They made us excited about superhero games again.

The studio is hard at work making the sequel and it’s one of the most hotly anticipated games for the PS3. We can’t wait.

LittleBigPlanet (Media Molecule)

A platformer with a distinctly 2D feel and childish graphics – not to mention a cute Sackboy-thing for a main character. It’s not the type of game that was expected to dazzle in the HD generation of gaming. Media Molecule knew better.

As a platformer it was fantastic, with over 50 excellent levels to keep us entertained, but it wasn’t Media Molecule’s levels that stood out, it was the several hundred thousand levels created by the community.

Media Molecule realised, more so than most developers, that this was the first truly online generation, that online connectivity – not superior graphics – would be where the true innovation was. It’s the first game that’s given us that real sense of community. It’s full of people playing, creating and sharing in the LittleBigPlanet universe with their customised Sackboy, Sackgirl or Sack-person.

With a world of game designers behind them, Media Molecule often joke that they have the largest development team in the world, even though the head count at the studio is a modest 30 employees. Do you need a large studio when you have a world of would-be game designers behind you? The user-generated levels vary from shambolic to astounding, but at their best they can be truly inspiring.

We suspect some of the future stars of the industry are busy making their first levels today. It’s like a return to the days of bedroom programmers.

Play. Create. Share. It’s a simple tagline, but an effective one.

SingStar (SCE London Studios)

London Studio came 36th in the Develop 100 list, despite having two titles cancelled in 2008 (Getaway and Eight Days). Its entry was primarily down to the outstanding success of the SingStar franchise.

You won’t often see SingStar in the top ten lists of greatest PS3 games but, across both PS3 and PS2 platforms, SingStar has sold more than 16 million discs in SCEE territories with more than 4.6m tracks having been downloaded from the SingStore. Those are figures that can’t be easily brushed aside.

It’s well known that girls love SingStar, it’s less known that guys play it when their girlfriends are out. Can you blame them? It’s a hugely entertaining game. It’s the perfect social gaming experience thanks to its instant accessibility and vast catalogue which contains something for everyone from Abba to Joy Division.

SingStar also gives us an excuse to use our PSEye cameras while we wait for Move to arrive. Just try to avoid uploading those embarrassing drunken photos onto the community portal – it’s had over 10m views, you will be caught.

The formula hasn’t changed much since its inception in 2004 but with an online battle mode coming in June, SingStar is about to be freshened up. London Studio has plans to introduce SingStar Remote, an innovative feature that will allow users to create playlists of up to 20 songs on the PSP as their friends are singing. PSP to PS3 connectivity has been a sorely neglected area, so it’s good to see London Studio making the most of it.

Then again, London Studio and innovation generally go hand-in-hand. They are the team that brought us the loveable EyePet and the flawed but hugely ambitious PlayStation Home. Home has over 10m users and it’s continuing to grow, with more spaces opening all the time. Not bad at all.

Burnout: Paradise (Criterion Games)

When it’s finally released, Gran Turismo 5 may well rule as the ultimate driving simulator, but when it comes to fast and thrilling arcade racing, Burnout Paradise is untouchable.

Criterion’s agenda for this was for you to be able to experience the game how you would like to. It’s set in an open world where you have the freedom to race, drive off multi-storey car parks or just go a bit insane, it’s your choice. Invariably gamers tend to choose chaos over sensible racing – and it is the best way to play this game. Burnout allows you do stunts that will leave your car in such a mangled state that only J.G. Ballard could find it beautiful.

Burnout Paradise’s main draw is that it’s such a seamless experience. Frame rates are solid and loading times are non-existent, and inviting friends over for multi-player is as easy as pressing a button. Everything flows smoothly as it should. This shouldn’t be a big draw but it’s amazing how many games fail to get that part right.

Burnout is also remarkable for its DLC. There’s no other developer that has supported their title with as much imaginative and game-changing content as Criterion have. The game is much richer today as a result.

The job that Criterion have done with Burnout Paradise has been so good that we can’t help but wonder where the series could go next. However, these thoughts can be put on hold for now because Criterion have another project in the pipeline. EA has handed them the next Need for Speed game. Our expectations shot up a notch when we heard the news.

The rest of Britain

These five games are ones which we’ve particularly enjoyed this generation, but it would be grossly unfair for us to conclude this article without mentioning some of the great work from other studios.

If you had to pick a specialist genre for UK developers, it would be racing games. It was only possible to choose Burnout Paradise as one of the highlight games after some intense deliberation and soul-searching.

Still, Codemasters would be entitled to question why DiRT 2 wasn’t selected, a game that sets the benchmark for all future rally games. Then there’s Studio Liverpool, developers of Wipeout HD. Experiencing high speed combat racing at 60 frames per second in pure 1080p resolution alongside its awesome techno (or your own custom) soundtrack is just awesome.

This generation has also brought us Motorstorm, a new IP from Evolution Studios, which has you driving ridiculously fast across cliff edges in obscenely large trucks. It’s as fun as it sounds.

We also finally got a decent kart racer when Sumo Digital created Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing. Not revolutionary maybe, but it’s a fun cartoon racer that ticks all the boxes. It’s kept us happy while we wait for ModNation Racers. Sumo Digital are also the team behind the excellent Outrun Online Arcade. Aside from racing games, Sumo Digital developed Virtua Tennis 2009.

Then there’s Relentless and their Buzz franchise. These games might not mean much to many of our hardcore readership, but there is a large market out there for fun quiz games. It’s perfect for family gatherings.

A special mention must be made to Traveller’s Tales, the team behind the LEGO games. It’s easy to dismiss these as kids’ games but they’re remarkably popular, so much so the franchise has catapulted Traveller’s Tales to 12th in the Develop 100 report. LEGO Star Wars alone has over 15m lifetime sales. It’s no wonder Warner Bros. paid an estimated $200m in 2007 to acquire TT Games. The 270 employees have brought us LEGO spin-offs for Indiana Jones, Batman, Star Wars and Harry Potter. Not to mention LEGO Rock Band. They’ve certainly given us more enjoyment than many more serious film spin-offs.

It’s not all been great. There have been a few high profile let-downs from UK developers, with Crytek UK (Haze), Rebellion (Alien Vs. Predator) and Ninja Theory (Heavenly Sword) all failing up to live up to the high expectations we had for their games. Ninja Theory could redeem themselves with Enslaved, a post-apocolyptic adventure but one set in a rich natural environment rather than dead wastelands like Fallout 3. It looks promising.

2010 has a strong line-up in place already for UK devs. Coming next month is Split/Second from Black Rock Studio, the team behind racing game Pure, and it will face strong competition from Bizarre Creations’ racer, Blur. Coming sooner will be Volatile Games’ gritty crime drama Dead to Rights Retribution.

The most exciting upcoming game? That would be Agent by Rockstar North. The GTA developers plan to take players into the world of counter-intelligence, espionage and political assassinations during the height of the Cold War at the end of the 1970s. We can’t wait.

What’s been your favourite British game ever? Let us know in the usual place below…