Highland games: Is Scotland the next Finland?

Highland games: Is Scotland the next Finland?
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

March 24th 2014 at 3:17PM

Kicking off a week of special features looking at games development in Scotland, we find out why the nation attracts so much talent

Scotland is a nation that potentially faces major political changes this year, but how will that affect the region’s impressive output of video games? And how can the local talent base shine when it is constantly overshadowed by Rockstar and its Grand Theft Auto series? James Batchelor speaks to the nation’s developers to find out

It’s no secret that Scotland is a hotbed of games development talent.

In our industry, the nation has become synonymous with blockbusters past and present: Lemmings, Crackdown, Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition and, of course, Grand Theft Auto.

While local developers are justifiably proud to be based in the same region as the indomitable Rockstar North and draw inspiration from the studio’s world-conquering success, the attention GTA receives is as much a blessing as it is a curse.

There are close to 100 development studios in the region – not to mention a plethora of services companies that specialise in audio, trailers and so forth – that face the tough challenge of shouting over the noisy GTA juggernaut and highlighting the other great work done in the region.

“Lemmings, Crackdown and GTA are all essentially made by the same core group of people, so it’s time to create some new successful and famous games,” says Ludometrics founder David Thomson. “We need a strong balance of companies, and right now we’re heavily weighted to GTA – a series that is owned by a US company which gathers all the profits elsewhere.”

Team Junkfish’s lead designer and producer Simon Doyle agrees adding: “All roads lead back to [GTA creator] DMA Design. You can’t attend a local event without tripping over someone who started there.”

GREAT SCOTS

There’s an urban myth that some of the ZX Spectrums manufactured in Scotland were scooped up before they left the factory by passionate young developers that were keen to hone their own game-making talents. This determination to explore the bounds of creativity has survived in Scotland to this day.

“There’s a real passion north of the border for creativity and originality,” explains Louis Natanson of Dundee’s famed Abertay University. “A very interesting recent trend has been Scottish devs experimenting with completely different approaches to design.

“Denki is a fascinating ‘digital toy factory’, while Lucky Frame in Edinburgh builds beautiful procedural musical games like Bad Hotel and Wave Trip. Dundee’s Space Budgie created a short experience game called 9.03m to explore the impact of the Japanese tsunami in 2011. And last year Quartic Llama created the National Theatre of Scotland’s first ever game, Other, a location-based audio game which guides you on a disturbing tour around the streets of Dundee.”

 

Lemmings, Crackdown and GTA are all essentially made by the same core group of people, so it’s time to create some new successful and famous games.

 

David Thomson, Ludometrics

Unfortunately, these innovative projects do not receive as much exposure as the multi-million selling blockbusters created nearby. Equally those that step away from consoles often struggle to get the recognition they deserve.

“Thanks to the vast majority of developers now working outside the console market, Scotland’s been overlooked by the media time and time again,” says Brian Baglow, founder of the Scottish Games Network. “We’ve got well over 90 studios in the country now, with another 40-plus tech and games-related firms around the country.

“Yet you’d be forgiven for thinking the whole industry upped and left with the collapse of Realtime Worlds if you read much of the gaming press.”

Guerilla Tea co-founder Mark Hastings adds that the indie scene is particularly strong: “Start-up costs are relatively low in comparison to other industries, and with graduates battling against the notorious catch 22 of needing experience to get experience, it’s becoming more and more appealing to go indie.”

ACADEMIC SUPPORT

This creative talent base and growing pool of development studios is fuelled by the support and graduate output of local universities, which offer some of the most renowned games design courses in the UK.

“Our academic setup is second to none,” says Tag Games’ CEO Paul Farley. “Following the lead of Abertay, a number of universities here now offer excellent games-related computer programming and computer arts under graduate degrees.”

IGDA director Luke Dicken adds: “One of the great things about Scotland is our excellent games education programmes. I don’t think it’s necessarily that developers choose to set up shop in Scotland, more that this is where they have trained and there is no compelling reason to move on.”

Finlay Thewlis, game designer at mobile studio Serious Parody, says that there is a financial incentive that helps the universities attract the next generation of talent: “Our students don’t have to pay tuition fees. This allows them to go to university on their ability, not on their ability to pay.”

