Cambridge Focus: A lesson in resilience

Cambridge Focus: A lesson in resilience
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

January 26th 2012 at 10:30AM

[In association with Jagex] We ask studio heads in the region how it is facing new challenges

The UK industry has been through tough times over the last few years, with many studios going out of existence or packing up and leaving for better tax incentives aboard.

The development and technology sector in Cambridge however has, for the most part, bucked the nationa­­l trend, and has continued to grow whilst other regions
have failed.

Jagex, one of the UK’s biggest development outfits, has just moved into a larger building (Pictured above), to house its 400 plus strong work force, with plans to continue growing.

Frontier Developments meanwhile also staffs 210 employees, making them two of the largest independent studios in the country.

A booming industry

As well as a number of start-ups, big technology companies and game developers in the area such as Microsoft Research, Geomerics and Ninja Theory, Cambridge accounts for more than ten per cent of the country’s industry workforce.

Mike Ball, co-founder of Devil May Cry developer Ninja Theory, which has 101 employees, says: “The games industry in Cambridge has certainly broadened over the past few years as new devices and platforms have come to market.

“The larger studios in the area have continued to grow and explore those new opportunities, whilst a wealth of small indie developers have sprung up all over the place.

"While many areas of the country have seen independent developers struggling in the harsh financial climate, Cambridge developers have weathered the storm well.”

The technology hub now also has a robust and diverse mix of companies, and as well as different sized development studios.

There are middleware providers such as Geomerics, QA specialists Universally Speaking, Microsoft Research Cambridge, which was responsible for the development of the Kinect, and Google acquired voice technology firm Phonetic Arts amongst many others.

Geomerics sales VP Rob Precious says: “Cambridge has a very diverse mix of technology companies related to the game development space.

“And as a direct consequence of the large, major developers and student communities located here, a vibrant indie community of new entrepreneurs has emerged, taking advantage of the new routes to market.”

Underlying troubles

Despite such a plethora of companies, Universally Speaking’s localisation manager Loreto Sanz Fueyo believes that the region lacks a sense of community that many development hubs such as Dundee and those in Canada thrive on.

“We need to develop more of a community sense and leave aside individualistic approaches in order to present Cambridge as a more united games hub, rather than a collection of individual hi-tech companies,” says Fueyo.

The local industry has also had to deal with the same well documented troubles that the rest of the country and the world has suffered from over the last few years, with problems such as finding experienced talent and the UK’s distinct lack of development tax breaks and incentives offered by the government.

Jagex CEO Mark Gerhard says that whilst the studio has just expanded, moved into a new office and is having huge success with its RuneScape franchise, things definitely haven’t been easy.

“The reality is the UK games industry is not in a good place, and that’s a shame. We would far prefer 20 equal sized competitors, as it raises our game, than simply be the UK’s largest indie developer and publisher.

“This is a function of a number of things. Some people lost touch with the platforms and where players were actually at. Others focused on the wrong stuff; whilst others achieved a scale that was unsustainable."

He adds: “It has been a tough year for Jagex, probably our toughest in history, and you can look at that two ways.

"You can be fatalistic about it or you can say we’ve all got to step up and do double just to stand still.”

Ball says that it is essential that the UK government allow the development industry to continue to compete against other countries receiving support.

He states that it needs to encourage more export trade in the current financial climate, as the games industry is one that generates export and is very beneficial to the UK economy.

Gerhard explains that although Cambridge is a fantastic area due to its open landscape and availability of talent, there have been pressures to move abroad, especially after such a difficult year.

“The reality is when we’re looking at new developments, we have pressure,” he admits.

“We haven’t succumbed to them yet, but we have pressure to do things in a different way, to outsource, to do it in different countries and even move the whole company to another country with a better tax regime.

“I think its fair to say UK games developers are by default at a disadvantage. That’s a hard fact by comparison to America, Canada, France or anywhere else.

"And if they’re serious about this staying a centre of excellence, not just Cambridge but the UK, that has to be fixed, and hopefully soon before someone turns the lights out on the games industry.”

Success through innovation

Ball says that to overcome the challenges facing the region, local studios need to innovate to stay ahead of competitors, rather than churning out games based on tried and tested formulas that get lost in the sea of available titles.

Although he admits this must come at a balance and not at the cost of the company’s future.

“It’s one of the biggest things that attracts people to Ninja Theory. Risk has to be balanced with a healthy dose of quality too,” he says.

“There are a lot of people out there right now who are taking big risks and throwing cheap product at the wall to see what sticks. We simply can’t compete with that development approach.”

Sony development director at Cambridge James Shepherd also explains that developing new ideas is extremely important to stand out, and that as part of Sony, their brief is to support the PlayStation family, stating: “This means that innovation is key for us in everything we do”.

Gerhard agrees that it is imperativ­­e for Cambridge studios to take creative risks, believing that with staying inventive and moving with the industry, developers can avoid the mistakes of the past and from falling behind their competitors.

“Innovation and agility is core to our survival strategy. Our philosophy has always been that we remain a moving target. That comes with risk as it means you sometimes go into an area that you have absolutely no expertise about,” he explains.

