When it came time to do our next regional spotlight, Yorkshire felt like the obvious choice. Yorkshire & Humber has long been recognised as one of the leading hubs in the UK games industry, with a history that goes right back to the 1980s and the period of pioneering bedroom coders.
It’s no surprise then that seven per cent of the UK games industry calls Yorkshire home – with Yorkshire locals Team17 and Sumo Digital being some of the biggest names in the industry. In fact, Yorkshire is home to three of the world’s top 100 best performing studios (Team17, Sumo Digital and Rockstar Leeds).
As a result, the industry is a real boon to both Yorkshire and the UK economy as a whole, contributing millions to the economy every year. And the presence of such huge industry names in Yorkshire has attracted a wealth of industry talent, as according to Ukie’s UK Games Map, there are 147 companies in Yorkshire & Humber involved in the global games industry, although northern industry network Game Republic estimates the real figure to be double that.
It’s this very community that attracts not only developers, but the wider industry, as Conor Clarke of the National Videogame Museum explains:
“When we decided to move the Museum from our old location, we were looking for an established games cluster in a welcoming city with potential for council support. We looked at Nottingham, Manchester and Sheffield, but Sheffield had no real contenders!
“At the core of what we want to do is build a community around the museum, and Sheffield has that in spades. Since opening, we have seen the emergence of the Sheffield Gaming Quarter – a close knit cluster of gaming businesses that include the Barclays Eagle Labs, Meltdown Esports bar, Extra Life Gaming Lounge, and Ember Social Network all open within a 100m radius of each other, in the last 18 months. This means there is plenty here for game players and workers alike.”
Of course, the community isn’t the only thing that attracts companies to Yorkshire. As a certain northern staff writer in London can attest, living costs are infinitely more affordable – as Dan Thompson, project manager at Pit Stop Productions explains.
“PitStop began its life in Yorkshire as at the time it would have been tremendously more expensive to build the one-stop games audio solution that we envisaged in London. This meant that we ended up ‘setting up shop’ in Barnsley in South Yorkshire, not only because the land was cheaper, but there was also a history of gaming companies who had already set up in the region with the likes of Team17 and Sumo evolving just down the road, along with a whole host of others.”
The resulting host of games companies that have made their home in Yorkshire has resulted in a real community spirit to the area. It’s an atmosphere that not only makes for excellent business opportunities, but one that promotes close personal relationships too.
“Many of us here at Rebellion North hail from our former life as TickTock Games,” says Arden Aspinall, studio head at Rebellion’s northern outpost. “And during that time we naturally built relationships with many of the game studios in Yorkshire and beyond. The great thing about being based here was that we could cast our net locally, nationally and internationally, gaining recognition for our expertise within the industry.
“Relationships are often built behind the scenes, informal meetings over coffee, networking events run by Game Republic, sharing stories at recruitment events and university showcase days. Keeping in touch, celebrating achievements, and buying the next round is a great way to develop and maintain these important relationships. More often than not, it also paves the way to open up new exciting business opportunities.”
This community isn’t just limited to current professionals – the strong network of local universities allows for a lot of projects that empower the game professionals of the future.
“Yorkshire is a key region for Grads in Games, the graduate element of our business” says Ian Goodall, managing director of Aardvark Swift. “The region has some excellent universities who are well known for their pedigree in games education including Sheffield Hallam, Huddersfield, Leeds and York. Over the years a lot of the Grads in Games, Search For A Star game dev challenge winners have come from the Yorkshire based universities, demonstrating the strength of the region in helping to produce the next generation of dev talent.”
“We have a relationship with Leeds University and the College,” notes Fat Kraken Studios founder Brett Lewis. “We’ve actually made friends with lecturers and often go in to give guest lectures on the courses.”
This network of local universities provides a pool of young talent for the industry, as Carl Cavers, CEO of Sumo Group points out:
“There’s a great source of new talent from the region’s universities which we’ve benefited from and will continue to do so following the establishment of our own academy. We work hard to build strong links with the local universities in order to increase the understanding of the career opportunities that are available in the games industry and within Sumo in particular.”
When we asked about the games industry community in Yorkshire – one name came up time and time again as being vital to maintaining that community spirit: Game Republic.
“There is definitely a community spirit amongst the developers in Yorkshire and a lot of that is down to the work that Game Republic does” says Sumo’s Cavers. “It’s a perfect example of that gaming heritage, starting back in 2003. It has gone through many guises, has been publicly funded and now privately run, but still doing great work in shining a light on the region and helping developers to connect, grow and thrive.”
