Is this dev sector thriving at a time when Britain is in the grip of economic turmoil? Develop finds out
If you’re in doubt as to Scotland’s impact on the global games industry, consider this. Grand Theft Auto V is currently in production in the nation’s capital city of Edinburgh.
Quite simply, perhaps the most culturally important video game series of all time is a product of Scotland.
And yet triple-A is but one facet of the country’s rich variety of developers and games-related organisations. Indie games education and social also thrive in the UK’s northerly most region, making an impact felt the world over.
“In common with the rest of the UK development sector, Scotland is world renowned for excellence in design and creativity,” offers Andy Semple, Rockstar North’s studio director.
“The Scottish sector benefits from the close relationship between the companies that operate in the development space and a strong program of games courses in higher education. There is a great willingness from those already in the business to foster and support new talent coming through.”
Positive stuff indeed from one of the world’s most respected games studios, but Semple isn’t alone in his optimistic outlook. So much so, in fact, that it’s hard to find more than a whisper of negativity when talking to those from inside the Scottish games sector.
“Scotland’s development scene is thriving, absolutely,” offers Professor Louis Natanson, academic director of the Institute for Arts, Media and Computer Games at renowned Dundee establishment the University of Abertay, in support of Semple’s statement.
“Realtime Worlds’ collapse sparked off a huge number of new start-ups focusing on different areas of the industry, which produces a healthy mix of different revenue models and approaches. It all helps make the Scottish scene much more diverse and much more resilient.”
Spend time talking to Scotland’s devs, and you’ll hear repeated talk of local diversity. It’s a point of pride for those making games in the region, and a sentiment firmly rooted in reality. And to many based there, the country’s industry reflects the global games business in microcosm.
“Rockstar as a triple-A studio is a pillar of the Scottish games industry. However that does not really typify the studio model in Scotland today,” insists Romana Ramzan, ‘player champion’ at Dundee’s digital toy boutique Denki.
“There is now a strong emphasis on small indie and innovative microstudios. If you consider the likes of ourselves, Cobra Mobile, Digital Goldfish and Tag Games you can see the basis of a strong, vibrant indie scene, and there are new innovative teams adding to that all the time.”
Paul Farley, CEO and founder of mobile studio and self-publisher Tag Games, adds: “It is testament to the forward-thinking nature of many Scottish games companies that we have had a very strong mobile development scene up here for many years.
“The beauty of the industry up here is however found in our diversity. It is genuinely difficult to define it or pigeonhole it on such terms.”
The reasons for Scotland’s multiplicity of studio models are manifold, and the contribution of both Rockstar and Abertay to the area certainly does much for the nation’s appeal to developers further afield, many of whom have made a home in games hub cities like Dundee and Edinburgh. But there is something else at work.
Sadly, it is in part due to the high-profile collapse of APB studio Realtime Worlds. That was two years ago, and Scottish devs have moved on, and as Farley points out – aping Natanson’s feeling – the closure has now had a positive impact.
“The impact of Realtime Worlds can still be felt in areas such as recruitment,” he says. “However, one silver lining from that particular cloud has been the number of start-up studios that it has either directly or indirectly spawned.”
The post-Realtime Worlds recovery started very quickly across the area, and a conscious and collective effort to support former staff from the studio began, meaning that in many ways, the company behind APB lives on, in spirit and through numerous local studios for from its remains.
“I think, rather than ploughing on regardless, we’ve collectively reinvented ourselves,” suggests Phil Wilson, project director and studio manager of eeGeo, a Dundee start-up wholly dedicated to creating a stylised 3D replica model of the real world and providing it as a flexible platform for apps and games.
“And I still see triple-A right across the local scene,” he adds. “Sometimes in the most unlikely places and on budgets that some wouldn’t get out of bed for – the
rate of change in the market is accelerating, but I think we’re doing better than just keeping up.”
That shift from triple-A to other models globally has left Rockstar North and Ruffian as the bastions of traditional console gaming in Scotland, and fostered a spirit of nimbleness that the nation’s developers seem particularly comfortable with.
“As the changes in the industry swept across the UK some console developers didn’t fair too well, but they have spawned smaller more agile microstudios handing more control to the people who make the games, and giving them the chance to connect more directly with their customers which is very exciting,” explains Richard Scott, executive producer and MD at influential animation house Axis.
The result is a high number of small and medium-sized studios that are better equipped than larger outfits to adapt, and in the current climate, being flexible is a matter of survival for many young companies.
“This kind of flexibility allows us and smaller developers to see a gap in the market and simply go for it,” states Mike Dailly, head of development at tool outfit, developer and publisher Yo-Yo Games.
“Scotland certainly has the talent to do this, and it has some great universities for up-and-coming developers, along with some very experienced developers already in the local industry.”
And, says Axis’ Scott, in spite of such clear local pride, Scotland’s studios have developed a globally-facing viewpoint that benefits all concerned.
“I think all people involved in games in Scotland have a very international focus," he says. “The entrepreneurial spirit means there is no fear of boundaries. This is very exciting and isn’t as prevalent in other creative industries in Scotland.”
While Scotland’s games making prowess isn’t always recognised, today it truly is one of the world’s leading players, and that is in part, many say, down to a sense of the value of community. Even giants like Rockstar North make sure to support initiatives like Abertay’s Dare to be Digital development contest for young games makers, for example.
