Page last updated at 12:37 GMT, Thursday, 9 April 2009 13:37 UK

Inside Games: Codemasters

By Daniel Emery
Technology reporter, BBC News


Codemasters' David Brickley explains what a video game executive producer actually does.

The games industry employs a diverse range of people in a number of different roles.

Over the next few months, BBC News is going to profile a range of jobs in the industry, as well as the firms themselves; talking to the people who actually do the work as they tell us what exactly they do.

The current economic crisis knows no boundaries. Across the country, property prices are falling, firms are laying people off and - for now - there are still no signs of any green shoots of recovery.

Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the market town of Leamington Spa, 25 miles south-east of Birmingham.

As a publisher, you need to stay focused as to what you actually are.
Gavin Cheshire

Two years ago, Leamington Spa had property prices on a par with London, high employment and a bright future. Today, that future is not quite so bright. Companies have been tightening their belts, property prices are in freefall, and car firms such as Ford and Land Rover have been laying people off.

But amid the gloom, there is one firm that is still doing rather well: jump in a taxi outside the station and the first thing they ask is if you are going to visit Codemasters.

History lesson

Founded in 1985 by two brothers - Richard and David Darling - the firm started off developing games for the ZX Spectrum. It was not long before they expanded to include the BBC Micro, Commodore 64, Amiga and Atari ST.

The firm's first major success was in 1991 with the release of Micro Machines, the toy car racer that had miniature motors racing across a kitchen table.

In fact, racing has been one of Codemasters' fortes, releasing numerous driving titles for the Colin McRae Rally and TOCA Touring Cars series.

Micro Machines
Micro Machines had players racing tiny cars round a kitchen table

Today, the firm employs nearly 500 people in the UK and has a turnover measured in millions. However, in 2005, the Darling brothers sold their stake to a venture-capital fund.

Codemasters general manager of development - Gavin Cheshire - said that while the firm has changed radically in 20 years, the public's perception of the games industry as a whole had not.

"Games are one of the biggest pieces of the global entertainment industries today, but it's always been seen as geeks in their back bedrooms writing games," he said.

"Not any more, today it is multi-million pound budgets for games that even eclipse some films."

Two hats

Codemasters is unusual in that it is both a games developer and games publisher (many of which are from third party development studios). The only other big British firm in this position is Eidos, whose financial situation is very different.

In 2007, Eidos posted losses of £81.4m and while the firm has managed to cut its operating loss to under £10m, the company is about to be taken over by the Japanese publisher Square Enix.

Colin McRae Rally 2005
The Colin McRae series has been running for more than a decade

Mr Cheshire said the two firms had a very different business model.

"As a publisher, you need to stay focused as to what you actually are. Eidos from the very conception, had one big game - Tomb Raider - and they milked that very well, but with the exception of the Champ Manager series, they had very little else.

"Codemasters have never had that one exceptional brand, like Tomb Raider, we've had lots of very good sustaining brands.

"The trouble is, if you get one of those big brands wrong, and if that's all you've got on your roster for the year, then you tank very successfully. And with Tomb Raider they got it very wrong for the past few years."

Economic climate change

With the global economy on the brink of meltdown, there has been much speculation on what that will mean to the games industry.

Mr Cheshire sounded a positive note, saying that when times were lean, families fell back on cheaper ways of entertaining themselves.

"The games industry still provides a really useful service, because they are a way to save some money but still entertain yourself," he said.

The games industry also faces a more serious, longer term problem.

Dizzy screen shot
The Dizzy series were some of Codemasters' earliest releases

In March 2009, the games industry body - Tiga - said that without urgent help, the UK risked slipping from being the third-largest game developing nation to the fifth.

The report said tax breaks and access to well-trained staff, as well as extra finance, was needed to address the "severe competitive disadvantage" to foreign rivals.

Mr Cheshire said he agreed - in part - with Tiga but said there were other ways the government could help.

"I think the government does a fair amount to help. And while UK publishers are few and far between, there are still a lot of developers out there.

"Could the government do more, such as giving tax breaks? Of course they could. But as a taxpayer, do I think my money should be spent that way?"

"We should be a profitable industry in its own right. In fact, every industry should stand on its own two feet, because it's healthy," he said.

"What is wrong is the way other countries do things to make it easier to set up in their territory. That unevens the playing field and that is something the government could focus on."

The future

Codemasters say that how consumers will get games will change over the next few years. It cites iTunes as an example of a digital download success story, but stress' that - for now - the retail channel would exist.

Bafta statue
Codemasters won "Best Sports Game" Bafta in 2009

Publishers were keen on digital downloading for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it takes some of the "risk" out of publishing games: producing CDs, manuals, boxes and estimating how many they will sell in retail is always a gamble.

Software piracy, especially for PC games, is also a major issue. The Steam digital delivery system pioneered by US developer Valve, appears to have - for now - been fairly hack proof.

A more contentious reason is "resale". Codemasters say that a games publisher got nothing from someone selling on a game, and with many games being sold two, three, or four times, that was a significant revenue stream games developers (but not retail outlets) were missing out on.

Mr Cheshire said that Codemasters had played its part in shaping the games industry over the past three decades.

"The games we've produced, with the advent of more advanced technology, have turned this into a multi-billion dollar industry.

"We're still sitting quite well in that industry and we're still proudly flying the Union Jack."

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