Cash Channel: Channel 4 Commisions Brit-Indies

By Kieron Gillen on September 7th, 2009 at 9:20 pm.

Sometimes, the future creeps up when we’re not looking. Part of me wonders whether this will be part of it. Channel 4, after some impressive successes with webgames like the Bafta Award Winning Bow Street Runner and the Tim Stone admiration winning 1066 have decided to spend a load more on making games, reports Develop. Key quote…

The move is part of a £4.5m fund – half of which is finding its way to UK independent companies such as Tuna Technologies, Beatnik Games, Zombie Cow Studios, Six to Start, Preloaded and Littleloud to fund projects up to £800,000 in size.

Go read the rest of the interview with Alice Taylor to see the full story. Some thoughts and noting of conflict of interest follow…

Developers talk about alternative funding models for games a lot. Well, this is an interesting one, innit? We’ve talked about advertising supported games, but avoiding doing it yourself and others commissioning you with an eye with making the money off the advertising back end. It’s how brodcast has always worked and – frankly – a small indie game is cheap compared to television. Jonathan Blow uses $200,000 as the amount he took to develop Braid, which caused people to raise their eyebrows. Compared to television, that’s pretty small fry and a web game audience can be enormous. And webgames sophistication are rising all the time. I’d recommend you have a look at the several year old Bow Street Runner to see what you can do when you throw a budget at a flashgame. As far as I’m concerned, that’s aesthetically at least on par with pretty much any adventure game that’s been doing the rounds.

(Hell, with someone like Zombie Cow, the punk rock aesthetics were at least part of the point. But wonder what they could do with even a little bit more of a budget…)

I’ve mentioned this above, but worth noting the conflict of interest. I’m writing a game for Brighton’s Littleloud – the developers of the aforementioned Bow Street Runner – with a civil liberties theme. That said, this is the first I heard about the full range of what Channel 4 was up to – though I had a few hints when talking to Indie Devs in the pub last week. I’m just interested what this turns up. It’s a fascinating opportunity.

It also makes me think off at a different angle. Everyone’s been talking about episodic games for most of the 00s. In fact, we’ve reached the point where people have started talking about why episodic games haven’t took off. Well, a theory struck me. Periodic entertainment… well, look where it’s really taken off. It’s television. The idea of a (primarily) advertising supported game development, creating smaller chunks of entertainment for a wider audience… well, that makes sense to me. Bow Street Runner was a short series of 20-minute adventure games. Microadventures, and aimed and conceived as that. It makes almost too much sense for the episodic model to be approached from a different direction from traditional games development – because for its entire history trad games development’s natural urge has to be expand rather than contract. And, fundamentally, since the games are free, treating them as a tiny episodic experiences allows you to sidestep the expectations of the mainstream industry.

Sorry. This is flying off in different directions, which should give you an idea of how ripe with possibility this is. Does this excite or worry you? What do you think will happen? Is this a small passing innovation or the start of something a lot more commissioning agencies are going to pursue (i.e. Commissioning something more than just a junk webgame)? Broadcast!

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25 Comments »

  1. MrBejeebus says:

    This sounds great for the independant dev’s, but doesn’t it kind of defeat the point indie, when you’re investing £800,000 into a game is it indie?

    Unless its helping give those dev’s a boost to move them up, which is fine :)

  2. Dracko says:

    I thought Introversion were benefiting from this as well? Did I get my wires crossed?

  3. RagingLion says:

    So Channel are starting to put money back into games are they? My question is whether Introversion’s exciting-sounding Chronometer project could be put back on the drawing board again. Sounded like Channel 4 pulled back after having received the pre-production document because of the economic downturn. Introversion might not want to do it anyway at the moment, though funding’s always good.

    In general this sounds really cool, though I’m not familiar with all of those developers referred to.

  4. CMaster says:

    @Dracko – you talking about Chronometer? According to a post by one of the introversion guys a whileback, Channel 4 didn’t have the funding to push ahead with it beyond the trial stage as a result of the credit crunch at the time, and IV are well, struggling to get even one game out the door at the moment.

  5. Garg says:

    Everyone knows Tim Stone’s admiration is a far more admirable award then some BAFTA.

