Our Scotland focus kicks off with a look at the region's industry

Highland Games

It’s home to Rockstar North and Realtime Worlds, but what lies beyond in Scotland’s development scene? Denki’s Brian Baglow tells all…

Scotland is somewhat misunderstood when it comes to video games. The company has two huge, massively successful studios – Rockstar North and Realtime Worlds – plus many smaller, innovative studios working in new areas.

Yet if you ask most people about the business of making games in Scotland, they look at you blankly and maybe mutter something about Grand Theft Auto.

The country did suffer from a number of very high profile casualties over the last several years. All of the major studios who represented the vast majority of the industry in the mid-‘90s no longer exist. Only Rockstar, built upon the foundations of DMA Design and now owned by Take-Two, remains in anything like its original form, albeit hugely expanded and highly focused on one or two core properties.

However, the people who worked with DMA, Vis, Visual Science, Red Lemon, Inner Workings or Creative Edge didn’t leave the industry, or go and find jobs in the lucrative banking sector (a few misguided fools apart). Many of them stayed in Scotland, stayed in the games business and started again. Rather than repeat the same formula which drove the larger studios out of business, the new studios have remained fiercely independent, much smaller, tighter, more focused and far more experimental.

It’s fair to say that investment is a little more ‘difficult’ here in Scotland. Publishers treated a trip to Edinburgh like a week in the Arctic Circle and still don’t know where Dundee is in relation to say, Helsinki or Santiago. So the smaller studios ignored the received wisdom of the industry – that console games are the only true games, budgets start at $10m, and publishers are the source of all which is good – and struck out in directions which did not require the same levels of funding, hoop jumping and publisher geography.

The one unifying aspect of the new generation of development studios in Scotland has been a willingness to explore new technologies, new platforms, new business models and new audiences. Companies looking at casual gaming, mobile gaming, the iPhone, social networks, MMOs and digital distribution were all found north of the border very early in their existence.

Hence, much of the innovation and success from Scottish companies hasn’t been picked up on, because it’s been out on the crazy fringes of ‘real’ gaming and ‘not really suitable for our readers’. It’s also not helped that most Scottish companies are so damnably modest that they’re unwilling to cause a fuss with something as brash as a press release.

So, you rarely hear about the new things, the innovation, the deals, the big partnerships or the awesome new games from companies up here. Which is a shame, because there’s a huge amount to celebrate.

Quietly, and without much fuss, Scottish companies have been leading the way in areas like digital distribution – Outerlight originally released The Ship in 2004. Mobile gaming, too: The Games Kitchen was creating games in 2000 and Digital Bridges was one of the world’s first dedicated mobile games publishers. Even casual gaming: Denki has been releasing ‘casual’ games since 2000, with its 180 games going into nine million homes across the UK, thanks to a deal with SKY TV. Cobra and Slam both created casual games portals, to provide direct-to-consumer distribution back in 2005/6.

The creation of the iPhone App Store marked a huge new opportunity for developers and in the last 14 months many studios have started building highly successful content for Apple’s shiny new ‘games platform’, including 4J, Electric Tophat, Dynamo, Tag, Cobra and Digital Goldfish. Proper Games and Triple B have both also released games on Xbox Live Arcade, while Cohort has been quietly releasing PlayStation Network and PS3 games to general rejoicing.

There are currently over 30 developers and development studios across the country, working on every conceivable platform. Then of course, there are the other projects and events you might not have come across yet.

The Dare to be Digital competition is quite simply astonishing, for example. If you’ve not come across it before, Dare to be Digital is a competition for students. Teams of five are challenged to create original new games and ten weeks on the platform of their choice. They then have to present the games to the public over three days during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August.

The teams submit their own concepts, or pick one from a pool of ideas submitted by consumers. They present to a panel of judges from within the industry who pick the best teams and treatments. The successful teams then get ten weeks at Abertay University in Dundee, a budget and a living allowance.

Think about this for a minute. It’s finding new talent, creating new IP and showing the teams exactly what it’s like working within the games industry. This should be the games industry’s Olympics, World Cup and Big Brother all rolled into one. It should generate new games and spark bidding wars over winning teams. BAFTA – yes, BAFTA – created a new award for teams coming through Dare, the ‘Ones To Watch’ award. Seriously, how often do they knock together new awards for some random competition?

And Abertay is just one of many Scottish universities looking at games – Glasgow Caledonian hosted the 2009 Global Games Jam in Scotland, the University of West Scotland has a superb range of courses and even the Screen Academy at Napier now introduces film production and screen writing students to interactive entertainment.

Games, it would seem, are finally being taken seriously. The Scottish Government is backing Dare financially and publicly. MSPs are asking questions in parliament about tax breaks for games and – for the first time ever – offering public support to studios.

The commercial organisations – Scottish Enterprise and Scottish Development International have been firmly behind the games sector for the last decade. The famous Scottish Games Alliance parties at E3 were down to SDI, while almost every games related company which has started up in the last eight years has benefitted from guidance and a relationship with Scottish Enterprise.

Better yet, the rest of the media and the arts sector are now recognising games as a valid part of their remit. Organisations including NESTA, Scottish Screen, the Scottish Arts Council – and the soon-to-exist Creative Scotland – have all said that games are just as eligible as modern dance, theatre or sock puppetry in terms of support, funding and recognition.

Plus, of course, on the cultural side, Scotland was home to the late, great Consolevania – arguably the best games TV show ever. We also gave the world Dominik Diamond (thank us later) and is home to the DoYouInverts (Google them).

There’s a growing recognition among the studios, universities and related organisations that the future is no longer going to be dictated by mega corporations on the other side of the world. The future of the games industry is up for grabs. Direct relationships with consumers are now not just possible, but desirable – and developers can no longer be content with just creating content and waiting for someone else to distribute it, market it and deal with the happy/satisfied/angry/confused punter at the other end of the transaction.

Much of what’s happening in Scotland right now reflects this. New events are springing up which are focused on the industry here in Scotland – promoting it, helping it to grow and building those relationships.

Game In Scotland, a dedicated games industry recruitment fair, ran for the third time this year pulling in representatives from all of the major studios and combining an exhibition with a fascinating speaker panel (yes, I was on it), pulling in students from all over the world.

The Dare to be Digital Protoplay event is running over the 14th, 15th and 16th of August at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. It’s hugely recommended for anyone who has an interest in games. Free to get in, all of the brand new games are available to play and the teams on hand for questions. Just go!

Later this year, a brand new event is running in Dundee. NEoN (North East of North) is a digital arts festival, which promises an amazing array of speakers, workshops, exhibitions, games, animation, art and quite possibly the world’s biggest games concert.

Also, we have Bert Wednesdays. You don’t.

In short, there’s been something of a renaissance in the Scottish games world. The companies are producing more original new titles for a wider variety of platforms than ever before. The industry as a whole is being taken seriously by the Government and by the rest of the media and arts sectors (which also, thankfully, kills another tedious industry argument stone dead. Yes, they’re art. Move on).

The next 18 months or so will see more new releases and more new games. Which is what counts really. And not obscure little titles either – Realtime’s APB, Ruffian’s Crackdown 2, Rockstar’s Agent, Denki’s Quarrel, Tag’s Astro Ranch, Cobra, Proper, 4J, Outerlight, Firebrand, Dynamo, Digital Goldfish… all coming to a platform near you.

Me? I’m just happy to be here.

Brian Baglow is (seriously – check his business card) ‘Speaky Talky Blokey’ at Denki, and also runs the community site ScottishGaming.biz

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