The UK isn’t what it used to be within the games industry. It may not be a popular thing to say and it’s no doubt heavily influenced by trademark grumpiness and cynicism (we are British journalists after all), but looking back at how the UK games industry has changed over the last few decades, it’s also hard to deny that it's a story of changing, arguably declining fortunes.
As a nation, the UK was once perched uncomfortably on the cutting edge of both the games and computer hardware business. Companies such as Sinclair Research, Amstrad and Acorn Computers were once at the very forefront of home computer design, while games from developers such as Bullfrog, Sensible Software and Psygnosis topped the charts.
Nowadays though, you’re more likely to find hardware purveyors based out of Tokyo, Taipei or Cupertino than Essex or, heaven forbid, Milton Keynes. Ignoring the changes that are gradually pushing gaming towards consoles (or arguably not), it’s difficult to ignore that the corporations which now dominate the games industry are Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony.
Hello, old friends!
It’s not just happened in hardware either. Game developers and publishers in the UK have been in equal decline since the 70s and while the UK may have been largely unaffected by the Atari Debacle of 1983, the era of the bedroom coder is still long since over. Aside from a few notable exceptions (which we’ll explore in due course), the big developers of the modern age are similarly to be found in America, Japan or Canada. Companies such as Infinity Ward, Bioware, id Software and Bethesda regularly dominate the sales chart. All of them are based out of the US and while there are still plenty of notable, big developers based in the UK (Creative Assembly, Rocksteady, Rockstar, Sony's UK studios) practically all of them are owned by overseas interests (Sega, Warner Bros, Take-Two, and Sony respectively).
Publishers too are more commonly found abroad than within the borders of the perpetually overcast UK. Big, British publishers like Ocean and Eidos have been sold to Japanese and American concerns like Microsoft or Square Enix and key talent is slowly being siphoned off to studios based out of Montreal or certain US states where there are tax incentives to encourage growth.
All of this isn’t that important. All that really matters is that good games continue to get made somewhere in the world and that we get to play them, not whether they were developed in London or Luxemburg. Still, it seems a shame that the UK has lost its position as a centre for original games and that the combo of good design and questionable humour which hallmarked the age of the bedroom coder is now lost in an endless parade of WWII shooters starring chisel-jawed British heroes with confusingly American accents.
So, what happened exactly? How did the home of the games industry emigrate without our noticing and what does the future hold for the UK? Over the coming week we’ll be running a week of content that tries to answer and explore these questions. For now, flip the page and we’ll start trying to chart how Great Britain fell from being the home of the home computer to the hovel of just a handful of hold-outs.