Region Focus: Guildford's games hub

Region Focus: Guildford's games hub
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

September 23rd 2015 at 10:40AM

The county town of Surrey is one of the UK’s oldest development hubs and is still going strong. Develop speaks to local experts to find out more

“It all started with Bullfrog.”

That’s how Alan McDairmant, director of product development at Criterion, begins describing the history of Guildford’s games industry.

The Theme Park studio opened in 1987, co-founded by a then-unknown Peter Molyneux, and gained recognition for titles such as Populous. But it’s the firm’s partnership with a leading publisher that really kickstarted games development in the area.

“EA was working with Bullfrog back in the 1980s, and acquired the studio back in 1994,” McDairmant explains. “That started a period of real growth.”

More studios opened doors in the early ‘90s, including Simis in 1992 and McDairmant’s own company in 1993, originally part of camera manufacturer Canon before EA acquired it in 2004.

Simulation games specialist Simis was later purchased by Eidos and became Kuju Entertainment. Meanwhile, Molyneux left Bullfrog in 1997 and set up Lionhead, the studio that would create the Fable series.

Through all these studio openings, acquisitions and more, a thriving hub began to grow in Guildford, attracting aspiring games makers from across the UK. The gathering of such talent led to the creation of even more studios. Fractured Space dev Edge Case Games, for example, was founded by James Brooksby, formerly studio lead at Kuju subsidiary Doublesix Games.

“What’s interesting is that throughout these periods of growing and fracturing, the bigger studios have led to the creation of lots of new studios with people moving around,” he says. “It’s been fascinating: you meet people you never would have met otherwise, like ex-Bullfroggers moving to Kuju, or people from Criterion moving around – there’s been a cycle of people.

Our roundtable of local experts, gathered for the inaugural Galvanising Guildford Games summit at the University of Surrey, attempts to name as many studios as they can: Rodeo Games, Fireproof, Pixel Hero, Escapist Games, Polynation, Turbulenz, Wonderland.

And that’s without the larger studios still yet to be mentioned: Media Molecule, 22Cans, Supermassive Games, Born Ready Games, Hello Games – the list goes on. Codemasters even had a studio in Guildford for a few years, while Unreal Engine creator Epic Games chose the town as its UK base.

Throughout these periods of growing and fracturing, the bigger studios led to the creation of new ones.

James Brooksby, Edge Case

It’s a crowded area, but one that is filled with old friends and colleagues with relationships dating back to those early studios. Supermassive’s executive director Dom Oldrey observes that many people running studios in Guildford cut their teeth in QA at Bullfrog.

“The thing that’s really out of our control but creates a massive swing for Guildford is that the money’s not really based here,” he adds. “We’re a service industry that creates the stuff, but the money is pretty much always coming from outside the country. We have some, but if you look at the big players around here, Sony is Japanese, Microsoft owns Lionhead, Criterion’s parent EA is American, as is Epic Games.”

Community service

Such a high concentration of developers has created a friendlier community than you might expect. While rivalries exist, they never escalate into animosity.

The prime example of this, Brooksby says, is how studios helped each other during the great flood of 2013, famous for the destruction to Hello Games’ premises and equipment.

“We’re nearer to the river than Hello Games, so it went through our wall and into their offices,” he says.

“Unfortunately, they were all on holiday at the time. So I phoned Sean and we helped out – this was all on Christmas Eve.”

He goes on to say that while the industry is close-knit in Guildford, new relationships are forged all the time. The veterans from the early studios have also created different social circles.

“In fact, people go to a different pub depending on your genesis,” says Brooksby. “Sometimes people cross over, but you can almost see places as ‘the old EA guys pub’, or the ‘Lionhead pub’. Where you started sometimes dictates who you’ll end up meeting.”

Oldrey adds: “There’s a really good lifestyle aspect. When our general staff go out, they end up talking to a bunch of different people working on lots of different projects. You’re going to get a wider perspective on what’s going on in games than if you worked at a firm based in a barn in the middle of nowhere.”

Local talent

The result of such a supportive community is that there are plenty of developers willing to help out when a studio sadly shuts down.

“At Supermassive, we took on a lot of people when Codemasters shut down,” says Oldrey. “Likewise, Codemasters got a lot of people from Criterion when it was going through a troubled period. And you do see that when big projects finish, people move around a bit.”

Escapist Games director San Shepherd adds: “If a studio is shutting down, you might find people standing outside it that afternoon, taking people down the pub and trying to recruit them.”

No games hub can survive on established talent alone, of course, and Guildford developers search far and wide for promising new employees.

