BUSINESS SENSE AND SENSIBILITY - March 1998
|One of the odder things about the video games business
is that, far more than other cultural forms like pop music and movies, it's almost
exclusively driven by people who've been around for years, even decades.
Partly due to the length of development time, it takes years and years for new teams to come to prominence, so when people talk, for example, of the stars of quirky, innovative British design, you always hear the same names cropping up again and again - Bullfrog / Peter Molyneux, Rare and, until recently, Sensible Software. The Essex-based outfit boast a pedigree going back 15 years, and including some of the most-loved games of all time, especially those grouped under the legendary footballing brand of Sensible Soccer.
But the company's name has dropped out of the public eye in the last couple of years, and since the 1995 flop Sensible Golf, nothing had been heard of Sensible until the recent release of the disappointing Sensible Soccer 98 on PC. The other two titles the firm had been working on since 1994 (ambitious and imaginative Playstation strategy/shoot-'em-up Have A Nice Day, and the monstrous indulgence of 18-rated rock-music adventure game Sex, Drugs And Rock'n'Roll) both became casualties of the takeover of Warner Interactive by GT, and Sensible was forced to lay off two-thirds of its staff of 21 as all the money made in the previous 12 years was swallowed up by the huge costs involved in the latter game (which, shortly prior to its cancellation, was being slated to appear spread across no fewer than 16 CDs). Company founder Jon Hare recently announced that Sensible Software was up for sale, which seemed like the ideal opportunity to take a trip to the firm's HQ in leafy Saffron Walden and find out exactly what went wrong.
CTW: So, Jon - what the heck IS going on with Sensible Software?
JH: The situation is that in order to function profitably as a development company, you have to have a corporate outlook, and be cut-throat to survive. We're not prepared to do that, so someone else need to come in and do it for us.
CTW: Who's "us"? I heard [co-founder] Chris Yates had packed the whole thing in and scarpered.
JH: Chris has been back for 3 or 4 months. There was a period of about 6 months where he just wanted a break from it all. The product he was mostly working on [Have A Nice Day] got canned, so he left for a bit. I carried on myself for a while, but now he's back and we're running the company together again.
CTW: A couple of years ago, everything looked as rosy as rosy could be - you had three major products on the go, a multi-million pound contract with Warner, tons of cash in the bank from Sensi Soccer and Cannon Fodder, and you were taking on new staff every 20 minutes. Now the place is half-empty, the car park is haunted by the ghost of flashy sports cars past, and you're up for sale. Where did all the money go?
JH: We had a problem with Sex & Drugs & Rock'n'Roll, in that basically the payment was drying up, but we had to continue with the phenomenally expensive development of it while it was still supposedly a "go" project. GT, who'd bought Warner by then, had been giving us various hints that they weren't too sure about its contentious nature.
CTW: What, and they hadn't noticed it before then?
JH: Well, it was just one of the many concerns they took on board when they bought Warner Interactive, and a fairly small one at that. If there's any blame attached to them, it's only in not dealing with it quickly enough. We came up with an deal with them by which, for very different reasons, Have A Nice Day and Sex&Drugs came out of the agreement. Sex&Drugs especially was very expensive to develop. I wish we'd known a year beforehand - it cost a lot of money to keep it going for that year with basically nothing coming back in. I then spent three months seeing just about every publisher in the world, trying to re-sell Sex&Drugs, discovered that the whole market is incredibly conservative, that Britain is a small niche area, that Sex&Drugs is a peculiarly British kind of thing (and 18-certificate, which limited it even further)... that basically, our timing was very bad. We did have one company willing to take it on and publish it in Britain only, but they were only willing to pay us a third of the money it would have actually taken to finish it, so we just decided to drop it.
CTW: And you were surprised by all this? I mean, I saw the video demo of it that was going around, and the first thing you see is a naked guy nailed to a cross getting a blow-job while singing a rock song, and someone snorting cocaine in a toilet. And it's like, "They thought someone would buy this?"
