Region Focus: Midlands, UK

Region Focus: Midlands, UK
Aaron Lee

By Aaron Lee

September 12th 2013 at 4:30PM

Develop checks in on the Leamington Spa dev cluster and its surrounding neighbours

[This feature was published in the September 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]

*This feature appeared in our September 2013 issue, before the closure of Blitz Games Studios.

As the birthplace of Codemasters and Rare, its fair to say that the provinces of middle England, often known as the Heart of England, are also Britain’s heart of games development.

Composed of development and publishing arms, Codies and its contemporaries are responsible for giving many of today’s successful UK games makers their first crucial step on the games development ladder.

Indeed, Blitz Games Studios co-founder and CTO Andrew Oliver believes this is the case: “The Midlands has become a hot bed of developers. This mostly stems from the great success of UK indie publisher Codemasters in the mid-80s.

“It was based on a farm, between Southam and Leamington, with most people who worked with them or for them living in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire.”

Along with Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire and each of their notable cities, the Midlands is an attractive region for a wide breadth of games development creativity and services.

Yet the region has had it knocks in the last five years, as widely known, stalwart firms such as Eurocom have gone under. Faced with the shifting business practices and a need for fresh talent, Develop asked what’s next for Midlands’ developers.

CODIES’ LEGACY

“I believe rather than defining the area, the early players like Elite Systems, Codemasters, US Gold and so on were the roots from which many of the current Midlands studios have grown,” Playground Games director Trevor Williams tells Develop.

“For instance, pretty much every studio in the Leamington area has some historic connection to Codemasters. But I think that is just history rather than there being any legacy which defines the games that are made in the region itself.”

There are now over 1,000 games developers within a 15-mile radius of Leamington Spa. There you will find console houses including Blitz Games, FreeStyleGames and Playground Games; fresh-faced mobile outfits such as Caperfly and Pixel Toys; and creative digital agencies and services firms such as Fish in a Bottle and Audiomotion that have made a name for themselves and have the awards to prove it.

“This is a very affluent town and the game industry definitely still defines the area, especially in and around Leamington – or Silicon Spa as it’s affectionately known,” Oliver adds fondly.

The Blitz co-founder’s comments hold water. Not to be outdone by London’s burgeoning ‘Silicon Roundabout’ tech hub, which is yet to truly be embraced as an umbrella label by the capital’s new games developers, Silicon Spa is home to no less than 15 game studios, as well as a number of outsourcing and services firms.

Such is the region’s prowess that Playground’s Williams believes it is now the most capable in country: “The Midlands is obviously home to the last traditional UK publisher, Codemasters, but also some of the newer UK mobile publishers, like NaturalMotion. So rather than being typified by a particular model, the Midlands can probably claim to have a more diverse range of game company types than any other area.”

DEFINED BY DIVERSITY

Speaking to other developers, it’s apparent that diversity and adaptability are central traits for Midlands businesses, as a single studio model or development methodology doesn’t really exist.

“It’s hard to tell whether studios like Rebellion are the exception or the norm for the region. On the one hand we’ve been know for triple-A games built with our own technology, but we’ve also embraced new platforms and self-publishing in the same way that start-ups in the Midlands have to,” says Rebellion CEO Jason Kingsley, whose studio is known for producing console titles, like Alien vs Predator (2010), but in the recent past has made a name for itself with smartphone hits such as Judge Dredd vs Zombies.

He continues: “Of course you have larger, established studios in the area, but even the Oxford scene is incredibly diverse – only a couple of weeks ago some of our devs were rubbing shoulders with the likes of NaturalMotion and First Touch Games at a Special Effect charity football tournament, and they’re both just round the corner.”

Nick Craig, VP of operations at Codemasters Birmingham, agrees with Kingsley’s thinking: “From Codemasters Birmingham’s point of view, we are fortunate to have experienced many models – from triple-A with the likes of the Formula One series, to client work when it was Swordfish Studios, and today we have an element of microstudio culture with our digital team. It’s more important than ever before not to become set in your ways and be able to respond to an industry and a consumer that’s constantly maturing.”

NaturalMotion CTO Simon Mack, too, sees the region as being full of diversity: “There is a mix of everything. The area has a broad and extensive range of companies – from micro, start-ups, mobile, console – that’s an expansive range of different experience in a single geographic area.”

IN SEARCH OF TALENT

Despite unified agreement that Midlands developers are adaptable and highly skilled, the last five years have seen closures across its provinces, and the subsequent loss of teams that have long been part of the UK industry. Monumental Games in Nottingham. Bigbig Studios in Leamington Spa. And Eurocom in Derby.

These have been serious hits for the games development community in the Midlands, but Blitz Games Oliver says the region is coping: “There haven’t been any big surprises recently. Thankfully, it’s been a while since we saw the collapse of a few Midlands companies like Bigbig Studios. But like other places, this led to a few new
start-ups in the area. Most companies are staying at around the same size, but have moved into mobile development and digital distribution methods, rather than console and boxed products.

“The industry itself is incredibly challenging at the moment, regardless of the size of company or games. I think Midlands-based companies are riding the waves smoother than I’ve seen in other areas.”

Even so, Julian Widdows, VP at Codemasters Development Southam, warns that the real trouble for Midlands devs right now is the hunt for new talent: “Within the region we have more roles than candidates, and competition is stiff for the best developers. There’s a great influx of graduates to the area, but as we know we’ve lost a lot of talent overseas during the past decade and this has meant we have to work harder to find and retain the really experienced developers who either live or want to live in the UK.

