Itâ??s long been at the heart of UK development, but how will Yorkshire fare in the future? Ed Fear sat down with five of the regionâ??s studios to see how the community spirit will help them weather the stormâ?¦
Yorkshire’s had quite a history with games development – where did is start from?
Paul Porter: For Sheffield, Gremlin was a big starting point. It was originally a computer shop called Just Micro, and then they started creating games in the space above the shop. That was really early ‘80s. A lot of the companies in Sheffield have people have people who worked at either Gremlin or Alligator. Certainly, when Infrogrames took over Gremlin and shut it down, that’s when we started Sumo. We’ve got about 130 staff, but about 100 of those are people who’ve worked with us before.
Elliot Gay: Leeds is different. There were a number of smaller studios, but there were a lot of people around that were making games and moving around between the companies. So certainly, there’s been an interest in developing games in Yorkshire since the very beginning.
Jamie Sefton: There was Arctic Computing in Hull, as well, where Charles Cecil and Revolution got started back in the 80s.
EG: It was the birth of the bedroom programmer, really. And the belief that we’d make millions of pounds. [All laugh]
What makes the region a good place to develop games?
Martyn Brown: The cost of living is low, and the people are really good.
JS: It’s just a good place to live and work, really. But also, I think as a place it’s a great network – everyone here regularly meets
up and talk to each other. That’s what Game Republic does, and it was set up by games companies.
EG: We’re all friends – we don’t work against each other. We work together for a common good.
Alex Amsel: I’m originally from Leamington Spa, and it’s definitely a lot more laid back. People really do talk to each other much more than some other places.
PP: And like Martyn said, it’s just a good place. We’ve got some great cities, each with lots of places to go, but five minutes outside of that you’ve got countryside.
JS: We’re kind of spoilt for all of the games companies here – beyond the ones represented here, there’s Revolution, Rockstar Leeds… we’re really lucky.
EG: We all really love it here, and the proof is in the pudding – the business comes here. Companies worldwide are doing business with Yorkshire games developers.
Game Republic was set up with the aim of building a game development community in Yorkshire. What sorts of things does that entail?
MB: I think it’s recognised when we speak to other developers at GDC – they’re disappointed that their groups just don’t collaborate like we do. I think it’s the culture of the people, and that’s what’s difficult. No-one is prepared to take that first step; it’s very guarded, almost very tense. That’s something we’ve never had.
EG: I think, as another side of the coin though, we’re not embarrassed to say we need help here – that when a company’s in trouble, we rally around to find business for them, or use portions of their art department or whatever, just to make sure that there’s money rolling in.
AA: I think there’s a lot that can be learnt from each other – we’ve all worked with other developers on projects. And for us, looking at the non-games space too, actually being involved as a group of game developers helps in getting the attention of non-games companies who all want to get into the space. It means we can talk to them as individuals and then share that with everyone. Most people seem to think
they’re competing with each other, which is really silly.
PP: We don’t mind ringing each other up and saying ‘What do you know about this platform? Have you done anything on it yet?’, and you’ll get calls saying ‘We’re looking at doing something on this – have you got any kits free?’
JS: I regularly get calls from people looking for Flash developers or whatever, and I’ll forward those around and share leads. As a region we want to grow; we want to bring more business into the region which helps everybody. The competition between each other isn’t really an issue – there’s enough work for everyone, and we’re all doing interesting stuff. That’s really important to us too – keeping the talent within the region, and encouraging people to come here, because it’s a great place to live and work.
A lot of other developers are more guarded – why do you think that is? Has it got anything to do with the fact that, in many cases, a developer is beholden to a publisher?
MB: I don’t think that’s got much to do with it – you’ll find there are people within studios owned by publishers who certainly haven’t got that attitude. I think it’s just down to the people at the end. Many people from the Midlands and the North East have come and attended Game Republic events and got a lot out of it. I think you can sense that there is this mood for sharing but it just seems a little frostier. It takes a shift in the people that are in the area. You know, we talk jokingly about the North/South divide, but people are slightly different.
AA: For whatever reason, there was the mood here originally when you guys started this that something needed to be done – and maybe there were a few that were a bit dubious, but actually it’s been very good. When we talk to people about it, sometimes they’ll say, ‘Yeah, that’s great – how many projects do you get out of it?’ But it’s not about that. It can be, but you can’t go into it saying that you’ll be getting a project worth however much after twelve months. If you think selfishly, that’s when you start to think, ‘But aren’t we competing for projects?’ Of course we’re not – for contract work, we’re competing with everyone across the world, not the people next door to you.
PP: There’s definitely a certain pragmatism in Yorkshire that you do what’s right for everyone rather than what’s necessarily right for you. We’ve all been through bad times, studio closures, and certainly when we started Game Republic it was about trying to use all of our strengths together so we can all carry on in existence doing what we do best.
More and more studios are using contract workers, but in order to sustain this model these workers need a base where they can be sure of various work opportunities. Do you think Yorkshire can provide that?
EG: It already does. There are many contractors based here that do very well. And, because the heads of the companies talk with each other, we can find somewhere else for them to go once their period is up. There’s lots of work around for them.
MB: I think it’s probably different depending on the skill set, but certainly audio and art more than programming – those skills can be transferred; so they don’t always need to be in the studio. In my experience, over the past four or five years there have been a number of people in use by studios working on that sort of thing.
PP: I think everyone is trying to keep their costs down and their workforce to a manageable level so that they don’t have issues between projects, so it’s a great place to be if you’re a contractor. If there’s not work in one studio, there’s likely some at other studios in the area.
Do you ever share staff? Many studios have talked about it, but seem to be worried about confidentiality concerns.