JH: Well, you've got to remember, someone did. Warner bought it, Warner paid us for two years for it, it was only in the third year that the payment dried up. And of course, the 12 people working on it still needed to be paid.
CTW: I find it fairly staggering though, a big, for want of a better word, responsible, company like Warners not taking one look at the content of the game and going "Global market? No chance." What were they thinking of?
JH: Warner wanted to deal with us. It was a three-product deal, they wanted Sensi Soccer 98, we wanted to do Sex&Drugs, so there's a kind of trade-off there. We wanted to opportunity to do what anyone who's creative wants to do, which is do whatever the fuck you want, with no compromise. We've always done weird, off-the-wall stuff like Wizkid, and with the security of Sensi Soccer and Cannon Fodder behind us, this was a chance to really go for it. To Warners, I think Sex&Drugs was basically a price they were prepared to pay for getting the Sensi Soccer brand.
CTW: It would appear to have been "off-the-wall" more in the Humpty Dumpty sense, though.
JH: What annoys me about Sex&Drugs is that it was really good. Everyone we showed it to thought it was great, but everyone was too scared to publish it. It's more of a comment on the software industry, the retail industry, the political correctness which is destroying our society... it's weird - if you talk to retailers individually, they don't have a problem with it. But when you talk to them in a professional capacity, it's "We can't do that". It's a strange dual morality I don't really understand. You know, we put up with Songs Of Praise, we put up with politicians with weird, fucked-up ideas that directly affect all of our lives, yet apparently, society can't tolerate a fun video game that no-one has to play if they don't want to.
CTW: You must be pretty miffed about all this - it's all but crippled your company, hasn't it?
JH: Well, not really, no. I mean, we've dropped staffing levels a lot, but we're more profitable now, so that's okay.
CTW: Profitable? What are you making money from?
JH:Well, we're not losing as much as we were before...
CTW: Sex&Drugs and Have A Nice Day have been canned, Sensi 98 has come out now... unless there's something we don't know about, you're at least, what, 2 years away now from another product on the market. The coffers are empty as it is. How can Sensible survive?
JH: More versions of Sensible Soccer... It's just not worth producing original product any more. R&D is just so staggeringly expensive. I'd encourage anyone who's planning on setting up a development company just to do loads of derivative shit - it's cheaper to produce, and easier to sell. To succeed with original stuff, you've got to be good, and you've got to be lucky. Our luck has run out. We signed a multi-million pound deal with Warners for three products, but we've ended up losing money. It's crazy.
CTW: So do you regret leaving the familiar old ground of the Amiga for the brave new world of the PC?
JH: We avoided the PC for 10 years. Now we've started working with it, I know why we avoided it. It's an absolute piece of shit. We made the choice because the Playstation seemed to be such a restriced market, Sony seemed to want to stick their oar in everywhere, and the PC seemed to be a lot more free, which is the way we were used to working. The reality is, of course, no market is open. And that's not why I got into this business.
CTW: All of which put together, of course, seems to suggest that the smart move is just for Sensible to get the heck out. Why do you want to stay in this business at all?
JH: Well, we've got a contract... we've still got two more football games to produce for GT, and getting those done is a year off at least. Hopefully in the meantime, someone will come in and offer the resources to pursue what we want to do.
CTW: But surely even if anyone does come in, they're only, in the current climate, going to want to buy the safe stuff? They're not going to let you do what you want to do anyway, you're just going to be writing Sensible Soccer until you die.
JH: I don't mind doing Sensible Soccer, I like it. You can't expect to do off-the-wall stuff all the time and survive, there has to be a balance. At the moment, though, I think the market has to turn. What's happening now is that not only are original ideas being crushed, but you're losing lots of money at the same time. We can't take both those hits.
CTW: So what's to be done? If development isn't economically viable anymore - and it's an increasingly common complaint - how do you get the cost down?
JH: Sack your staff. Stop buying new equipment. Be pig-headed about what programmers can and can't have to work with. Hope the hardware companies stick with one format/specification for more than a couple of years at a time. It's the only way.
