Where have all the Elixirs gone?

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Sad news this week: independent British developer Elixir shut its doors after a US publisher pulled the plug on a game they had been working on for two years because of 'the perceived high-risk profile of the endeavour'. As founder Demis Hassabis, for so long the hottest young thing in Britsoft, walked that long walk so many in the UK games industry tread nowadays, he might have chanced a glance at the two games that promised so much, but delivered so little: Republic and Evil Genius.

His last words smacked of a man disillusioned with the industry in which he tried to make a creative difference: "I'm very proud of what all the staff at Elixir have achieved and the games we produced. We gave it everything we had but ultimately it wasn't quite enough. It seems that today's games industry no longer has room for small independent developers wanting to work on innovative and original ideas. Perhaps there is no longer any need for them. However, this was the sole purpose of setting up Elixir and something we could never compromise on by going down the licensing route."

Depressing stuff - and Hassabis' comments very much reflect a general feeling amongst UK development at the moment. Can he be right? Is the independent developer, nearly thirty years after the game industry began, now extinct? The evidence says yes. A cursory glance at the charts shows a glut of franchise based sequels. Midnight Club 3: Dub Edition, FIFA Street, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Gran Turismo 4, Doom 3, even Lego Star Wars is based on one of the most milked franchises in game history.

Of course, none of this would be a problem if the current sequelitis that's infecting the global game industry produced stunning, high quality interactive experiences. Well, a little research debunks that theory too.

Compare Metacritic's list of top rated games releases since January 1 2005 . . .

  • 96: Resident Evil 4 (GC)
  • 95: God of War (PS2)
  • 94: Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Chaos Theory (XBX)
  • 92: Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Chaos Theory (PC)
  • 91: World Soccer Winning Eleven 8 International (PS2)
  • 91: Psychonauts (PC)
  • 91: Jade Empire (XBX)
  • 90: World Soccer Winning Eleven 8 International (XBX)
  • 90: Silent Hunter III (PC)
  • 89: Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (GameBoy Advance)
  • 89: World Soccer Winning Eleven 8 International (PC)
  • 89: NBA Street V3 (PS2)
  • 89: Tekken 5 (PS2)
  • 89: Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 (XBX)
  • 89: Gran Turismo 4 (PS2)
  • 89: Doom 3 (XBX)
  • 89: NBA Street V3 (XBX)
  • 89: WipEout Pure (PSP)

with the current UK top 20 from Charttrack . . .

  • 1: Midnight Club 3: Dub Edition
  • 2: Lego Star Wars
  • 3: Fifa Street
  • 4: Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Chaos Theory
  • 5: Gran Turismo 4
  • 6: Doom 3
  • 7: Jade Empire
  • 8: World Snooker Championship 2005
  • 9: Brothers In Arms: Road To Hill 30
  • 10: The Punisher
  • 11: World of Warcraft
  • 12: Super Mario 64 Ds
  • 13: The Simpsons: Hit and Run
  • 14: Predator: Concrete Jungle
  • 15: The Sims 2: University
  • 16: Robots
  • 17: Stronghold 2
  • 18: Full Spectrum Warrior
  • 19: Timesplitters: Future Perfect
  • 20: The Incredibles

... and list the matches. Well, there's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Jade Empire (although expect that to disappear from the charts fairly soon), Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30, Gran Turismo 4 and Doom 3. OK, there are flaws in this analysis. The list of rated games is global, so some, like Wipeout Pure on the PSP haven't even come out over here yet, but the overriding trend indicates that the best games aren't guaranteed to sell as well as the average ones (and, it would appear, no-one listens to reviews!). Just look at the success FIFA Street had in the UK, topping the chart for three weeks, despite poor reviews from almost every magazine and website.

This is why independent developers like Elixir, and innovative creative types like Demis Hassabis are out of work. Publishers don't see dollar signs in the best games, but the safest games. To address this balance a number of things needs to happen, but one of the most important is the game publishing industry putting some marketing clout behind original IP. I've seen countless television advertisements for Rockstar's Midnight Club 3: Dub Edition, but hardly anything for Resident Evil 4.

Constantly powering money into marketing established franchises in the hope they will somehow fund less lucrative independent innovations is a disingenuous policy. It cannot succeed. It's also damaging to the industry - when casual gamers buy a game they saw on TV and find it disappointing, will they come back for more? I challenge any first time game player to give Resident Evil 4 a weekend of their time and never get another game again. Can the same be said for FIFA Street?

Press the buzzer to reveal more of the picture

Sometimes I do despair, I really do. What's with the current fascination for leaked rendered jigsaw images of next-generation consoles? I just don't get it.

