Oxford Thinking

Oxford Thinking
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

April 21st 2010 at 8:30AM

Industry leaders talk to Develop about working in a highly regarded hub of game development

What are the advantages of setting up a studio in Oxford and the surrounding area?

Mick Morris, Audiomotion: Audiomotion has been based in and around Oxford since the late nineties. Geographically we’ve always been around here, and any time we’ve considered relocating, we’ve always had to consider what we’ve got here. We have a lot of clients come over from across Europe and beyond, and they just love the city.
They love soaking up the culture, the architecture, the good restaurants; it’s just got a lot going for it.

David Hawkins, Exient: I totally agree. I would say all the things about Oxford being a beautiful place with great culture are true, and its central location in the UK is great too, but if I’m honest I like just like living here. That was the main reason I set up here.

Gobion Rowlands, Red Redemption: On that note, the reality is that a lot of people who join us do just love the place when they visit initially. They want to live here, so they are happy to move to Oxford, and that really works for us. Also, it’s near enough to London, but contained enough that you can walk or cycle to work.
Then there’s the universities. Our partnerships with them is essential to what we do, and both Oxford and Oxford Brookes are very approachable, and very engaged with making the city dynamic.

Mike Montgomery, Lightning Fish: I’d say that’s the same for us, even being based in nearby Banbury. The reason we chose Banbury is that’s it’s close to Oxford, but it’s also because if you’re employing staff and customers are coming and see you, the transport network is really good, in terms of the motorway and the rail connections.

Hugh Edwards, High Score: We definitely located in the Oxfordshire area because we’re in the centre of Britain, but also because we’re at the centre of where all the games companies are, excluding Scotland. We’re only half-an-hour away from London and Banbury, and you’re also very close to Southam, you’re very close to Leamington, and you’re really close to Oxford, where there’s a real hub of lots of game companies. We like to be central because of that, and then we go to London to record, or travel to Europe, or do whatever else we need to do.

Torsten Reil, NaturalMotion: For me it’s also about the ecosystem of companies that are here. It’s a critical mass, and at some point you’ve got enough companies in an area so that it’s more than just a good place to be or to live. It’s at the point where, for example, we get our motion capture done with the Audiomotion guys here, just down the road, so it’s really convenient.
We can meet up outside of work to discuss the industry and what is going on. That’s really interesting and valuable, and goes beyond how nice a city is to live in.

So things are going well for the Oxfordshire development community?

Rowlands: There’s been a seed change here. I’ve noticed from an external perspective on the nine years I’ve been in Oxford, that the number of games companies in or around has really reached that critical mass. It’s just amazing how much has happened here, whereas people didn’t think of Oxford as a place for game development a few years ago. They thought of Brighton or they’d refer to London. Oxford has really come up, I think.

Montgomery: I think you’re right. Oxford wasn’t really on the map about 15 years ago for game developers.

Morris: To reiterate, I think there’s quite a nice social community. People have and do meet each other quite frequently outside of work, which is an important part of the relationships many of us share.

With the studios, tech, and service firms now present in Oxfordshire, is it fair to say that the area hosts an autonomous development community?

Edwards: I don’t think it’s a clique, but people tend to know one another because of the location.

Rowlands: A lot of companies here are very helpful with sharing ideas, contacts, and connections. There’s a shared sense of where that can take us next.

Edwards: And it’s the proximity that helps encourage that. It’s human nature that if you can pop in your car and within five minutes you can meet someone in a pub there’s a better chance of brainstorming and sharing ideas, rather than picking a provider who’s far away in Dundee.

Morris: I think visitors are always quite surprised as well because they come and I can list the names of all the companies sitting here today, and others who aren’t here like Vicon, who make all the motion capture equipment. There’s all the products and services we all do, and our collective clients like Sony and EA and Microsoft. People just aren’t aware that this hub exists, of game development and related products.

Hawkins: I’d say I use a lot of people who are local to here, but I don’t use them just because they are local; I use them because they provide the best service to my company. I use them because they’re the best, and they just happen to be local to me.

Oxfordshire is obviously famous for its universities. How has that helped?

Montgomery : The Universities are of course a pull in for studios.

Reil: We’re a university spin-out company originally, so we just wouldn’t be here without the University.

Rowlands: The central location helps again. It lets us reach beyond Oxford and Oxford Brookes, to a point where we’ve got a partnership with Portsmouth University, and we’ve got several teams of students there working on risky, related projects.

Reil: I think that it’s fair to say that while the local universities are great for recruitment, at the end of the day you hire people who are appropriate, so we’ve hired people from Universities all over the country.

How are you supported by regional bodies here in Oxfordshire?

Rowlands: I have some real issues with some of the South Eastern agencies. There are some great organisations within that area, and the ones in and around Oxford are fine, but all of the other South East agencies always focus on London. I can understand that, but it does make things quite difficult. Up in the West Midlands they are very active and always getting involved with everyone, and you feel that with Oxford positioned as it is in the centre of the country you can be tied to the London regional bodies.

