London calling

London calling
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

December 21st 2010 at 8:00AM

Londonâ??s dev community is growing fast. What does the city offer those who set up shop there?

Despite its reputation for dreary weather, London is a vibrant and colourful city. Its creative core in Soho is culturally energetic and hip, and plays host to global leaders not only in game development, but also across advertising, film, art and fashion.

Throughout the UK capital, its boroughs are bristling with good ideas, and pumping out great games in every space from triple-A to social. Moshi Monters, SingStar, Bow Street Runner, Pet Society, Football Manager; these are the games that are born of the London development scene.

And yet games studios were curiously absent from Prime Minister David Cameron’s vision for the city as a new global hub for the technology sector’s elite. Everyone seems to agree that, figuratively speaking, London is on fire, but is it ablaze with innovation or set to crumble to ashes?

CITY SLICKERS
There’s certainly a wealth of positivity from the studio heads who see London as a breeding ground for exciting new projects.

“It’s where the culture and the talent is, and that’s what we care about,” says Margaret Robertson, former Edge editor and development director of Hide&Seek, which not only makes games for console, smartphone and browser, but also for playground and tabletop.

“It’s the place with the critical mass of people who understand the crossover of gaming and culture. We don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world we could be doing quite what we’re doing here.”

Paulina Bozek, former SingStar visionary and now CEO and director at social start-up Inensu, agrees with Robertson’s image of the capital as a melting pot of creativity: “London is a vibrant city and the buzz of the media, entertainment, fashion, art, business and everything else here is inspiring. The concentration of companies also leads on to a lot of very interesting collaborations and partnerships being formed.”

London provides a continually large, rich and accessible stream of creative and technical talent working across a wide range of the creative industries from which to recruit and partner; something many companies, such as mobile specialist Ideaworks, have managed to harness to great effect.

“Many leading educational centres are also based in and around London and obviously many people are attracted to the city for lifestyle reasons, particularly when coming from overseas,” explains the outfit’s head of studio Rob Hendry.

London’s game educators, too, are poised to benefit from the size and draw that has seen the metropolis become one of the most crowded spaces on the planet. Escape Studios is a CG training school and 3D graphics vendor that has seen the city provide a wealth of students and tutors.

“It’s also where most of our industry contacts are based – because we commit to providing careers support for every one of our classroom graduates, being physically close to recruiters makes a big difference,” confirms Simon Fenton, CG Specialist at Escape Studios.

Many also cite the city itself, from its galleries and architecture to its culture and populace, as a source of constant inspiration and motivation.

STREETS OF GOLD?
All well and good, but what of London’s famous downside? It remains to this day one of the most expensive places on earth to live, work and relax.

“The costs associated with being in London is a downside in a highly competitive global market,” admits Ideawork’s Hendry.

“We compete with studios in significantly lower cost centres who can in many cases access local and government incentives. We do end up paying a lot of attention to our cost base and business management as a core component of our studio, so that we continue to remain competitive.”

“It’s definitely not cheap, to live or to run a business,” agrees Robin Deitch, managing director at digital character creation specialist Slide London, who like Hendry has a refreshingly buoyant attitude to the challenge of meeting cost.

“Of course, global clients don’t care for excuses like this when comparing rival bids – so actually you’re driven to find efficiencies in the way you do things, which is often for the better.”

OPPOURTUNITY KNOCKS
It would be foolish to ignore the expense of keeping a development studio on track in London, but even in such frugal times an optimistic attitude isn’t exclusive to Slide and Ideaworks.

Confidence in the city’s market may be tinged with caution, but there’s certainly a sense among the studios in the city that good times lie ahead.

“It’s tough times for everyone at the moment with a lot of shifts in the market,” confirms Hendry.

“On the one side there’s consolidation around traditional formats, and on the other there’s new and emerging platforms and ways of thinking about gaming. This is particularly relevant to Ideaworks as a studio, but where there are constraints or barriers there’s always opportunity, whether you’re smart or just in the right place at the right time.”  

And it would seem London is the right place for seizing those opportunities, particularly in the realms of social, casual and digital download. While there are a number of large-scale operations like SCE London doing perfectly well in the triple-A space, it is the fiercely creative innovators in the relatively new realms that are fast defining London’s reputation as the UK’s primary development hub.

Outfits large and small such as Mind Candy, Playfish, Channel 4 , Hide&Seek and Mediatonic are demonstrating that London is proving UK developers are reacting to a paradigm change in the international industry.

“The games industry is going through a shift where it is hard to sustain large expensive teams,” states Bozek, saying of the London development hub: “But there is a very thriving scene of smaller developers and start-ups.”

Michael Acton Smith, CEO at Moshi Monsters powerhouse Mind Candy is in absolutely in agreement when asked about the state of game development in London:

“Online is absolutely thriving but traditional console games seem to be going through challenging times.”

There’s also a prevailing sense that the potential for success in new areas is something not only London, but the country’s wider games industry, can benefit from, with the UK capital spearheading an evolution that sees the nation’s development sector rejuvenate and refresh itself.

“I think where the London scene, and the whole UK development community, is actually thriving is with the new wave of self-publishing and digital distribution, where the market and platforms are opening up in such a way that it’s possible for many smaller studios to enjoy success,” offers Paul Croft, director of games at digital specialist Mediatonic.

