Leamington Spa: At the heart of the UK games industry

Leamington Spa, or Royal Leamington Spa if you want to get all monarchic about it, is a spa town in Warwickshire, with a population of just 55,000 according to a 2011 census.

Despite its small population, Leamington has rather a lot to brag about, having been named as the happiest place to live in the UK, according to a 2017 survey by Rightmove. We’re tempted to say this is because of Leamington’s annual Peace Festival, held in the eyebrow-raisingly named Royal Pump Room Gardens, but there’s probably more to it than that.

Perhaps it’s more to do with the beautiful countryside of rural Warwickshire, and being just a stone’s throw away from the metropolis of Birmingham. Maybe it’s the vibrant culture, with plenty of great restaurants, pubs and independent shops alongside the arts and comedy festivals. Or maybe it’s just as Dave Hawkins, CEO & Founder of Leamington-based Exient remarks:

“We’ve always found Leamington to be a little town with a big heart and big facilities.”

Chris Southall from Sumo Digital

Whatever the reason, Leamington has become an attractive location for business, with the local council credited for supporting and promoting local independent firms. It has certainly attracted a lot of talent from the games industry, hosting so many companies that it has become a global hub for the industry, known as ‘Silicon Spa’.

It may not seem immediately obvious why this is. Leamington’s population is dwarfed by those of the country’s major cities, and a peaceful spa town doesn’t exactly scream ‘game industry’ at first glance.

However, while Leamington is hardly the cheapest place to live in Warwickshire, with house prices on the rise, it’s still significantly cheaper than getting by in our insanely-priced capital city, and just over an hour away on the train.

THE BIRTH OF SILICON SPA

Of course, when we ask the local studios what they see as the origins of ‘Silicon Spa’, one name comes to the forefront every time: Codemasters.

“Codemasters’ early successes created the foundation for establishing the area as a world leader,” says Exient’s Hawkins. “As companies go through growth and contraction, this results in the creation of many similar companies. Codies set the standard.”

Chris Southall, studio director at Sumo Digital, concurs, also pointing to Tim and Chris Stamper’s Rare, situated for many years now in Twycross, just 30 miles to the north it’s in easy striking distance for anyone looking to move job or wanting to set out on their own.

“Codemasters and Rare seeded what we now call ‘Silicon Spa’. Since the 1990’s talented developers set off from both companies to establish their own studios, many of which have gone on to be really successful. As to why the Darlings and the Stampers originally located in the region – that’s probably down to where their parents happened to be in the era of bedroom coders, which kick-started the UK games industry.”

Southall is proved right by no less than the Codemasters co-founder, now founder and CEO of Kwalee, David Darling:

Kwalee’s David Darling

“My Dad, brother and I set up Codemasters in Banbury in 1986, but within a short time we moved it to my Dad’s stables in Southam which is a small town near Leamington Spa. Ever since then developers have been moving to the area, the Oliver Twins, Peter and Andy

Williamson [Appy Nation], Gavin Raeburn [Playground Games] and many more. Although Southam is a nice little town most developers tended to decide to live in Leamington Spa. It has great shopping, restaurants and nightlife. Over the years developers set-up their own companies and existing international games companies set-up branch offices here so now it is quite a thriving community.”

The success companies such as Codemasters and Rare went on to find had the by-product of attracting yet more talent to the area, which in turn lead to the founding of new studios hoping to capitalise on that concentration of talent. Codemasters and Rare laid the seeds for Silicon Spa, but the talent they brought then flowered into something much broader. Genba Digital CEO Matt Murphy addresses this directly:

“Leamington is a hidden gem of game development and publishing in the UK. When Genba Digital launched in 2015, as a games distributor we knew we wanted to be part of that hub.”

Of course, as Exient’s Hawkins explains, the sheer number of studios flocking to Leamington’s game industry talent has created a competitive atmosphere.

“Leamington is a hotbed of talent which also means a highly competitive development environment, resulting in a high calibre of staff, and this equates to world class development. To be the best, one has to employ the best.”

Given Leamington’s small size, then, it seems logical to assume there would be something of a fight for office space.

Matt Murphy of Genba Digital

So just how easy is it for new and expanding studios to find a place to put down roots?

“We find there is an acute shortage of suitable office space within Leamington at present,” says Exient’s Hawkins, “but hopefully this is being addressed,” he adds. This is a point Kwalee’s Darling picks up on too, saying “I think it’s the hardest thing, to find office space.”

However, this doesn’t seem to be a universal view, as Richard Blenkinsop, managing director of Ubisoft Reflections and Ubisoft Leamington states:

“[There is enough space] at present, yes, but like any thriving area with an aggressively growing industry at its core, the area will need to adapt over time.”

And according to Genba Digital’s Murphy, the area seems to be adapting already, with more office space on the way:

“Our HQ close to the centre of town is a nice, bright working hub for our small team. We even have enough space for a games room, where many a battle of Mario Kart and FIFA takes place. A creative quarter is being invested in on the south side of the town, which will allow for even more creative and tech spaces – so any new or expanding games companies in the area will be able to stay settled in the Silicon Spa community”

ATTRACTING TALENT

Of course, office space isn’t the only thing there’s a shortage of. The competition for talent can make it hard for studios to retain their best against their ever-growing list of competitors. But that concentration of firms also has it benefits we discover.

“I think the talent pool in Leamington Spa is quite unique,” says Ubisoft’s Blenkinsop. “In 2015 it was reported that there were around 40 video games companies in Leamington Spa and approximately 1,000 people working in the industry. Right now it’s more like 2,500 employees across 83 studios, making up well over 75 per cent of the district’s entire digital media industry. This means that developers in Leamington don’t need to look far if they want a new challenge, which is great for retaining talent in the region and drawing in people from further afield.”

