[This feature was published in the November 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad]
Developers have been coding games in Yorkshire since the early ‘80s. The region’s showcase of hits ranges from Charles Cecil’s ZX81 title 1K Chess and Gremlin Graphics’ Monty Mole series to more recent ventures such as Sumo Digital’s Sonic The Hedgehog racing titles.
It’s a heritage that has inspired many of the developers now working in Yorkshire today, some of which attended a Develop roundtable at the offices of 3volution Solicitors in Leeds.
Jamie Sefton, managing director of local network Game Republic, says: “I remember seeing Monty Mole on Look North in the early 80s. At the time, to see any computer game on TV was unheard of. And it was made in Yorkshire at the time of the miner’s strike – it was an amazing thing to see. It made me realise that games could be a mainstream thing. But I never thought it would get to where we are today.”
And almost all of those ‘80s pioneers are still with us today, albeit spiritually through the newer developers. Sumo Digital, for example, was founded by 12 ex-Gremlin members, while Cecil still heads up Broken Sword creators Revolution Software.
While other legends of games development have moved on to other things, Yorkshire’s finest are still committed to games – whether they’re heading to traditional consoles or some of the newer formats.
“The onset of digital has allowed that to happen,” says Insight For Hire’s Martyn Brown, best known for co-founding Yorkshire-based Worms maker Team17. “It’s been a transition for the industry. Everything was packaged goods up until 2004, and then 2005 onwards digital arrived. That changed things.”
Sumo Digital studio head Paul Porter adds: “Now there are less studios around like us, but there are a lot of studios that have started and evolved doing mobile and handheld games. You couldn’t get a more diverse group of people around the table in terms of games being developed.”
Even beyond the roundtable, the spectrum of games development is broad indeed. Just a few miles away is the offices of The Blast Furnace, the new Activision studio behind the mobile hit Call of Duty: Strike Team, and Rockstar Leeds, which contributed to this year’s blockbuster GTA V. It’s a hits list any region could be proud of.
A MATTER OF SKILLS
Developers agree that investment from giants like Activision and Rockstar benefits Yorkshire, but it does raise an ongoing issue.
“I wonder where the staff will come from,” says Brown. “There’s a finite limit of resources in the area. I was involved in setting up the Activision studio, and it was hard work filling that place.
“Once we’d established the studio, it was easy to get people to come up from other regions but depending on the staff you’re looking for, it has become more difficult than it used to be. It’s great to get new starters straight out of university, but getting seasoned developers is tough.”
Local universities claim they are doing their best. Jacob Habgood, senior lecturer in games development at Sheffield Hallam University and former Sumo and Gremlin employee, cites the high employment rates of his graduates and argues there are more pressing concerns.
“We’ve had lots of students that have gone straight into jobs at Activision, Distinctive, Sumo and so on,” he says. “But it’s always been difficult to meet the industry’s expectations in a three-year course.
“I’m also concerned about the deskilling of tools like Unity, in terms of what our students learn. Don’t get me wrong, I think you can create fantastic things with those tools, but I wonder if you can create fantastic students.”
Simon Barratt, MD at indie Four Door Lemon, agrees: “That’s the problem we see. You find less technical people that can fix problems encountered with Unity because they’ve no idea what’s going on under the hood. It’s great for producing certain types of games but we’ll end up with no tech talent whatsoever in a few years’ time if we’re not careful.”
Revolution Software co-founder Noirin Carmody says programming is not the only area in which students are lacklustre: “We really struggle to get good quality, skilled artists. Currently most of our art is produced by people overseas. It’s not just a tech shortage, it’s right across the board.”
And, says Distinctive Games’ MD Nigel Little, the increasingly broad range of jobs in the games industry makes teaching the relevant skills even more challenging: “It’s not just about programmers and artists – there’s so much more to it now. There’s analysts, community managers, web app programmers and lots of different roles
that need filling.”
Both universities and developers are trying to help improve students’ employability.
Game Republic runs a student showcase every year, inviting studios to see graduates’ final year projects. In fact, several Game Republic members hire new recruits as a direct result of this showcase.
Meanwhile, Sheffield Hallam is one of many institutes in the region that is Skillset accredited, and it even runs placement programmes, sending students to work with the likes of Sumo to gain real experience.
“Our placement programme has been what I can only describe as frustratingly successful,” studio boss Porter says. “We don’t like giving them back for the final year, but we know we’ve spent the time investing in people that are really good and hopefully they’re keen to come back when they are available.”
There’s still plenty of room for improvement. Many studios agree there seems to be confusion within academia about certain terms. When an applicant claims they have studied games design, for example, their skills often only extend to level design. It’s a source of much irritation.
“I receive far too many game design graduates, but the vast majority are just no good to get employed,” says Little. “There’s too many of them coming through the system – that seems to be a problem. Programmers are more difficult to find.”
We don’t need to be in London to speak to Sony. The internet has allowed us to work where we want with no obstacles.
– Stewart Gilray, Just Add Water
It’s not all bad news. One thing the studios all agree on is that there are many benefits to running a games development business in Yorkshire – though there is an ongoing but light-hearted dispute about which city serves as the best base.
