I am intrigued by a recent development in computer games — that of promoting the designer, or design team, behind a game rather than the software company. It seemed that almost half of last month’s mag was devoted to Denton Designs, one team currently very much in favour. The Dentons are probably the prime example of the new breed of star programmers, but they’re not the only ones.
One of the games that I’ve reviewed this month has been published by one company, while everything to do with the game has been created by another. In this case, what was formerly a relatively successful software publishing company has now become just a design house. This trend is going on all around — the companies with the marketing muscle become publishers for a number of design houses, themselves often created from the remains of smaller software publishers.
Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing; it could mean that the quality of product reaching the consumer improves. But the problem with ‘star’ programmers and teams could be that they will only add to the corporate inertia that the new heavyweight software publishers are already acquiring. The fact that a programmer has created one bestselling game does not mean he is a good enough programmer to do it again; the only way he may be able to do it again is to regurgitate the same formula — hence anything that comes remotely close to being a hit these days immediately spawns a sequel.
While it may be handy for the writers of press releases to be able to say ‘the new game from the authors of XYZ and XYZ II’, it may not be good for the industry as a whole, because every ‘safe’ sequel, or new game by the star team, may be blocking the way for new, original, material from fresh sources. If design teams are really going to create benefits by becoming stars, they will have to move away from doing commissioned work, and try to establish firmer identities on their own account — not as puppets of the major labels. Ironically, probably the only way they could do this at the moment is by setting up their own companies!
A good example of what I’m talking about is Jeff Minter’s company, Llamasoft. Jeff is a ‘star’ programmer who has developed a unique and instantly recognisable style — and because he doesn’t work to commission is regularly producing original (and bizarre) software. Any major label taking him on would have to give him a totally free hand — much as record companies do with their stars. Perhaps the software market is not yet developed enough, but as the polarisation we are seeing at the moment continues, and the heavyweights mop up the marketplace, design houses will find that the onus of originality rests with them — and they will have to discipline themselves to demand the right to be creative.
And on a completely different subject, I was astounded to read that Sinclair will not be producing a 128K Spectrum in time for Christmas. It seemed like an eminently sensible idea to me, probably Clive’s best since, well, the 48K Spectrum. If it’s true that they have millions of pounds worth of speccies they can’t shift stashed away somewhere, they should either 1) take them all down to Highway 61, or 2) convert them to 128K at fairly marginal extra cost.
For watchers of Angus and Nicola’s house (new series coming soon folks) we have (alas) done very little lately except acquire some plants and a compact disc, which, while doing wonders to the Mozart, has singly failed to bring the toilet any closer. Also, I now have a new motorbike, which is red with yellow spots on, to replace the one which some thieving hyena (probably one of my fans) nicked a couple of weeks ago. VROOOM!