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This week, there were more careless whispers and revealing tit-bits than in a George Michael album sleeve. First we had the rendered shot of the Xbox 360 itself, showing it to be a white, hourglass-esque wireless wonder, then a pic of the console's Memory Card emerged, stirring up debate about the possibility of different skins for the console.

Then we had a leak from Major Nelson's Blog (Xbox Live Director of Programming Larry Hryb). I say a leak, but it was actually more of a spurt - he said he liked the XBOX 360s start up screen. Whoa. Then Microsoft's viral marketing website Ourcolony.net released some pretty pics of in-game shots behind letters. How cryptic. Then, at the last minute, web surfers found leaked news stating the Xbox 360 console logo will feature swirly green lines on a white background.

Hyperbole overload indeed. Viral marketing websites and leaks are designed for one thing: to increase excitement about a future product. With films, you get teaser trailers, with music, the single download, with books, extracts in newspapers. The games industry deems itself worthy enough to give gamers cryptic websites and rendered leaks. Aren't we blessed.

I tell you what gets me excited about gaming - demos, the real equivalent to teaser trailers. Next best is in-game footage. Give me five minutes of in-game footage, NOT CINEMATIC CUT-SCENES(!), of a next-gen title and I'll start to drool. Leaked shots of new consoles? Meh. When I get the thing, I'm not going to be sitting there for hours admiring the aerodynamic design, and how it compliments the wonderfully eclectic dècor I've spent years honing. No, I'll be playing a bloody game on it.

Remember, remember the first of September

On Tuesday we learnt that Sony will be delivering truckloads of shiny new PSPs to neglected European gamers for a September 1st launch. Put aside £179 for the Value Pack, as well a bit more for the inevitable games binge.

Sony umd consoles handheld

But the overriding question is: are we bothered? Most hardcore gamers will have imported one by now, a result of Sony's shameful tardiness. To make a point, we will see the handheld over five months after the US, and a whopping eight-and-a-half months after Japan. It's just not good enough.

I know Sony isn't relying on the hardcore market to fulfil sales targets for the machine in Europe. The point here is that hype started a year ago. We've seen technical features about the PSP, reviews of games, hardware guides and other pieces of standard journalism in the UK specialist and mainstream press. They're all cogs in the hype machine. When it starts to wheel again this summer, will anybody hear it?

The kid done good

All stand in respect: Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo legend of 55 years, announced this week that he will step down from the company's board of directors at the age of 77. Yamauchi-san, who is in fact the great grandson of Nintendo founder Fusajiro Yamauchi, succeeded his grandfather Sekiryo in 1949 and transformed the company from a successful Japanese playing card specialist into a global videogame conglomerate.

Although he resigned as president three years ago to make way for Satoru Iwata's tenure, his involvement with Nintendo remained. He reportedly had a hand in the design and concept of the Nintendo DS and the company's decision to invest in the animated movie business.

Nintendo

What most will remember him for, however, are his aggressive and often baffling public comments about his competitors and his own colleagues. Perhaps an early clue into his future behaviour was when he insisted his own cousin be fired before taking over the company at the tender age of 22. He then axed every manager Nintendo had.

As with most post-World War II Japanese directors, Yamauchi implemented a Western-style manufacturing method and negotiated Nintendo's first licensing deal with Walt Disney. He then started selling Nintendo playing cards in toy and department stores, a distribution infrastructure that would prove priceless after the company's move into electronic entertainment.

It was Yamauchi who created Nintendo's research and development department, which would spawn the light-gun games they released in the 70s. Their success, coupled with the Pong phenomenon, convinced Hiroshi that videogames were the company's future. In 1977 he took a chance on a fresh-faced industrial design graduate called Shigeru and, as they say, the rest is history...

This week's new releases

This week doesn't see any blockbuster releases, but there are a number of titles that might be worth picking up. PC owners have the choice of the no monthly fee online RPG Guild Wars, Cold Fear, and RTS Sequel Empire Earth II. PlayStation 2 owners can dabble in some bike simulation action with TT Superbikes or check out Haunting Ground, Capcom's latest horror title. Xbox and GameCube owners aren't quite as lucky, with only the mediocre Close Combat: First to Fight and Spikeout for Xbox owners, and the disappointing StarFox: Assault for Cube owners.

  • Close Combat: First to Fight (PC, Xbox)
  • Guild Wars (PC)
  • Cold Fear (PC)
  • Empire Earth II (PC)
  • Haunting Ground (PS2)
  • Spikeout: Battle Street (Xbox)
  • Sprint Car Challenge (PS2)
  • StarFox: Assault (Cube)
  • TT Superbikes (PS2)