“York is one of the most amazing cities in the UK,” says Carmody, to much exaggerated disagreement from Sheffield and Leeds devs.
“There’s an awful lot of talent there within York University, lots of new start-ups in the area, plus access to grants and funding. There were also the transport connections: it’s two hours to wherever you need to go: London, Manchester and so on.”
Barrett adds that it’s handy for local game enthusiasts: “One thing we’ve seen recently is people who have grown up here are coming back to work in smaller studios. They’ve been to Canada, worked on huge 1,000-people teams and want to move back to being on a 15-man team.
“That’s been great for us, because it means we can offer those people something a bit different where they feel more involved with the whole process.”
Just Add Water CEO Stewart Gilray agrees: “Half our team is Scottish – if they want to go home and see their families, it would be eight or nine hours from London, whereas it’s only three or four from here. The cost of living is cheaper, as well.”
NETWORK IN THE NORTH
Yorkshire developers are also thankful for the community spirit they share with each other, due in no small part to the ten-year-old Game Republic. The firms regularly discuss projects and issues, share information and resources, and even lend each other dev kits.
Alex Amsel, MD at developer Tuna, says: “It also makes it a lot easier to find people to work with. If you know local companies, you can sub-contract to them. And there are five cities within an hour of each other, which makes it easier to exchange things, change jobs, meet up. It’s a good community.”
Such collaboration is nothing new. It’s an attitude that dates back to the early years of Game Republic, says Craig Albeck, Sumo Digital’s head of business development and Game Republic’s project manager between 2004 and 2008.
“When I was at the helm, it was run by its members for its members,” he says. “The list of our objectives and the things we’re still talking about don’t come from the government. It’s us thinking about what we need to make our businesses more attractive.
“Back then, we were thinking about how we could attract the big third-party publishers. The introductions we get are very valuable, and then that self-perpetuates because we pass it on.”
Amsel adds: “If Game Republic hadn’t been started, I’m doubtful that a lot of us would still be here. Obviously there would still be successes, but I think it would be much more disparate. You can see it in other places – the North West has studios going under and people not knowing what to do. I think Game Republic’s kept everyone together and nurtured the start-ups.”
There is still some degree of Government support. UK Trade & Investment fund a number of companies in Yorkshire, including those in the games industry, through grants. They have been particularly keen to help get local developers out to events like GDC in San Francisco to show off their projects.
“We wouldn’t have been able to go to GDC in 2009 if it wasn’t for that,” says Gilray. “And while we were there, we met the Oddworld guys, and because of that we’re doing what we’re doing today. That’s four years of business for us already – and that can only be a good thing.
“Right now, we’re dealing with Sony Europe in London, Sony San Matteo and Sony in Tokyo. We don’t need to be in London to speak to these companies. We can be anywhere because the internet has allowed us to work where we want to work. There are no obstacles any more.
“That’s the thing that makes it great to work in Yorkshire, because we can live here because we want to live here, but we can still do the work we’d want to do anywhere else.”
Albeck adds: “That wasn’t possible five years ago, because if you were a small company, who would you contact unless you already knew them? The landscape has changed thanks to the digital age.”
Game Republic’s Sefton concurs, although he argues: “It’s still the personal introductions that can be the most helpful. Business is all about people working with each other, and you get on better with people that are good fun. All the companies I’ve worked with in Yorkshire are like that.”
The changes to how we communicate, how we develop and release games products and how the industry is structured has only benefitted Yorkshire. And local studios are confident that this is not about to change.
“The bottom line is there are more people playing games than there ever have been, so I only see the region continuing to thrive and grow,” Sumo’s Porter says.
“There’s a great pool of talent here. The more studios that are here, the more people will be attracted here, and the better we’ll all do as a group of companies.”
Tuna’s Amsel adds: “I think a lot of the people that are left in the games industry – certainly in this area – are a lot more flexible than they were five to ten years ago. No one knows what will happen with this console transition, but I think everyone here’s flexible, from the indies to studios like Sumo, to be able to deal with that.”
ROCKSTARS OF THE NORTH
It is the reception for Grand Theft Auto V that is perhaps the greatest cause for optimism.
As Revolution’s Camody observes, the widespread coverage behind the game was largely positive, indicating a shift in the mainstream media’s perspective on video gaming and, by extension, the UK games industry.
And while that blockbuster was primarily handled by the Edinburgh-based Rockstar North, there’s still more than a little Yorkshire in its code.
“Rockstar Leeds were involved in the making of that game,” Carmody reminds us. “We really have got a lot to be proud about here in Yorkshire.
“As an area, people work together and support each other. That’s not just within gaming, it’s part of the Yorkshire psyche and it makes this a fantastic place to live.”
Sheffield Hallam’s Habgood adds: “As a southerner who lives up north, a lot of my people have a very outdated idea of what Yorkshire’s like. If you get off the train at Sheffield station and walk into the city centre, you walk into a really modern city and it’s the same with other areas across Yorkshire. That’s not necessarily what people think of in London.”
Sefton admits: “There’s a perception issue that we need to still work on.”
“You mean keep a secret?” Porter laughs. “They can stay down there. We’ll have all the fun up here.”