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Pushing Buttons: With creative developers shutting everywhere, the future of games looks bleaker and more boring
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Pushing Buttons: With creative developers shutting everywhere, the future of games looks bleaker and more boring

Last month the games company Take-Two Interactive announced it would reduce its global staff by 5%, laying off 580 people to reduce costs. It was one of many such announcements in 2024, but this case is especially egregious because Take-Two ownsRockstar Games, which publishes Grand Theft Auto, AKA the most successful game in the history of the world, and is definitely not short of profits. Last week, Bloomberg (£) reported on internal documentation showing the likely victims of these cuts: studios Intercept Games in Seattle and Roll7 in London are set to close. Both are part of Private Division, the giant publisher’s indie game label.

I spent some time with Intercept’s Kerbal Space Program 2 last year, when they were gearing up to launch. This exceptionally nerdy game about getting tiny green astronauts into space, which hews so closely to the real life physics of space flight that it inspired a generation of engineering students, has had a troubled time. It had been through a studio closure and a change of developer already, and its early-access launch did not exactly go without a hitch (Rock Paper Shotgun called it a “hot mess”). Kerbal Space Program 2 deserves a chance to turn things around, but it is understandable why its developer ended up on the block.

Roll7, meanwhile, was only acquired by Take-Two in 2021, and has released two successful and critically acclaimed games since. OlliOlli World is a fantastic, stylish cartoon skateboarding game with oodles of personality. And the similarly slick-looking Rollerdrome (pictured below), an arena deathmatch game on rollerskates, won a Bafta last year for best British game. Roll7 has a 15-year history of interesting and – crucially! – profitable games, most based on interesting and original ideas: Not a Hero was a 2D cover shooter where you were sent out to assassinate criminals by a purple bunny; Laser League was an arena combat-sports game inspired by Tron.

Every studio closure is a tragedy for the people affected, but this one feels personally gutting. I’ve played Roll7’s games for more than a decade, starting with the superbly intricate 2D skateboarding game OlliOlli, which obsessed me on my PlayStation Vita for most of 2014 – and they are really good. OlliOlli World (pictured above) is tremendous. I’ve also met (and interviewed) several of the people at Roll7 over the years, and it was a developer with a unique creative culture. It absolutely sucks to lose a studio like this. But it’s also such an insulting rug pull for a studio that, until a few years ago, was getting by as an independent outfit.

Rollerdrome.View image in fullscreen

When Eurogamer interviewed the studio’s leadership shortly after the 2K acquisition, co-founder John Ribbins seemed palpably relieved to have been acquired by a big publisher, because he thought it came with a certain level of safety. This news is an unwelcome reminder that there is no such thing as safety in the games industry, even if your studio is successful by any measure, making acclaimed and successful award-winning games. Most of the world’s big publishers now operate on an extreme “go big or go home” basis that leaves no room for anything that isn’t grotesquely profitable. When even a studio like Roll7 can’t count on the support of a company like Take-Two, can anyone?

Take-Two still hasn’t officially confirmed the closure, though. “On April 16th, Take-Two announced a cost reduction program to identify efficiencies across its business and to enhance the Company’s margin profile, while still investing for growth,” reads its statement. “As part of these efforts, the Company is rationalising its pipeline and eliminating several projects in development and streamlining its organisational structure, which will eliminate headcount and reduce future hiring needs. The Company is not providing additional details on this program.”

The kind of games and studios that are being “rationalised” out of existence here are exactly the kind that we need in 2024: smaller, creatively interesting games that offer alternatives to the increasingly homogeneous gaming behemoths that have been hoovering up money for more than 10 years. Roll7’s releases are exactly the kinds of games that should form part of an artistically as well as monetarily valuable portfolio for a publisher such as Take-Two.

Grand Theft Auto prints money, and the publisher’s executives take home tens of millions every year. Is it actually true now that such a publisher can’t support smaller games, too – even if they win awards and turn a profit? What is the point of having an “indie” publishing label if you’re simply going to buy good studios and shut them down after barely two years?

