The UK's midlands development community in focus
As well as being the UK's geographical centre, the Midlands has long played a part at the core of the country's development community. Eager to learn about how developers in the region plan to maintain momentum in the industry, Ed Fear and Will Freeman sat down with some of the studio heads leading the charge.
MD, Strawdog Studios
Focused on creating and nurturing its own IP, Strawdog was formed in 2003 and initially focused on contract work before stepping out on its own projects.
CEO, Lightning Fish
Banbury-based Lightning Fish specialises
in family-orientated titles like its NewU fitness game.
MD, Gusto Games
Formed in the wake of Silicon Dreams’
demise, Gusto makes sports games for
Focused on smaller projects for PC
and console, Eiconic’s latest release is the Gametrak-using SqueeBall Party.
What are the benefits for those establishing a development house in the Midlands, in a place so far removed from the country’s biggest cities?
Simon Phillips: I think it’s a double-edged sword really. The obvious downside is not being in a big city, aside from being near Birmingham, so it’s harder to attract the younger post-graduate talent who want to be in the hubbub of things and not in a field with cows in Bloxham.
But it is that which is the best thing about being around here; we have lots of rural environments like this where the more mature people in the games industry who want more of a chilled-out lifestyle can settle down and blend in with their family life.
From that point of view, then this area has a lot to offer that big cities don’t. That’s one of the key perks, so you get a lot of experienced staff up here.
Simon Prytherch: At the same time, large cities are very accessible from here, and we have some of the best universities in Oxford, and twenty minutes down the line we’ve got Warwick University up near Leamington. That’s very good for recruitment as both of those areas are renowned centres: one for students and academia, and the other, Leamington, being great for development studios.
Phillips: Exactly. It’s an hour from here to everywhere.
Paul Smith: It is a great place to live, and there’s a lot of talent in the area. Where we are we’ve also got Derby, where there’s a cluster of big game studios. If you’re going to set up a new studio, you go to where the raw materials are. There’s lots of people to tap into, and there’s just great countryside. I used to work in London, and I don’t miss it.
So the quiet nature of the region is definitely an asset that attracts more experienced talent?
Phillips: Absolutely. It’s got that ‘settle-down-appeal’. And also, because of that, you know that when somebody moves into the area and settles down with their family they are in it for keeps. It’s not a case of them working at a place they can get to on a tube, doing it for six months and seeing how it goes, before moving somewhere else.
Graeme Monk: The industry has got ten to fifteen years older too, which is something the area can take advantage of. We’re all that much older, with families and various other things, so if you don’t want to work in London, it’s nice and chilled.
Prytherch: I find it an advantage for international recruiting as well, because this area offers a quintessential British image, and it’s outside of London. So if people have come from a rural area or have had enough of city life, perhaps living in Paris or Helsinki, then they can come here and think ‘this is exactly how I envisage England to be’.
Smith: And, it’s funny, because I’m surprised by how many people who work in this area were actually born around here. Also, there are some universities offering some great courses that can retain a lot of people in the area, and some big studios like Eurocom and Rare down the road, that are attractive to people.
Prytherch: In fact, I was doing a quick mental count of all the people employed in the games industry in the Midlands and I’d probably say that we’ve got, in terms of head count, more than any other region – even London. I think we’ve easily got a headcount of over 2,000 just looking locally, going as far as the Leamington and Oxford areas.
So are the universities in the area something that makes recruiting high calibre employees easier?
Smith: We’re finding that in Derby the university is very, very strong on programming, and there’s a lot of great students coming through. In fact we take on three or four a year through placements, and some stick with us.
Phillips: Maybe it’s a bit different with the arts side. There things are lagging slightly, with the very specific skills they need to learn, although they are beginning to catch up. Of course I can only speak for my area of the Midlands. In general though, we are very pleased with what we can see.
Prytherch: Also, on the programming side, both Oxford and Warwick University have got some of the best computer science courses, but that means it is very hard to compete against all the other industries to get those graduates. We’ve found that by working with the universities we are getting some more of those now – not necessarily people just finishing their degree courses, but those doing research and masters and PhDs are easy to make contact with here, and we’re interested in some of their research.
Monk: I think there should be more initiatives here like Dare to be Digital as well. When you’ve got students actually starting to work together as a team on a particular project, and they actually deliver something at the end of it, it’s a really good platform for people trying to get into the industry. I’ve employed three or four people who have been involved with Dare to be Digital, and you can actually see the kind of quality of gameplay that they can put together. Again, there needs to be more of those kinds of things here.
Do you feel staff sharing schemes have a place in bringing together the Midlands developer community?
Smith: Just the phrase ‘staff sharing’ scares the living daylights out of me.
Prytherch: But put it another way, as ‘collaboration’. I think collaboration is really important for smaller developers to grow. If you want to move up a level there are ways of doing that by working with other people who might have different skills to you.
What we don’t have in the Midlands, which I think is a shame, is an organisational body for the industry in the region. That’s partly due to there being no Government funding for the Midlands area, or very little. You get things like Game Republic, or GameHorizon in the north, but nothing here. That’s something I definitely want to change.
Smith: It just hasn’t happened in the Midlands yet. Whether it will or not I don’t know, but because we’re so dispersed, and the Midlands is such a huge area, it’s difficult to define where it begins and ends.
Phillips: If we’re sat here wondering why one hasn’t been set up perhaps that’s something we should all talk about. The thing is, with collaboration, it needs to be very well communicated and very well set up to work efficiently, because somebody always has an edge or angle.
Monk: There’s got to be a lot of trust between the different studios as well, because one of the biggest things is confidentiality between projects. If you’re going to outsource to somebody else, you want to be careful about what they’ve got in development in-house. Ideas get shared, and quite often ideas get nicked as well.
Prytherch: And you probably have to go to certain people because they are specialists in that area, and therefore are going to be doing something similar to you. So I think it is a case of having it legally defined and keeping things separate. I’m on the advisory board for GameHorizon, and I’ve seen how it works in that region. I’d say that the biggest advantage of that organisation is the networking and collaboration. And that’s for all studios – not just the small ones. For example, Eutechnyx get the smaller studios to help them on some of their larger projects, giving those studios the experience to get to the next level.
Smith: There needs to be something in this region to be honest.
Monk: When I was working down in Oxford, a lot of the Oxford developers would get together and just chat about things, and it was a really good forum to discuss problems that you were having with projects, or a particular approach you were taking to a project. I think that is potentially what’s missing from the Midlands. It is almost as if we need a Tiga Midlands chapter, which would benefit us all.
Check back for the next three days to see our in-depth profiles of the most significant developers based in the midlands.