Andrew Eades: The co-founder of Relentless has worked in the southmost UK games hub (Brighton) and its northmost (Dundee)
David Amor: Relentless’ creative director and co-founder – and the only person on our panel who actually grew up in Brighton
Algy Williams: Non-executive director of Babel Media, and the first to set up a games company in Brighton, in 1999
Ben Hebb: Zoe Mode’s art director says his earliest memory of Brighton was “getting really drunk here, and just loving the place”
Jay Scott: The new head of development at NCsoft Europe. And a Canadian
Tony Beckwith: Founded Climax Racing months after Babel opened. His studio has since been bought by Disney
Ed Daly: Another member of the class of ‘99, the head of Zoe Mode started in Brighton by founding Wide Games
Brighton has been a place for games development for some time. But who was here first? And why Brighton?
Algy Williams: I was based down here in 1993, producing a game for Epic. I started here because Epic was here. But once my gig there finished I started Babel in 1999.
Tony Beckwith: When in ’99 was that?
Williams: January ’99.
Beckwith: Ah. We [Climax Racing] got here in November ’99.
Williams: I came for the language. It’s the second largest concentration of native speakers in the UK, outside of London. So there was a huge number of people here for testing and localisation we could hire. Plus there’s two universities, a language school and various other institutes here. That allowed us to grow really quickly.
Ed Daly: For us [Wide Games before it was called Kuju Brighton] it was also ’99. It was easy to raise money then, everyone was throwing money at start-ups.
Beckwith: I was based in Croydon. So I was like ‘Get me the hell out of here – I want to go to Brighton!’ The city was such a natural, obvious fit for the kind of thing we wanted to do.
David Amor: I grew up around here. I just figured it was a nice place to live, and a perfect place to set up a studio. Selfish reasons, really – I just liked it here.
Daly: People are definitely attracted to Brighton for what it is. For many it’s a place associated with good times.
Williams: The cost base has grown now, but around 1999 it was considerably cheaper than London, but just an hour away by train. I think that’s not necessarily an explanation for why people were here but a good explanation for why it has grown. There is nowhere else with this distance to London which has such a strong linguistic and creative and technical base.
Ben Hebb: It’s also very well known for its liberal, relaxed atmosphere. That gives the place a real creative edge.
Beckwith: When we came here one of the things that stood out for me was that there were a number of comic book artsts already down here, which proves it is quite a creatively different city, and not just in terms of the art companies.
Andrew Eades: But also the music.
Beckwith: Yeah, and lots of web companies, because it was all just before the bubble, and they were here because it was cheaper and the city is full of creative people.
Eades: We actually base a lot of our PR on the fact we are based in Brighton. It’s a great thing to promote.
So it’s a destination city. But if the people are so mobile what’s to stop them leaving?
Amor: I would speculate that people who come here, especially the slightly older ones, stay here because it has what they need for a family – there are schools if you have kids, and the place has a great atmosphere.
Eades: When I came here six years ago I had been working just outside Brighton. Since then I’ve grown to love it – it has everything I want and I think I’ll be here forever.
Beckwith: It’s called ‘London by the sea’ for a very good reason.
Eades: Exactly. I’ve worked and lived in Dundee for DMA before, and I didn’t dislike it – because I was there for the job and the people I worked with. But here in Brighton you have that and you’ve got the fact that Brighton is a great place to live.
Williams: The city has changed enormously since when I was first here. Back then it was a bit sleazy but that’s gone. The city is growing in terms of its culture – with all the festivals – and it continues to grow, and especially in terms of games development obviously, as a place to attract really great people.
Jay Scott: And it’s very welcoming to new people. I’ve travelled around a lot, but I’ve never been anywhere where you can walk around and hear so many different accents. For NCsoft that’s enormously useful because we can tap into a city that boasts people form all over Europe, all over Asia, has people from North America and has a great British contingent too. The cross-culture aspect is great.
