Exclusive interview, Philip Oliver of Blitz Games Studios

I have known Philip (and his twin brother Andrew) for over 20 years now. We worked together when they wrote Sinclair Spectrum games for Codemasters, including the phenomenally successful Dizzy series. At Blitz  they have succeeded where so very many have failed, in the massively difficult and complex job of independent game development. Not only do they make games, they are also active at the very sharp end of technology with projects like their own development software and their current work in 3D gaming.

Philip is incredibly enthusiastic about video gaming, it is something he lives and breathes. He does so with knowledge and sincerity that have made him widely respected throughout the industry.

Firstly, to give the readers some context, how about a very brief potted history of Blitz Games Studios?

PO: Blitz Games Studios is one of the world’s largest independent videogames developers. Andrew and I established the company in 1990 and the studio now employs 230 people; last year’s turnover was more than £10m. We work both on a commissioned basis and develop our own IP games. (Fuller details on the website).

Politicians and journalists cannot seem to see past the issue of violence in video games, what do you think of this obsession?

PO: I really think this has now changed, over the last year, and helped by the Games Up? campaign, attitudes are definitely shifting. It’s very interesting that when GTA 4 launched there was practically no negative press and no adverse political comment. I think we’ve won the argument that games cover all ages and genres, just as with films and books. The Byron Report also proved how responsible we are as an industry, and in fact this has led to the approval of the self-regulatory PEGI system, which is a huge win for the industry.

Over the last few years the UK video game industry has slipped from third in the world to fifth or sixth. Is it possible to stop this downwards slide and if so how?

PO: Well, it depends on when and how you measure it. The main reason for the slippage is the huge investment by countries such as Canada into game development, via their tax breaks and salary subsidies (which can be up to 45%) – it’s absolutely not the case that Britain is becoming worse at developing games. And certainly it’s possible to halt it, I’ve been in discussion with various government people about various tax break systems for some time now (see below).

Within a year we will have a new government. Do you expect this to have much effect on how our industry is treated in Westminster?

PO: I believe the spread of support is pretty even across the political spectrum – look at the recent formation of the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Computer and Video Games Industry with cross-party support from 22 members of both the House of Commons and the Lords. I think everyone now appreciates that the games industry is part of mainstream entertainment and should be a thriving example of British creativity and entrepreneurship.

What are the best decisions that politicians could make for the health future of Blitz Games Studios and your contribution to the economy and to employment?

PO: We feel we’re a global industry competing on an uneven playing field. We’d like our government to make moves in the same direction as Canada, South Korea and Australia, to offer financial incentives. For example, ensuring that R&D tax credits are fit for purpose for knowledge-based industries, but let’s not stop there – they could offer tax credits for companies who invest time and effort in supporting schools, colleges and universities to improve their courses and make business engagement really rewarding for the students and industry. Blitz does a lot with universities already, but we can’t afford to engage directly with schools and we’d very much like to be able to, as I know would other developers. Another hugely useful direction would be to improve the information and access to support for industry internal training – we’re always needing to learn new skills at a faster rate than many industries and currently the support is aimed at much lower skill levels.

We have two trade organisations, ELSPA and TIGA, would we be better served if they amalgamated so the industry could speak with one voice?

PO: It’s an interesting idea. Historically, ELSPA has spoken for the publishing side of the business and TIGA for the development side, but as we go into the digital future, the line is likely to become increasingly blurred. It’s worth noting that TIGA represents UK owned business whereas ELSPA is almost wholly representing UK subsidiaries of international publishers. However, they are very good at working together for the benefit of the whole industry. It’s also worth noting that other industries have more than one trade body – I believe engineering has over 20 – and competition helps to keep everyone’s game up. Another thing to bear in mind is that if you do have more than one voice speaking for an industry, when they’re speaking in unison you find that people really start to listen!

Arts have the Arts Council, Film the Film Council and Music the Music Council. Why don’t we have a Games Council for promoting video gaming in the UK?

PO: Actually the Shadow Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has already proposed such an idea and yes, we would warmly welcome it and we’re keen to be involved.

The video games industry and the country as a whole are desperately short of the right type of graduates. Physics and maths especially. Do you have any suggestions for fixing this?

PO:  Higher per student subsidies in specialist areas where the UK industry as a whole identifies skills shortages would really help, especially if it was backed up with a plan to ensure that teachers in STEM subjects were highly qualified and rewarded for turning to teaching – all the way from primary schools to universities.

I’d also like to see a higher per student subsidy offered to universities for Skillset-accredited courses; this would underline that accreditation really means something, and would help budding game developers decide on the right courses.