PP: Absolutely, it happens a lot. At the end of the day, you’ve got NDAs in place. It’s just access to more contractors.
EG: We’ve got absolutely no interest in shafting each other here – we want to help each other. That means that, if we’ve got someone who’s not busy and someone else needs them, it suits all of us – I don’t have to pay their wages for a while, and when I’m busy again they’ll come back. It’s the best of both worlds, really.
How is the games education scene in Yorkshire?
PP: It’s fantastic, really. We’ve got two universities in Leeds, two in Sheffield, and Hull, which is now Skillset accredited. It’s fantastic. They’ll talk to us, and we’ll review projects and get involved with them. We’ve talked about the content of the courses
EG: The universities have really made an effort to make sure their courses are useful and relevant. It was the case years ago that you’d get a graduate and have to train them, but these days they come almost ready to go.
PP: We’re getting to the point in this region where they’re considering courses on game design and production, whereas originally it was just art and programming.
AA: And that’s an area we’re interested in. I think a lot of the people who come out of these courses often only know one thing, and it’s just starting to change. We’re talking to Sheffield Hallam and Sheffield University about getting more involved, and we’re
really interested in the artistic and creative side – helping them understand it
holistically instead of just being focused on one aspect.
JS: I think the links are important because we want the best students here too. Game Republic does a showcase, which gives direct links between students and companies, and I know that several students have got placements and jobs in Yorkshire studios from coming to the showcase last year. It’s essential that games companies in our region talk to the universities.
PP: One thing that Game Republic has done in the past is sponsor students to have placements as well – we’ve had a couple of people come to the studio through this scheme and have ended up with jobs here.
JS: I think hearing that people have gone to university in the region and ended up with jobs in the local area is great for potential students. It’s really attractive for them.
You mentioned game design courses – is that something that can be taught?
AA: Well, it can teach them the process, and it can teach them to focus. You might have someone say ‘I’ve designed a game like GTA!’ but they might actually be very creative, they just need to learn to focus. A lot of it’s teamwork and communication – written as well as verbal. And also, people tend to have a style or genre of game that they play, and these courses can teach them about the breadth of the games industry. They have to understand the whole process, that there’s a lot of people involved in big projects. If you’re coming out of a course, regardless of whether you’re going into a big company or a small one, you need to understand that process.
The games development industry is becoming a much broader place in terms of ways to deliver games to people, and the types of people that play. Do you think Yorkshire is innovating in this way?
JS: I know at least three companies that are doing iPhone stuff already. There’s a huge breadth of companies doing stuff, from educational games to triple-A blockbusters.
MB: You just need to look at the guys at Rockstar Leeds and what they’ve done with the PSP and now the DS – technology-wise that’s world-class. I don’t think there’s any shortage of that in the region at all.
Do companies in the region own much of their own IP?
JS: The Screen Yorkshire business development fund encourages companies to keep hold of their IP and it’s really important to keep that in the region. We’re always involved in IP discussions and we advise companies on how to keep most of their IP, or certainly more than before.
MB: It’s been really difficult in the past ten years when we’ve been developing for closed systems, especially when it’s being funded by first- or third-parties. Certainly now that we’re with iPhone, PSP, WiiWare, DSi, XBLA and PSN we can retain that, and that’s where advice – where talking to groups like Game Republic – is really useful.
AA: You’ve got to be really, really strong even now to keep hold of it. We’ve been very straight: you can’t have our IP, no matter who you are. If the publishers know that from the start and they like what you’re doing, it’s not too bad. We were too scared to do that before, but now we’re brave enough.
Now is a bad time for companies across the board, let alone developers – do you think companies in this region will be able to weather the storm?
PP: Absolutely, yeah. It’s going to be difficult for a lot of people. But given the fact that, as we’ve said earlier, we help each other out, we’ll be stronger. If one of us has got downtime, then we’ll contract to each other, and I think that puts us in a very good stead.
EG: That’s right – I think we’ve got the best chance here, given that Game Republic exists.
MB: I don’t think we’ve got any unwieldly studios either – Sumo are always very busy, Rockstar Leeds is obviously doing brilliantly, and we’re really busy at Team 17 too. We’re not reliant on other publishers, which is a great thing, but it means we can’t bloat and have to be quite lean. A lot of the third-party publishers are suffering somewhat, and it’s nice not to be connected to that. Alex and Tuna are doing all sorts of things, Charles Cecil is busy with the Broken Sword stuff on Wii and DS. So, speaking about right now, we’re all pretty busy.
PP: I think what a lot of us do is spread our risk – we’ve not got one great big project that’s going to take the studio down with it if we sink.
Elliot Gay, MD of Gamerholix and chairman of Game Republic
Founded in 2005, GamerHolix is a cross-platform developer that focuses on fostering relationships with others. Worked on Little Britain: The Game, and is now doing the Clever Kids range.
Martyn Brown, studio director, Team 17
Founded in 1990 and predominantely known for Worms of recent times, Team 17 is now deep-rooted in the digital download sector. Working on various Worms titles, an update of Alien Breed and Leisure Suit Larry.
Paul Porter, studio head, Sumo
Sumo was founded in 2003, and now has 130 staff. It works on all platforms, from DS to PS3, and is currently working on OutRun Arcade and Virtua Tennis 2009.
Alex Amsel, CEO, Tuna
Tuna is an independent developer set up in 1996, working on contract work – over 70 games – but these days working on IGF-nominated ‘claymation’ game Cletus Clay on XBLA and other non-game projects.
Jamie Sefton, sector manager, Game Republic
Game Republic is an organisation that aims to develop and promote the games industry in Yorkshire and Humberside.