Daly: At Zoë Mode we have a number of artists from other European countries in particular and that gives us a real creative, friendly mix in the studio.
Hebb: Also, what that meant was that when we needed to grow and add new people for our work on SingStar we were able to tap straight into that music culture here and find people who had very different skills from normal games development that could instantly help our projects. That feeds back into the atmosphere of the studio which positively impacts the kind of games we make. If you bring in people who didn’t necessarily intend to go into games development they tend to have different interests than your usual developer, and that means they create a different environment in which to work and that impacts what you do.
Williams: I’ve got a question for the rest of you. Can we continue to scale at the rate we currently are? Or is there a ceiling to it?
Beckwith: I think the ceiling is a long way away.
Eades: We can continue – there’s certainly no lack of CVs coming in.
Beckwith: It’s not like we’re currently cannibalising the talent base that is here. The biggest limiting factor in Brighton is office space.
Scott: The UK has clearly lost a lot of talent to Canada and places in North America. When I was at EA Canada there was a running joke that you couldn’t be a technical director there unless you were British. But I think Brighton offers a great opportunity to lure back people originally from the UK who now work overseas.
Williams: And I guess climate might also play a part in that as well; if you’re going to choose between Montreal and Brighton as a place to work, and basing part of your decision on what the place is like to live, well, there’s a good chance you’d choose Brighton.
With regards to the talent base in Brighton going forward – how do you all contribute back to help grow it? Who here has relationships with local colleges or universities?
Amor: We have a relationship with Brighton College – we go there to host talks on what we do, and hold presentations on art. We’ve hired two of their graduates recently.
Daly: We’ve worked with the University of Brighton on a few things. One of them was a competition they help with students to pitch ideas for new games that we helped with. We’ve also run a number of internships with people from local colleges and universities.
Hebb: The University of Brighton also run a portfolio clinic, which we have gone along to, and helped with. There’s also Lighthouse, which was running some storyboarding courses – it attracted a lot of people interested in games and film, and we went along to talk to those attending about how what they were learning was applicable to games.
Daly: There’s also a music college in Worthing and we’ve helped feed back into their courses.
Williams: We hire a huge number of contingency staff through universities – a lot of those stay on as full-time. So it’s a great pipeline of talent for us.
Scott: NCsoft has a relationship with Skillset and we’ve hired a lot of people through that. We also run some mentoring programmes. But I don’t think we’re as involved as we should be, but the development aspect at NCsoft Europe is relatively new so we’re still finding our way.
How much pressure do you feel to keep those relationships strong – because surely even if Brighton does attract a lot of people, they aren’t necessarily right for games?
Hebb: With any graduate, some of them are right for it, some of them just need a bit of instruction or talking to, while the rest sometimes seem like a lost cause – you know that if their courses were just a bit better they could be so much better. Or they would know and understand what they want out of the games industry. That’s what tends to provoke me – there’s clearly still a long way for us to go and for us to get more involved.
Eades: I’ve been talking a lot with the University of Brighton in particular – they’ve only just started teaching the coders what the right language is to use. It’s early days, though – and for them I’m hopeful because they have the right ideas. What they are getting right is that it is a very technical course – but of course they are suffering, the way all universities are, of a lower intake of students into those programmes. It’s an issue we should all be aware of, because the graduates we take on take a while to develop into good employees – but they usually become really, really good employees. Because people aren’t taught how to make a PS3 game at university.
Beckwith: I’m amazed at how quickly graduates learn, though. Some of our highest quality talent has come straight from university – and after two years they are invaluable.
Eades: Same for us. Some of our best coders have been found that way.
Beckwith: And we don’t, and I don’t think studios should, just look on our back doorstep – all of us are competing internationally with other studios, so our dealings with talent are the same. I’d like to think we could attract someone just out of education from almost anywhere in the world to come work with us.
In part two of this roundtable, our Brighton developers discuss further expansion of the city as a games development hub and how it can compete on the global stage.