Our regional spotlights have become something of a cherished regular here at MCV/DEVELOP. In recent months we’ve had the joys of highlighting UK industry hotspots such as Yorkshire, Leamington Spa and Brighton – and we’ve deeply enjoyed investigating the geography, culture and local politics of these areas.
With that in mind, it’s honestly a surprise it took us so long to get around to Guildford. Often described as the “Hollywood of video games,” the region has been a UK games industry hub for decades – dating back to Peter Molyneux and Les Edgar’s legendary studio Bullfrog, whose presence is still very much felt in the area.
Since then, the industry’s presence in Guildford has gone from strength to strength, and it’s now home to a huge variety of games companies, ranging from critically-acclaimed developers such as Media Molecule to content production studio Liquid Crimson.
“Well, having just filmed a documentary about the games industry in Guildford entitled “The Hollywood of Video Games”, I certainly do feel Guildford is worthy of the name,” says Liquid Crimson founder Jason Lord. “It’s easy to forget that the wider world may not be aware of just how many of their favourite games, studios or devs have made a home in the town.
“Our documentary series of the same name aims to bring together an amazingly talented and eclectic collection of people who all work together – whether side by side or in the same postcode – to make some of the best games in the world.
“Walking down Guildford High Street or driving around the town’s often incomprehensible one way system, it’s amazing how many studios, how many teams, you’ll pass.”
“Talent attracts talent,” adds Keith Anderson, publishing director at DPS Games (until recently Wargaming UK) “and there is a deep history of game making in the Guildford area.
“There are many Bullfrog veterans still about, they were founded back in 1987. EA has studios and publishing in the town. And there is a vibrant indie scene as well.”
THE ORIGIN STORY
Of course, Peter Molyneux and Bullfrog are the names that most often come up when talking about Guildford’s roots as a hub. But as Matt Webster, VP, GM at Criterion explains, that isn’t the whole story.
“You know, I think that Electronic Arts plays a huge role here and that’s somewhat been overlooked. As I’m sure that Peter will tell you, it was EA who believed in Populous and invested in the development of Bullfrog through Populous, Flood, Powermonger, Populous II, Magic Carpet, Syndicate and Theme Park, before the acquisition in 1995.
“As you’ll know, as companies grow people join, others leave, they start new companies. These new companies attract funding and then new talent, they grow, find capabilities and hopefully are successful. Then they breed their own start-ups and the cycle continues. When you cover that over 30-odd years then you can see how as a pretty good location with strong transport links, a university and a thriving young industry is a great place to get started for gaming.”
That isn’t to say that Molyneux’s legacy isn’t respected by the local industry. As Sam Read, Games Sector Specialist at Enterprise M3 explains, Molyneux and Bullfrog are often cited as being among the biggest drivers of Guildford’s gaming success.
“Peter has one of those rare creative minds with the power to build an industry. If Peter hadn’t founded Bullfrog here, it’s quite likely that Guildford’s games industry would be far less impressive today.
“I have a feeling that Guildford and games were always destined to become synonymous however. There was some other impressive game development activity happening here in the 80s alongside Bullfrog. Jonathan Newth and Ian Baverstock deserve an honourable mention in that regard, they founded SIMIS here back in 1989 and released one of the earliest consumer flight simulators, Interdictor for the Archimedes. SIMIS merged with Eidos before an MBO later led to the formation of Kuju Entertainment, which had its headquarters in Guildford.
“Peter’s legacy can most clearly be seen when you trace back the careers of Guildford’s most experienced people. So many roads lead back to Bullfrog, EA and Lionhead.”
“It’s hard to overstate the importance of Peter Molyneux’s legacy here,” agrees Paul Ross, founder and CTO of Stellar Entertainment. “He is not only the most famous game developer in Guildford but one of the most well known in the industry as
A region with a reputation like Guildford’s will surely not struggle to attract talent to the area. Any UK developer worth their salt will be well aware of the wealth of talent and opportunities in the area. But with over 50 games companies in the area, how intense is the competition to hire the most promising talent?
“We hire people from all over the world – Guildford’s legacy does help” notes Pete Samuels, CEO at Supermassive Games “It also helps that the town itself is a great place to live, with beautiful countryside in walking distance and easy access to London.
“Yes, the number of studios means there is competition for talent, but it’s not as big an issue as you may think. We’re hiring right now for an entirely new project that is very different to anything we have created before. So, we are hoping to attract talent from wherever they are currently located.”
“There’s a lot of great talent in the area,” agrees Adele Cutting, founder of Soundcuts. “With audio specifically because of the universities, there is always a lot of new junior talent coming up.