“We can find very talented people quickly and easily,” says Shepherd. “In terms of new talent, yes, Guildford has a wealth of that. It’s difficult to sift through when hiring people directly out of university – it’s been very hit and miss for us. Some of the best talent we’ve had has not come from university but has been homegrown, sitting at home, building stuff.”

McDairmant observes that he hasn’t noticed many staff moving between studios in recent years. Brooksby says that there was a lot more fluidity between Guildford developers prior to 2009.

“Because of the new opportunities to set up on your own and create your own thing, that means most of the people who were the veterans or the very experienced in that pool will do things themselves or try something new out. Some of the people that you might have hired have become start-ups,” he explains.



Adrian Hilton, professor of vision and graphics at the University of Surrey, is surprised there’s not a stronger link between the games community and his own institute: “Surrey Electronic Engineering is probably the largest of its type in the UK, and it’s been right at the top for 20 years. So we’re turning out graduates that have a lot of job opportunities and many go into the media and broadcasting industries, yet we haven’t established strong ties to the local games industry.

“In fact, in my experience, we have more people going the other way: coming from games companies back into university to do PhDs and things like that as they change their career path.”

McDairmant says: “I guess it’s a two-way street, because we’ve not made a huge effort to reach out but then we’ve also not had anyone reaching out directly from the university to us either.”

There are still some studios that make the most of the university’s graduate output, even if it’s not arranged through the institute itself. Supermassive Games takes up to six interns every summer, primarily students at the end of the second year and treats them as employees for three months.

Hilton admits the university has some work to do in highlighting games as a potential career. His team invite members of the games industry to speak to students from time to time, but more needs to be done.

The Hollywood of games

Many of the studios even hire from abroad, with applicants attracted by the high calibre of developers in the area. With popular franchises like Fable, Need For Speed, LittleBigPlanet and more developed within the town, Guildford enjoys an international reputation that is the envy of other UK hubs.

“When you’re in a meeting with companies from China, Korea or wherever, they’ll recognise the name Guildford, which is amazing given that we’re quite a provincial town and there’s not a lot going on here,” says Brooksby. “They might not know exactly where it is in the world, but it does get recognition.”

It helps that the quality of the games that come out of Guildford are almost universally of a high quality, although as Shepherd observes: “Almost all of them have been pretty quirky. British quirky, that is, rather than American mainstream quirky. As a UK development community, it seems we’re still not quite capable of going big like Americans are.”

Life in Guildford

As for the day-to-day of a Guildford developer, our local experts are largely full of praise. While still an expensive area to live in, it remains cheaper than London and its proximity to the UK capital is a major draw – even in ways you might not expect.

“Ironically, it’s commutable from London, especially for graduates,” says Oldrey. “A lot of them, once they graduate, plan on having a couple of years in London, so the fact that they can commute down is great. For me, I think that’s madness.”

As a UK dev community, it seems we’re still not quite capable of going big like the Americans are.

San Shepherd, Escapist Games

McDairmant observes that being close to London enables games makers to connect with other industries: “We’ve been working with a lot of VFX firms, for example, and a lot of those guys are based in London. You want that expertise when you’re working on bigger, triple-A, blockbuster games now.”

Guildford is also close to other important UK games hubs, including Brighton, Southampton and Portsmouth. And when it comes to international relationships, the town is just 40 minutes from Heathrow Airport – if you miss the rush hour, of course.

Bizarrely, the downside with living in Guildford is a more technological issue.

“The limitations of broadband connections and so forth really affect businesses around here,” says Shepherd. “I uploaded the last build via my phone’s 4G connection and it was faster than the internet in the building. Ten times faster.”

Hilton says that the university, currently researching the possibility of 5G mobile connections, enjoys a faster connection and even hosts an incubator that’s open to games studios, among other businesses. However, Brooksby says that dev staff can be oddly stubborn about where they work in the area.

“You don’t have to move much further out of central Guildford before you start to lose the interest of staff, especially the younger guys who come in,” he says. “So even moving to the Science Park, away from the centre of town is enough to start losing good people.

“Of course, if there was a pub right in the middle of the research park… and maybe a greasy spoon café…”
Guildford’s greatest advantage is playing host to its wide range of games studios of all scales. Whether you wish to work for a publisher-owned powerhouse like Criterion or establish your own studio, there’s always opportunities for a developer – regardless of your level of experience.

“In some ways that’s a security blanket for anyone working in Guildford,” says Brooksby. “They know if they settle down here for a new job, chances are pretty good that they’ll get hired by another studio if things fall apart. Rather than going to a new start-up in, say, Kent: if that fails, you’re stuck in Kent.”