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Northern Stars – There’s life in the UK games industry outside London

Kathryn Penny is a member of the UK’s Science Museum Group’s senior management team and serves as the director of the Yorkshire Games Festival. 

There’s something curious that happens if you wander into a gift shop aimed at tourists in pretty much any major city across the UK. Among all of the trinkets designed to reflect the local area – the t-shirts pledging love for the city in question, the key rings featuring a questionably Photoshopped image of a local landmark, and the are-they-real-or-are-they-fake football jerseys aplenty–  you’ll typically find a few surprising outliers. A tea towel, a fridge magnet or a mug emblazoned not with images of the place you’re visiting, but rather proudly displaying the word ‘LONDON’.

For locals, it’s a somewhat curious sight. You can be hundreds of miles away from the British capital, but somehow you’ll still manage to find merchandise wrapped up in the iconography of this oh-so-famous city. Big Ben, a red London bus, or even Buckingham Palace: all manage to find themselves popping up in shops nationwide.

For tourists, however, London’s albeit superficial dominance can be a little easier to grasp. The geography of the UK is such that, for visitors to British shores from far larger countries, it’s understandable that much of the rest of the country – from Land’s End to John O’Groats – can be perceived as something of an extension of the capital. A suburb, if you like, or an admittedly distant district.

For us Brits, London’s role as the UK’s flagship city should not come as a surprise, either. London – and the whole of the South East, in fact – is a bona fide powerhouse, with influence spanning multiple sectors and industries, including games. While talented and successful development studios exist up and down the country, the lure of London’s infrastructure means events, expos, much of the media, and trade associations alike are inevitably rooted in the capital and the surrounding area.

It all means that, whether you like it or not, it’s hard for the rest of the UK to get the attention it deserves.

Let’s hear it for the north

That was certainly in our minds when we set out to create the very first Yorkshire Games Festival back in 2016.

Yorkshire as a whole is certainly not short of noted games developers, both past and present, and at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford we’ve long fostered a close relationship with the leading lights of this region’s games scene. Yorkshire’s games history and heritage means it’s no surprise a chunk of the museum is permanently devoted to retro games and consoles. With the festival, however, the focus is firmly on the future.

The aim has always been to inspire the next generation – the students, the new professionals, and the families.

The festival as a whole is growing year after year, and the third edition – which returned to Bradford in February – featured the likes of Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail, Media Molecule’s Gem Abdeen, and Charles Cecil MBE of Broken Sword fame (developed just down the road in beautiful York, funnily enough), among others.

Building on a previous (and fundamental) part of the festival that put the spotlight on local games in development, the newly branded Northern Games Showcase did the same job in 2019, but this year it widened the focus to cast an eye on games developed across the entire north of the UK.

Why the expansion? Because the developers who came to the previous editions told us it was a vital way not only to get consumer feedback on games still in development but also because of the chance to interact with gamers. For five days at least, the press and public alike come to Bradford and sample what the north of the UK has to offer.

Based on the feedback we’ve had from developers who have showed their games at previous showcases, it’s access to the wide array of attendees – families, students, aspiring developers and, especially, children – that has really made the difference, enabling developers to iterate and evolve their designs based on immediate (and typically passionate) interactions with gamers.

One of the games showcased at a previous event – Sigtrap’s excellent roguelike Sublevel Zero – has gone on to hit PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, with a Nintendo Switch version also now in development.

“Due to the nature of our game, testing the VR version at YGF has contributed to us researching and implementing cutting-edge techniques to help combat motion sickness some players feel when experiencing virtual reality,” Gary Lloyd, co-founder and art director at Sigtrap, commented. “This has lead to us partnering with major VR platform holder Oculus to bring a suite of tools – VR Tunnelling Pro – to both the Unity and Unreal game engines, enabling all developers to utilise in their titles to enable the maximum range of comfort options for their userbases.”

He continued: “Events like this are genuinely proving themselves to be growingly vital to the Northern game development scene. They enable us to gain feedback as well as vital networking and business opportunities, whilst also allowing us to remain relatively close to home. This has a massive value for teams with smaller budgets – it basically means they aren’t priced out of attending events, which itself results in better representation for those developers and surrounding audiences.”

As you might expect, we’re looking for future showcases to be even bigger, hence the expansion to cover the whole of the North of the UK. 

After all, there’s more to the UK than just London, more to this country than tea towels with sketches of St. Paul’s Cathedral on, or pencil sharpeners shaped like the London Eye. What could be more British than playing a game whilst drinking a nice cup of Yorkshire tea?

If you’re a studio from the north of the UK and you’d like to get involved with the next Yorkshire Games Festival, contact Jack.Weedon@scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk

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