In January 2011, British games developer Bizarre Creations was closed by Activision. Looking through the games that Bizarre were responsible for, it's no surprise that many fans were hugely disappointed to see its closure. Racing titles such as the Project Gotham Racing series were seen by many as the pinnacle of racing games, with similar successes coming from the retro shooter Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved and the cartoony Fur Fighters. Unfortunately, despite the release of arcade racer Blur and James Bond 007: Blood Stone in 2010, it wasn't enough and Bizarre Creations was dissolved.
What happened next, though? And why am I talking about console games on 148Apps? Because a number of new gaming studios rose from Bizarre's flames, many of them iOS focused. Recently, I got the chance to see how things are progressing for a few of them.
One of the first to reach the iOS market was Grubby Hands, a one-man studio founded by company director Dr Danny Pearce, the firm released their first title, David Haye's Knockout in June 2011, immediately topping the charts. A new release emerged in December 2011 with Boy Loves Girl, which garnered similar success. How has Danny found going it alone, however, and why did he consider setting up his own firm?
"At the time that Grubby Hands was founded in 2011, the AAA console market was a volatile place...After Bizarre Creations closed, I was cautious about joining somewhere that may suffer the same unfortunate fate," Danny explained to us. Much of the temptation also came from the "exciting new market" of the App Store. "Apple had created a suite of cool gadgets over the past few years, and I was itching to start making games for them. Now seemed the perfect time to launch a studio with a new mobile focus."
Going it alone proved quite beneficial for Danny. He could finally "get [his] hands dirty with design, art, code, sound and music" rather than be forced to specialize. A "fast development cycle" also appealed, although "strict budget" constraints proved tough.
Martin Linklater of Curly Rocket and Curly Square fame, had similar thoughts on the matter. Having been in the AAA game development industry for 18 years, Martin felt that now was an ideal time to go it alone: "It feels like a golden era is upon us again where 'bedroom coders' can compete with the large publishers on an even playing field," he explained, "The AAA console games industry is going through a really tough time at present...Pretty much the only place where we're seeing real growth is in mobile gaming on iOS and Android. It's an amazingly exciting place to be right now because developers are still discovering new ways to build games for phones and tablets..."
Similarly to Danny, Martin has found that "time is the enemy" as well as "not having the luxury of a guaranteed pay check at the end of the month…" especially with a young family to support. Echoing thoughts of many "…but in many ways I feel more secure now than when I worked for someone else. At least now I know how much money is in the company bank account...When you're an employee you can walk into the office in the morning and find that you're out of a job by 10am. Job security in the games industry is an illusion."
Mark Craig of Muffin Games, best known for Fur Fighters, had similar feelings when it came to creative freedom. and security: "In many ways it feels more secure because we have a lot more control over our destiny and we aren't at the mercy of a large company who can shut us down at any time."
That's a trend that continued when I asked Totem Games's Matt Cavanagh how he felt about going it alone. The SpaceOff developer explained that "Creatively it's great [going it alone] – I have complete creative freedom and I still keep in contact with many of my old Bizarre acquaintances which is useful for getting feedback and help with testing."
Throughout all these interviews, however, one common plight has afflicted the ex Bizarre Creations developers, and that's getting noticed.
Dr Danny Pearce explains, "There are so many Apps available to download, it can be very difficult to get eyes on your game." Martin Linklater has also noticed that "The interesting thing with the App Store is that as far as I can tell the only things which make a big difference to sales are word of mouth and being featured by Apple. Press coverage and advertising can give your game a kick in the right direction, but the vast majority of people...don't read any gaming press at all, and rely purely on friends and the App Store to see what's out there." A marked change in how console game development and success fares.
Matt Cavanagh described marketing as their "toughest challenge" with "understanding the App Store is a challenge in itself", while remaining determined to succeed.
