Region Focus: The rise of the Cambridge games hub

Region Focus: The rise of the Cambridge games hub
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

January 27th 2014 at 12:45PM

Home to dozens of influential technology firms and successful games studios, Develop finds out how the city became the UK's leading game development hub – and why not enough people know about it

There are more reasons to visit Cambridge than just universities and punting. The city is home to the UK’s most highly concentrated community of video games developers, with the offices of Frontier Developments, Guerrilla Cambridge, Jagex, Ninja Theory, Geomerics and more all within a few miles of each other.

When asked why these firms chose to set up in the UK’s bicycle capital, the reasons are varied: healthy living, cultural diversity, a nearby airport, the ability to get to Central London faster than those who actually live
in London and some really good pubs.

But the truth is something far more organic: it was impossible for the games development community to not find a home in Cambridge.

“There are a lot of enormous technology companies – ARM, Broadcom, Qualcomm and so on – which basically led to the start of software development here,” explains GameWare director and Games Eden chair Jeremy Cooke.

“It started with the home computer revolution, with Clive Sinclair and Acorn, and then people like David Braben knocked on their doors to sell them game products like Elite. That’s how Cambridge has become the UK’s leading games development community.”

Frontier founder and veteran developer Braben adds: “It’s not just games – so many things flowed from that. If you look at the chipsets in smartphones, most come from Cambridge companies. Even the Apple chipset is based off ARM’s technology. And Microsoft Research developed the Kinect right here. There’s so much technology that has come out of the university and the companies that have grown around it, and it’s great as a location for writing games.

“You won’t find an area anywhere in the world where you have the same concentration of games and technology firms geographically.”

The University of Cambridge is obviously a major factor in the city’s development, and it has played a role in growing the UK games industry, too.

“We have an exceptional graduate output that we are trying to engage in digital creativity,” says Cooke. “Remember, Jagex and Frontier were both founded by Cambridge University graduates so it’s fairly obvious that there are talented graduates who are capable of building world-class companies.”

Guerrilla game director Piers Jackson adds: “The university set the benchmark around here. It has been a scientific centre of excellence for a long time, and these things always snowball: the more investment and companies come to Cambridge, the more people it attracts.”

While Anglia Ruskin University is very active when it comes to engaging with the games industry, the University of Cambridge has yet to embrace games design as an academic pursuit. However, the skills it teaches are still invaluable to developers on the lookout for graduates.

“The university teaches pure computer science rather something more vocational, and that’s always been their philosophy,” explains Braben. “That said, there is vocational support – projects around game-themed topics, and so on – and the university is very good at supporting that sort of thing, particularly if the industry is keen to get involved with it.

“And focusing on computer science is not a bad thing: the games side of it is actually easy to pick up. It’s mastering the complex computer science skills that is the hard bit.”

ALL?ABOUT?REPUTATION

A combination of the University’s legacy and the broad range of tech firms in Cambridge – earning the area the nickname of Silicon Fen – has lent some of the city’s stature to the games developers themselves.

Indie developer Jonathan Skuse says: “I’ve found a really good badge. When meeting people – in London especially, but even overseas – the fact that we’re based in Cambridge, even as a tiny little start-up, does seem to provide a certain resonance than if we were based in Bristol or any other place.”

More importantly, there is a constant stream of new graduates and other potential employees on these studios’ doorsteps, according to Ninja Theory director Nina Kristensen.

“The massive high-tech business cluster as well as Cambridge University means the city naturally attracts the kinds of people we want to employ,” she says. “We have strong ties with the university and regularly recruit graduates from there – although obviously we recruit worldwide as well.”

Jagex CEO Mark Gerhard adds: “A lot of talent also stays local. Even if there’s not direct collaboration between games and tech companies, a lot of people do tend to move between them. There’s a lot of cross-pollination.”

And organisations such as Anglia Ruskin University, Games Eden and Creative Front are doing all they can to help entice more people into this talent pool.

Creative Front’s marketing and operations manager Clare Green says: “The work we’re doing around Brains Eden, bringing students in from across Europe, and having mentors from each studio work with them has resulted in full-time contracts at Cambridge studios, internships and so on. The studios we have here and the work that’s coming out are attracting talent. And not losing that to any of the other UK hubs is important.”

Jackson adds: “That transition from universities into our industry is absolutely critical. The knowledge gap is so large that, to get to the cutting-edge of things, we need to bring more internships, courses and feeders into our industry, and Cambridge is good for that."

But the high concentration of studios means that no matter how many highly-skilled graduates the universities produce, it is insufficient to truly meet local games recruitment needs.

“We’ve hired a lot within Cambridge, but almost two-to-one of our hires are experienced people coming in from abroad,” says Gerhard. “It’s hard to grow and get certain skills when they’re not all in Cambridge, or in the UK.”

Jackson concurs: “It’s inevitable that we all end up recruiting outside of Cambridge. If you look at the size of the city and the number of companies sitting around this table, we’re all vying for the same talent. We need to be recruiting elsewhere.”

AWARENESS ISSUES

Fighting for new talent is just one of the problems that having so many companies in the same vicinity can cause. Another is that certain firms, events and initiatives find it difficult to raise their profile, and even when they do, people aren’t always fully aware of their work.

“There is so much going on in Cambridge that it is hard for any one industry to get heard consistently,” says Geomerics COO Chris Doran. “In the games industry we have a successful networking organisation and Creative Front does a good job of raising awareness for the wider digital entertainment industry locally. But it is hard to raise awareness when you are up against local icons like Stephen Hawking.”

Green agrees, adding that the bigger firms in Cambridge can get distracted by their wider business: “All of the large technology and creative industries are global-facing. The companies here have a global market, so running stuff locally and getting them to look at other firms on their doorstep is a stretch. Flying the flag for Cambridge is something we’ve been trying to do for years because the marketing and all of their efforts are for a global audience.”

One area the local veterans are keen to highlight is the various opportunities for indies. While the development landscape is dominated by the firms that have been around for more than a decade, new players like Utopian World of Sandwiches are still receiving plenty of support.

“There’s a really good, vibrant indie community that meets up weekly. I don’t know of any other indie scene in any other city that meets that regularly,” says the studio’s creative director James Woodrow.

“It’s not just games-based, either. It’s always interesting to surround yourself with people who aren’t in your industry because they bring a totally different perspective to helping you solve problems, and give you opportunities you wouldn’t get if you just dealt with companies of the same ilk as you.”

UWoS UX designer and developer Sarah Woodrow adds: “There’s a lot of support for start-ups: things like Ideas Space, which is a great community of people trying to help start-ups with the business side of things.

“And knowing people that work at the larger studios is helpful, too. James worked at Jagex for years and from that, we probably know someone in every local games company because people have spread everywhere.”

Skuse agrees, adding: “It’s never hard to find an expert on whatever it is you’re looking into. I had to do a lot of research into synthetic phonics recently, and there’s always someone in Cambridge that you can speak to on these things. People will just invite you to their office at the university, sit you down for an hour and talk about it. It’s really useful.”

Financial support is also available, although access is more of an issue than awareness. Studios agree that there are good people within Cambridge that are willing to back video games projects – more so than they would have been in years past.

And some support, says GameWare’s Cooke, comes from the most unlikely of places.

“Julian Huppert [MP for Cambridge] is more concerned with the roads and our infrastructure than he is with the games industry, but he does quite like developers. He came to our last event so he knows we’re here, and he does want to support the games development industry in Cambridge because he recognises it is a leading hub of digital creativity.”