Video game BAFTAs spotlight UK’s thriving independent scene

Britain’s 2023 BAFTA Games Awards this week showcased independent video games studios, celebrating the powerful role of lesser-known creators in an industry where blockbuster titles enjoy vast budgets.

Video game gongs were announced Thursday, one month after the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) annual cinema awards.

“Vampire Survivors”, conceived by a single London-based Italian, clinched game of the year with its polished minimalist retro graphics and addictive overhead gameplay.

The shoot-em-up, which does not contain vampires, beat big-budget quest titles “Elden Ring” and “God of War: Ragnarok”, both of which took legions of people years to create.

– ‘Don’t need AAA’ –
“We don’t need to be AAA,” Sam McGarry, one of the developers behind “Vampire Survivors”, told AFP at the annual London Games Festival where fans meet the industry’s movers and shakers.

AAA refers to big-budget, high-profile games that are usually produced by large publishers.

The Briton decided one year ago to quit his job as a web developer to join the small team writing the hit game.

Some blockbuster video games can enjoy budgets running into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Yet technological advances and freely available software tools means minor players can give them a run for their money.

“The introduction of new tools has allowed people to develop games for free — now, anybody can do it,” said publishing director Simon Byron at Bristol-based Yogscast, which publishes independent games and also produces related video content.

– ‘We have to innovate’ –
Jay Armstrong, British design director of BAFTA-nominated quest game “Cult of the Lamb”, stressed that innovation was key when faced with big-spending titans of the sector.

“We can’t compete on graphics or budget (so) we have to innovate a little,” Armstrong told AFP on the sidelines of the London Games Festival that runs to April 8.

As he spoke, fascinated gaming fans were captivated by a big screen depicting a basic animation of a lamb presiding over the sacrifice of another small animal as satanic symbols float by.

“You play as a possessed lamb that runs around the world indoctrinating cute little creatures into their cult so they can sacrifice them,” explained Armstrong, whose studio Massive Monster has ten staff and is mainly UK based.

– London hub –
London is among cities that boast the most video game developing talent with “over 700 studios” due to its vibrant indie scene, according to festival director Michael French.

Scotland’s capital Edinburgh is home to Rockstar North, the division of US group Take-Two behind the top-selling “Grand Theft Auto” series — whose fifth instalment has sold more than 175 million copies worldwide and generated billions of dollars.

The UK competes with Germany for the title of top video games marketplace in Europe, but globally it still trails the United States and Japan.

Britain’s video games market grew strongly last year to contribute a total of £5.26 billion ($6.5 billion) to the economy, according to trade body Ukie.

Some studios had feared that Brexit would discourage European workers from flocking to Britain and hurt the industry.

French conceded Britain’s exit from the European Union at the start of 2021 did pose an “obstacle” — but added that “people always want to join studios” to make video games.

– ‘Babysitting in space’ –
The BAFTA for best British video game meanwhile showcased UK titles including role-playing adventure “Citizen Sleeper”, designed by Gareth Damian Martin.

Big gaming productions “cost so much money”, according to Martin.

“But players want new experiences — which is not really about technological power any more, it’s not really about manpower. It’s really about the stories we’re telling,” they added.

The game has relatively static graphics and lots of text because this is “the most powerful low-cost material you can use in a game”.

The game features a main character who struggles to escape a corporate existence on a space station in a dystopian future — a concept that would be difficult to sell to video game giants and thrives instead in the independent scene.

“It would be extremely hard to go to Ubisoft and pitch them this game and say: ok, I want a 1,000 developers, I want $200 million to make a story about babysitting your friends’ kid in space, or about working in a bar. I don’t think it would happen,” said Martin.

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