Keith Stuart: Gamesblog

If videogame development is to remain fresh, argues Keith Stuart, the industry needs a corporate culture that nourishes quirky design - but within a strict framework.

Spring, a time of frenzied activity in the natural world, has proved equally as stirring for the videogame industry. Last week, Microsoft bought Lionhead Studios, the UK developer of Black & White and The Movies. Two days before that, the US mobile games giant Glu purchased the UK publisher iFone, which has the rights to convert Atari and Sega classics for Java phones. Sega, meanwhile, has also been on a shopping spree, grabbing Sports Interactive (creator of Championship Manager) and the San Francisco-based developer Secret Level.

Usually, industry watchers take a dim view of such corporate bustle, bemoaning the homogenisation of game development and the creeping death of the independent spirit. But is consolidation such a bad thing? Not always. History has shown that developers, like ageing pop musicians, can become flabby if left to their own devices for too long.

Take Scottish studio DMA design. Responsible for the classic puzzler Lemmings, the company rocketed into a creative vortex in the late 90s, before being bought out by Rockstar. What emerged from the chaos? Grand Theft Auto III - one of the most important British games ever released.

US developer Neversoft had a terrifyingly bad mid-90s. Then Activision bought it and put it to work on the international megahit Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. Electronic Arts' purchase of Bullfrog productions in 1995 saw the company abandon vanity projects in favour of big sellers Theme Hospital and Dungeon Keeper II. Before Infogrames bought out "old skool" UK software house Ocean, the company's internal studio was working on HMS Carnage - a steam-punk space shoot-'em-up featuring galactic bi-planes. Uh-huh.

Mergers and acquisitions usually bring discipline, and when large numbers of people are involved - as is the case with modern videogame production - this can be a much more valuable driving force than creative freedom. The "it's finished when it's finished" approach rarely works: Id pulled it off with Doom III and Quake IV, Valve did it with Half-Life 2, but for each of those titles there are 10 bloated and pretentious failures.

Nature consolidates. It is the way of the world. What the industry needs is a corporate culture that nourishes quirky design - but within a strict framework. The tightly controlled Hollywood studio system of the 1940s provides a pretty good model. Sports Interactive, through its excellent relationship with Sega, has learned to trim its excesses, but at the moment Lionhead, a national treasure, is operating like a maverick auteur of the 1970s, spinning out its good ideas into confusing experiences. In this season of re-birth, it is time for a fresh approach.

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Keith Stuart

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