The local industry may have had some high profile closures in the past, but there are signs of renewed life in this development hub

Region Focus: Liverpool rising

Liverpool was once a hotbed for creative development talent and home to some of the biggest and most famous studios in the UK.

But changes in the market, a long console generation and the rise of mobile gaming saw some major closures. These included Studio Liverpool, formerly known as Psygnosis and formed 30 years ago in 1984, and Blur developer Bizarre Creations, leaving more than a hundred developers jobless. It is arguably harder now to name more famous studios in the region.

“Liverpool has always been a creative force in games, but its community clustered into a few super studios reliant on publisher models to succeed,” says Lucid Games co-founder Peter O’Brien of the city’s past.

“When the industry evolved to be hit-driven, these studios failed to keep pace with consumer tastes and despite their quality, the products failed to maintain returns on their investment. Back then, UK development costs were also some of the most expensive in the world and the hit games were being made elsewhere and delivering ROI. Global recession, the end of platform lifecycles and the rise of new platforms, such as social and mobile, were also factors.”

Kevin McManus, head of creative and digital at Liverpool Vision – a group that offers business advice to local entrepreneurs – agrees, and remarks that there were many reasons behind the region’s troubles. Failures such as Blur, for example, are often wrongly cited as the sole explanation for devs closing.

“The reality is much more complex and was down to the disruption occurring in the industry at this time, which was undergoing rapid change with the rise of digital downloads and free-to-play games,” he says.

“These need different business models, which lend themselves to different types of studios. A changing market sometimes means less profits and large internal studios have very large internal burn-rates. But there appears to be a resurgence occurring in the city. Those major closures, combined with the experienced developers the region has nurtured, has sparked a number of new, local studios.”

Those new companies include Evolution Studios founder Martin Kenwright’s new company Starship, Playroom developer Firesprite, Lucid Games – which is behind the upcoming Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions – Milky Tea and Playrise. There’s also publishers such as Ripstone and Thumbstar and recruitment experts Amiqus situated nearby.

In total, Liverpool Vision says there are over 35 games companies in the region, employing over 350 people – without including Sony’s QA operations that house over 500 staff. The wide breadth of the local sector was on show at industry trade body UKIE’s recent games expo alongside the Liverpool International Festival for business in July, which CEO Jo Twist says reveals just what a vibrant development community the city has.

“We had more thean 20 companies from in and around Liverpool exhibiting and many more games businesses attending the workshops we put on with the UKTI,” she says. “It’s great to see such a vibrant and growing cluster in the region.”

But while many of the companies may be young, many of the staff are some of the most experienced in the world, thanks to the city’s heritage in games development.

“Things have changed significantly over the last five years and companies like ours are a testament to that,” says Clemens Wangerin, COO of one of the area’s newest games companies, Starship.

“I left Sony in 2009 and there was only two-to-three developers in the city outside the ‘big two’, all of which pretty much kept their heads down and kept themselves busy with work-for-hire or publisher-funded projects. Now, not only do we have a much greater number of games companies in the city, they also cover a much wider breadth.”

Amiqus business manager Liz Prince adds: “The emergence of local grants and funding from the government has played a big part in helping teams get off the ground and start their journies into growth. In the wake of the closure of prominent studios there’s now a lot of positivity and optimism around up-and-coming studios like Firesprite and Starship.”

Rising from the ashes

But will the region ever be as big as it was? Local developers are split in their opinons on where the city is headed, though they all agree it will look vastly different in future than its console-focused past.

Firesprite MD Graeme Ankers, whose new studio houses 22 staff and is working on various platforms including the PS4, mobile, tablet and VR, believes there is potential for the city to grow bigger than before.

“There is a palpable sense that the region has regrouped, retained and redistributed its vast, leading class talent,” he says. “It’s only a matter of time before the fruits of that passion and labour begin to make an impact like they did in years past.”

Jonathan Holmes, CEO of studio Milky Tea, a team of nine working on racing game Coffin Dodgers, is confident the region will grow larger than it used to be, but says the city will no longer be home to the big 200-person triple-A studios – a change perhaps not confined to Liverpool but the wider industry.

