Region Focus: North East

Region Focus: North East
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

November 19th 2013 at 12:35PM

Develop takes a closer look at how studios in the area are working together to grow the region’s talent pool

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

You might be surprised by the games being developed in the North East.

It’s not just racing games like the Driver series and NASCAR. There are also some triple-A blockbusters and other popular franchises in the works, with local studios contributing to the likes of Watch Dogs, Just Dance, LittleBigPlanet, and EVE Online’s companion shooter Dust 514.

In fact, it’s not just games. Developers in the region have already got their hands on next-gen technology, or are collaborating with other entertainment industries.

“Pitbull is working on Unreal Engine 4,” declares Carri Cunliffe, director of Secret Sauce and North East developer network Game Kettle.

“People don’t realise that they’re doing that in the North East of England. There’s no way you would identify any of the titles developed here as a North East game. They don’t look regional – there’s lots of global IPs.”

Atomhawk MD Cumron Ashtiani adds: “We’ve worked on Driver, Dead Island and Mortal Kombat, but we’ve also helped with Thor: The Dark World and a few other movies – this stuff is being done in the North East. I tell people what we do and they assume we’re working in Soho. They almost do a double-take when we say we’re based in Newcastle.”

It’s a collective portfolio as varied as the studios behind it, which range from publisher-owned firms like Ubisoft Reflections to development stalwarts such as Eutechnyx and Pitbull – not to mention hundreds of smaller studios and indies.

And the best thing, according to Eutechnyx CEO Darren Jobling, is that this community has grown organically.

“It’s not been manufactured,” he explains. “The talent was here first, so all the early companies set up from that. A lot of people presume that it’s a university thing, but in fact it was an entrepreneurial thing.”

Perhaps more impressive is the extent to which these North East developers are willing to assist each other.

“Almost all studios now collaborate with other teams in some capacity to fill staffing requirements at different stages of development,” says Joe Stevens, MD at Newcastle-based start-up Whispering Gibbon.

“This helps us greatly: we’re able to do work-for-hire for bigger companies between working on our own IP. We also collaborate with many local companies so that we can fill each other’s skills gaps.”



Ashtiani adds: “If someone wins a big contract, that tends to feed a number of different companies through collaboration or subcontracting. I don’t think you see that so much in any other region – and you certainly didn’t see that ten years ago.”

Nosebleed Interactive MD Andreas Firnigl adds that even the start-ups are brought into the fold: “That ecosystem of the bigger firms supporting the smaller ones is growing. The Hollywood system is bleeding into the games industry, and in the North East it works quite well.”

TALENT SHOW

North East studios are also thriving thanks to the near constant supply of promising new recruits. In fact, Jobling reports that more than 30 per cent of Eutechnyx’s team are graduates from Teesside University.

“The North East is a fantastic hotbed of talent,” says Pitbull Games MD Robert Troughton. “It’s backed up by the support of local agencies, such as Game Kettle and Sunderland Software City, and of course the universities, most of which offer games development courses.”

Coatsink creative director Tom Beardsmore concurs: “The talent pool is fantastic. Our entire team is from various North East universities. The vast majority come from Teesside, but we have members from Newcastle and Sunderland, too.”

And this focus on training new developers isn’t solely led by universities, either. Local studios are keen to work closer with these academic institutes to help improve the quality of their students.

“Our courses and the graduates that come out of them are entirely formed by the input of local developers,” says Mick Stockton, principal lecturer at Teesside University. “They tell us what they need and we try to provide that, which is the way it should be.”

Ubisoft Reflections’ general manager Giselle Stewart adds: “Most of the other universities are working towards skillset accreditation – if they haven’t already got it – and it shows a determination to be seen to be the best. There’s only about 20 courses that have skillset accreditation in the UK and most of the courses in our area have it.”

Richard Smith, technical director at CCP Games’ Newcastle studio, states: “One of the local courses has been a great source of talent for us. It’s all part of that self-sustaining ecosystem between the studios and the universities. We all make sure that system continues to work rather than having a ‘survival of the fittest’ attitude.”

It is a testament to the quality of these courses that most of the graduates end up in full-time employment at local studios shortly after university.

NORTH EAST NEWCOMERS

The Government and local councils have also been supportive of the area – not just in terms of games companies, but also firms in related industries.

“There’s been a lot of investment into the IT sector in the region and a lot of council interest in making sure that IT companies can grow and prosper,” says Troughton.

“With other industries slowing in the region, they’ve really tried hard to make sure that newer industries take hold.”

James Mintram, MD of start-up Lemon Moose Games, adds: “Gateshead council and Northumbria University have been instrumental in our progress so far. It is probably safe to say that without them, we would be at least a year behind where we are now.”

The influx of new games developers has been a major change in the region and its community, observes Cunliffe.

“Ten years ago, the landscape was very different. Practically everybody was a services provider or working on console games. There were a very limited number of companies who were focused on ramping up team sizes, and everything was getting more expensive.

“Now, it’s very much about independent developers. There are still console studios, but there are more people setting up smaller, boutique indie games companies and it feels very different.”

But Game Tonic MD Phil Ward warns: “I’ve seen a lot of studios come and go in the last five years, so even though it’s a great area to be, it’s still a volatile market.”

LIFE UP NORTH

To some, it’s no surprise that such a successful community of developers and universities has grown in the North East. Local firms say the benefits of the area make setting up in the region a no-brainer.

“We have great rail and air links, we have a lower cost of living than many major cities, and we have great universities and colleges offering great courses and producing some great potential employees,” says Hippo Entertainment MD Darren Falcus.

Julie Dodds, senior investment manager at marketing and management agency Newcastle Gateshead Initiative, adds: “There’s a lot of skills and access to talent here in comparison to the rest of the UK and even Europe. Operating costs are lower, and there’s greater access to Government grants. And then there is the real sense of community – you don’t get that anywhere else.

“I don’t think people realise the strength of the cluster here or the types of companies in it. Part of our job is to change that perception.”

And the games developers that are already established here share one more thing: a sense of pride in their area.

“I remember the buzz when people found out you could drive around the Newcastle quayside in the first Driver,” Teesside University’s Stockton says.

“A lot of us are still here because the community has been built around passionate people who just happen to work in the same industry: making great games. And that’s driven from the top down.

“We have a lot of start-ups here; some will fail and some will succeed, and the latter will help continue this community for future companies.”