“The UK is certainly going through a rough time in terms of game development,” agrees Ed Fear, production associate at Explodemon creator Curve Studios. Yet, there’s also a quality distinct to London that positions the city as a potential champion of the UK scene, says Fear: “I think people are being agile and reactive by moving into spaces like social and casual games, and digital download titles. From that perspective, London is the perfect place to do that, due to the creative mix and proximity to the media and advertising industries. It’s only going to get stronger from here on out.”



LEADER OF THE PACK

Quite simply, London is more than a hub for games development. It is now a national and global leader for numerous creative industries including games. It is the perfect place to set up shop as the realms of advertising, education, broadcasting, music and video games converge and intersect, and tech outfits like Unity move to support a potential revolution in set-top box and web TVs.

Game studios aren’t alone in having to adapt in tough times, and the aforementioned sectors are all enduring their own test of resilience, but, as confirmed by NESTA’s ‘Creative Clusters’ report published in late November this year, London dominates across the creative industries.

That considered, the UK games sector’s current challenges may just be a symptom of this period of change, with London at the forefront of the charge.

Certainly, those in parallel industries based in London are recognising both the challenge ahead, and the potential of a shared future with gaming. It may be that collaboration can strengthen London’s position as a vanguard of the British dev scene.

“Channel 4 has a public service remit to reach 16-to-34-year-olds as a core – and for us, 10-to-19-year-olds – with service broadcasting; but we’re in a world where teens, tweens, and the 16-to-34-year-old group are consuming more and more internet content alongside or beyond their TV consumption,” explains outgoing Channel 4 Education commissioning editor Alice Taylor, who has seen opportunities emerge as audiences new an old have adapted and evolved their tastes.

“It’s been a quarter of a decade since Channel 4 was first set up, and if it wants to be more relevant to an internet-native generation it needs to do more than just broadcast television.”

It is that kind of attitude that may empower game developers who listen. Certainly, working with Channel 4 has been fruitful for many London indies, including Beatnik and Zombie Cow, and looking to collaborate with company’s from London’s wider creative industries is something every studio in the capital should consider, even if it means going head-to-head with the numerous rivals that such a crowded metropolis inevitably fosters. In fact, it may well be that London’s infamously competitive pace is in itself something that offers opportunity and motivation to work in conjunction with other companies.

“The competitive nature of the city is great for us – only the best thrive, which keeps us honest and gives us a big roster of top-class collaborators,” adds Robertson, who is also upbeat about running a studio in London:

“The scope and scale of opportunity for good games makers is growing faster than the economy has been contracting," she says.

"We’ve been able to grow very fast at a time when headlines have been dire, and have strong confidence that we’ll be able to sustain it.”

There are other industries with a stronghold in London that are also of benefit to London games companies through more traditional collaboration. Slide London’s experience with the numerous media companies born from the city’s prolific TV and film industry makes for a case in point, as explained by managing director Deitch:

“Slide benefits directly from the related CG industries based in London. We have a great dialogue with the many tools and tech companies such as Autodesk and the Foundry, and have easy access to the wealth of knowledge and experience from the post and VFX companies in Soho.”

Other service providers have benefitted from similar partnerships, such as cinematics studio Spov, which is based in the East End not far from Slide and Inensu.

“I think that Spov’s contribution to the Call of Duty franchise, and Black Ops in particular, proves that although there may only be a few fully fledged games developers and their respective service providers within the London area, the quality of our collective output is undeniably world class,” suggests Spov managing director Allen Leitch.

“Like it or not, London will continue to be the creative powerhouse of Europe for the foreseeable future.”



REGION FREE

But some say it would be rather unwise to overemphasise London’s position as a potential champion of the UK’s game development sector.

Ideaworks Hendry highlights: “Historically there has always been a very strong studio presence and capability across the UK, particularly in the North West, Midlands and North East, and that should certainly continue.

“No doubt some studios are having a hard time but that’s as true in London as elsewhere. Putting London up as a beacon is not the right approach,” he adds.

“It’s better to focus on a UK-wide approach and look to a London based Government to provide appropriate incentives and initiatives to allow our industry to compete and express its talents on a global stage.”

Hendry’s isn’t alone in his perspective either.

“I don’t think England has a bastion of the games industry unlike, perhaps, Canada for example, whose bastion would be in Montréal,” proposes Escape Studio’s Fenton.

“The big issues are less about regionalism and more about the relationship with industry and education, outsourcing and the lack of junior opportunities.

“This, coupled with the constant cycle of layoffs, is a problem the industry needs to tackle together collectively. Outsourcing and not investing in training is leaving us with a skills and vacancy shortage which could be detrimental to the industry.”

Yet despite the fact that opinions on London’s role as the pinnacle in the UK games industry are still somewhat divided, the general consensus is that the city’s development sector is indeed thriving during one of the industry’s toughest ongoing periods of transformation.

London’s overheads are high, its competition is extremely fierce and the city is as packed with challenges as it is with residents, but studios with both triple-A and independent output are making a success for themselves, weathering the wider storm in the UK’s rainy capital.

A base in London primes any studio with immeasurably vast opportunities for collaboration, and puts it in the heartland of most of the contemporary creative sectors. Clouds may drape themselves across the city on a few too many days for most visitors’ tastes, but the outlook is bright for those developers ready to take a realistic view of today’s changing industry.