The first time I noticed the name “International Hobo” was in a session on game design at GDC a few years back by Ernest Adams. At the bottom of the final slide of his presentation, I spotted the mysterious organization’s blue insignia. I have to admit I was drawn in by the name alone. Who is this hobo, I wondered, and why does he have his own logo?
With the judicious use of Google, I soon discovered International Hobo is a consortium of creative videogame professionals that provide consulting and contract work to companies around the world. And much to my chagrin, I realized I had already met another member of International Hobo through the IGDA. His name is Chris Bateman, and at the time he was Chair of the Writing Special Interest Group, where I was an active volunteer.
That was years ago. Time has rolled on, and many things have changed. Bateman is still active in the IGDA, but mostly on the diversity committee these days. International Hobo’s headquarters moved from the U.K. to the U.S. and back to the U.K. again. And, as Bateman likes to remind people, they recently completed their original 10-year business plan – not exactly a common occurrence in the videogame world. So they must be doing something right. I tracked Bateman down to gain some insight into their success.
“We’re like the A-Team of videogames, I suppose,” says Bateman, referring to the way they keep a stable of highly-qualified contractors available for quick deployment on projects where they best fit. Bateman says International Hobo (or “ihobo” for short) has people with “skills in game design, narrative design and dialogue scripting helping developers and publishers whenever they need it, and occasionally working on projects of our own devising. We’ve worked on more than two dozen published videogame titles across all platforms, and dozens more that never saw the light of day.”
I had to ask: Why base the company out of Manchester, England? “Blame my wife,” said Bateman. “She didn’t want to live in London again! But that’s only part of the story, I suppose … Manchester had a lot of advantages: We had friends there, it has a major international airport and it was – past tense – the center of a thriving videogame development community. It was somewhere that offered a lot of clients on our doorstep, with London and Europe within easy reach.”
Sounds great. But what’s that “past tense” bit about? Bateman explains: “We have some of the best game developers in the world operating in the U.K., but I must say, until recently the government has done very little to capitalize on all of the home-grown talent. They have largely sat back and watched as some of our most talented developers have gone under, and the successful companies like DMA Design (now Rockstar North) have been bought up by foreign capital. While the powers that be were trying to prop up a flailing British movie industry, one of the most successful videogame industries in the world was falling apart.
“To be sure, the developers that have survived the rough times are great companies,” he continues. “Ian Baverstock of Kuju, one of the two largest independent developers in the U.K., pretty much predicted what was coming in the first issue of Develop. He warned those companies that weren’t shaping up to the new commercial climate that the writing was on the wall, and he was right. Less than 10 years after his pronouncement of doom, more than two-thirds of the British developers are gone.
“Those that have survived have done so because of canny business development rather than working on ‘wow’ titles,” Bateman says. “Not that the big titles aren’t coming from the U.K. – I mean, all those hugely successful Grand Theft Auto games are made up in Edinburgh. The MotorStorm games were made in Liverpool. And LittleBigPlanet was made in Guildford – but the last 10 years have felt something like an extinction event for the British videogames industry. As the dust settles, I hope we can say it has made us stronger.”
This all sounds a bit dire. With companies failing left and right in the States, what can the U.S. game industry learn from the U.K. game industry, and vice versa?
Bateman gave it some thought. “The most important lesson U.S. developers can learn from what happened here in the U.K. is that if you can’t pay your employees, it’s over. Accepting a little unglamorous work on TV or film adaptations may not seem appealing to hotshot new developers, but those are the projects that pay the bread and butter. Work on your magnum opus when you have the money to do so – you need to keep an eye on how to pay the salaries of your employees, or your masterpiece game will never get made.
“As for what the U.K. can learn from the U.S. … well, watch the casual games market closely. All the big names in casual games are on that side of the Atlantic – many of them (like PopCap and Big Fish) in Seattle. These companies are making money from small games that can be developed on just a little time and money – they aren’t anywhere near as vulnerable as those companies that have all their eggs in one basket, although the casual space may be getting dangerously over-competed now. British developers have come to depend upon the console titles for cash flow, but a lot of them are realizing that the expansion of the audience for games has brought new revenue models. If there’s one thing to learn from the videogames industry in the States, it’s that there’s money to be made in making more forgiving games.”
Bateman advocates taking a big-picture approach to game design and the game industry as a whole. He calls it “zen game design.” It was featured in the book he wrote with fellow International Hobo Richard Boon, 21st Century Game Design.
“The idea behind this [philosophy] is that there is no single way to design videogames – no right way, and no wrong way,” Bateman says. “But there are still methods, and the more you learn about those methods – and even more importantly, the more you learn about the diverse people who play and enjoy videogames – the better equipped you are to make games.”
Not everyone agrees on this point, and Bateman knows it. “I think some hardcore gamers are suspicious of International Hobo’s agenda when they hear us talking about making more accessible and forgiving games for the mass market, or designing games to appeal to many different kinds of players,” he says. “There’s a knee-jerk reaction that says ‘you must make the game according to your vision, never for commercial reasons’ – this idea that a good game is a good game, and every allowance made is a betrayal of ‘gamer culture.’ I respect that point of view for someone making a non-commercial project, but for those of us making a living from making videogames I feel it is irresponsible not to understand the wider audience. Your company’s livelihood depends upon making games that people want to play.
“We’re not saying that all games should be all things for all people – that would be nonsense – but we are saying that it’s worth taking the time to understand what players really want, all players, not just those gamer hobbyists who spend the most time and money playing games (and who are over-represented inside developers and publishers). The hobbyists will always find companies willing to make the games they want to play, but the market for videogames already contains a huge diversity of players, many of which are currently not well served by many of the games being made. If our job is to make videogames, our duty is to make the games that people want to play – and that involves more than just making the games that we ourselves want to play.”
International Hobo has made plenty of waves over the years, and you can’t do that without encountering some skepticism. “We come in peace!” Bateman says with a laugh. “Seriously, as a consultancy, we like to think of ourselves as being on everyone’s side, but some of the things I’ve written may seem to be overly critical of certain companies. I may criticize Electronic Arts, Sony or Microsoft from time to time for some of the things they do, but I have enormous respect for these publishers. I criticize out of my respect for their achievements, in the same way I am more forgiving of student projects because they reflect a talent that is just emerging, and that I believe should be encouraged. A successful company warrants a more critical eye.”
So where does the A-Team of videogames go from here? “One thing I’d like to do is set up or ally with some small development studios, where we can experiment with quick, short games,” said Bateman. “The upper market games – those that end up on the PS3 and the Xbox 360 – require such a huge volume of resources to develop that it’s actually quite difficult to innovate on such a project. Publishers understandably want to play it safe with the big investments, and so you can maybe sneak in a few good ideas, but for the most part it’s an uphill battle to innovate on games of that scale. I’m weighing up our options for this sort of future step, but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t one or more developers under the ihobo umbrella by 2020.”
Wendy Despain heartily endorses Bateman’s books on game design and has a new book of her own on the shelves (which she edited and wrote one chapter for) called Writing for Video Game Genres: From FPS to RPG. Look for it on Amazon.com.