    I read a PCG article on this recently and it said they were looking at only doing games with an educational remit. The interview being with the C4 education commisioner suggests that still is. Will that always be the case? Or is it really that it will only have to have an ever so slight educational merit just to justify the funding as long as it’s a potentially (commercially) promising game? I think this will become really interesting when someone like C4 does something like this except drops all the educational constraints and just goes for it.

  6. Metal_Circus says:

    If their games are anything like the utterly dire shit they’ve been beaming across the nation on TV then you can count me out.

    Also unsure weather financing indie games is a good thing. Part of the enjoyment (for me) of playing indie games is that they’re not like mainstream games, and they’re delightful. By being financed by big companies doesn’t that mean indie devs run the risk of becoming just like those they saught out to be different from? It also, technically, means they’re not acctually “independant” anymore but hey, maybe i’m nitpicking.

  7. We Fly Spitfires says:

    It sounds exciting but I wonder how far £800k can really take a game. Still, better than nothing and it’s enough for companies to get their foot in the door. Good on Channel 4!

  8. Vandelay says:

    Just played the first two episodes of Bow Street Runner, and must say I am quite impressed with it. Couple of annoying problems with it (such as not being able to view the evidence again before presenting it and only giving descriptions such as “letter” and “scrap” to determine whether it is the correct piece of evidence), but considering it is a free game made in conjunction with a TV show, I’m very impressed with the effort put into it. @Garg: If Bow Street Runners is anything to go by, the educational aspect won’t be too heavy handed. In the case of BSR, they say it is simply authentic in its depiction of mid-18th century London, but it doesn’t really have much more educational merit than that (and the abundance of prostitutes [every female character I've met] in the first two episodes would also suggest they haven’t gone too far down the authentic route.)

    I don’t think there is any problem with indie developers getting a little bit of money to help them improve their games. Adding a little bit more polish to some of the indie games would make a world of difference to them and would certainly make them more appealing to some who may shy away from something that has a fiddly interface or some such other problems.

    Also, I think Kieron makes an interesting point on the episodic games. I think taking a TV route and making an episodic game that is funded by advertising could be an interesting idea. The only thing I would be skeptical about is whether advertising revenue would be enough to fund a (decent) game and make a profit. BSR isn’t a particular good example of this, as it is advertising itself (for the TV show City of Vice that was on a while back.)

    The only example of such things I can think of are flash game websites, but I assume you are thinking of something a bit closer to what we would expect from retail games.

  9. Vandelay says:

    Forgot to mention that the extra money for indie developers is a fine as long as Channel 4 keep there hands out of the actual game. Being a company that has zero experience in the field of making games, I would have thought a hands off approach would be more likely.

  10. Kieron Gillen says:

    Worth noting that they say up to 800,000. That’s the maximum project size. I dare say most will be considerably beneath it.

    KG

  11. Gap Gen says:

    “I read a PCG article on this recently and it said they were looking at only doing games with an educational remit.”

    So, uh, Sex Education Clown spin-off?

  12. Dracko says:

    CMaster: Aw man, that’s awful news.

    I just want to see what becomes of Subversion, really. I don’t believe they’ve said much at all about Chronometer.

  13. Robin says:

    I’ve been following the Cletus Clay guys (TunaSnax) on twitter for ages (and WoS before that I think?), and am glad they’re (presumably) getting something out of this. Ditto Zombie Cow, Beatnik and LittleLoud (even though their Watchmen game was a bit cack ;) ).

    ARGs are creatively bankrupt novelty marketing campaigns and not games, and it’s a shame C4 are taking such an agonisingly long time to figure this out while wasting money earmarked for games on them.

    The thing about console digital distribution being “gated communities” (sic) (presumably meaning “walled gardens”) is puzzling as well. An (up-to-)£800,000 budget should be enough to tackle the most stringent QA, localisation and technical requirements. If Frontier Developments and Zoonami can do it a huge national broadcaster should be able to as well.

    I’d be more interested if Channel 4 were putting money into games Film Four-style without educational strings attached, but I guess the rest of the their organisation is trapped even further in the passive media past than the education department.