“The work that Game Republic does is brilliant because it’s so community focussed” adds the NVM’s Clarke. “In general, Yorkshire has a friendliness to it, that is unlike anywhere else I’ve been to. And that friendliness is exemplified by the open and friendly nature of Game Republic. Jamie (Sefton) is just one of the best people to have a chat with – about anything!”
Again, Game Republic’s approach to community is not just focused on existing professionals, but expands to the region’s student population as well.
“We’ve actually just received some news from Jamie at Game Republic today. We are judging this year’s Student Showcase for 2020 and our job is to choose the best game art and animation from the superb entries – it is definitely not going to be easy but always a pleasure to take part,” says Rebellion North’s Arden Aspinall.
“Game Republic generates pathways for industry to support, challenge and educate students to understand what studios need from candidates, and they raise the bar for students to aspire to in their creative and technical endeavours,” continues Aspinall.
“They create the opportunities for employers to meet their future workforce, for independent developers to engage directly with publishers, and so much more.
“They inspire wonder through their regular events and showcases; they highlight important issues – challenging discrimination in the industry, and promoting inclusivity in gaming, and promote all aspects of game making in Yorkshire.
“Simply put, game making in Yorkshire would not be the same without the hard work and dedication of the team behind Game Republic,” Aspinall concludes.
“Thanks to people like Jamie Sefton and what he has done at Screen Yorkshire, there have been some really great networking events over the years” agrees Pit Stop’s Thompson. “Some really good friendships and working relationships have been made through events like these, but it has also allowed us to compete against each other as well as work and support each other.”
Game Republic isn’t the only force uniting the Yorkshire games industry either – the annual Yorkshire Games Festival (YGF) brings the region into the spotlight every year, as well as providing local students with talks and advice from industry experts.
“The Yorkshire Games Festival is a brilliant event that we try to support each year,” says Jasper Barnes, Talent Acquisition Manager at Team17, “as it is a celebration of the industry that lives on our doorstep!
“Whether it be guest lecturers, usability labs, recruitment advice and CV workshops, or something entirely different, we like to make sure that Team17 is there to support the local industry. We are starting to see similar events pop up in other games industry hotspots in the UK, but I think that the Yorkshire Games Festival is still at the top of the list for celebrating regional industry, and is a huge tool for attracting people to come and see just how much we can offer!”
“Game Republic has been involved in the Yorkshire Games Festival since its inception a few years ago, and before that, when games were part of the Bradford Animation Festival” notes the much-lauded Jamie Sefton, Game Republic’s managing director.
“The National Science & Media Museum in Bradford have been fantastic – they recognised the need for a festival to put the spotlight on the region’s industry, but also to show kids (and adults) in one of the UK’s poorest areas, that you can aspire to have a career in the games industry.
“We recently had an inspirational speaker at the festival called Iki Ikram, ex-Naughty Dog and now Beyond-FX, who was born in Bradford, went to Bradford College and ended up in Los Angeles working on the biggest games in the world such as Uncharted
and The Last of Us. It’s really important for us to show that whatever your economic, social or ethnic background, you can have a career in games! It’s also brilliant for our developers to talk about their amazing games at the festival to a wider audience and to bring amazing world-class speakers such as Brenda and John Romero to the region.”
This message of ‘you can have a career in games’ is central to the festival’s philosophy, and one that benefits not just Yorkshire, but the industry as a whole.
“We hear from the industry that there is a digital sector skills gap and we know that Yorkshire is delivering more and more graduates from games-related courses” notes the YGF’s Kathryn Penny. “We think we are unique in the North in being a festival that aims to be a bridge between education and employment to bring families together through positive gaming.”
At risk of getting all London-centric, while there are certainly benefits to escaping the capital, there unfortunately comes the time where we all have to trudge down south from time to time. So is being so removed from London a challenge to the local industry?
“Our studio is only a few minutes’ drive from the East Coast Mainline connection at Wakefield Westgate, so we enjoy regular high speed trains to and from London” notes Rebellion’s Aspinall.
“It’s no hassle by car either as we are only a stone’s throw away from the M1. You can usually get 2 hours of uninterrupted work time on the train down to London. Or you can simply watch the scenery go by and be fully rested and ready for the buzz of business in the capital. We have the bonus of two airports nearby, Leeds/Bradford and Manchester, making it easier to access national and international destinations.”
