[In association with Abertay University] We uncover the resilient British dev hub
It’s impossible to think of the recent history of the Scottish games industry without pondering what happened at Realtime Worlds.
But to judge the nation’s game development sector based purely on the large scale collapse of a single studio is grossly unfair.
If those at the top of some of Scotland’s most proactive studios are to be believed, there’s rarely been a better time to make games in the country.
And, say the studio heads most ingrained in the Scottish dev scene, it is the region’s diversity that is its strength.
“I don’t believe one studio model or development method typifies Scotland,” says Sean Taylor, producer at Denki, which has made games in the area for 11 years.
“I think it’s very easy to conclude that ‘Scotland equals Rockstar North plus loads of wee studios in Dundee cranking out mobile games’.”
But that not only ignores the sustained success of handheld developers like Firebrand Games in Glasgow, and also the interesting directions people like Hunted Cow with their web games, and Veemee, who work on Playstation Home.”
In fact, Denki’s home town of Dundee alone is host to a wealth of diverse and varied game developers.
4J Studios is currently at work there porting Minecraft to Xbox 360, not far from the offices of the likes of eeGeo, Ruffian and Tag Games; all of them very different studios working on utterly distinct projects.
THE SPICE OF LIFE
“Scotland has studios serving every possible platform or outlet for interactive entertainment from lone developers on small-scale Flash games to large companies working on high-end console titles,” offers Outplay Entertainment co-founder Richard Hare, who with his brother Douglas is building what could become one of Scotland’s largest studios.
“There’s no doubt that the gaming landscape has changed dramatically in recent years with the emergence of social networks, extremely capable mobile devices, tablets, and their associated app marketplaces.
“Scotland is encountering the same issues and opportunities faced by developers from all around the world in that we all need make sure we’re selling what people, whether they are consumers of publishers, are buying.”
In that turbulent marketplace, Scottish educators including those at the globally recognised University of Abertay are noticing an encouraging trend. Scotland has become a hotbed of new start-ups established by ambitious development young guns.
“The Scottish games industry is thriving,” offers Abertay professor Dr Louis Natanson.
“That’s particularly as new opportunities open up with direct digital distribution for iOS and Android, as well as gaming on Facebook and other social networks.
"The shift we’ve particularly noticed is our most exceptional students now talk about how they’re going to start their own business, and why they want to stay in Dundee to do just that.”
Until recently the country’s reputation was as a console development stronghold – after all, Scotland is the original home of GTA.
Times are changing, though, and today it is becoming home to an increasing number of mobile studios.
“Now Dundee has a huge variety of studios working on console, mobile, social, TV and many other platforms, from single person start-ups to established medium sized studios, we have it all,” says Paul Farley, CEO of mobile specialist and Dundee stalwart Tag Games.
“In the last year there has been an explosion in the amount of microstudios,” adds Colin Riley, games technology director of tools outfit and compiler specialist Codeplay.
“That being said, you still have the likes of Rockstar North, Ruffian, Proper and Firebrand developing big-name games."
"There is currently quite a nice mix, and social is becoming a larger part of it with new players Outplay and eeGeo appearing.”
If nothing else, the Scottish industry has proven its ability to quickly adapt to changes in the games market.
Ask anyone employed in the Scottish games industry, however, and they will tell you Scotland’s developers are collectively capable than much more than diversity of specialty and studio model.
Of late the new IGDA chapter in Scotland has been welcoming upwards of 100 visitors to its events, and the University of Abertay’s famous Dare to be Digital talent contest has become a recognised launch pad for success in the games industry.
The sense of community there is intense, and in the eyes of the Scottish Government the industry is recognised as hugely important.
“We are a proper community and we tend not to close ourselves off from each other,” states former Cohort man and current head of Gamify Consultancy Lol Scragg.
“We can lend each other staff and we always support each other. We do get great support here in Dundee specifically from Scottish Enterprise which provides access to grant funding and advice.”
“The IGDA Scottish chapter has recently had a resurgence due to Hazel McKendrick and Kraig Walker, two students well known to game developers, and has had fantastic turnouts,” adds Codeplay’s Riley on the matter.
“I was invited to speak at their events along with other Scottish industry figures. The social aspect in Edinburgh has got a boost after Alex Waterston of Haiku Interactive and myself decided to have a meet up which has transformed into @GameDevEd, and it gets quite a large amount of people meeting up for chats and game-related banter bi-weekly.”
The emergence of the IGDA in Scotland has made it far easier for aspiring developers to connect with Scottish studios, meaning more than in other hubs, getting noticed in the country is – relatively speaking – an achievable task.
Community is something everyone in Scotland seems keen to highlight, but there is equal passion to talk about another local trait; resilience.
“The Scots are resilient, and throughout the recent tough times we have seen the demise of studios in Scotland, some high profile and some not so,” confirms Richard Scott, managing director, executive producer and founder of Axis Animation, the company behind the infamous Dead Island trailer.
“The one thing that always seems to happen though is that from those studios closing other studios spring up quickly with new business models and new levels of determination.
"There seems to be fewer people departing the Scottish industry to the other game hotspots around the world which is great to see, people want to be successful in Scotland.”
And with resilience comes the courage to experiment; something the wider Scottish Government is famed for, which apparently filters down to the games industry.
“Certainly the Scottish scene encourages experimentation in the interactive arena,” says Outplay’s Douglas Hare.
“The close-knit community also provides good support for new ventures, as well the government assistance and relationships with the universities. All of this provides a great canvas for developers located in Scotland.”
If there is one area where Scotland’s development industry shines most, it must be its games education.
