Page last updated at 11:57 GMT, Friday, 24 October 2008 12:57 UK

Game on for British developers

By Darren Waters
Technology editor, BBC News

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LittleBigPlanet developers' Alex Evans and Kengo Kurimoto give a tour around the game

British game developers have long been among the most influential and creative talents working in the global games industry.

Games on home computers of the early 1980s were pioneered by British game writers such as Ian Bell, David Braben, Matthew Smith, Chris Yates, Jon Hare, Andrew Braybrook, and the Darling brothers, Richard and David.

Two decades later and despite the transformation from cottage industry to global entertainment powerhouse, British talent is still setting the pace.

From the multi-million selling Grand Theft Auto series made by scores of developers in Scotland to the auteur efforts of talents like Jeff Minter, the UK's tradition in video games is unparalleled.

And in the next two weeks the gaze of gamers around the world will not just be fixed on the UK in general, but on the small town of Guildford in particular, thanks to Fable II, from Lionhead Studios, and LittleBigPlanet, from Media Molecule both of which have been developed in the town.

They are very different games. One is a role playing game predicated on making moral choices, while the other is a platform game hoping to redefine user-generated content.

They have a lot in common; they were developed at studios a few miles apart, both are flagship titles for their respective consoles, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, both are particularly British and yet universal in their appeal.

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Lionhead Studios head Peter Molyneux launches Fable II

The developers of the two titles used to work closely together: The founding talents at Media Molecule, Alex Evans, Mark Healey, Dave Smith, and Kareem Ettouney used to work for Peter Molyneux, the director at Lionhead.

Mr Molyneux, one of the games industry's most respected figures, said: "I feel so proud of what they have done, which is phenomenal.

"They have started a company from scratch with one of the most amazing and creative ideas that this industry has ever seen and come out with a huge success.

Lacking a platform-defining game, LittleBigPlanet has been tipped as the title to drive sales of the PS3 this Christmas.

From the moment it was first demoed at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco in 2007 its ambition to turn ordinary players into game makers has captured the imagination of many.

Talented town

The offices of Media Molecule site above a bathroom showroom close to Guildford station.

It is an unlikely location for a company which carries much of the weight of the PlayStation 3 on its shoulders.

The game should already now be in the hands of players around the world. But in the reception of Media Molecule six bottles of champagne and a clutch of cigars wrapped in a red ribbon remain in a glass cabinet.

The discovery of a background song set to words from the Koran in the game led to a global recall of disks that were sitting in shops around the world waiting for launch day.

The delay is only short and when gamers do get their hands on LBP, Media Molecule hope it will spark a creative revolution.

Screenshot from Warhammer, EA
Warhammer: Age of Reckoning is based on a world developed in the UK

Alex Evans, technical director at the firm, said: "The game has been designed around three ideas: Play, Create and Share. You can play the Game as a platform game using the levels we have made.

"But you're tempted all the time to create. Every level that we create in play is actually inspiration for you to create."

LBP players "earn" decorations, stickers, costumes, toys and contraptions which can all be used to build new levels for the game, using tools that are both simple and deep.

"What the internet and PlayStation Network has brought to the equation is that you can then publish all of your creations. With a single click on the controller you can share your creations with thousands, potentially hundreds of thousands of other gamers."

Every time LittleBigPlanet is fired up new levels built by the community will be ready to play.

Alex Evans said soon after releasing the LBP beta it was stumbling across the first user-created levels that were better than the ones designed by the professionals.

LittleBigPlanet has big potential. Right now it is just a game but the firm, with Sony, are in talks to turn it into a franchise that could mean spin offs including comics, cartoons, and action figures as well as a publishing platform itself for other brands' content.

Box art for GTA IV, Rock Star
UK game developer Rock Star is behind the hit GTA series

Evans says: "There's been a lot of being in the right place at the right time. When we went to Sony we were a tiny but very experienced team. Sony had to trust in us in terms of the quality of people.

"It was amazing how much they understood what was a new concept; it was quite blue sky."

Even before the game has hit the shops, the team are already at work on a sequel.

A short taxi ride across Guildford to the grander Research Park finds Lionhead studios.

Here, the champagne is being wheeled into the offices, ready for a celebration to mark the launch of the game, and for the early review scores which are very positive.

Despite this, Peter Molyneux says he is unsatisfied. "I am never happy," he says.

"When you are making a game, you have to be ambitious and push yourself into places which are slightly uncomfortable."

Fable II carries great expectations, in part because the original game failed to match its stated ambitions. It sold in the millions but Molyneux has always regretted over-promising and under-delivering.

Fable II is a bold attempt to tell an engrossing tale, and give the player a deep experience but in a way that creates as few obstacles as possible.

"Normally computer games give you an experience which is one quest after another. With Fable II we've tried to give you a world in which you can be whatever you like. And the world adapts to how you change; which is pretty unique."

British flair

Kind, cruel, good, evil, generous, parsimonious; the choice is up to the player. You can also fall in love, have children, get divorced, be the hero, be the villain.

And this open-ended nature is wrapped up in a story and experience that is distinctly British.

"It is quintessentially British. It's set in Britain, or in Albion as it is called. All the accents are English and it has an irreverent sense of humour.

"That's a breath of fresh air. A lot of our entertainment is centred around America and it's nice to poke a bit of British-ness into that."

Despite the high-profile launches of LBP and Fable II all is not well in the British games industry.

A recent report from the Creative Industries Observatory reported that the games industry in the UK was on a "downward trajectory".

It said: "The UK government needs to consider a tax relief scheme which will encourage the best of the UK's development talent to stay, and in turn reverse the downward trajectory of the industry today. "

That call for government help is being led by Tiga, which represents large parts of the industry.

Media Molecule and Lionhead are among the fortunate few. Media Molecule has the support of Sony, while Lionhead is owned by Microsoft.

Fortunes can change, of course, but for the time being the champagne is either flowing freely or being chilled for opening next month.

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