Game developers look east for inspiration

Game development in the West is stagnating as publishers only look at derivative games. For true innovation there's only one place to go: Central Europe

The rising stars of games development are more likely to come from Central and Eastern European countries than from Western Europe or the US, attendees at the Game Developers Conference in London's Earls Court Exhibition Centre this week heard.

Games development in Western Europe and the US is stagnating, and as governments in the former Soviet republics crack down on crime, games development is exploding there, fuelled by enthusiasm and unhampered by the baggage that Western games developers carry with them.

Jon Hare, who created on such titles as Cannon Fodder, Wizball Wizard and Mega lo Mania during his time running Sensible Software, said the Western games industry is facing a crisis: as the industry has become more commercial, games have become less diverse. "It's very much in vogue now to quote your influences. Commercially it's very important and you need to quote influences to sell an idea to a publisher, but it has gained too much importance and is limiting creativity."

The flip side, said Hare, is that if a game is too original it will be difficult for users to pick up. But, he added, gamers just are not getting the choice. "We don't get the backing to try new things -- publishers are scared, they want more of the same."

Things may now be changing. Glasgow-based The Gamers Republic, which started out providing production management and development out-sourcing to the games publishing industry, has now moved on to games development, and sources development from as far afield as Vietnam.

Dave Sharp, founder and managing director of The Gamers Republic, said some publishers have really got their hands burnt in Central and Eastern Europe, but stressed that the governments are now cracking down on the organised crime problem very effectively.

"One big publisher got really ripped off this summer by a supposed developer that turned out to be mafia, and they were taken for £250,000," said Sharp. "While this is going on, Sony and the like will stay away. Sony does not want a development kit to go missing and end up being distributed outside its control."

Sharp's own first experience of the mafia was in 1995 when he visited Moscow while working for Virgin Interactive. "It was clear from the start that the mafia ran everything," said Sharp. "They sent a car for me with a bomb-proof floor and pressurised interior to protect it from gas attacks."

Sharp said he had to hire a former agent of the GRU (Russia's military-intelligence agency) to check out the backgrounds of the people he was doing business with.

At the time, said Sharp, the government had no way of tracking and tackling the problem: "Governments now realise that if they want to join the EU, if they want trade barriers to be removed, they have to get on top of the problem." Tales of mafia involvement have largely been consigned to the "myths" bin. The publisher that got taken for £250,000 this summer simply failed to take simple advice and check out properly who they were doing business with, said Sharp.

Now, some big publishers are taking a much more active interest in developing countries even though there is still a stigma attached to games development in Central Europe, said Sharp.

Marek Spanel, co-founder and managing director of Czech-based Bohemia Interactive Studio, which created the million-selling Operation Flashpoint, agreed. "Most developers are doing their first projects so have fresh ideas," he said. "We can develop new games."

What's more, Czech developers do not see games development as just a business, said Spanel. "We see it as an art. There are plenty of new ideas here and we are eager to show that we can better then developers in the US and the UK." There is a feeling, said Spanel, that UK and US game developers are about to get a big "kick in the ass."

Most Central European games are currently PC-based because software development kits for consoles are expensive, but the situation is changing. Bohemia is currently working on an Xbox version of Flashpoint, for instance.

In Poland, there is a similar energy. Adam Marczynski is a third-generation Polish Canadian who moved in 1995 from Canada to Poland where he built an experienced software development company and introducing game development potential in Poland to the industry. His company has created a 3D game engine for the PC, featured in the title War Drones (published by Midas in the UK) and is now developing a 3D Shockwave engine.

There are three things that Polish developers have by the bucket-load, said Marczynski: enthusiasm, lack of cynicism, and team effort. "It is really important to know that even if we are only making a little money it is an honour to work on something you really love," he said. "People in these countries don't see the work as a nine to five job. They don't have so much baggage in terms of gaming history."

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