Clearly, the App Store is a very different beast compared to console development. "The iOS market is broader than the console market. I think it's possible for many niche games to survive...We're seeing the iOS market maturing rapidly. There is more demand for well designed games now and much less demand for novelty apps," remarked Dr Danny Pearce, "We're seeing that traditional console gamers also play iOS games, but they play very different games on their phone than they would on their console. Preferring games that are similar to a tasty snack, rather than a three course meal."
Martin Linklater found the same to be the case, "Most people who play iOS games play in short bursts, while console gamers tend to play for a number of hours at a go." He also reckons that certain game types just "don't work very well". "I always think that once you introduce virtual joysticks into your game you've already failed. Touch is a very different interface from a joypad, and the really great games out there understand this and use the control method to do things that control pads can't do..."
Dr Danny Pearce echoes that thought, although with a slightly more positive spin: "A minor difference is adjusting to the way players interact with the game via the touchscreen. It seems lots of developers are now getting to grips with this, we're seeing fewer virtual buttons and more seamless ways to interact with games."
Martin Linklater thinks there's "certainly room for both casual and enthusiast games in the market. Games written for gamers can have huge sales spikes...but at the same time there are lots of traditional games..which sell decent numbers week on week without ever entering the limelight." Matt Cavanagh agreed: "When you are making a game for the iOS gamer, you are making a game for the general public. Console games are generally focused much more towards gamers and gamers are always looking for a new and challenging experience. I think most iOS gamers are looking for casual entertainment in quick fixes."
Reinforcing the idea of a broad spectrum of gamers, Mark Craig explains "[iOS] games tend to be more about gameplay than cinematic experiences. Even though games are referred to as casual I would argue that a lot of them have more sophisticated gameplay in them than a lot of AAA console games."
The one thing that everyone interviewed agreed with was enjoying the fast pace of iOS development and the actual coding involved. Dr Danny Pearce explained that it's a great step for consumers, also: "The games available today are so much better than the those available a year ago...It's exciting to always feel you're on the verge of breaking into some new unexplored territories, the constant search for the next big thing is an excellent source of motivation!"
Martin Linklater has appreciated the opportunity to use Objective-C and Cocoa Touch within his coding. "It's a real shame Objective-C doesn't have more adoption in the games industry because it is a beautiful language for creating games and game systems." Mark Craig has also enjoyed the flexibility given through coding iOS games, "It's great to be able to develop anywhere, all I need is my laptop and iPad...It's also nice to work on something on a small scale again. The last 360/PS3 game I worked on had over 100 people working on it, now I just work with about 12 people."
Matt Cavanagh tried to narrow it down but simply admitted: "…I love the whole process." Who can blame him?
Unfortunately, it hasn't all been smooth sailing for the iOS developers to come from the closure of Bizarre Creations. Hogrocket, developers of Tiny Invaders is now on indefinite hiatus. Peter Collier, one of the co-founders of the developer, explained that "Tiny Invaders achieved a lot which I'm very proud of, but financially it simply was not enough to sustain the three of us." Significantly, he pointed out that "If I could go back and do it again I would have designed Tiny Invaders very differently and fully embraced the free to play model," somewhat tellingly as to the importance of free to play gaming to the iOS market. Tiny Invaders is still available from the app store, however, and I'd strongly recommend it as it's a very enjoyable title.
So what's next for the collection of ex-Bizarre developers?
Grubby Hands are currently working on "a new rhythm based game." Danny explained that "it's looking cute, sassy and jam packed with humour. I expect it to be finished towards the end of 2012. It's exciting times!".
Curly Rocket's Martin Linklater is planning to embrace simple games like Curly Square, before he returns to "more complex" concepts. Rather jovially, he quoted Greg Anderson to explain his thoughts on the matter: "Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but by doing it".
Cryptically, Muffin Games have "a large number of future projects at various stages of development but they are all secret at the moment I'm afraid!", while Totem Games, having finished an iPad version of SpaceOff is working on a quiz game by the name of Free Quiz, with plans for something story driven at some point in the future.
The future's looking pretty bright for these developers and I, for one, look forward to seeing future releases. While it was terrible news to hear of the closure of Bizarre Creations at the start of last year, it's great to see something good come out of it.