“It’s very interconnected, with companies trying to maximise their creativity rather than building massive corporations,” proposes Abertay’s Natanson. “There’s a quite incredible collective community where everyone knows everyone else, which in Dundee, often centres around Abertay University.”
By now you’ll have noticed Abertay’s prominence in Scotland’s development community, and it’s not due to posturing on the establishment’s behalf.
“Dare to be Digital and Abertay University’s Prototype Fund typify the sector’s focus on innovation and creativity, as well as a ‘can do’ attitude of getting on with the business side of making video games,” says Rockstar North’s Semple.
“It is initiatives like these which will hopefully ensure graduates feel their futures lie in Scotland, or at least the UK, rather than in studios abroad, and in turn will attract talent to join the development community in Scotland.”
Prototype Fund has backed studios such as PLA Studios, Lucky Frame, Guerilla Tea and others. What that means on the ground is that, as Colin Urquhart, CEO of
Glasgow-based facial animation specialist Dimensional Imaging, explains, there’s enough locally trained talent to make a recruiters job relatively easy.
“Dimensional Imaging is currently recruiting and there certainly appears to be good a source of fresh talent coming out of both the more traditional science and engineering courses and the newer games related courses from the likes of Abertay and UWS,” he says.
Along with educators, government and trade bodies have an important role to play. And if you follow UK news, in recent weeks you’ll have no doubt noticed Scotland’s possible move to administrative independence, ending a 305-year political union with England and Wales.
But if Scotland does break free from its southern neighbours, what might it mean for games developers?
“It seems that the Scottish government is more willing to support the games industry than Westminster, and generally views it in a more positive light,” explains Rockstar North’s president Leslie Benzies.
“If Scotland does become independent hopefully the government will increase this support to help Scotland’s position as a ‘development bastion’ and national success story. I don’t feel this would be any kind of gamble; if the Scottish industry receives this support it will continue to go from strength to strength.
"If this were to happen, hopefully it would encourage Westminster to be prouder and more supportive of the UK games industry.”
Outside of national level government, Scotland’s developers generally agree that they are well supported by trade bodies, and even go as far as saying they must not rely on them too heavily.
“As a heavily R&D driven and export lead business, we enjoy very good support from Scottish Enterprise and Scottish Development International respectively,” states Dimensional Imaging’s Urquhart.
“Fundamentally, though the support of trade bodies and government should only be expected to play a relatively minor role in developing a business, the main drive for success must come from the business itself.”
Indeed, there are a wide range of existing initiatives and support available for Scottish developers, as Linda McPherson, creative industries director at Scottish Enterprise explains: “This includes regional selective assistance, a grant for job creation, used, for example recently by Serious Parody, eeGeo and Reloaded; equity investment, which has helped FanDuel and Outplay; and R&D support, which includes Rockstar North, who were awarded a £1 million grant from Scottish Enterprise, representing a 15 per cent contribution to an £8 million project.”
So, is Scotland’s games development industry thriving? The answer seems obvious.
“I believe it’s thriving,” offers Tag Games’ Farley, before looking to the future. “We have never had so many games companies. However, because of their age and size many still sit under the radar. Over the coming few years I fully expect we will have the commercial and critical acclaim to back up this underlying health.”
In summary, Rockstar North’s Benzies argues that while there isn’t a specific model or method that typifies Scotland’s dev scene, there is something that unites the way games are made in the country.
“A lot of the start-ups and developers we see know how important it is to be flexible when entering an industry that is evolving and broadening every day. If you’re of the mind-set that ‘we’re only going to develop our game this way’, it’s easy to get left behind if the wind changes.
“You have to have a firm idea of what your game, or your studio, is going to be, but be willing to adapt too. So I suppose that’s the Scottish way: passionate pragmatism.”
Globally, indie development thrives, but in Scotland in particular, the independent and small studio scene bristles with energy.
Here, some of its stars offer insight into what it’s like for indies based in the country.
“Right now, the biggest strength I can see is the diversity in games being made. Although, most of the companies are focused on similar platforms, the different genres and styles of games being made is fantastic.”
Manging Director, Tigerface Games
“The link between the universities – Abertay Dundee, Glasgow Caley and Edinburgh Napier – and the local games scene are one of the biggest strengths in Scotland. Having this ready-made talent pool makes it easy to recruit.”
Director, IGDA Scotland and Founder
Robot Overlord Games
“Microstudios is definitely a common theme [here], but I think one of the core things that many have in common beyond that is being ‘cute and quirky’. Denki are a great example of this, making a cute word-based game.”
Director, Tiger Games
“We’ve been making world-famous games here since DMA Design released things like Blood Money and Lemmings, decades ago. Large numbers of the staff who worked on these titles, went on to make Grand Theft Auto an so on, and are still actively involved in various roles.”
Director, Ingot Games
“Scotland’s games industry is as varied as the people who live here but its easy to see how the industry has changed over the last five-to-six years. The mobile games market is going from strength to strength.”
Peter van der Watt
Founder, Blazing Griffin
“A strong community spirit exists between the developers. That can be shown by the strong and consistent reaction the recent Creative Scotland report garnered from all and how, as one Scottish voice, we made it an international story.”