Reil: We just don’t come across regional bodies, to be honest. We have no interaction, and quite frankly I don’t think we need it. When it comes to government and regional help in n general we’re reasonably – perhaps not sceptical – but we’re not particularly keen. I wouldn’t say that’s the case for tax credits [laughter] but beyond that there’s not much interaction that we require.

Hawkins: I would say that I’m a fairly purist capitalist and I don’t believe in support unless it makes capitalism work better. There are all sorts of issues associated with what other countries and other nations are doing and we don’t really get any support here at all. Other people here might be involved with support, but I don’t have anything to do with it as I don’t know what’s available, apart from R&D tax credits.

The universities have obviously attracted a number of parallel industries to the area. Has that meant you’ve founded it harder to attract new recruits?

Reil: I found it opened more opportunities, and that’s definitely something about being in or near Oxford. There are very well established business networks, so if you need funding for a company this is one of the best places in Europe you can be to raise money.

Edwards: We’re in a slightly different position as an audio company, but we certainly don’t have to worry about recruitment. There are so many really good audio engineers and musicians in Oxford; it’s a real hub for it, even in terms of bands and signed musicians from around here. From an industry perspective there’s quite a focus on audio here, which means we have way more applications for work than we can possibly handle. From our position it's great to be in Oxford for the very reason of the number of industries here.

What challenges specific to this region do developers and related companies currently face?

Hawkins: Cost of living is one of the big challenges really, so you have to offer salaries that account for that. It’s expensive to buy a property in Oxford. That said, the surrounding area isn’t too bad at all.

Hugh: One thing we found when we were starting out was that people didn’t really know anything about Oxfordshire and it’s industry, and we were continually having to explain why we were based here and not in London. As our reputation grew, and the other companies here grew that stopped being a problem.

Reil: Finding office space in Oxford that’s big enough to grow a company can also be hard.

And how about your staff retention? Is that easy?

Morris: Like most of us here, we’ve only lost a couple of staff members in all the years we’ve been doing it. Again, it’s the positives about the place. People do just like it when they settle, and don’t feel the need to move on.

Rowlands: The area’s social element is more important than it sounds too. There’s that whole ‘Oxford geek’ network going on, and lots of little really useful little social groups of that kind, and people get very embedded in that culture.

Morris: The extension of that is that on the odd occasion when people move from company to company within our industry, as we all know each other personally, it’s never really a biggie.
The relationships we all have certainly make it very easy and amicable, and even if you are loosing a member of staff and they’re going to a new home in the same sector, from a professional perspective everything is usually cool.

The term ‘critical mass’ has been mentioned more than once. Is there the capacity for more companies in Oxfordshire?

Morris: I think there’s room for more, certainly. There’s a great talent base here and a great reputation building up. I’d love to see more start-ups here, and more across the industry if I’m honest.

Montgomery: I completely agree. The more companies you have locally, the more people you can attract in; not only staff but also customers. If you’re a publisher in the States would you rather go to Oxfordshire and see ten developers, or go to somewhere of a similar size and see two?

Hawkins: I truly believe that we’re at the start of something much bigger than where we are right now. There’s a number of very strong companies locally that have already seeded the area and as time goes on invariably certain people employed in the region will decide to do something else, and that’s brilliant. That will spur more companies to form. The minimum standard we’ve got here, which is very high, will continue with that growth.

Rowlands: There’s a real diversity of companies here as well, with many different angles on the computer games industry, which will really help.

Edward: Exactly. It isn’t only game developers here; you’ve got all of the support structure too, with audio companies, motion capture companies, video companies and so on. They’re all growing at the same rate, so as new developers come in everything is building. I don’t see that stopping.

Reil: Also the industry is changing, as we all know, so while part of it is attracting publishers and publisher funding, but now there are also the independent companies publishing their own IP, particularly on digital distribution platforms like the iPhone. I would say in terms of growth that’s probably the biggest opportunity now for Oxford.

WHO'S WHO

MICK MORRIS,
MD, Audiomotion Studios

Audiomotion’s full performance motion capture and processing facility has been used across the game and film industries.
www.audiomotion.com

MIKE MONTGOMERY,
Development Director, Lightning Fish

Lightning Fish specialises in family orientated titles like recent NewU fitness games.
www.lightningfishgames.com

HUGH EDWARDS,
Director, High Score

Audio-outsourcing expert High Score has a wealth of experience in the game and broadcast sectors.
www.high-score.co.uk

TORSTEN REIL,
CEO, Natural Motion

NaturalMotion’s suite of animation tools have been used by a huge number of high-profile game developers.
www.naturalmotion.com

GOBION ROWLANDS
Chairman, Red Redemption

Red Redemption is the acclaimed indie behind the enviromentally conscious Climate Challenge series of games.
www.red-redemption.com

DAVID HAWKINS
Managing Director, Exient

Exient made its name creating sports titles for handhelds, and increasingly frequently, console platforms.
www.exient.net