“It’s a beautiful location and town, so a lovely area to live. There are loads of networking events, game jams and meetups outside of working hours, so it’s very sociable if you’re wanting to mix with devs from different companies. Plus fast rail-links to London, so commuting is easy too. A lot of talent is happy to commute out from London to Guildford.”
“There is a lot of talent in the area,” notes Peter Molyneux, now founder of developer 22cans, “but we could always do with more! It’s so different to the early days, when I even resorted to try and hire pavement artists as games artists.”
Instead of companies engaging in intense competition, Guildford instead seems to be home to an interchange of talent. The region’s reputation in the industry has led to workers staying in Guildford, migrating from company to company – as Gem Abdeen, outreach manager at Media Molecule explains.
“We have close relationships with a lot of the studios, especially as many of us have come from other developers in the area. People move from company to company and so we always leave behind friends and close colleagues who we stay in contact with.
“Events like Guildford Games Festival builds those relationships and brings us together to celebrate our studios’ achievements. It’s important to support and help each other. It’s also not a very big town, so we’re all very physically close as well. You can see quite a few other studios from our offices (when we’re in them, which we aren’t currently).”
“We do have close relationships with studios in the area,” adds Criterion’s Webster, “and this is an area that I think is changing the fastest. I think that there was a tendency for studios to be closed and less receptive to sharing experiences and ideas because of the competition for talent.
“That’s an outdated outlook. With successful games, a great environment and a strong healthy culture we’re much more open than we’ve ever been before and we now see that as a real positive to connecting with the studios, sharing experience and learning. We’re also working with our local partners now, particularly with Stellar Entertainment on our remaster of Burnout Paradise and with them bringing Burnout to the Switch for the first time this year.”
Not everyone has quite a rosy outlook on the availability of talent in the area, mind.
“There will always be a shortage of great talent in Guildford due to the demands across many great studios,” says Stellar’s Ross. “So we have to increasingly look further afield for new hires. It can be expensive for people to live in Guildford depending on what level they are at and where they have come from but there are many attractive and more affordable options within a commutable distance.”
Speaking of affordability, how is the office situation in Guildford? While they’re likely all gathering dust right now, quality office space in such a popular and competitive area can’t come cheap.
“Sadly, Guildford’s selection of available office space is rather expensive,” says Liquid Crimson’s Lord. “It’s suspected that the reason the town became so popular for devs in the first place is because it was close to London but boasted cheaper rent prices and, whilst the town is certainly cheaper than central, it is a little more expensive now. There are less expensive office options, but they may not be entirely geared up for a creative environment.
“It would be great to have a shared creative space in the town, but that said – the working world post-COVID-19 may see a shift in the whole way we structure our ‘workplaces’. The way Liquid Crimson is approaching the situation currently is to ensure that our team has everything they need to work comfortably, creatively and efficiently from home, whilst keeping one eye on planning Guildford Game Dev events and knowledge-sharing for as soon as we can.”
“Guildford does have space but it is getting very expensive,” notes 22cans’ Molyneux.
“I would love to see more help for startups/small companies in the form of a low cost space supported by local government,” he adds.
“There is a lot of demand for high quality office space in Guildford,” adds Enterprise M3’s Read, “but there are a number of great options at Guildford Business Park and Surrey Research Park just to name a couple. If you can’t find space directly in town, there are also options in neighbouring towns like Farnborough and Aldershot. Companies based there like nDreams are still very much a part of Guildford’s games industry.”
“Since the founding of DPS Games, we have had three different spaces in Guildford, each with its own charm!” says DPS’s Anderson. “We had a run of bad luck (our last studio on the riverside burnt down…) but that gave us the opportunity to find the perfect space in Guildford Business Park, where we are now.”
Affordability goes beyond office space, of course. If you want to attract talent to the area, said talent needs to be able to afford to live there.
“Especially as we welcome more young people into the industry,” notes Media Molecule’s Abdeen, “affordable housing is certainly something we’d love to see more of in Guildford.”
“Traffic and housing costs can be a real issue,” agrees Supermassive’s Samuels. Something we agree with, having tried (once) to drive into Guildford for an interview.
In person events may be off the cards at the moment, but local games communities like Guildford’s have always benefitted from industry events, in order to come together and exchange ideas.
One such force organising these events in Guildford is G3 Futures – which stands for ‘Galvanising Guildford Games for the Future.’ The first G3 Futures event took place in 2015, and they are designed to bring the Guildford games community together, small companies and large.
