Interview: Creative England's Karl Hilton

The former Crytek UK and Free Radical boss tells us how he's using his 20-plus years of experience to help start-ups
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Karl Hilton has a lengthy and impressive CV.

Starting his career as a lead artist at Rare, he was one of the developers that split away from the Twycross studio and formed Free Radical Design, creators of cult hit TimeSplitters. When the studio was acquired by Crytek, Hilton stayed on as managing director, helping with the development of CryEngine and the last two Crysis titles.

Then, sadly, financial issues and salary problems caused turmoil at Crytek UK, with the studio essentially closing its doors and many of its staff moving to the new Koch-owned Dambuster Studios. Hilton was not among them.

Now the experienced games developer has resurfaced as Programme Executive at Creative England, an organisation dedicated to helping fund and grow new businesses across all creative industries. We caught up with him to find out more about his new role and how he will be using more than two decades of development experience to help future game-makers.

Why have you joined the team at Creative England?
Well, the opportunity came up. Obviously I had some availability [laughs] and it sounded like a really interesting job. It’s something I’m personally very interested in. I’ve been doing more and more business mentoring and training over the last few years, and helping businesses get started so this was a great opportunity to do it formally. 

What does your new role involve?
I’m working very closely with Jaspal on the digital and creative teams. Creative England obviously does a lot with film and TV, but it also has a large role to play with digital creative, particularly focusing on video games. It’s my job with Jaspal over the next couple of years to bring some of this money coming in from regional grant funding from the government and Europe into the games industry and make sure it helps the UK industry grow. So working with local enterprise partnerships, councils and universities – basically anyone who is interested in setting up funds to develop video games companies and projects. 

How is your experience in games development going to help you with this?
Hopefully, I’ve got the right background to understand what devs need, whether it’s a one-man band who’s just starting up or a studio that’s bigger but aren’t growing. Hopefully I can bring my 20-plus years of experience from the development side of building up small company to big ones and running studios.

I hope I can use that experience and any connections I have to help studios in any way that they need it so that it’s not just about setting up programmes and bringing money into them – although that’s obviously the key thing that most companies need and want.

It’s also about the young start-ups that are just getting going. If there’s any help I can give them in terms of advice on what sort of deals they should be looking at, and what sort of terms they need help understanding – things in accountancy, tax, R&D and all the boring stuff that doesn’t actually involve making video games but helps the company function and be more efficient. I can help out and use my knowledge on that.

Hopefully, I’ve got the right background to understand what devs need, whether it’s a one-man band who’s just starting up or a studio that’s bigger but aren’t growing.

Is there enough awareness about that ‘boring stuff’? There are so many new studios and one-man indies entering the world of games development but do they have enough understanding about the business side of making games?
I don’t think it’s what they think about in the first instance, obviously, because they’re passionate about making video games and they’ve got a great idea, an understanding of the technology and want to make a video game. That’s how all companies start, so I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to know about it.

The information is out there, but if there’s someone like me that can come along or one of the trade bodies or an accelerator that can say ‘hey, don’t forget about this stuff’, or ‘by the way, you can save yourself huge amounts of money if you do this properly’, then great. There’s so many pitfalls you can fall down that devs might not be interested in now, but in two years’ time, they might wish they’d thought about it earlier. So part of what I can do is help, remind them about tax credits, R&D and all of that stuff.

Are you going to continue the mentoring you already do?
Yeah, part of Creative England’s role is to help new companies and to offer support. We take a very holistic approach, so we don’t just provide money but any support that the company tells us will be useful to them.

We can do some of that ourselves, or we can outsource to experts: say a company is looking to learn more about script writing, we can find a script writer or someone who is offering courses. Any kind of mentoring in any area companies say they need help on, we try to make sure that mentoring is available as part of our funding programme.

Personally, I enjoy doing that so if I can do more, I will.

Creative England is largely focused at the moment on developing hubs and communities of companies, largely outside of London. Why is that important?
Because a lot of companies are so small and the skillset is so specialised, if you can form groups of companies in an area that can support and help themselves, offer services to each other, you’ve got a much richer environment where developers can be much more efficient and share knowledge. It can help them to leverage what they can produce on limited budgets and in limited amounts of time.

I don’t think devs think about [the business side] in the first instance, because they’re passionate about making video games. That’s how all companies start, so I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to know about it.

Are you going to miss games development? Perhaps develop a few smaller games on the side as personal projects?
That’s the great thing about this job, and one of the things that interested me in it: although I don’t get to make games directly, I now get to work with lots and lots of small to medium-sized companies developing all sorts of different types of games. And I can try and help out as much as I can, in terms of offering advice and feedback on the games they’re making.

A lot of the companies I’ve worked with in the past are keen to get that, as all small studios are – they want to show you their game and get feedback, not just as someone with a checklist of things they need to do but also whether or not it’s fun and what I might change. So in that sense, I get to see a much broader range of games, games companies and games staff than I would do working in one company where I might just be making a console or tablet game for a long time.

I think it’s something like 30 new IPs have come to market over the last 18 months through Creative England, and some of them – like Pixel Toys and Evil Twin Artworks – have done really different styles of games but gone on to have a lot of success with them. To be involved with those from early days is great. It’s really exciting.

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