Lastly, I feel really strongly about this, programming and other ‘under the hood’ areas of interest need to be reintroduced into the curriculum at a much earlier age. You could start it off with problem-solving at primary school; but I think the real issue is expanding and developing the ICT curriculum, which currently turns a lot of students off. If you could include simple game development in there it could really inspire young people and give them a great grounding for future careers – as you say, it’s not just the games industry that needs programmers, after all!

What percentage of the video games courses run by UK universities are pretty much a waste of time?

PO: There are a huge number of courses out there – 330 at both university and college level, according to UCAS – and some are good, some are average, some are very poor. We want all of them to up their game, and one way of doing this is for all of them to work towards Skillset accreditation. We support Skillset wholeheartedly, and just the process of trying to get accredited will teach the currently less valuable courses a great deal about what they should be teaching and how. It’s also worth noting that accreditation is a very useful internal lever for courses if they’re trying to get better equipment or better funding from their administration.

Do you think that there is a legal or legislative answer to game piracy, or will we be best served using technology and adapting our business models?

PO: Tricky question. Solving piracy by technical means is within our power, as has been proved by current digital download technology, and certainly I think we’ll all need to adapt our business models to new challenges. Legislatively though, one thing that strikes me is that the government could look into the legal loophole around the ‘back-up device’ – you know, where any technology that allows copying can be deemed a ‘back-up device’ and is therefore allowed. No-one wants to limit genuine use but where it’s being blatantly exploited, perhaps the loophole could be closed, allowing the industry and the police to better enforce it. Obviously piracy is a global phenomenon so any one country’s law has a limited remit, but there’s something to be said for leading by example.

We are at long last seeing a rapid increase in the use of video gaming in education. From Brain Age to Moodle. Where do you see this going?

PO: I think the single most revolutionary change recently in education is the introduction of digital whiteboards into classrooms – they are fantastic, it’s making an enormous difference to the ways in which teachers can engage and deliver their content. We’d love to see many more applications in the classroom and believe this will happen. We hope to be part of making it happen!

And finally, do you find this industry so much fun that you don’t need a hobby?

PO: I wouldn’t do anything else. I love the industry, I love the fact that our games are played by so many different people – but it does keep me too busy for a hobby!

6 comments ↓

#1 Interested on 08.04.09 at 4:34 pm

“We have two trade organisations, ELSPA and TIGA, would we be better served if they amalgamated so the industry could speak with one voice?”

I think the answer to this question shows that Oliver actually ISN’T in favour of there being one single organisation. It’s a shame, because I think one could work really well. Could this opposition be because Oliver is on the TIGA board?

#2 Peter St. John on 08.04.09 at 6:47 pm

“Actually the Shadow Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has already proposed such an idea and yes, we would warmly welcome it and we’re keen to be involved.”

Although that’s a bit different from what he said on here last week – I guess Philip talked to him before the ‘no new quangos’ edict came down from Mr. Cameron…

#3 name on 08.05.09 at 11:34 am

no companys making or publishing games?
takes hudge breath.
rockstar.
bethesda.
ubisoft.
insomniac.
quantic dream.
gurrila games.
THQ
activision
EA
zipper interactive.
slant 6
teamco.
capcom.
epic.
ID relms.
VALVE.
blizzard.
team ninja.
2K.
sony game studios.
MS game studios.
Square Enix.
eat sleep play (david jaffes team)
CRYTEK.
free radical.
SUCKER PUNCH.
NAUGHTY DOG.
raven software.
infinaty ward.
treyarch.
Eidos.
KONAMI.
nah theres not many developers or publishers at all.
rolls eyes.
i hate it when CEOs try to make the games industry look like a slow hard industry to make money because thats a load of BS, activision are rolling in the money now.
and will be even more so once MW2 comes out.

#4 BC on 08.06.09 at 8:33 am

I didn’t like how you lead questions with your own opinions.

“WHEN the new government comes in”

“would we be better served if they amalgamated so the industry could speak with one voice?”

It’s a bit naughty. If you’re interviewing you should make some steps to sound impartial in the questions so we get honest answers.

#5 Crux on 08.08.09 at 7:22 am

@Name, I saw nothing in there saying anything about a lack of publishers or developers, so what are you going on about?

and

@BC how is a definitive ‘when’ not impartial?

Great interview

#6 DMK on 11.12.09 at 11:39 am

Interesting interview. The piracy point is fascinating, technically the protection exists but getting Publishers and Developers to use it? That is the issue.
There is one NDS game that has been protected for over a month, proving this can be done but few publishers want to pay anything for the technology.

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