    Man, that was such backhanded praise I was practically using my elbow.

  14. mister_d says:

    There is a lot of potential for web-based, ad supported, games. There hasn’t really been many (if any) truly stand out titles yet though. The main reason being that very few of the developers are approaching projects as developing a great game based on a great idea. Instead they’re looking at it from a more business perspective of maximising the audience so they can earn money. That’s the natural approach with ad-supported media though, more so than it is with media that is paid for by the consumers. Big audiences are required to make advertising work even half as well as selling a product.
    Look at the US TV market and the types of programs you see on networks vs. cable. Shows produced for cable tend to survive with the initial artistic vision intact — very little “junk”. Whereas shows produced for networks are either diluted visions and full of concessions or are designed from the beginning to capture a mass audience — highly likely to be “junk”. Cable channels are only able to do that because they are subscriber based.
    There are exceptions of course. It’s possible for network shows to have a mass audience and not be steaming piles of turd or half-assed. It requires the creative folks to learn to game the system, attracting a mass audience, hooking them, and then getting on with doing the awesome stuff they intended when they conceived the show.
    For ad supported web-games to really be anything other than junk they need to either be part subscriber based (unlikely) or find the right balance between trash and panache.

  15. realmenhuntinpacks says:

    Hard to see how this is not, on balance, a Good Thing.

  16. Pijama says:

    For a moment I thought they were purchasing Bermuda for game development.

  17. Hi!! says:

    Cool to see Tuna Technologies is still around. They did Xtreme Racing for the Amiga. I loved that one.

  18. TeeJay says:

    Purely as a consumer, breaking a game into episodes lessens its appeal to me. The last decade has seen me less and less likely to patiently wait around and watch a TV show at a set time each week. I am happy to accept advertising in return for choice and content (eg Spotify adverts).

    Obviously if an episodic advert-supported model benefits developers then this would in turn mean more/better games for me, but another ‘problem’ is the risk of losing my attention if there is too long between ‘episodes’, if the gap is irregular or if I am not confident that the story will in fact continue rather than being cancelled.

  19. GriddleOctopus says:

    If they say “up to £800,000″ then at least one game must be reaching that target – otherwise they’d be saying “up to…” something else.

  20. Cooper says:

    Intoversion were mentioning getting Chrono-whateveritwascalled funded by C4, wonder what happened with that?

  21. The Hammer says:

    “Hell, with someone like Zombie Cow, the punk rock aesthetics were at least part of the point. But wonder what they could do with even a little bit more of a budget…”

    Well, Channel 4 has always aimed to be the edgy station, which can still be seen as a Public Service. I think it’s partly why they’re ditching Big Brother – because it has totally changed their identity. I mean, when the C4 boss said the move was for “creative reasons”, that’s classic of the channel, whether bullshit or not.

    I’m happy to hear this news. Out of the commercial stations, C4 is the one I have the most time for. And the Flash Games they’ve already “made” have been pretty good – Bow Street Runner is a lot of impressive fun.

  22. The Sombrero Kid says:

    this is nothing more or less than a symptom of the decline of broadcast television, companies like channel 4 and itv are desperately haemorrhaging money and are are looking around to see were it’s all going and how they can get in on those markets.

  23. Alice says:

    Maybe I can help clarify some stuff here…

    Channel 4′s remit has always been to identify and support indie talent. In the past this has been mostly limited to television, and then film: these days it covers the internet too.

    100% of C4′s output is created by indies. There’s no inhouse content team (save for making adverts and promotional material). The creative budget goes out to creative indies, and for what it’s worth, the definition of British indie is, “are you based in the UK? Are you independently owned?”. Then the “indie” aesthetic usually is a byproduct of a) size and b) creative freedom.

    The corporate motto is “inspire change, do it first, cause trouble”. It’s a good one to work from.

    It’s worth checking out 4iP too (http://www.4ip.org.uk): they too are investing in games, with a public service angle rather than only educational.

    HTH somewhat..

    A.

  24. Alice says:

    p.s. K: hilarious graphic ;-)

  25. Kieron Gillen says:

    I’m a design genius.

    KG

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