“There’s no doubt that as a global city, London is a massive draw for all sorts of business sectors” adds Team17’s Barnes. “However, as this current situation shows, with high-speed internet connectivity and hardware we can operate from anywhere in the country – as we have for 30 years!
“Right now, we have people working from home who usually commute from Warwickshire, Cambridgeshire, Birmingham, and beyond, all games development hubs in their own right.”
Interestingly, while Yorkshire is well-placed for connections to London and international business, travel to elsewhere in the UK is much more of a challenge, as Sumo’s Cavers explains.
“The local infrastructure is woefully under invested in. Our entire transport system in the UK seems to be focused on delivering people to London but not connecting regional towns to each other. It can take me longer to get to Manchester or Newcastle than it takes me to get to London which really doesn’t make sense. Any talk of ‘levelling up’ needs to have improvement of the local transport infrastructure at the top of its list of priorities.”
Travel to elsewhere in the UK isn’t the only problem to working in the area – despite the money the local industry brings to the UK economy, Yorkshire lacks the level of investment seen in London.
“Whilst almost perfect, Yorkshire doesn’t currently offer the same access to the network of venture capital and large-scale funding opportunities that are found in London” says Aardvark’s Goodall.
“We also don’t have an international airport but travelling to Manchester airport doesn’t take long if the growing regional airports don’t cater to your destinations yet,” he adds.
The lack of airports isn’t the only infrastructure the area could do with, as Game Republic’s Sefton notes:
“We could really do with a large conference venue – we don’t have anything on the scale of the NEC in Birmingham or ExCel in London, which has really hampered our ability to attract large games events. Game Republic helped bring EGX to Leeds in 2009, but the show soon outgrew the 2,000 person limit at the Royal Armouries. I’m glad we have the Yorkshire Games Festival now though at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford.”
GOD’S OWN COUNTRY
Still, no region is without its downsides – and it’s clear that Yorkshire is a growing hub for the UK games industry. So what advice do the experts have for those looking to set up shop in the area?
“Come to God’s Own Country – and I say that as a Lancastrian!” says the YGF’s Penny. “Some of the best games related courses are in this region, delivering a talented pool of fresh graduates here. There’s also excellent regional support for the games industry through Screen Yorkshire and Game Republic.”
“Yorkshire does have a lot to offer our job candidates” says Team17’s Barnes. “A county with bustling cities and gorgeous countryside in close proximity, a growing technology industry and gaming community, and of course the best tea in the world! It certainly has appeal for developers.”
“There are so many variables to consider when looking to relocate” Rebellion’s Aspinall adds. “I strongly believe in making sure the existing team members are involved in the process. Transport links, housing, local schools and other amenities all play a massive role – and you must consider the impact on your current team before you can even talk about expansion plans.
“Games don’t make themselves, and a growing team needs solid and dependable foundations. It goes without saying that these qualities run deep in Yorkshire.”
THE NATIONAL VIDEOGAME MUSEUM
The UK’s only dedicated gaming museum needs your help in the pandemic
The National Videogame Museum, the UK’s only museum dedicated to videogame culture and education is threatened with permanent closure due to the coronavirus. Despite seeing 40,000 visitors in 2019, the museum has no safety net to ensure it can survive a prolonged shutdown.
“Sheffield as a city has wholeheartedly embraced the National Videogame Museum, both the council and more importantly the people of Sheffield” says Sumo’s Cavers. “The Museum does a great job in reminding locals of the heritage of games development in the area but its real work is of national importance, providing a catalogue of every game made and helping people of all ages and backgrounds to understand the creativity that goes into making a great video game.
“It’s definitely a resource that the entire industry should know more about and hopefully support because they are doing fantastic work. Anyone and not just those involved in making games should make some time to visit the museum once they are back open after this crisis.”
“The NVM has been a fantastic addition to the industry in Yorkshire,” adds Game Republic’s Sefton, “and especially to Sheffield – which as a city, has such a history of UK games development beginning with Gremlin Graphics in the 1980s.
“It has been fantastically supported by Sumo Digital and other studios as well as Sheffield Hallam University, and Game Republic has also hosted networking events there. I hope it can continue after this crisis – Game Republic has donated to the fund and also brought awareness of the fundraising to its members and the wider community, and I hope perhaps that the NVM can continue to run online webinars and classes during the pandemic too.”
You can donate to the NVM’s fundraising page at https://www.justgiving.com/campaign/savethenvmuk.