Homegrown Handheld - The British Development Talent Powering the Vita
Written Thursday, January 05, 2012 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
In just a few weeks the PlayStation Vita finally hits shelves in the West. Massively powerful and stuffed with cutting-edge features, it's the nearest we've ever come to a current-gen console that you can carry around in your pocket. Technologically, it's nothing short of astounding.
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The launch-window titles are impressive too. Whether it's small, quirky games like Little Deviants, or more traditional, full-blown experiences like Uncharted: Golden Abyss, there's a breadth, depth and quality to the Vita's early offerings that stands up against any of its competitors, past and present. Indeed, Sony recently called it their best launch line-up ever.
What's most notable, however, is just how many of these games come from British developers. At the heart of this Japanese beast lays some serious British design knowhow. LittleBigPlanet, LEGO Harry Potter, Top Darts, MotorStorm RC, Little Deviants, F1 2011, Hustle Kings and WipEout 2048 represent a big chunk of the launch window line-up and some of the very best British development talent.
But why exactly has the Vita proven to be so attractive to British studios and what does it mean to be a British developer in 2012? We rounded up some top-notch Britsoft talent to help us find out.
“There's been a huge drive to explore what we can do with the Vita, to play around with it a bit and experiment. I think we really latched on to that. Britain's always had innovative games studios and we relished the opportunity to continue that legacy,” says Will Maiden, Lead Game Designer on MotorStorm RC.
For Maiden, the opportunity to work on the Vita within a small, focused team at Evolution Studios offered the chance to experiment free from the pressures of AAA home console development. By concentrating on keeping MotorStorm RC simple, the team were able to focus on delivering the most fun and pure experience possible.
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“Branching out onto the Vita is a massive benefit to us,” says Maiden. “It's not as big a gamble. The team is a very small, tight core of developers, just 16 or so people. By keeping it small like this, the risk becomes lower because of the development costs.”
“When you start throwing in orchestral soundtracks the costs just go up, and when you put a couple of million into marketing you need to make more back. So by keeping it small, by relying on word of mouth, by getting people to play it and realising how great it is and by keeping a low selling price, that's how we hope to get it out there.”
In the 1980s, British development studios like Codemasters, Bitmap Brothers and Bullfrog Productions worked with non-existent budgets and tiny teams, yet managed to create enduring classics like Dizzy, SpeedBall and Populous. Maiden believes MotorStorm RC's genesis harks back to that golden era of experimentation and passion.
“Ever since the boom of the bedroom coder,” says Maiden, “British developers have been associated with innovation. MotorStorm RC came from a little prototype that we were playing with in our lunch breaks while we made MotorStorm Apocalypse. Everyone immediately fell in love with it. The genesis of the game was just messing around and seeing what we could come up with.”
"Little Deviants is one of many potentially great launch-titles for Vita"
Maiden identifies that spirit in other British Vita games too. “With Little Deviants you've got a game that came from the same ethos, a game that came from asking the question 'What can we do with the Vita?' We helped BigBig Studios work on some of the levels. Just from playing around with the Vita and experimenting, they've made this utterly charming little game.”
It's ironic that Maiden should point to the golden age of British design, as Sony and the PlayStation effectively killed it off. The arrival of the PSone ushered in an era of huge teams working on multi-million pound experiences. The days of small teams engaging in small projects was over. Temporarily, at least.
Psygnosis is one studio that weathered the change. Starting out in 1986 developing for the Spectrum QL, they adapted to the industry's demands, going on to create WipEout, the game that defined the PlayStation and paved the way for their subsequent acquisition. Now operating as Sony Liverpool, their latest game, WipEout 2048, represents the very cornerstone of the Vita's launch line-up.
Sony Liverpool are survivors, enduring huge changes in the British development scene. Not all of it good. “In the last few years, we've lost a lot of people to Canada,” says Karl Jones, Lead Designer on WipEout 2048. “A lot of people have gone over there and there was a danger of it getting a bit barren over here.”
“We've also been affected by redundancies at various organisations. There was this fear for a little while that everything would just dry up, particularly in the northwest of England where we've had Bizarre Creations go down.
“But in the last 6 months or so I've seen green shoots coming out of the barren landscape and it's really promising. Last night I was at an event for indie game developers. There were just so many of these enthusiastic devs showing off just the most awesome stuff. And a lot of it was on Vita.
"WipEout in the palm of your hand? Are we in heaven already?"
“So it got a little bit worrying for a while, but the shoots are there and I think that it's awesome that the British stuff can find its feet again and move on up. Some of that has to do with the Vita and that's hugely encouraging.”
For Jones, the strength of the Vita is its ability to deliver a varied portfolio of games, not tied to a particular format or style. “If you're making a game for a home console then there's a certain amount of expectation in terms of size. It needs to be AAA, it needs to be a big-hitter, unless you go for PSN.”
“But on Vita, because of the nature of downloadable games and bitesize stuff, there's definitely more scope for these smaller, bitesize experiences. I think you're going to find teams working on those big hitters on Vita, while tighter teams work on smaller projects. I think the Vita is well-placed to support the full range, from these little cheap titles to proper big AAA powerhouses.”
So, depending on whether the handheld can make an impact at retail, the future of the Vita and its place within the British development scene is looking bright. Whether it be home console-esque stunners, fun or inventive indie experiences, Sony's newest and shiniest piece of tech has all the bases covered, and British developers are leading the charge.
“The best games come from Britain,” concludes Will Maiden. “You've got GTA, Batman just came out, LittleBigPlanet is an absolutely phenomenally successful game. In the classic era of game development, you would know the name of the company before you knew about the name of the game. You don't get that identity any more. And that's a shame.”
“We need to rebuild that identity, and say “Hey, we're from Britain!” Hopefully in the coming years we can do just that.”