 

Our academic setup is second to none. Following the lead of Abertay, a number of universities here now offer excellent games-related degrees.

Paul Farley, Tag Games

Developers also have access to support from a range of government bodies and initiatives, such as Scottish Enterprise, Scottish Development International, Creative Scotland, Interactive Scotland, and Skills Development Scotland. Start-ups and indies have found these invaluable as they try to establish themselves as viable businesses.

“Organisations like Entrepreneurial Spark give developers the chance to learn the ins and outs of running a business, alongside providing free office space and a community of start-ups which can provide knowledge and valuable connections,” says Adriaen Alexander, director at start-up Mental Limited. “We wouldn’t be in the position we are today if it wasn’t for this particular scheme.”

Fin McGechie, creative director of Beartrap Games, adds that the existing talent has also helped grow the start-up landscape: “Although Scotland witnessed a number of large studio closures, this has spurned the creation of many new studios led by people with bags of experience under their belts.”

HOME OF THE BRAVE

That’s not to say life in Scotland is all rosy. Dickens explains that Dundee and Edinburgh’s comparatively remote locations makes things harder than for studios elsewhere in the UK.

“We’re doing our best up here but the big events are invariably very England-focused if, not London-centric,” he says. “It’s always further for us to travel and harder for us to get to things. UKIE, TIGA, IGDA Scotland and SGN are slowly changing this but I see it as a major stumbling block.”

Junkfish’s Simon Doyle adds that while indies may find success, disinterest from larger publishers hinders any efforts to build on that console blockbuster heritage.

“If we could provide a competitive business environment for large developers and publishers to set up in, there’s no reason to believe that with low cost of living and a large source of graduate labour on tap that Scotland’s games sector couldn’t become a major economic force,” he says.

IN THE FACE OF INDEPENDENCE

On September 18th, a referendum will ask everyone in the nation: Should Scotland be an independent country?

It’s the culmination of a long-running debate that has divided the region for years and could result in a major political shift, but how will this affect the Scottish industry?

“Should the country become independent, it would mean that Scotland becomes solely responsible for its position in the global gaming market. So it would mean the industry would have to become more independent.”

Some believe the borderless nature of games means the impact will be minimal.

“The white paper released by the Scottish National Party makes a lot of promises about what our creative industries could be, but I am dissatisfied with the detail given,” says Doyle. “Direct effects on Junkfish are hard to project.”

 

There are so many unanswered questions that would all have an effect on how independence would affect the business. The only thing we can probably say with any certainty is that independence would probably give us all a short term boost in worldwide PR and searches.

Lol Scragg, Binary Pumpkin

Some studios declined to comment, while others believe there is not enough information for anyone to accurately predict how Scottish independence would either benefit or damage the local games industry.

“Our parent company is American and many of our peers also have international investors, this current level of uncertainty is being viewed as risk and we are seeing existing and future investors becoming increasingly cautious as a result,” explains Reloaded Productions MD Michael Boniface.

Binary Pumpkin co-founder Lol Scragg adds: “There are so many unanswered questions that would all have an effect on how independence would affect the business. The only thing we can probably say with any certainty is that independence would probably give us all a short term boost in worldwide PR and searches.”

THE NEXT FINLAND?

Not that Scotland’s overall games development community is in dire need of PR and greater exposure. The success of Grand Theft Auto V did wonders for highlighting Scottish talent last year, and the continued work of Abertay and other universities are bringing new stars to the market.

“I moved to Scotland from far flung South Africa to start Blazing Griffin because I knew about the games industry hub, which includes the educational institutes, as well as the teams and the rest of the industry presence here,” says studio founder Peter Van Der Watt.

Aside from potential issues a yes vote for independence could bring, Tag Games’ Farley says that Scotland’s promise could lead to a new prosperous era for Scottish develpoment.

“We’ve had the Finnish wave of success particularly in mobile led by Rovio and Supercell. It wouldn’t surprise me if the next wave breaks in Scotland.”

[This feature was published in Develop 147: March 2014. You can read the digital version via browsers or on iPad. Watch out for more features on Scottish games development throughout this week.]