Abertay stakes a claim to crafting the world’s first game development university course, and remains one of the world’s most acclaimed sources for specifically trained talent.
“One very fortunate thing about Scotland is that we have universities like Abertay, Glasgow Caledonian and the University of the West of Scotland, and they’re producing some fantastic talent,” says Andy Cambell, founder and CEO of SpecialMove, a recruiter based in Scotland with a global reach.
“Local companies have been able to build long-term relationships with the universities to ensure that the students leave very work ready. The students are recognised as being highly skilled and highly desirable. We can only hope here in Scotland that those students choose to stay.”
Almost every games company based in Scotland can count Abertay graduates amongst its staff, and praise for the institute – along with some of its contemporaries – is absolutely unanimous.
“The University of Abertay Dundee is leading the way with its industry-focused courses, and Duncan of Jordanstone is one of the UKs top art schools,” asserts Alan Dobson, business development officer at Dundee City Council.
“Abertay have created Dare to be Digital and Dare Protoplay, whilst Dundee College has state of the art digital media facilities. The Prototype fund is here also supporting new developments from The University of Abertay Dundee.”
As a result, says Outplay’s Douglas Hare, Scotland is a fantastic location for aspiring developers to establish themselves.
“In addition to world-class game-related courses, many companies offer summer internships – we pay as well – and on-going work experience placements,” he says.
“There are various competitions, most notably Dare to be Digital, which can help propel talented teams and individuals into the limelight and there are numerous companies hiring at any given time looking to give graduates their first break into the industry.”
The recruitment fair Game In Scotland, which is held in Dundee each year, is a further boon for both raw talent and headcount hungry studios, and is well attended by both.
“It's a great place for aspiring developers and has a good mix of studio needing talent,” states Codeplay’s Riley.
“This year's event even had a mod team on the floor asking for volunteers, which is a fantastic way of building up portfolios and was my own entry into the industry."
“In terms of attracting existing talent from further afield, Scotland always has studios on the rise and they’re always looking to secure some great talent,” adds SpecialMove’s Campbell.
“That means it’s always liquid here. There’s a continual flow to recruitment here. It’s a very good for finding work and finding talent.”
New companies like Outplay Entertainment, which has ambitious plans underway to build a studio that over a course of a two or three-year period hopes to employ about 120 people, typifies the kind of opportunities blossoming in today’s Scottish games development sector.
What’s more, game development flourishes across Scotland, with studios in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen blooming. However, it is Dundee that remains the nation’s most productive industry hub.
“Given the amazing gaming culture and hub that exists here there is nowhere else in Scotland that makes as much sense for a games studio than Dundee,” claims Tag Games’ Farley.
“Not only do we have the historical legacy of the first generation of games companies such as DMA, Vis and Visual Science; you have a wide range of present day benefits.”
There’s no doubt Dundee has a rich heritage in video games, and a distinct blend of development companies perhaps without parallel in Europe.
“We are now in position where there is an eclectic community of companies working within different markets. We also have innovative companies here entering markets ahead of the curve that are always growing, and producing great games on a number of platforms,” offers Dundee City Council’s Dobson.
POWERS THAT BE
Scottish game developers are also the benefactors of a progressive government attitude, and the support of a number of high profile trade bodies.
Outplay Entertainment was even party to a visit by Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, who tops a system of organisations that are open-minded to the benefits of playing host to a games industry that brings in more than £30 million every year to the country’s economy.
“To make the most of this opportunity, it's important that Scottish Enterprise helps existing home grown games companies realise their ambitious growth plans and encourages more companies to invest in Scotland,” says Joyce Matthew, account manager at Scottish Enterprise, which serves as the main economic development agency in the UK’s most northerly nation.
“It's our job to highlight Scotland's global reputation as a key player within the games industry – a key player that boasts the talent, infrastructure and skills to deliver success – and to create the right environment for the sector to continue thriving.”
Scottish Enterprise has identified the creative industries – including digital media and games – as a source of huge potential for the Scottish economy.
The organisation offers a range of services, including support for those looking to attend trade shows, and financial and non-financial help for local game companies of every kind.
Certainly, Scotland’s game companies see that their potential is well recognised at a government level.
“I think there is high awareness of the industry and what it contributes to the economy and how it sends a message worldwide,” offers Axis Animations’ Scott.
“We have had some very positive conversations with national government recently and a lot of that is fuelled by the level of non UK work we are doing, the government are keen to see exports and the games industry can really deliver there.”
Organisations like Codeplay also talk of a positive experience with government and trade bodies, having secured grants from Scottish Enterprise, Scottish Development International and the European Commission.
Tiga’s presence in Scotland has also been a great help, and the country’s stand at GDC organised by SDI has proved a great cost-effective way of having a base at GDC.
“The Scottish games industry has long been good at supporting itself,” claims SpecialMove’s Campbell.
“Bodies like Scottish Development International, Scottish Enterprise and Tayside Interactive have all been great at supporting the local games companies, and they really do care passionately that there is an industry sector employing staff here.”
Scotland’s games industry is full of positivity, and there’s a strong sense that the country has emerged from a challenging time stronger and more confident.
The last word, then, goes to one of Scoptland’s longest serving games companies, Denki.
“The entire landscape of the industry has changed beyond all recognition over the past few years and I think the next couple of years will see a continuation of this,” says Denki producer Taylor.
“The challenge facing each Scottish developer is to find their place in this evolving industry, then to continually prove their relevance.
"I’m very excited to see what exactly these shifts are and how Denki and other Scottish developers react to them.”
Looking for contacts in the Scottish games industry?
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OTHER USEFUL CONTACTS:
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Scottish Development International:
Scottish Gaming Blog