In this special roundtable profile of the UK coastal town, we find out why Brighton has become such a key cluster for games studios.
What is it about Brighton that makes it such a great place to develop games?
Danny Isaac, studio manager, Relentless Software: Brighton’s a great city to live and work in; it feels young, creative and vibrant. There’s a great mix of cultures here so wherever you come from, you’ll feel at home in Brighton, which helps when recruiting.
From a business sense Brighton’s well located; you can get to central London in about an hour while Gatwick is only a short distance away, and of course compared to working in a big city the daily commute is much less stressful.
Tony Beckwith, vice president and general manager, Black Rock Studio: Brighton is a vibrant young city. It’s a fantastic place to live: London-by-sea; the San Francisco of the UK. This is the sole reason why a large development community has sprung up from practically nothing just ten years ago.
Ben Hebb, art director, Zoë Mode: Its proximity to London is an obvious win, both from a business and personal development perspective. We can easily visit publishers and trade shows, and access all of the capital’s art galleries and specialist exhibitions. The size of Brighton also makes for an easy commute.
It’s jam-packed full of creative types. It’s buoyant, vibrant, active and always has new music, art and weird and wonderful street theatre to enjoy. And of course, there is the beach. There’s nothing like a stroll to the pebbles of a lunchtime, sipping a cold beer or snaffling a bag of chips.
Richard Leinfellner, CEO, Babel Media: There’s great availability of staff and, in our case, also the fact many are multilingual. It’s also a great place to live. Many of our workers are contract based due the cyclical nature of our business. Brighton and Hove is ideal for this as we have a large student population. Many people, like me, come here to go to a great party by the beach, and 20 years later suddenly find they ended up living here by accident.
Ali Kord, director of technology, Animazoo: To be able to live here as the boss.
And what of the challenges specific to the area? Would you offer any note of caution to a studio considering a move to the city?
Beckwith: It would be helpful if there was more Government aid or grants available to studios in our area. Brighton is big now but it would probably rival some of the Canadian cities for the number and scale of its development studios if we had had more help. There are hundreds of people working in the games industry in Brighton.
Some of the Canadian cities number employees in the thousands – and these gaming centres didn’t even exist ten years ago. Office space is also a challenge in the area and always has been in the ten years that we’ve been here.
Leinfellner: Being seen by the development agencies as ‘the prosperous South East’, there is virtually no help available – financial incentive-wise or otherwise – compared to say further north or Scotland, or abroad where I have seen some great government and private partnerships.
That is, other than the occasional visit from someone from SEEDA (South East England Development Agency) who generally tells you: ‘Yes there is no money in the South. By the way, we are reorganising again, and quite honestly we really can’t do anything too useful for you.’ Compare and contrast this to Montreal’s focus on becoming media hub and the differences leap out at you.
We now have more than 300 people at Babel Montreal and are still growing, mainly because I really get a sense they want us to be there and will help all they can to make it happen.
Finally, as we are all now looking for UK Government cost cutting to balance the budget, I could suggest a few right away.
Seriously, if you are starting up and looking for Government help, you may be better off elsewhere. If you want a ‘cool’ place to start and grow your company, with great talent Brighton is for you.
Kord: Also, talents tend to like living more than working, which can be turned into a plus if you understand the dynamics. The other main issue is affordable housing for your crew.
Isaac: Central office space has been an issue for us. Brighton’s a small city and with our success at Relentless and subsequent growth, finding adequate office space is an ongoing challenge.
Hebb: People are often surprised by the cost of living in Brighton, both as business owners and personal property hunters. Prices are comparative to London.
Are trade industry organisations in any way an important part of the Brighton games development scene? Do they have much of an impact in the area?
Isaac: Although not specific to Brighton, Tiga has done a great job representing the development community and has been instrumental in making sure politicians and consumers get a balanced views of our community and the products we create.
Locally, Wired Sussex has been very proactive and is a great resource for linking game development and new media companies together. They’ve been behind driving a number of initiatives developing creative office space which in turn supports the growth for digital companies in Brighton.
Hebb: We support their initiatives and often refer to their website for hot tips on what’s going on in the locality.
Leinfellner: If you measure success on press coverage of intentions, and photo opportunities, it feels like there is some progress. However, in terms of actual delivery of benefits to the sector or region progress is virtually non-existent. The trade bodies generally end up representing the minority interests of the people on their boards and major funders, so I would need to be convinced they offer real value for money to the sector as a whole.
Beckwith: I think they try their best.
Do you have a positive relationship with the universities and other educational establishments local to Brighton? Are they important to you?
Beckwith: Absolutely, but we are global in our reach. Our employees – and especially our graduate population – are a truly international bunch. However we have partnered with some new businesses that have sprung out of the local universities, including Vertical Slice, which is a relatively new Useability Lab; very useful for focus testing our products locally and getting feedback on our user interfaces.
Isaac: We have great relationships with the educational centres in the area. We’ve often presented to students at the University here; just recently I presented to the Informatics school at Sussex University. We’ve also had success with our intern program as well as being involved in a number of post graduate research collaborations.
Hebb: Our relationships with the local educational establishments are very important to us. A couple of years ago we supplied all the art mentoring for the Dare to be Digital project when it was based at Brighton University. We offer ‘portfolio clinics’ and regularly bring in students to do two week to six month placements with us. It’s great to get their fresh and youthful take on our projects.
Leinfellner: The Sussex and Brighton universities are really helpful. We flyer at their sites and advertise notices in their careers office and job boards. Brighton Gumtree is also a great site as it is used a lot by local companies and local jobseekers.
Is sourcing and holding onto staff in Brighton relatively easy? Is the city a boon to you as an employer?
Hebb: Yes. You just can’t beat Brighton on a sunny day.
Isaac: Relentless has had good success finding and retaining our staff. Being in Brighton has helped; it’s a great city and comes into its own during the summer months. That said wherever you are, if the work-life balance is poor it really doesn’t matter where your offices are located.
Beckwith: The city is brilliant draw. Our young, great talent is a perfect fit for the type of people who like to live in this cool, hip city.
Leinfellner: Many people who come down to Brighton end up staying; being down here is definitely a plus. Many hires stay a long time and if they do move they also stay local. There is local competition for good people. However I consider that as quite healthy as it keeps us all on our toes.
How close is the Brighton games development scene as a community? Is that aspect important to you?
Leinfellner: It’s not formally close, in that we host wine and cheese parties. However most people here have worked together no more than two jobs ago, so you are always meeting them in pubs etc. It’s a very close-knit community; everyone knows each other and generally has amusing stories to tell over a beer.
Hebb: It seems that everyone knows everyone in the development scene here. We’re aware of what the other companies are up to, and although there are differences in our projects, there is also some crossover, which in turn leads to a mutual respect. This is important to nurture for the benefit of all our businesses growth.
Beckwith: We’re very close. We talk fairly often. We’re all working in different areas of specialisation so we tend to complement each other.
I don’t think a lot of poaching goes on because we’re each looking for different things in our people.
For example, Black Rock makes high quality racing games. I don’t need engineers who specialise in singing or quiz games. We’re a completely different breed.
Isaac: We’re a relatively small industry and Brighton’s a small city so you obviously get to know what’s going on around you.
I think the community here is very important, there’s a lot of great talent here and getting a stronger community will help us all to flourish.
It’s great to hear other Brighton studios are having success; I’ve lived most my life in the area and am proud of the development here.
Kord: No game development community is close. They are tight-lipped about what they are working on, although they are dying to brag about the smallest things. And no, I couldn’t care less.