This is another cautionary tale about the vandalism that gaming’s biggest corporations can enact on the studios they acquire, and I feel as incensed by it as I did by Microsoft’s closure of Lionhead in 2016. As this newsletter went to press, IGN reported the equally devastating news that Microsoft is to shutter Tango Gameworks, makers of the brilliant and interesting Hi-Fi Rush and unique Japanese ghost story Ghostwire Tokyo, along with Arkane Austin – whose latest game, Redfall, was a flop, but which previously had a hand in some of the most critically acclaimed games of the last generation.

Gigantic, samey games played by tens of millions of people should not be the entire future of video games. Creative developers deserve better than this, and so do we.

What to play

A screengrab of pixel horror game Crow Country.View image in fullscreen

Styled like a lost PlayStation 1 classic, Crow Country is a horror adventure game in which you explore an abandoned theme park full of mutated … guests, and it is really creepy, right down to the lo-fi rattling and squelching and creaking of all the old attractions. Even without all the mutants, this theme park itself is horrible! Why would anyone have come here?

I particularly admire the dedication to the mid-90s low-poly fuzzy-around-the-edges look, which recalls the best of this era of horror games without the endless loading times, annoying controls and inventory management. If you like the sound of this game’s premise but are, like me, a total coward, I have good news: you can play the game in a mode with no enemies, so you can solve the puzzles and soak up the horrible ambience without the constant threat.

Available on: PC, PlayStation 5
Estimated playtime: Less than five hours

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What to read

Helldivers 2.View image in fullscreen
  • PlayStation has had an unpleasant week. After its breakout hit Helldivers 2 (above) sold millions on PC, the company demanded that PC players sign up for a PlayStation Network account in order to continue playing. This resulted in a player revolt, the game being removed from sale in 177 countries where PSN is not operational, more than 100,000 negative Steam reviews and, eventually, an ignominious climbdown. “We’re still learning what is best for PC players,” read Sony’s statement. That much is blindingly obvious.

  • The bigger Florida version of the Universal Studios Nintendo theme park is shaping up pretty well. That Donkey Kong-themed Mine Cart rollercoaster looks just the right amount of terrifying.

  • In more “big publishers are terrible at fostering creativity” news, a video from DidYouKnowGaming’s Liam Robertson (via Kotaku) lays out how US studio Vicarious Visions was ultimately prevented from working on a whole bunch of interesting projects, from a Donkey Kong 3D platformer to more remasters of the Tony Hawk skateboarding games, in favour of … yet more Call of Duty.

What to click

  • Another Crab’s Treasure: this indie hit has clawed its way into my subconscious | Sarah Maria Griffin

  • Stop trying to turn Dungeons & Dragons into a Marvel-esque cash cow – it won’t work | Ed Power

  • Sea of Thieves on PlayStation 5 review – you’ll laugh, you’ll sail, you’ll drink grog until you’re sick

  • ‘Like taking a shovel to your brain’: dark fairytale game Indika takes aim at the Russian Orthodox church

Question Block

A Highland Song video game screenshot.View image in fullscreen

Reader Ben provides this week’s excellent question:

“I am increasingly frustrated by big games such as Assassin’s Creed, which attempt to capture the ‘feel’ of a place but become a mass repetitive swathe. By contrast, I was amazed how Untitled Goose Game captures an esoteric British village perfectly, with no speaking characters and relatively simple shapes. Can you recommend any other games that faithfully represent regions on a small-scale?”

Alba: A Wildlife Adventure is one of these for me (with the important caveat that I have never been to Valencia, where it is set). It portrays a small island community and the people, birds, colours and geography of the place feel so intimate and believable. A Highland Song, meanwhile, depicts a place with which I am intimately familiar: the mountains and austere coast of Scotland. Its perfect light and rough brushstrokes communicate the unforgiving beauty of my home country so gorgeously. And there’s the Yakuza/Like a Dragon series, whose perfect re-creations of Japanese cities heave with life.

I’d love to hear from readers on this one: what games set in real places have done a great job of conjuring their spirit? If you’ve got a recommendation, a question for Question Block, or anything else to say about the newsletter, hit reply or email me at [email protected].

Source: theguardian.com