THE VIEW FROM EUROPE
Some of your favorite games may be European. If not now, then tomorrow. Entertainment software is an increasingly global business. That's nowhere more evident than in Europe, where dynamic continental and United Kingdom markets are spawning games for both domestic consumption and export.
Simon Treasure, general secretary of the European Leisure Software Publishers Association, sees the growth of European software as inevitable.
"I don't think manufacturers are any longer concerned about domestic penetration of any one country," Treasure says, "They regard Europe as a whole. Obviously, with the arrival of a more integrated European market in 1992, this becomes even more essential."
There are economic factors as well. "The cost of developing a major product today is so large that it cannot possibly be recouped in a single country. The game has to sell across Europe at the least, and, if possible, be licensed into America, just as American companies such as MicroProse, Electronic Arts, and Activision have large European operations."
Powering the expansion is the current generation of 16-bit computers, led by the Amiga, the Atari ST, and upper-end PCs. This is new, especially in the United Kingdom, which early on embraced 8-bit, cassette-driven computers such as the Commodore 64 and gave little sign of being willing to give up the machines.
The European 8-bit market was a frenetic environment. With games priced at just a few pounds—less than $5, U.S.—new games had to sell tens of thousands of copies to turn a profit. Shelf life for a game could be as brief as a couple of weeks, after which new products were tossed into the fray.
The shift to 16-bit products has come rapidly, but the leading European companies have prepared for it.
"Companies like Psygnosis, Mirror-soft, and others made decisions to invest heavily in the 16-bit market. And it's starting to pay off handsomely."
Among the other advantages of 16-bit products is the higher price point the games bear—£15 or so, or $25 and up, in line with American prices—and a longer shelf life.
Which machines are leading the 16-bit revolution? "The Atari ST obviously has much greater potential in Europe than in the States. The Amiga has been equally successful. On the software side, Amiga and ST software are of great importance to all U.K. and European publishers." The past year, Treasure points out, has seen a surge in the popularity of 16-bit MS-DOS machines, led by Amstrad.
As in North America, the transition to 16-bit machines has brought with it a new, more sophisticated type of game. "Arcades were by far the most popular 8-bit games," Treasure says, "Sixteen-bit is a lot more pure, as far as game design goes. Simulations, flight simulations, and role-playing games are all finding great success."
The new machines are bringing in a new audience as well. "Historically, the 8-bit gaming audience was composed of boys from 10 to about 16. They played computer games until they outgrew them and moved on to other interests. We're finding a more mature audience for 16-bit games."
One thing from which European developers have been largely spared is the Nintendo boom, which has wreaked more than a little havoc on American software publishers. "Essentially, volume sales, in the United Kingdom at least, have been based on 8-bit software that costs from $3 to $15. At that price point, Nintendo can't compete. It's led them to hold back from this market."
Having anticipated the 16-bit market, what lies ahead for European software publishers? Treasure sees both opportunity and risk. As computer entertainment becomes more widespread, he feels, the industry will attract the attention of mainstream entertainment producers. This trend will be hastened by the arrival of new technologies such as CD-ROM, which will permit both the development of even more complex entertainments and the extension of the entertainment-software audience to a broader consumer base.
"Already we're seeing major developers and publishers investing in research into new technologies," Treasure says. "As companies like Sony and Philips arrive at standards for the new technologies, you'll see a real explosion of growth among the software developers who have come up from the 8-bit world. It's the beginning of the future, really."
That future will, perhaps inevitably, include the major entertainment producers. "I think you'll see companies like Time-Warner, Columbia, and others investing in our industry, acquiring software houses the way they've acquired movie studios, record companies, and book publishers."
Will that signal the end of the independent software industry? Not at all. "There will always be room for people who are faster and fleeter of foot," Simon Treasure observes.