Cambridge is often overlooked as a development hub, but its steady growth looks set to continue. Ed Fear caught up with some of the city’s studios to find out what makes it a good place to base a game company and their views on education in the industry.
Creative Director, Sony Cambridge
Founder and CEO, Zoonami
Co-founder and CTO, Ninja Theory
Chairman, Frontier Developments
Head of MechScape, Jagex
Do you think Cambridge has a strong development community?
David Braben: The great thing about Cambridge is that, partly thanks to the university, but also partly thanks to the companies like Acorn, a lot of people were here because of that whole scene around the BBC Micro. Certainly there are a lot of people who are no longer in Cambridge, but it’s a very fertile place to recruit from.
I think we’ve reached a critical mass in that there are a lot of other developers here, and now there’s a pool of talent – plus we’ve got an awful lot of people who are not in games, but are in techy subjects that are very close – so it’s a very good place for employment.
James Shepherd: It’s expanded over the past 15 years. In a sense, a lot of us are children of Millenium Interactive – Mike went off and founded Ninja Theory, some stayed at Sony, and then there’s Nicely Crafted, Bob and Barn – so we’ve all kind of grown up and as we’ve done so all these companies have formed. Hopefully that’ll continue – the people we’re employing now will spread out even further.
Henrique Olifiers: Jagex has grown from 180 to almost 400 people in the last three years, and most of them are recruited from Cambridge. But even those that don’t come locally – those who come from London or Oxford – are easy to lure because of the city itself. It’s very lively, it’s very young. People in our industry are usually young and outgoing.
Martin Hollis: And intelligent, too. It’s a cosmopolitan city – you can walk down a street and hear five languages, and people discussing their PhD subject or start-up idea. It’s quite a remarkable city in that respect.
DB: There’s actually quite a big start-up community in Cambridge as well, both inside and outside games, so it’s a very fertile ground. There’s a lot of popele coming in from London and elsewhere in the country. We’re a very central location – London’s just an hour away, and you can get to the North easily.
We do a lot of things with the university too, which is a very positive thing – not just careers fairs, but talking there and having a lot of people come here, whether it’s for sandwich years or whatever. So I think having the university there on the doorstep is a good thing, and you hear about things like research projects early. It’s all little things that aren’t obvious benefits but all add up to a big positive.
HO: Jagex came out of Cambridge University – RuneScape was born from our founder’s project there – but, aside from help with placements and so on, we don’t have a massive amount of people coming from there.
JS: We do talks there, and the careers fair, but we have relationships with some other universities where we’re contributing to their coursework and we’re tutoring the universities, and some years we take four of five students.
It’s good – we’ve found a relationship where it benefits the students and, in a bit of a crass way, we can cream off their best staff. It sounds awful, but while research projects are great, the total direct benefit isn’t as tangible as if, say, you’ve got a project green-lit and you suddenly need 30 artists.
Mike Ball: We’ve had some relationships with universities but not a particularly close one with Cambridge. We’ve kind of felt like Cambridge has ignored games to a certain extent, and meanwhile the games industry has gained more credibility over the years.
DB: Actually, I think that it’s quite a forward-thinking university. They’ve been interested in the common technologies, certainly, but not in games per se – and that’s because games have been seen in a negative light, until a few years ago, when we as an industry became more visible.
I don’t think that’s just Cambridge, though. I’ve ranted a lot about the rise of the Computer Games course, where the lecturer don’t have much familiarity with what they’re teaching—
JS: No! No! You’re opening a can of worms! You’re totally right, totally right. There are quite a few game design courses where, when we meet the students, we don’t think they’re being taught the right stuff.
DB: There is a big positive in education – things like Dare to be Digital and Skillset are making positive moves towards capturing this enthusiasm held by students that’s currently getting squashed by the universities.
But there are a lot of courses where I think they’re teaching whatever’s at hand. They’re not coherent courses; they haven’t worked out which discipline they’re trying to teach. They teach very, very lightweight programming in things like Java without touching on the problems, and the same with animation.
MH: The hardest one of all is game design. It’s preposterous to contemplate at the moment – I don’t think the industry understands it well enough to teach it. I think most people are flying on their gut.
JS: We had a lecturer come in from a university that shall remain nameless, and he asked us what we thought of his course. We said that we didn’t really like it, and when he asked for our advice we told him to set his student to design a toilet, or a telephone box, or a building, because the fundamental laws of design run through everything to some degree.
We find people who say, “Oh, I don’t want to work on that, I only know how to design for first-person shooters” – but design is the same.
HO: It seems to be that everyone has tried the Unreal Engine at some point, like they’re carpet bombing them with level design – but that’s level design, not game design.
DB: That’s my point about teaching what’s at hand – because that’s to hand, it’s easier to teach, but they’re not really teaching it; they’re showing it. That’s the sad thing; there’s no plan for what they’ll learn at the end of it. Speaking to people on Dare to be Digital, they say, “Wow, if only we’d done this at the beginning of our course, we’d have known what we had to learn.”
And that’s a real indictment that the course isn’t teaching them anything, other than something like Media Studies – they’re studying games, which most gamers have already done at home through their hobby anyway.MH: And probably for longer than three years, too.
So how do you address that?
DB: Universities are incentivised in the wrong way. I’ve been on the advisory board for Birmingham University for a long time, but trying to get them to put maths in a course is hard. They get the same amount of money if they get a bum on a seat, regardless of the material – but some courses are harder and cost more money to teach.