“The right thing to do is to innovate. But how do you have the bravery to say ‘we totally believe in the new idea’ to gamble on it, and risk the existing subscriber base that props up the business.

“The reality is those are either brave decisions to take or foolhardy ones, and time will measure you accordingly. But that’s really it for Jagex.

"By keeping the smalls studios and keeping it indie and entrepreneurial, great ideas are coming up from the developers, and we’re saying to them ‘go for it’, rather than being top down and perhaps being less relevant.”

Frontier chairman David Braben, however, says that he isn’t sure the burden should fall on just Cambridge, but feels that “the biggest rewards come when you innovate whilst delivering quality, which is what we strive to do.”

Pushing technology

Taking development risks is not the only important area studios should focus on. Precious says Cambridge provides an ideal environment for companies like Geomerics for R&D intensive industries, which he believes is the key area studios must concentrate on and put more effort into as a region to stay competitive.

“Incentive to invest in R&D is already available but not heavily promoted or taken up. More prominent and persuasive encouragement is needed in this area,” claims Precious.

“Certainly at Geomerics we take this extremely seriously and continuous R&D is how we keep ourselves ahead of the competition.

"This commitment to staying at the bleeding edge of technology has ensured that we are relevant for such cutting-edge studios as EA DICE to use in titles like Battlefield.

“Investing in R&D is always a risk, but it is one we are always willing to take.”

Whilst taking risks and innovating to stay ahead of a global industry is one potential solution to keep the local industry thriving, it is also important for studios to work with the local academic institutions to train talent and turn them into the experienced professionals the industry currently lacks.

Lacking education

Despite having a famous reputation as a distinguished university town, with the University of Cambridge up there with the best in the world, many studio developers claim that there are not enough games related courses in the area.

In fact, whilst the University does teach computer science, which many developers such as David Braben have stated as their preference for students to study, it does not teach any courses specifically tailored to games development.

Although another higher education institute, Anglia Ruskin University, does run undergraduate programs in computer gaming technology and interactive games design, many developers at the local studios believe much more needs to be done to truly take advantage of the large potential talent pool the town offers.

Universally Speaking’s Fueyo says: “At the moment there are just a handful of universities that offer games development programs or that even have modules on game development on their degrees.

“This number of courses must increase to drive up the quality of the courses through competition. At the same time, an increase in the number of courses would enable specialisation within those programs.”

Despite this, Ball claims that Cambridge University excels at many of the traditional courses it offers, such as computer science, engineering, maths and physics.

“Graduates leaving these courses are easily able to get up to speed with the requirements needed for games development and hence they become really strong members of the team.”

Braben feels the same, stating that he is “definitely happy” with the contribution of local academic institutions in providing top quality graduates.

“We have a really good track record of employing graduates and giving them the right individual mix of support and responsibility, and that has forged good links with Cambridge University and Anglia Ruskin,” he says.

In-house training

But with the lack of game specific courses in the university town, and the perceived lack of quality in those programs across most of the country, many of the studios in Cambridge have taken it upon themselves to train up young graduates, where perhaps other companies may not have found this financially viable.

“I think what we find in Cambridge specifically is there’s more of us taking the long view,” says Gerhard.

“We’re hiring in IQ and teaching them everything. We know that the people we’re hiring today really only become our rockstars in three or four years time at the earliest. For most other companies that’s just uneconomical.”

Geomerics takes this philosophy a step further, and Precious says that whilst universities provide an excellent education to students and a great recruiting ground for them, it should not be down to these institutions to train industry specialists.

“We do not believe it is their responsibility to train people in the specialist techniques used in the games industry,” he states.

“We prefer to recruit bright, well-rounded problem solvers with good coding skills. It is our job to train them in the specialist field of games development.”

He goes on to explain, though, that with the help of local organisations such as Games Eden, the business network for the games industry in Cambridge, the studio is working with universities to design courses with the right kind of training.

“We are working with the universities to design the courses and work experience necessary to produce appropriate and production ready talent for the games industry,” he explains.

“We are of course not totally happy with where we are currently but it is going in the right direction and will continue to improve as all the Games Eden member companies put more time and resource into developing our links with academia.”

Games Eden chair Jeremy Cooke says that through its work and the backing of local studios, the Cambridge University Computer Lab and Engineering department are increasingly open to the advances of the local industry, but warns that “prising the doors open further still requires work”.

A bright future

Despite the lack of game-specific related courses in the area and the various challenges facing Cambridge and the global industry, local studios are extremely positive about the future of the resilient town.

“There are certainly challenges ahead, but that is nothing new,” says Shepherd.

“The industry has grown locally through some pretty tough times so I see no reason why it cannot continue to do so.”

Ninja Theory’s Ball concludes: “The industry will continue to increase in Cambridge because, simply put, it’s a great place to develop games.

"There are already many successful developers in the area that work on very disparate projects. Whatever a developer is looking for, good opportunities exist here.”

It seems clear then, if local studios continue to take risks and innovate with new IP, content and technology, for which the town is famous for, a bright future lies ahead for this booming development hub, and one the rest of the UK would do well to learn from.