What Exactly Is A British Game?
Readers of the site might wonder what exactly a “British Indie” game is and why should we care? In this feature, I’d like to explore the history of British games to give some insight into what I feel are the most important aspects of British games and how that applies to the concept of indie games and how they are being produced now.
A few years back I put this question to my game design students (I teach game development and design at the University of Bolton). I asked them what they would consider to be a “British” game? Given that we have a long history of game development and a rich creative culture, it was surprisingly hard for them to relate to the question. The sad fact is that the newer generation of game developers simply are not aware of the history of British game development. You have to be of a certain age to appreciate the origins of games; that they were originally made simply for fun on pieces of equipment that were literally outside of the reach of the common man. You also had to be of a certain age to have lived through the boom in computing made possible with the invention of the microprocessor and the subsequent heyday of 8 and 16-bit systems. Most students on my courses are simply too young to really understand the sheer determination it took to produce games on the old 8-bit systems, with no documentation save a CPU reference manual. Those days were ones of pure experimentation. Many games were produced, although the quality of those games is often fairly dubious. However one thing was alive and well during that time: the will to experiment. Essentially this was a completely new medium and there were so many unknowns that anyone producing a game in those times was a pioneer. The 8-bit creations of that era were personal triumphs of man over machine. The limitations of the platform were such that creative programming was a pre-requisite.
Of course, there were many derivative games produced, but a far greater number of games were uniquely inspired and executed. Subject matter was wide open, from flying toilets to roast chickens, whatever the creator could dream of and execute within a massively constrained palette and CPU budget. The prevalence of available 8-bit systems and the relative fashionability of owning such a system led to a vast increase in the number of people learning to program. A legacy that sustained the industry for many years until the latest generation of consoles and the relative decline of the personal computer. Games characters of the time, such as Manic Miner, Monty Mole and Dizzy were all welcome diversions, sometimes taking from Japanese or American counterparts, but more often originally and uniquely British creations. I have to confess that rather than the Spectrum or C64 that were popular at the time, I was actually raised on Atari machines, starting with the 2600 and subsequently the 400, 800, ST before coming to the PC. But the creative force that was driving those very platforms upwards in popularity was a desire to experiment and discover the secrets that were being employed to create the games that were being released incredibly regularly.
It is no surprise that these times saw many of the now giant corporate developers formed, with many a millionaire in their late teens/twenties. This creative force managed to hold on into the 16-bit era, with the new Amiga and Atari ST platforms becoming the de-facto standards for aspiring game developers. Classic British titles came out apace. Shooters like Alien Breed and Project X, or unusual titles with a very strong British feel like Worms, Populous or Lemmings were being published by the likes of OCEAN, Codemasters, Mastertronic (a budget label) and EIDOS. Developers like Bitmap Brothers, Codemasters, Team17, Gremlin, Bullfrog, Sensible Software and Psygnosis were flying high on the popularity of the platforms.
The heyday of this early charge of British developers was in full flight. But as with anything that is fashionable, it has to then fall out of fashion. The sheer difficulty of producing games was such that few who started ever completed anything commercially viable. But the seed had been sown and a few companies had leveraged thier commercial successes into what were profitable companies. Indeed some managed to weather the storm that followed those golden years, emerging as viable development companies, some of which exist to this day.
What were the aspects of these games that historically picked them out as British? I have thought long about that question and while a truly compelling answer eludes me, here are some thoughts on the matter.
Games used any source matter as subject.
If you consider the earlier games developers, they had very little previous knowledge of games to precede them. Many were incredibly young and as such had not learnt a prescribed vocabulary of subjects. Subsequently we see a plethora of subjects, from clumsy creatures such as moles and eggs-with-legs for lead characters, to the aforementioned flying toilets as potential threats. Subjects such as being at school were fair game (in titles such as Skool Daze) as were popular characters from other media. Many games were derived from current popular culture, with science fiction and fantasy being themes seen in many titles.
Games were generally developed by one or two people.
This made a difference to the scale of the game developed. It also allowed those individuals to create something that was unique to their vision of a game. A classic example is Jeff Minter, who produced games with a distinctive theme, although mechanically gameplay was derivative of other games of the time. However some truly unique games were produced at that time, games such as Lemmings or Populous used relatively simple mechanics, but had such a unique viewpoint on their use that they were truly ground breaking. I do recall hearing the tale of Andy Davidson (the originator of the Worms franchise) spending four years developing the original Worms prototype on his Amiga, spending time playing it with his friends, perhaps as an unknowingly early precursor to the usability testing that many larger developers use today. This concept of testing and iteration on design led to many breakthroughs in game design, even within the constraints of the platforms available.
Games weren’t scared of humour.
This is something that feels to me to truly define the “British-ness” of many games of the era. The fact that they incorporated humour. Not just any humour, but the type of cultural humour that is one of the true exports of British media. Although often not incredibly sophisticated in nature, the fact that games incorporated humourous references has largely been lost in the relentless move towards worldwide mass media franchising.
What does this mean to British developers and indies in particular?
It might be simply wishful thinking on my part. But I would like to think that as with the pioneers of those early times in game development, the latest crop of indie developers has a chance to forge a new future for themselves. The availability of a direct sales channels and the profusion of usable technology has given us the possibility of new developers who are no longer as constrained as their 8 and 16-bit counterparts. Technically, games are easier to produce than they ever were, so the limitations are entirely on the skill of the individual and on their choice of game mechanics and their ability to deliver. The fly in the ointment being that it is harder now to actually connect with a direct audience. The fragmentation of other media, collapse of viewer/reader figures have left traditional advertising routes much weaker than they were. Today the challenge for any aspiring indie developer is actually reaching a significant enough audience in order to solicit their purchases. As many indies will tell you, making the game is no longer the challenge, making sales is the new battleground. However this means that mechanically, thematically and culturally creative games should stand a far higher chance of achieving the public perception required to develop that audience.
I consider that right now we are in a new renaissance for the potential of games, if only we can find the path forward from the malaise currently enveloping the mainstream industry. It is evident to almost anyone who takes an interest in games that the potential losses that a failure could incur in the AAA end of the games industry required that titles simply not take risks when it comes to subject matter. Games have become so big that they require a worldwide audience across many platforms to return a profit from the investment. Which means that games simply cannot be culturally challenging or self-referential in any meaningful manner. The fact that a large number of games are funded from multi-national corporations which are mostly head-quartered in the US has led to a homogenizing effect which has forced any unique culture from game development (save for the one purported by the marketing arm of the US paymasters). Simply put, the industry has largely been forced to “Americanize” its output, much as the world has been forced to accept mass market american media all in the name of globalisation.
Now is the time to try and deviate from that path. To return to the strongly British values which were instilled in those early games. To allow ourselves the choice of viewpoints outside of those narrowed perspectives pushed on us by the mass media. Culturally we are capable of unique and compelling content, truly original creative efforts. I believe that allowing ourselves that freedom to think outside of that globalisation bias, we can actually connect with people (customers) on a deeper level. I do sincerely hope that at least some aspiring indie developers will consider taking this route. We may yet see a return to the heyday of British game development!