Mike Bithell on the UK games industry and keeping a stiff upper lip

There are certain things one assumes are permanent in the British games industry. Sports Direct coffee cups somehow always sat in the staff sink. The person on the neighbouring desk to yours always being far too fond of Transformers and/or odd manga figures. Cake day, interminable, absolutely overwhelmingly repeatingly always bloody cake day. And, until now, the copy of Develop Magazine sat on a coffee table somewhere.

Develop was around when I got my first job in the industry, a weird magazine that my bosses, the Oliver twins, always seemed to be on the cover of. Them or the venerable Ian Livingstone. Back then it was a little on the pessimistic side. Canadian tax reliefs had come in, and a lot of people with midlands accents were learning French. I remember the cover of Develop, or maybe MCV, bearing the apocalyptic headline “Could the last developer to leave the UK please turn the lights off”. Great words to see when starting a career with a hefty student debt. The UK was doomed, big studios like the one I worked at were certain to fall under their own weight. 

Which was sort of true, but also only a small part of the picture. Digital distribution would arrive in a big way with Steam and Xbox Live Arcade. Initially little more than a new way to sell games, a few smart folks, like the chaps at Introversion, saw they also paved a path to a new way of making them. A lot of the larger studios might fall, but even more smaller studios would grow in their place. Like that bit in The Lion King about gazelles and grass and circles. These little studios were fast, able to adapt and change quickly. They were ‘agile’, as that one 25-year-old in a suit at every trade meetup likes to call it.

The British kids of the 80s had to make their own fun, literally, by typing code into a PC. 

Mike Bithell

Develop reported on and predicted many of these shifts. Mobile, esports, the works. Of course, they also got a bit too excited (like the rest of us) about cul-de-sacs like motion control and Facebook games. Now we’ve strapped those motion controllers to our heads and use Facebook primarily to moan about the microtransactions we invented for Facebook games.

Right now, things are in a tough place; an unknown political future for the country, harassment within our communities, and small studios struggling to find an audience. But I suspect we’ll solve those challenges like we have the others. I suspect we’ll continue to start small studios in sheds, grow mega corporations above shops, and occasionally sell everything to an American who drives a cool car. Or maybe someone from China with a cool jetpack. That’d make a pretty great Develop cover. Can we keep this thing going for another month so I can throw something together in Illustrator?

There’s something particular about the way we make games here. We thrive as an industry with all the limitations and challenges afforded by our geography and population size. The British kids of the 80s had to make their own fun, literally, by typing code into a PC. Nowadays, school children are taught to code, and play Minecraft on Raspberry Pi. We like to play games, but we love to make them. We enjoy creating fantastic new experiences, throwing a hundred things at the wall and hoping something moves the industry forward.

Which is all a convoluted way of saying that the games industry is defined by its lack of permanence, and the UK industry even more so. While Develop may no longer be with us, I’m sure the UK industry will continue to be utterly ridiculous, a shifting mess of genius and unpredictable stupidity. Long may it remain utterly impermanent.

But let’s keep the Sports Direct mugs. They’re essential.

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