“More than anything we want people to understand what an amazing part of the world this is, and speak to people who live and work here about what the region has to offer.”

Fortunately, the Midlands has some of the top universities when it comes to educating the finer poitns of games making.

Institutions such as Staffordshire University (Develop #139) and the University of Derby train some of today’s most skilled young programmers and artists, many of whom compete in competitions like Dare to be Digital and Make Something Unreal.

“Collaboration between the games industry and education has always been important, and it’s always both sides that benefit,” says Oliver. “We have our two local universities, Warwick and Coventry, both with games courses that work closely with local games companies, including Blitz, for advice on course content. It’s great when their graduates go straight on to work in local development studios.”

Widdows adds: “We have some superb technical courses at a whole range of Midlands Universities including and not limited to Staffordshire, Warwick, Aston and Birmingham University. Our Racing Studio, at our Warwickshire HQ, has had amazing success hiring, training and developing graduate talent, and it’s something we’re really proud of – something we believe speaks volumes about the quality of the experienced staff we have here.”

Getting more specific, Playground’s Williams sees two issues which stand out to him as being particularly important for the Midland’s mix of console and mobile studios: “Mobile developers are in many cases are now able to retain and exploit their own IP.

“That is a good thing. However, they now need to be able to learn the skills to take that IP to market and make money out of it. I think there are some hard learnings ahead for some of those companies.

“At Playground, we obviously focus on large-scale console titles. There has been much speculation about team sizes and resource costs for next-gen games. I think that debate goes beyond manpower. The IT infrastructure alone required to build those games is challenging for an indie company. It would be a shame to see large-scale next-gen devs restricted to publisher-owned studios, so we need to find a way of rationalising those costs.”

TENACITY OF SPIRIT

Williams makes solid points. Both Microsoft and Sony have brought their next generation platforms more within reach of indies and microstudios. But, as for the fate of large, independent developers, only the next couple of years will reveal whether the console ecosystem can really support such hefty team sizes, should the console audience continue to decline at its current rate.

Nonetheless, ask Williams whether the development scene in the Midlands is experiencing a purple patch and the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

Richard Tawn, art director at outscouring development studio Exient, sums up what many in the area feel: “The Midlands dev scene is most certainly thriving. In recent years, we have witnessed some big publishers move in, bringing large projects with them and this has naturally attracted talent from established studios who, in turn, needed to re-recruit or promote existing staff to fill those roles left open.

“The Midlands is home to many small independent studios as well as larger independents and there is a real sense of family in the area, with many developers crossing between studios on a contractual or semi-permanent basis.”

Mick Morris, managing director of Audiomotion, has the final word on the region: “The area has always been full of pioneers from the early days of bedroom coders with the likes of the Olivers, the Darlings and the Stampers. In 1997, I recall Geoff Brown making predictions around DLC, which were way ahead of their time.

“They’ll fight hard if there’s the threat of closure and they regroup and start again. I’ve witnessed it many times. We see it all over – that audacious willingness to start new studios. But I find the Midlands devs to be an incomparable lot; determined and armed with a certain tenacity of spirit.”

CASE STUDY: PLAYGROUND GAMES

Playground Games has been around for just over three years, and in that time it has grown to well over 100 staff, released its debut title on Xbox 360 and won a stack of awards for its efforts.

It would be easy for some in such a position to get slapdash after such sterling achievements, but CEO Trevor Williams is not about to be complacent.

“I think we are more focused on excellence rather than output. Quality over quantity. We are looking to improve our games each time. Horizon was great, but we want our next game to be even better and are very much working towards that,” he tells Develop.

At this year’s Develop Awards, the studio took home the prize for best New Studio, and Williams explain that it meant a great deal to him and his staff: “It was recognition, and perhaps even validation, of the last three years hard work. We’ve heard it suggested that we’ve had it easy having Microsoft as partners. It’s true that they have been fantastic partners to work with, but it has still been tremendously hard work. We had to build a studio, a team and a game all at the same time.

“When we first signed our deal with Microsoft’s Turn 10 there was just 16 of us rattling around in a small scruffy studio. At our peak we had 108 on-site staff and also managed a number of third-party vendors who were also supplying resource. We had to build that infrastructure in ten months. It was a crazy time.”

Now, the Leamington Spa-based developer is gearing up for the next generation. Playground has started work on an Xbox One project and is continuing its relationship with Microsoft. That’s shaping up to be something special, “a showcase title” Williams says. It is also forming a small mobile team with ambitions to move into mobile development in future. And all of this means that the studio is in need of new recruits.

Williams continues: “I think we are also quite distinctive in the way we recruit. We do not have HR or recruitment managers involved. Obviously we have administrative HR functions to support the hiring managers, but all of our recruitment and interviewing is carried out by the department heads. That is very onerous on them – they have day jobs after all – but it really streamlines the recruitment process.

“They know better than anyone what they are looking for in the candidates, but it also means anyone who interviews with us gets to interact with their discipline head at interview. Moving up to Xbox One has also created some very specific needs. We need to grow by a further 25 per cent – so we are looking for about 24 people.”

Finally, Williams says: “Playground is a creatively focused company. Many UK devs are actually technology focused – whether they realise it or not. Everyone on our team is enabled – in fact encouraged – to have design input. Pretty much everyone at Playground plays games – even the IT guys. You put those two things together and you have a very powerful creative force.”

www.playground-games.com