Develop investigates the burgeoning game development scene in the UK's Western counties
It’s little surprise that the UK’s South West region is popular with tourists.
The scenery is beautiful, the locals’ disposition is notoriously friendly, and, while the rest of the UK is famed for grey skies, counties like Devon, Cornwall and Gloucestershire enjoy ample attention from the sun. Scattered with surfing hotspots and serving as a hub for a variety countercultural movements, the South West is also hugely popular with young adults looking to escape big city life.
But the very elements that make the area so admired by vacationers have also permeated a myth that the South West is some kind of idyllic rural wasteland, where jobs are few and the challenges for businesses are many.
For that reason it may surprise some – including those who have been on holiday there – to find out that the South West’s games industry is sizeable.
“Over the last few years Bristol and the South West has been a bit of a secret compared to locations more traditionally associated with games development,” suggests James Parker, design director at multiplatform and multiscreen specialist Opposable Games.
His studio’s home in the city of Bristol, the region’s most populous urban sprawl, puts the Opposable team in a hub awash with creative start-ups where, like the rest of the area, there’s plenty of good reasons to set up shop.
Studio space is apparently up to six or seven times cheaper in the South West than in Central London. The UK capital is closer to Bristol than many of the UK’s northerly hubs. Space is plentiful across the area, and the same things that delight tourists are perfect for developers with families.
As a result smaller studios and start-ups have sprung up in the area in droves, as Ella Romanos, CEO of Plymouth studio Remode, and a key figure in organising the ExPlay video games festival, explains.
“It’s definitely dominated by smaller studios,” she says of the area. “There are lots of small indies and microstudios. These are outfits that have mainly sprung up in recent years to take advantage of changes in the industry, so we’re talking mobile and online output mainly.”
Romanos goes on to highlight that while most of the local games companies are small at present, most are growing, and with the wider changes in the industry it is only a matter of time before the region’s games sector becomes more substantial.
Meanwhile, as Armin Elsaesser, producer at Bristol’s Fluffy Logic points out,
console-focused studios have less of a hold in the area nowadays.
“Although the South West has hosted quite a few console and triple-A studios in the past, generally the focus here has been on new media with smaller mobile and web developers. Fluffy Logic is currently one of the few console games companies based in the South West, which seems a real shame.”
While Elsaesser makes clear Fluffy Logic would enjoy a little competition in the console space, he also sees that established publishers’ current fascination with mobile could bring the gaming giants to the area.
“Before long [publishers] will be as visible and involved in mobile as they are in other, more established areas, and whilst self-publishing has its benefits, there is also a lot to be said for involving established publishers,” he says.
Another strength of the area is in the realm of work for hire, says games consultant, former Mobile Pie team member and Bristol-based Develop columnist Will Luton.
“There’s a lot of service work in web and mobile,” he states. “Bristol has always had a great digital media scene, but it’s been around work for hire, so I think that kind of trickles down to the games start-ups,”
Luton also suggests that, because the South West doesn’t have a very aggressive investment culture, numerous companies are particularly lean and boot-strapped, which makes own IP a difficult option and service work, such as working on established brands or filling outsourcing roles in art or other areas, the more stable business plan.
Another strength in the region, and one evident in collective efforts likes the ExPlay games festival is the community shared between studios in the South West.
“We’ve always found the Bristol community to be very focused on collaboration,” insists Ben Templeton, co-founder of educational gaming outfit Thought Den. “There isn’t anywhere near as much rivalry between studios as I’ve noticed in London. It can be quite incestuous at times, but often this means the bar is constantly being raised because the knowledge and skills are being shared among the community.”
And a sense of togetherness proliferates across the region. Romanos’ role as curator of ExPlay puts her at the very centre of this development community.
“ExPlay is the main driver for that community, but the companies in the area all know each other and often work with each other, so it’s something that we’re active with,” she explains. “ExPlay has monthly meet-ups in Plymouth and Bristol as well as game jams and the yearly conference, so we meet a lot of people through those.”
And that community is anything but a clique. This year’s ExPlay Game Jam is taking place in both Bristol and London, offering a chance for the South West community to mix further afield.
A natural extension to a games industry community is collaboration; a practice sometimes hampered by the necessity of embargoes and secrecy. Yet despite such concerns, studios in the South West have plenty of experience of working as one.
“There is a lot of motivation for companies meeting up, sharing ideas and knowledge and collaborating on projects,” states Alex Ryley, MD of Plymouth-based 2D specialist Mutant Labs, which co-founded ExPlay with Remode.
“There always seems to be a party, a game jam or a developer meet up going on, helping the community get together.”
Some, however, argue that too much emphasis on regional community can project a parochial image on a global stage.
“There are others in Bristol and the South West of course, but we are competing on a global basis, so don’t feel hugely ‘regional’ and don’t want to be perceived as such,” says Oli Christie, CEO of mobile developer Neon Play, based in the Gloucester countryside.
“We don’t apologise for being a regional, even rural developer; we just happen to be here with a great team making incredible games that have done pretty well.”