G3 Futures has arranged a number of events over the years – from its annual networking events, to specific instructional events such as ‘How to Access Funding to Grow your Gaming Business’ and the enticingly named ‘Make a game in an afternoon (Adult event)’
“Any event that aims to bring developers together to share knowledge is valuable to the community,” says Liquid Crimson’s Lord. “What G3 Futures brings to the table is the ability to reach students at the University of Surrey campus and alert them to the thriving tech industry that exists in the town.”
“G3 Futures is very important to the local community,” adds 22cans’ Molyneux, “it does a good job of raising awareness, and canvassing universities and the local government.”
“G3 will play an important role in continuing to bring us all together as a local gaming community,” says Media Molecule’s Abdeen. “Most gaming events are focused on the national or international game sector whereas G3 focuses on the local Guildford community. It’s very easy, especially when things are busy, for studios to handle outreach themselves and be a bit disconnected from everything else. But when we come together as an industry and an area, our outreach is more impactful – allowing us to learn from each other and work with local government more efficiently.”
In normal times, there are plenty of other opportunities for the community to come together. There’s the annual Guildford Games festival, an event part-funded by the local government, which saw its first iteration in 2019. Guildford Games Festival 2020 was initially planned for June but well, you know why it was postponed.
“I’m excited by what Guildford Games Festival looks set to become over the years,” notes Enterprise M3’s Read. “I believe it has all the potential to become a nationally significant games industry conference. For now, it serves as a great celebration of Guildford’s achievements and as a place for the public and the wider industry to come and engage with Guildford’s best and brightest.”
“Liquid Crimson were part of the core team who put together the Guildford Games Festival and the Guildford Games Awards in 2019” adds Liquid Crimson’s Lord. “We have plans to bring both events back in 2020. Both the Festival and Awards brought in large numbers of people and helped cement Guildford as one of the key places for the games industry.”
Speaking of local government, given the importance of the games industry to the local area, they must be pulling out the stops to support local businesses, right?
“It’s sometimes a little hard to tell if Guildford as a town is fully aware how much of the local economy is connected to games,” notes Media Molecule’s Abdeen, “though the festival and community activities are drawing support from the local council.
“The G3 Futures summit certainly started a lot of conversations about what is needed to support our industry locally and we are certainly open to discussions with local government about the needs of Guildford’s many game developers.”
22cans’ Molyneux echoes this need for the government to support the local industry, stating:
“We need more formalised support to foster support for investors to see what great work is being carried out in Guildford. In the past I have been involved with local government but found it frustrating, the amount of time it took up and the amount of meetings that went on.”
“Our experience with local government has been very poor,” adds DPS’ Anderson. “Despite making numerous attempts to enlist the support of the local MP across several years, which would have been extremely useful especially during the start-up phase, the local government support has been non-existent.”
In the spirit of fairness, we should make it clear that this negative experience isn’t universal among the companies we spoke to.
“Guildford Borough Council have made huge strides in their understanding and support of the local games industry recently” says Enterprise M3’s Sam Read. “I think local developers have all seen the benefits of that, Guildford Games Festival couldn’t have happened without them and they will be just as important to 2020’s festival too. While EM3 doesn’t quite count as local government, we are intrinsically linked. I hope that through delivery of the Guildford Games website and Guildford Steam Page this year, we can really demonstrate how the public sector can play a meaningful role in Guildford’s game development future.”
So, with all that said, what advice does Guildford’s residents have for those seeking to set up shop in one of the UK’s most important gaming hubs?
“Rocket Desk provides an excellent space for a startup,” notes 22cans’ Molyneux. “Money is always tight at the start so keep it small and economical before committing to a long lease.”
“I wouldn’t – Liquid Crimson wouldn’t – spend so much time singing the praises of an admittedly pretty but not at all astonishing town in the south of England if there weren’t something very special bubbling away under the surface,” says Lord. “The Guildford Games Community is one of the most welcoming groups you could ever hope to meet.
“The Game Devs drinks we host are, of course, valuable for meeting new people and making contacts, but it’s common to see past or present teams having a good old catch up and filling the place with laughter. It’s cheesy,
but we’re friends, and every time we go to a Guildford meet up we tend to make a new friend. There’s no gatekeeping, we’re all in this together and on an even footing as far as making the very best games (and subsequently trailers for those games) we can.
“My advice? Come to Guildford! If you’re looking to start or move your studio, the town and surrounding areas are alive with the creativity of so many teams. If you’re a dev starting a new role in Guildford, reach out to us. If we can help with filling you in dates of events (TBC) or potential new connections, we’d love to!”