“Instead you will see smaller agile ones working a mixture of projects and IP,” says Holmes. “I think the whole industry has changed dramatically and think there is far more competition out there.

“Nowadays a two-man studio can have a tremendous amount of success so games studios need to think more like start-up businesses and less about how things used to be. Things like marketing your game, business strategies and monetisation, which isn’t second nature to most games development studios, is so important now.

“I think the one aspect that Liverpool and the Baltic Triangle does well in particular is that everyone’s willing to help each other and share experiences.”

Ripstone creative director and co-founder Phil Gaskell describes the current scene in Liverpool as the “perfect storm”, with a growing collective of new and experienced games development teams, publishing labels to find the right audiences and support them, numerous creative service providers to assist with game creation, and the all-important funding groups that are able to inject capital into new and exciting projects.

“This has really only come about in the last four or five years with the introduction of digital distribution, and the more widespread adoption of middleware over in-house tech. The focus is now much more on the creativity and design of games, and Liverpool developers have shown time and again they can deliver on that.”

O’Brien adds: “It certainly feels like it has its heartbeat back. Very few large independent studios exist in the UK, let alone Liverpool, mostly due to past development costs and partly to do with strategic consolidation by super studios like EA and Activision.

“However, we are experiencing a re-investment from such studios and its our responsibility as small independent developers to make better deals, build lasting relationships and simply make great games players want to invest in. I’m hoping that if the community maintains our independence and continues to have small wins, we will have a community that outlasts any technological or market trend.”

You’ll never walk alone

That sense of collaboration and history is something that is part of the fabric of this new Liverpool development hub, with most, if not all, studios willing to share resource and advice on projects to ensure success for all.

Wangerin says though it’s still a young studio, Starship has already worked with others on projects, and highlights the Baltic Triangle area – the emerging home of the creative industries in Liverpool city centre – as a place where the sense of community is particularly high.

“It almost feels like a campus at times,” he says. “You’re always bumping into someone you know and you often see clusters of people having a chat while they’re out. The great thing about this district is that it’s all been grassroots-driven and there’s not only game and tech companies, but we share the area with live event venues, restaurants, cafes, auto repair shops, a car wash, shops that sell kitchen doors and garden sheds, a bakery, a micro-brewery and more.”

O’Brien, whose studio Lucid Games is home to 34 staff and was formed from the ashes of Bizarre, says without the large studios of the past, devs are now able to discuss their products and share ideas, something that was difficult when bound to secrecy under studio contracts.

“I believe this will facilitate better games and apps for those who recognise the value of collaboration, even if it’s a casual chat over some drink and food or on Twitter,” he says.

“Our studio has a history of working with local partners, from experienced freelance games developers to service-orientated businesses. When working with partners at any level, we see them as part of the team.”

The sense of collaboration isn’t the only benefit of working in the Liverpool games and tech hub. The cost of living is relatively low in Liverpool, particularly when compared to cities in the South such as London, where costs are increasingly rising.

There have also been some significant investments into the tech hub in recent times, as well as the formation of the International Festival for Business – an event that debuted this year to encourage trade and investment in the region.

And it’s all this, O’Brien says, that is continuing to reinforce that aforementioned important culture of creativity and collaboration in the city.

“Liverpool is still a vibrant, creative city that endures and is currently revelling in its resurgence,” he says.
“The city has just hosted the first ever International Festival for Business and benefits from British-USA trade worth billions of pounds.

"There are ongoing investments for students, universities and urban planning, which means opportunities for local business and communities. We have a competitive living cost, and a creative culture that is not only recognised, but receiving heavy investment and producing creative hubs like the Baltic Triangle, an area with world-class food, music and creative business achieving comparisons with New York districts.”

The new face of Liverpool

The city’s heritage ensures it’s easier than ever for new studios to set up in the area, though as with all studios and technology hubs, there are still challenges companies in the region must face.

Gaskell says the creative culture of Liverpool and close collaboration between studios helps, but there are still issues however, most reflective of Liverpool’s recent past and current state.

“It’s clear there’s a pretty big gulf that’s opened in terms of team sizes,” says Gaskell. “You’re either a micro studio making brave digital games that embrace risk, or you’re part of a super-team building billion-dollar franchises. The squeezed middle has all but vanished: too big to be small, and too small to be big.”