CTW: Has moving from the smaller indie-label sort of model you had at Renegade (who published your most successful games) to the corporate monster of GT been problematic? It always seemed an unlikely pairing.
JH: Basically, GT have been very patient with us, I'm pretty happy with how we've been treated. If I had to criticise them, it'd be because they don't move quickly, they don't look for problems in advance. It's important to companies like us - six months slipped by of indecision, during which time we had to pay a whole company's wages, and basically pissed a lot of mine and Chris Yates' own, personal money up against a wall, not Sensible's money but basically a lot of the money we've made ourselves in the last 10 years or so, which is obviously seriously distressing.
CTW: I can imagine. So what I'm trying to get at is, why are you still doing it? Effectively, you're paying GT to work for them. Why not get out while you've still got some money left?
JH: Because there's light at the end of the tunnel. We've got the first football game out, the second one isn't far away, the third one is a feasible task. Okay, we're not going to make money out of it, we're probably going to lose a bit, but less than we've lost already.
CTW: If the light at the end of the tunnel is "Losing less money than we've lost already", I'm not sure I understand the motivation.
JH: Well, you know, three years ago we were making stacks of money, it was amazing. This is just the flipside of that. We just have to get through it, and make sure it doesn't happen again. I think doing it properly now will serve us well in the future, I couldn't get out and feel good about it. I'm too paranoid, if I just abandoned it all, I'd be looking over my shoulder for lawsuits for the rest of my life. Creative ambition keeps you going forward.
CTW: But doesn't everything you're saying here suggest that you feel there's no room for creative ambition any more? Your big magnum opus, Sex&Drugs, has been killed off, where does that leave your creative ambition.
JH: Rather than having the inspiration, going "Yeah, let's do this", I just look at all the blocks and problems and think "It's just not worth the headache". For example, did you know we were having problems with Canon, the camera makers, over registering Cannon Fodder as a trademark? They've objected to our use of the word "Cannon" - ridiculous, isn't it? But that's the kind of thing you have to deal with - I've thought myself into a bit of a cul-de-sac about it, where it just doesn't seem to be worth doing anything creative any more.
CTW: Many outside observers are a bit baffled at the economic model of the current games business. Because although there's more money being generated than ever before, all you ever seem to see is everyone except EA posting big losses. When even the likes of Virgin, with things like the Command And Conquer brand on board, are flushing money down the toilet, you surely have to stop and have a bit of a rethink about how things are being done?
JH: The only solution is to wait for a lot of big companies to lose a fuck of a lot of money by producing so much repetitive trash that people can't stomach it any more. Unfortunately, a lot of punters are stupid, they don't realise it's regurgitated repetitive shit, because the they're new punters, they buy their machine, they get into it for a year, and they get out again.
CTW: But people like repetitive shit, don't they?
JH: Do they? New buyers do. The publishers are just relying on consumerism.
CTW: But the games market is now, arguably, more new-buyers-based than it ever has been, more mainstream and hence conservative than ever.
JH: Well then we're fucked, aren't we? Because we've never appealed to those people. We've just got to accept it, time to get out of computer games. But maybe the market will change. Maybe hardware will settle down. We've always peaked when a market has been established for a while, when people are looking for high-quality games.
It's all just a microcosm of the whole disaster of capitalism and the free-market economy, isn't it? What can we do? All we can do is stick to our principles and hope someone appreciates it. If not, you have to go and find a new market to do creative stuff in that isn't quite so full of shit. We used to make more money when it was less "businesslike", that's what really annoys me. And if you speak to some of the people who are at GT now, they did as well - it's madness the way things are being run. All these big companies have come in and said "You're just a little cottage industry, we're going to do things like a proper business now", and suddenly where there used to be profit, now we're losing a fortune. And at the same time, they've managed to create a culture where it's not worth trusting anyone or taking any risks /at all/ any more.