I’ve just joined the board of Skillset, which is trying to get these courses to conform to some sort of standard. Out of 80-plus, there are only four that are accredited, which is terrible. We’re trying very very hard to help, but it requires a slight change in attitude. If certified courses got more from the Government, that would help hugely.
The more I talk about this, the more students see that when we come to get people it really matters what they do on their course. At the moment, I would strongly recommend a course without games in its titles – Computer Science, Physics, Maths.
MH: And if you want to be a designer, play games for three years – or even better, be a games writer for three years.
JS: We had one guy who came in this year for a work placement. He was only 18, and he wanted some experience because even he was aware that his course was completely rubbish. We’ve got a one-day Games Eden conference soon bringing together educators and developers, and we think that’s hopefully a little small step for some local change.
DB: Some courses are better than others, so I don’t want to tar them all with the same brush – there are people out there really trying.
HO: I think it’s a real shame that indie development is happening on its own and not inside universities. The games that you see that are breaking new boundaries for design – they’re not coming from the universities. Every other media – fashion design, or painting – those talents come out of the universities.
MH: I disagree completely. Narbacular Drop came out of a university in the US. Valve looked at those guys and they said, “We think we can plug this into what we have.” Several years of development later they have Portal.
When I go to shows, the most innovative games I see are by people like [fl0w designer] Jenova Chen. There’s multiple examples, but most of the interesting stuff is two or three people, they don’t know what they’re doing, but they make a game at university.
HO: What I mean is, look at something like St. Martin’s: it’s a great university for fashion design, and everyone recognises that it’s the top. We don’t have that for games – we don’t have anything that produces that kind of challenging student.
MH: I don’t think there’s anything like that yet, but in the US and in Japan there are places that are starting to do that. They’ll produce, say, 20 projects in a year, and three of them will be interesting. There’s none of them in the UK, though, which is a real shame.
JS: I tend to agree in some ways. We try to set up research projects, or sometimes we’re doing a concept where we really want to go to a university and ask if they’ve got any research to help a project, and we often come a bit unstuck with slightly pointless arguments about who’s going to own the rights. Whereas in Bournemouth [home of the UK’s famed animation school] it’s pretty clear that it’s theirs, we only give them a little bit of help, and then we can actually grab the student.
There’s got to be some discussion about that – it could be a lot better than it is. We’d love to do it more, we’ve tried to set up about five or six research projects with universities around the country, and about two thirds of them have fallen through because of really boring legal things.
DB: And it’s a real shame that it falls on that rather than on something technical.
But how do we tempt those skilled graduates to game development, when there’s so many horror stories about quality of life and much more money – up until recently, at least – to be had in the City?
MH: Well, you hear stories about young kids joining these banks, doing 80 hour weeks, a golden handcuffs deal so that you can’t get out early… so there’s actually quite some analogy there. [All laugh]
JS: We actually had a guy who left because he wasn’t happy with the salary he was getting. So he joined a merchant bankers, and then a year later he came back. After three months he’d found it incredibly boring – there was no challenge, nothing interesting. So the way we get people in is by touting the innovation and the challenges: rather than building a database you can be doing a particle system, or a rendering or physics system.
DB: And at banks, it’s solving the same problems again and again; there’s nothing to keep you excited. It’s very easy to knock other industries, but it’s a very different mindset – although I don’t see a huge amount of enthusiasm when people are talking about it.
Bringing it back to Cambridge – do you find it easy to tempt people away from London?
MH: Yeah. Living in London is hard – the communiting is miserable, and after two to five years people tend to get tired of it.
MB: We’ve hired quite a few people from London and we always find that once you get them to actually come up here and find a bit more about the city, see the quality of life
you can have here – it’s a really appealing place to live. It’s also the top city where, as the industry gets older, they can see it’s a great place to raise a family.
JS: Definitely. It’s 45 minutes from London, so if you want to do the shows, museums or whatever, you can. We have transfers from other Sony studios who think, “I’ve reached a certain age, I want to start a family, it looks nice around here.” And that’s good for us, because once they settle that’ll probably be there lot.
MB: One of the aims of [local developers group] Games Eden from the start was to try to promote the region as an area for games development, and the more we can do that, the more people we’ll be able to attract from the London and Guildford areas.
In terms of the development community in Cambridge, is there any sort of studio interaction?
DB: Aside from seeing each other walking about, no. There probably should be.
MH: Different developers have different cultures, and a lot focus just on making their games. But we do have Games Eden to make developers connect and share information, because that can make the difference between a successful business and an unsuccessful one.
We try to promote developers talking to the community, talking to educators and to be more extroverted. It’s been going for over a year now, funded by the local Government agencies, and there’s regular events.
JS: Well, when Sony worked with Ninja Theory we worked hand-in-hand for a period, and now they’re off doing their own thing.
MH: I think cross-developer partnerships are going to be happening more and more. If there’s the geographical proximity it’s so much easier than teleconferencing every day.
DB: There’s also the unofficial community – a lot of people meet up in pubs. A lot of people know each other socially. I think it’s very healthy, to let people know what’s going on. I’m sure there’s a lot of gossip going on.
What more do you think could be done to help foster a community in Cambridge?
JS: The truth is, we’ve all got our projects, we’ve all got our deadlines and we’re focused on that. What I’d quite like to be able to say is ‘I need three designers for three months, but I’ve also got two programmers with experience in XYZ that I don’t need right now.’ To be able to do that, rather than hire an insourcer or temp, that would be potentially great.
MB: I suppose your hands would be tied by the publisher, I suppose – I think it might make it difficult to share.