Richard Blenkinsop from Ubisoft

“There is a huge amount of talent [in Leamington] and we need more” says Meg Daintith, recruitment manager at Codemasters. “Ours is a big studio and there is room for more diversity. As a global brand we are always keen to keep our doors open to local, national and international talent.”

This global mindset seems to be a common trait among Leamington studios. While there is undoubtedly great talent in the area, there simply isn’t enough to go around, leading studios to widen their scope to attract outside talent.

“The industry is expanding so quickly that there are not enough people in the local area so we look much further afield,” says Kwalee’s Darling. “Kwalee has employees from countries all over the world, including Spain, Germany, France, the Philippines, Thailand, Ukraine, Portugal and many others.”

Given all of the area’s excellent qualities, as Exient’s Hawkins explains, Leamington isn’t exactly a difficult location to sell when searching for outside talent.

“We always need more, like any area – but Leamington is a lovely place to live with a central UK location and convenient access to major cities and airports. It’s an easy sell to attract talent to the location and with so many devs in the area there’s a community that feels welcoming.”

It’s this sense of community that rings true with everyone we speak to. With so many studios in one place, and such competition to hire the best staff, you’d wonder if the competition ever gets a little heated. But from what we’re told, there really does seem to be a sense of community across Leamington.

“Many of those in the other studios are former colleagues,” says Sumo’s Southall. “So having worked at or with Codemasters or Rare at one point or another, we do have personal relationships between the other studios at various levels, which makes for a good community.”

“We’re friendly rivals and the games industry is a small place,” agrees Codemaster’s Daintith. “Rival or not we are always hugely respectful of the talent and dedication our neighbours provide. It’s great for the whole industry to have a hub like this and it provides
a healthy level of choice and competition.”

INTERACTIVE FUTURES

This community is set to get even more close-knit thanks to Interactive Futures, a two-day event in the Royal Spa Centre.

The event brings figures from right across the industry together in Leamington. Interactive Futures was founded last year and saw over 1,700 games enthusiasts, students and industry professionals attending. The event is funded by the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (CWLEP), Warwickshire County Council, and Warwick District Council along with the support of the local industry.

The event returns this year from January 31st to February 1st, and aims to highlight the region’s heritage within the UK video games industry.

Meg Daintith from Codemasters

On the 31st, Interactive Futures will also host an Indie Investment Forum; a special ‘speed dating’ event where studios will have the opportunity to meet investors, publishers, and advisors; along with a conference which aims to highlight key issues relevant to the region and the wider industry.

The next day, on Saturday, February 1st, the event will open its doors to the public and students to “inspire the next generation of talent with career opportunities the key focus for the day.”

So how does the local industry feel about this fledgling event?

“We attended last year and it was great to see the Silicon Spa community drawn together in one space” says Genba Digital’s Murphy. “Even though our publisher and retailer partners are spread globally, we love an opportunity to network more locally and check out any new and emerging games from nearby studios. It’s also great to show young and ambitious local talent that they have an expansive and diverse games industry on their doorstep.”

“The inaugural Interactive Futures was a fantastic event,” said Ubisoft’s Blenkinsop. “It was great to see so many of the region’s biggest developers taking part and showcasing what they can do to the general public. Video game development is often shrouded in secrecy so it was great to be able to ‘open our doors’ and let people of all ages take a look inside.

“It was also wonderful to be involved with various talks and panels with key industry figures, such as UKIE’s Dr Jo Twist. I can only see the event continuing to grow in the coming years and I’m extremely happy we’re going to be a part of it.”

The event also helps tackle that ongoing staffing pressure, encouraging young people to join the industry as well as connecting young professionals with the local studios and businesses.

“[Because of Interactive Futures] We have connected with a local audience more directly than ever before” says Codemaster’s Daintith. “It was great to talk to parents and allay their worries about encouraging their kids to choose a career in the games industry. We also made several great hires into our QA team!”

Most importantly though, Interactive Futures is a great reminder to the industry as a whole the debt it owes to the work done in Leamington Spa, and the wealth of talent and potential present in the area – as Sumo’s Southall goes on to say:

“Warwick District council worked with us and other local developers to start Interactive Futures, since we all believed it was time to further promote how active the industry is here. It was a great event, and we’ve been looking at how to make it even better for 2020 – I think it’s an important part of what the local industry is doing.”

LEAMINGTON SPA: A HOW-TO GUIDE

Dave Hawkins of Exient

So with Leamington already such a global hub for the industry, and seemingly set to grow ever-larger, it’s certainly an appealing destination for new studios to set up shop, or for existing ones to expand. So what advice do the Leamington veterans have for would-be newcomers to the community?

“There’s nothing unique about establishing a development studio in the Midlands over anywhere else in the world” says Exient’s Hawkins.

“Check what government support you can secure, establish relations with the local dev community and ‘feeding’ establishments (universities, etc). Build a network and drive for success. Ultimately, success will create opportunity – be that staff, projects, engagements and so on”

Sumo’s Southall agrees with this, while praising local government’s work in supporting newcomers to the industry.

“Whether a micro-studio or something larger, my advice is this. First, be very clear – at the outset -– on the vision and strategy for what you are trying to do and prepare a viable business plan. Second, local businesses and entities such as the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP can be very helpful with support or advice. Third, be confident you have the right people with you to start and grow – establishing a new studio is not easy!”

Of course, should you require any more advice, the local industry is bound to be on hand to share their knowledge at Interactive Futures later this month. We hope to see many future Leamingtonians at the event.

About Chris Wallace

Chris is MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer, joining the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can regrettably be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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