CTW: So you'd say the games industry is still being run, essentially, by people who don't know what they're doing?
JH: Yes, I'd say so. Lots of people thought they could run the games business like the record business, knock out a product in a few days, get it on the shelves and have it sell for years. They didn't understand how long development takes, didn't understand how technology changes all the time, didn't understand the incredibly limited shelf life, didn't understand the high skill levels required from all the staff involved and hence the high wages they'd have to be paid. It all adds up to an awful lot of money being spent on something that's incredibly speculative.
CTW: Is this all going to come to a head? Is there another great big crash on the way?
JH: There's got to be, it's inevitable. The money supply's got to dry up, and a lot of big players will fall. Out of that apocalypse, maybe you'll start to get some strong small companies coming through again. I think it's going to take about five years, for it to all fall apart and come back to any kind of shape again. I mean, as an outsider, it would distress me that someone in my position is this negative. I can't be the only person in this boat - Graftgold went over a few weeks ago, everyone is struggling. Small development companies are just unviable now. It's a big problem, and it needs to be sorted out. It needs the publishers to stand up to the big hardware companies and just say "Stop this." I don't know, maybe I'm just looking for a big "They" that doesn't exist, but it's just not working now.
CTW: So you get elected President of the video games industry tomorrow. What happens?
JH: You get all the hardware companies together, and you design a machine. We HAVE to head towards a single format, everything else in the world has a single format with multiple manufacturers. If Sony make the PS2 backwards-compatible, that'd be a good start, but we have to get completely away from the division of platforms. Even the PC and the PS have to essentially become one machine - you have to aim at a single box that plugs into any kind of display mechanism, and it you want to do business things on it you buy an add-on keyboard and so on, if you just want a games machine you just have the box and a joypad or whatever. I don't even want to differentiate between business and games machines, that's just splitting the market in two. You can watch TFI Friday and World In Action on the same TV, after all.
CTW: And what about the people who say "But the public demand this continuous high-paced technological advancement"?
JH: But they don't! They want better software, not better machines. That's what people want for their tellies, that's what they want for their videos, their CD players. They want a good machine, but once they've got one they're happy. It's only hardware manufacturers who profit out of the way things are just now. To be honest, if we were still working on the Spectrum, I'd be happier than with the situation we're in now. You'd have one machine, it'd be in millions and billions of homes, you could produce a good game, if it takes a long time you can just carry on and give it another year, because the format's still going to be there and as long as you produce quality you know it's going to sell loads, because the machine's in millions and billions of homes. What we've got now is a fractured market where you just can't afford to spend any time on anything.
CTW: Would that work? Isn't that what people thought about the Atari VCS before the big crash of the early 80s? Wouldn't the public be sick of the Spectrum by now?
JH: Well, fair enough, the Spectrum was too limited to sustain that length of life. But I don't hear anyone going around demanding a new format of television.. Even with all the new developments there, the software people, the programme makers, are still working for effectively the same medium. But this box I'm talking about, people could make all kinds of great add-on things for it, I don't have a problem with that, but the software would be written for the box itself, it'd still be essentially compatible.
CTW: Haven't you just described the PC, though?
JH: No, because the PC doesn't work. I'm talking about something stable... We're now within the bounds of possibility of a universal games machine. Until that happens, there's just no point in creative development. What really depresses me is the fact that we've had 10 hit games, and practically none of them are played any more, because the formats are dead. What's the point in making a classic game? There's zero point. "Classic" means timeless, in the games business, timeless is three years. Imagine if they'd changed the entire English language after Shakespeare finished "Hamlet". We've been lucky, because we've been able to finance ourselves with old money, but I'm sick of the state creative ambition's been left in, I'm sick that no-one seems to care. I might keep doing it, because I don't really know what else to do, but it'd be nice to be working in an environment which had some kind of hope, and the hope that used to exist has just gone. Right now, I feel like a gambler who's been at the roulette table for a long time and wants to get off, but isn't allowed to. But sooner or later I will. I'll make sure of it.