Aside from the merits of the South West’s development community, aided by its game jams and get-togethers, there’s also a broader regional trend from beyond the games industry that has seen local studios foster a powerful sense of individuality.
“The South West has a strong independent spirit to it – we’re often overlooked by London and the other major areas of the country so it’s tended to develop a ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude,” offers Mobile Pie founder Richard Wilson.
“A result of this is that we’ve seen a big growth in the number of freelancers and microstudios in the area. A lot of the microstudios take on commissioned work – I suspect as a way to maintain financial independence for their own games.”
And, of course, there’s the aforementioned and renowned quality of life.
“The fantastic lifestyle offered by the surrounding area combined with good transportation routes into London tempted us to open our office here,” explains Mike Hawkyard, new business director of Bournemouth casual studio 4T2.
“It originally helped that very few of our clients visited our office – we’d go and see them – so it made little difference where we were physically located. These days more of the clients do make the journey, with a high percentage staying over for the weekend.”
Of course, to paint a completely rosy picture of the South West would be unrealistic as, like many games development hubs, the region has challenges to tackle; mainly on the issue of recruitment.
“Before the recession Bristol was full of talent, but we’re finding it harder and harder to make decent hires,” admits Thought Den’s Templeton. “This is largely because the industry is becoming more competitive and talent is costing more and more.”
Along with others from the region, Templeton suggests a locally-focused online portal for the South West may serve as something of a solution.
Luton, meanwhile, has a different angle on the recruitment issue.
“We need more mature talent, especially in the creative and business side,” he says. “There’s a little bit of naïvety in these areas, I think. That will come with the maturing of the companies and increased turnovers than can attract it too.”
And it’s not only humble indies that face the recruitment challenge in the area. Dan Efergan is creative director at the digital wing of iconic Wallace and Gromit animator – and now games developer – Aardman, which has been based in the South West since 1972.
“It’s pretty hard,” concedes Efergan. “We have a pretty good ability to pull in good people. Aardman comes with the benefit of being a household name but even so it can be hard to get people to commit.
“We try and work with the best from across the nation, and that means people working at Aardman are making a lifestyle decision, to move to Bristol, on top of a career decision.”
Remode’s Romanos, however, is upbeat about the recruitment challenge, pointing to that aforesaid quality of life as a strong pull for those looking for work outside of London.
“I think it is fairly easy to attract talent,” she insists. “We tend to find that people either love or hate the idea of living here – if you like the outdoors or have a family, then it can be a great place to live. If you want an urban lifestyle then it’s probably not for you.”
Aside from challenges around recruitment, some feel the departure of the traditional large-scale studios from the region has left the South West lacking a special something.
“Gone are the days when you had triple-A studios like Psygnosis in Stroud, Acclaim in Cheltenham, Hot House in Bristol and Microprose,” states Neon Play’s Christie. “But there are a handful of games developers doing good things and hopefully that will encourage more indie studios to grow here.”
The final challenge, some feel, is a matter of education. Despite the likes the University of Plymouth building a strong reputation in the games space for its courses, locally trained talent, and attracting those from further afield to study in the area, remains tough considering the geographical size of the territory.
“Although some of the colleges such as the University of the West of England have started offering courses in computer games development, with links to placements, which have proved useful as we often take on placement students and up-skill them with real world industry experience, it is still hard to attract talent to the South West,” adds Fluffy Logic’s Elsaesser.
Fortunately, however, the South West has made good inroads in its presence on the wider UK games development stage, attracting the attention of national trade bodies and global business partners.
“I am on the TIGA board alongside Ella Romanos and Oli Christie, so the South West is well represented there,” says 42T’s Hawkyard.
“The UKTI have been very helpful in helping 4T2 visit, exhibit and network overseas. They also organised a well-attended event for the creative sector to coincide with the Olympic sailing in Weymouth recently. Creative England is also active in the area.”
Despite the challenges facing the area, optimism abounds, and according to Dan Livingstone, founder of Interactive Systems Studio and course leader of the University of Plymouth’s BSc in computing and games design, some of those who have moved away from the area are now returning.
“There is an interesting cycle here; experienced developers are returning to the region after years in the sector,” suggests Livingstone.
“Start ups are increasingly staying in the region – a decade ago a new team would migrate to London, five years ago to Bristol. More recently these teams have had the confidence to stay even more local to build their studios.”
The last word, however, goes to Mutant Labs Ryley, who offers an enthusiastic prediction of the future of the games business in the region.
“I’m very optimistic about its future,” says Ryley. “There seem to be more initiatives for funding in the region to support games companies, and trade bodies such as TIGA have been forging strong ties down here.
“It’s great to have organisations like TIGA taking a stand on a national level for the industry, and lobbying government to help improve the general environment for games companies in the UK.
“The main challenge is making sure that the local authorities capitalise on the interest in the region being shown by national government and regional trade bodies.”
If that problem can be solved, things look good for the South West’s on going rise to prominence. Every day the area’s impact on the games business increases, and at the going rate, in another five years it could emerge as a global bastion of the new era of mobile and social development.