And no matter what size your studio, Playrise CEO Nick Burcombe says access to finance is a challenge for studios in the region, amongst others, but says keeping costs down can help alleviate these potential problems.

“You keep overheads low if you’re sensible about it,” he says. “We share an office in the Elevator studios, opposite the old Cains brewery, not only to keep our costs down, but to be part of the amazing community of creative activity in the Baltic Triangle.

“But there are challenges; too many to list. But the primary one is access to finance. There are schemes out there to help, but understanding what financing options you have take up a lot of time.”

Another challenge facing developers in the region is recruiting well-educated graduates and aspiring developers, particularly in areas such as programming.

There has long been a debate over how well students are trained in core programming skills, and the ideal courses they should study. The rise of easily accessible middleware such as Unity has also led to some aspiring developers relying perhaps too heavily on third-party tools, rather than learning to dig into the code themselves and using such technology and tools to add to that expertise.

Ankers believes accessible middleware and universities taking a more cross-discipline approach in recent times has been encouraging, and says he has seen a great improvement in the calibre of graduates in as young developers are keen to get straight into games creation.

He warns, however, there are now less graphics programmers or low-level coders – those who are able to squeeze out the very last per cent of a system to make that “special difference” to a game, and believes this may be a symptom of the ‘middleware culture’ many devs have become accustomed to.

Programmers in demand

Playrise CEO Nick Burcombe says the UK needs to encourage more children to get in to programming at school and at home, much like they did during the 1980s thanks to programmable computers such as the Sinclair Spectrum and BBC Micro.

“The current generation of developers were absorbed in that thrill of making a computer do what you wanted it to do at a young age, but since those days, schools have moved away from the computer sciences and now have classes like ICT,” says Burcombe.

“In doing so, they have taught millions of children to use software, but not make better software. Getting kids into programming is what is needed if we want to have a long-term world-class games development culture in this country.

“We as a nation – Liverpool in particular – have lost so many skilled jobs that produced exportable products throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, and this is something we were really good at, but are now falling behind.”

Amiqus’ Liz Prince echoes Burcombe’s sentiments, and believes industry-wide demand for programmers is not being met, but praises local educational institutions for their efforts.

“The University of Liverpool, Liverpool John Moores University and Liverpool Hope University all offer Computer Studies courses that include programming and this is a great start,” she says.

“Our experience is that Liverpool is reflective of the whole industry’s over-representation of aspiring video games designers compared to an under-representation of the more mathematical based programming grads.”

As well as its range of universities, Liverpool is also home to The Studio, a school for 14 to 19-year-olds that teaches young people key skills to get into the games industry.

A new era

Developers in the local area have praised the school and sixth form college for its work, as it specialises in preparing people for the digital world. Students entering sixth form can choose from three pathways: coding, creative and entrepreneurship, in which they’ll work in project teams which the institution claims will “ensure that they have a broad base of knowledge and experiences”.

“I think we’re all very proud of what The Studio has managed to achieve in a very short space of time,” says Wangerin.

“They’ve really got the bit between their teeth and it’s been amazing to see the type of ideas and apps that the young people are coming up with. A big part of their success so far, apart from having the teaching staff who’ve really thrown themselves into this endeavour, has been how close the local games and tech sector got involved. Industry people are giving guest lectures there, act as mentors, give master classes in a particular field or get involved as Governor’s.

“I think if anything that’s a great blueprint and personally I think engaging with young people and demystifying games development before they decide on what to do at University or in their careers, is absolutely key to give the next generation of games developers the best possible start.”

With clear efforts being made to develop aspiring game-makers in the city to ensure these young development studios have a well-educated and vibrant talent pool, it looks as though the resurgence in this dev hub is well underway.

The setting is different to its super studio, console-focused past. Companies are generally much smaller, nimbler and aware of the different games markets and constant industry fluctuations.

But with such a wide array of developers making games for numerous different platforms, many of which are only a few years old, Liverpool could one day again house new super studios of its own, run by those who have learnt the lessons of a harsh past and are prepared for a new future.

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