Region spotlight: Cambridge

Region spotlight: Cambridge
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

February 22nd 2011 at 8:00AM

With over 1,000 developers in the city, Cambridge has become a substantial UK dev cluster

Over 10 per cent of those employed in the UK games development sector work in Cambridge. It’s a simple statistic that speaks volumes about the University city’s status as an industry hub.

As well as being home to the Jagex, Frontier, a large Sony studio and Ninja Theory, Cambridge also plays host to a fiercely proactive indie scene, and is peppered with high profile technology facilities such as Microsoft Cambridge Research.

Well served by its internationally famous educational institutions, it’s not hard to guess why so many companies across the spheres of science, technology and finance have converged on the city. It is affluent, compact and picturesque, and as such, it’s hugely popular with those that call it home, and those looking to move to pastures new.

GOOD LIVING
“Cambridge offers us more than just good graduates,” confirms Jagex COO Rob Smith. “

It’s an attractive place to relocate to, and that’s important, because the more competitive the games space gets, the more we need top quality staff. That can mean people that have been in the industry for five or ten years. Attracting those people to come here is easy because it’s such a nice place to live.”

And it’s not just that Cambridge makes a tempting proposition for those looking for a career change. There’s a general consensus among those employed in the games industry hub that it is also a hard place to leave.

“People develop a deep affection for Cambridge, and it really is the case that very often they don’t want to leave,” suggests Rob Precious, VP of Geomerics, the middleware outfit behind real-time radiosity lighting solution Enlighten.

“There’s also an image of Cambridge as being conservative and traditional and very erudite,” adds Caroline Hyde, project manager at Cambridge Front, a network that brings together creative industries across the area. “The reality is that actually it is a really vibrant, creative city.

There’s 12,000 people here employed in the creative industries, and 1,600 different companies.”

Hyde isn’t alone as an advocate of modern Cambridge as a city that defies stereotypes about stuffy, upper class academics and eccentric intellectuals.

“For us as a localisation agency having such a diverse mix of nationalities, either from the university itself or from Cambridge being such a cosmopolitan city, has been an absolute win,” says Vickie Peggs, CEO of localisation company Universally Speaking.

With the aforementioned powerhouses such as Jagex based in Cambridge, it clearly has something that makes it alluring to developers. Part of the attraction is that the very fact that the city is so popular with big name studios, says James Shepherd, development director at Sony Cambridge:

“What’s really good for us is that there’s so many other game companies here. There’s already a pool of working talent here, and that is definitely an advantage for
absolutely everybody.”

Beyond that, the international regard Cambridge courts is also of great benefit to the games companies based in the city.

“Most of our clients are global, across Asia, the United States and Europe, and in all those place people recognise Cambridge,” says Peggs.

“Cambridge is very much like a brand in many ways. People instantly know Cambridge when you talk to them, and in that way being here is extremely beneficial for us.”

WELL EDUCATED
Aside from the city’s merits as a place to relocate to or set up a studio, it is also obviously highly regarded as a place that produces top quality postgraduate talent.

As well as the internationally famed Cambridge University and its numerous colleges – which provide a wealth of students trained in traditional academic disciplines such as physics, maths and computer science – the long standing Anglia Ruskin offers a range of game-specific courses.

“There’s been a real effort to open up a dialogue between the games industry here and academia,” says Hyde. “We’ve tried to look at what the industry needs, and how universities can respond to that with the course they develop and the relationships they form. That’s something being championed by Sony and it’s something we’re continuing to develop.”

There’s a general consensus between the developers gathered to speak to Develop that links with the universities are improving, and plenty of in the field examples of collaboration. Sony Cambridge, for example, struggled to find students suitably trained in design, so worked with local educational institutions to improve the situation.

There is, however, a small disadvantage to Cambridge’s bristling pool of intellectual youngsters, and it’s something that Frontier’s founder David Braben first addresses.

“In my experience the graduates from Cambridge still have absolutely no problem getting themselves a job,” he reveals. “The problem is the other way around; it’s finding those very few people.”

The fact is, game developers aren’t the only ones interested in Cambridge’s highly desirable educated talent.
“There’s a little bit of competition from other industries for Cambridge’s educated talent,” confirms Ninja Theory’s technology boss Mike Ball.

“Many of us in Cambridge have been at a computer science fair, looking to recruit, and you see people from the banking sector offering really big salaries. But the fact is a lot of people of want to work in games are very passionate about it.”

COMMUNITY MATTERS
One thing Cambridge’s developers have learned to do in a city filled with technology and science companies is club together, forming a community that is almost exclusively fondly spoken of.

“Developers here do talk to one another a lot,” explains Braben. “Certainly there is a sense of community here. I think with any industry is if it is too dispersed there is no pool of people. There are a lot of people here in Cambridge that have worked at other locally-based developers.”

“While there hasn’t been too much happening in terms of project collaboration, what we have been doing is coming together as Games Eden to try and promote the region and investment into the region,” adds Precious.

“That’s on both an education front and a purely commercial front, and on that level the Cambridge studios are absolutely communicating and collaborating.”

Games Eden is a business network portal for the East of England's computer games industry, and involves input from a number of local companies, including indies. The collaboration and community shared between small-scale studios in Cambridge has greatly increased in the past 12 months.

“What we’ve found is that there’s a lot of people in the larger Cambridge studios itching to go indie, as you might expect given the movement within the wider industry,” says Jon Skuse, co-owner of Jumped Up Games. “The concentration and community of indie developers is starting to develop a critical mass in Cambridge.”

Further up the food chain, Sony is looking to work more closely with other people in the area, and is keen to do more: “We’d certainly like to work more closely with other people in the area, definitely,” confirms Shepherd.\

“There’s different models of development, and I think if you work with other people like we did with Ninja Theory, it can bring in new blood and new ideas. I’d like to see more of that here.”

Ask Cambridge’s developer community about challenges specific to their sector in their city, and largely you’ll draw a blank. Local developers are of course victim to the broader issues overshadowing UK development, but on the whole they are very happy with their lot.

CHALLENGING TIMES
It’s only natural that it’s not all good news. “Cost of living is high, especially in the city centre, and it’s starting to be expensive if you live in the surrounding villages. Even parking and those kind of things are slightly higher than they are in other parts of the UK,” admits Jagex’s Smith.

“When we went up and spoke to those who recently lost their jobs at Realtime Worlds in Dundee, and their main worry about Cambridge was cost of living.”

But he’s still optimistic, even when addressing the reality of affording life in such a desirable area: “Of course, it’s still a great deal cheaper than London.”
 
What the future holds for Cambridge remains to be seen, but most agree that it will be defined by success stories. Furthermore, many developers based in the area believe the coming years will see an increasing number of start-ups move on the city.

“I think that as the development industry here grows, so will the number of students considering working in games,” suggests Chris Joyce, senior lecture in games and visual effects at Anglia Ruskin University. “I think many of those graduates will probably go on to found a lot of new start-up companies here in Cambridge.”

“You’ll also see more diversification,” adds Skuse. “Today Cambridge is very much weighted towards core games development. That’s going to change. I think you’ll see not only casual games rise, but also Cambridge can lead the way with new iterations of online entertainment and other forms that are on the fringe of what is generally accepted as a game.”

Certainly, there’s an optimism and sense of collective responsibility in Cambridge that even the thickest skinned cynics should find hard not to warm to. Equally, there’s a positive outlook that the city’s development elite seems to have absolute conviction in.
 
With that kind of attitude, the future of Cambridge as an increasingly prominent stronghold of the UK development sector seems assured.

Perhaps Cambridge’s 10 per cent share of the UK industry is just the beginning.