Over 3,000 of the games industry will travel to the vibrant south coast city for Develop:Brighton this month. But given they have such a lovely time here, why do so many of them still live elsewhere for the rest of the year? For this second regional spotlight, we talk to a handful of the games businesses that call the city home, to see why Brighton is so much more than the seaside.
Brighton, or rather Brighton and Hove to give the city its full formal title, is Britain’s biggest seaside resort, with well over a quarter of a million inhabitants. And alongside Blackpool, its northern sibling, it’s the original UK party town.
When I lived there, just after leaving university in 2002, it was a nexus for the remains of the free party scene and the setting of Fatboy Slim’s epic 250,000 person beach party, the last such free-to-attend event on the beach. It still remains a favourite for stag and hen dos and the seafront buzzes on summer weekends.
Of course, the city is best-known for its large and vibrant LGBTQ+ community, crowned by arguably the biggest Pride event in the UK. But that’s not its only counter-culture claim to fame. Brighton has the UK’s first local council to be led by the Green Party and recently the city has seen a series of large-scale climate change protests. Less crucially, it also had the highest number of proponents of the Jedi faith at the last UK census.
Which all adds up to exactly the kind of fun-loving, bohemian, anti-authoritarian and liberal outlook which attracts creative companies. And those have long included a healthy number of games industry studios and businesses.
Ask a bunch of contemporary games studios in Brighton why they set up shop here and the answer is often “because I was here already,” with the town’s dev scene and associated fields stretching back some decades.
Caspar Field, who headed up That’s You developer Wish Studios until its recent closure, tells us: “We founded Wish Studios in 2012 in Brighton because, one, we all lived here with young families, and two, there was a good scene around, with lots of indies and interesting things happening in the wake of Black Rock being closed down in 2011.”
Black Rock’s closure comes up repeatedly as a key moment for many in the local scene. While eventually Disney-owned, the racing game specialist spent most of its life as part of the Climax Group. It was the single largest studio in the region, and its closure made some 300 staff redundant, who went on to found and work at Studio Gobo, Boss Alien, Hangar 13 and many more.
One such ex-Black Rock employee is Adrian Brown, who is now head of UK recruiting at Unity’s Brighton office, which was established as a reaction to the thriving local scene: “I worked for Climax, which then became Black Rock Studios, and then became a dozen other studios, so I know quite a few folks who work in the industry within Brighton. It’s a close-knit community and you’ll find a large number of people at Unity Brighton who, at some point, worked with a local studio.”
Ben Lavery, commercial director at Keywords-owned The Trailer Farm, also namechecks the defunct studio: “Founders Dan and Tony Porter were at Disney’s Black Rock studio and made Brighton their home. When Black Rock closed, they set up The Trailer Farm and the start-up games companies that also emerged from Disney became the first customers.”
Before Wish, Field spent five years at another often-mentioned Brighton studio, Relentless. It developed the hugely popular Buzz series, before eventually closing in 2016. Field moved to the city and the studio back in 2007 and recalls that its liberal outlook was key: “I hugely value those things, and they did play a part in my wife and me choosing to move here, back in 2007.”
Others set up their studios here having used the city as a way to break into the industry, such as James Marsden, owner and director of Futurlab: “After graduating with a Fine Art degree in 2002, I was practically unemployable and hoping to join the games industry, I knew the barrier to entry was high so I had little chance, so I figured a ladder-jump from Flash development would be a viable path.
“Brighton was the leading producer of Flash games with the likes of Kerb, LittleLoud, Plugin Media, so I moved here, got two part-time jobs in a record shop and bar, and taught myself Flash programming in my spare time. Back in 2003 it was possible for me as a graduate with only a rudimentary knowledge of programming to earn £300 to £500 a day, which was enough to rent a small office and hire a small team. Those days are long gone sadly.”
Flash’s heyday may be over but Brighton remains far more suited to small teams, such as indie and mobile studios, than it ever was to Black Rock’s big team, big game production model. And that’s not just down to the creative outlook of its inhabitants, Field explains to us: “Brighton was built as a tourist town, so it never had those large, former industrial-type buildings that house new businesses in places like Manchester. So, as more and more business move to or start up in Brighton, they’re competing for a limited set of office spaces – many of which were built cheaply after WWII, and either lack character, or have very dated designs.
“There are some new blocks going up, but they are usually the most expensive places to rent. Add to that the increasing number of ‘shared space’ companies that are hoovering up office space – and then subletting it to you for three-times the price – and you have an expensive place to run a business.”
“Brighton was built as a tourist town, so it never had those large, former industrial-type buildings that house new businesses in places like Manchester.”
With the sea on its doorstep and the gorgeous steep hills of the South Downs wrapping around the city from behind, it’s undoubtedly an attractive locale. However, both mean there’s little space for the city to easily expand into. Though obviously things do get a little cheaper as you move out of the very centre.
Futurlab’s Marsden agrees: “Office space has always been a challenge in Brighton. We’ve never had an office in Brighton [proper] as a result. We’ve mainly moved about in Hove. Regarding living costs, I think people are generally willing to sacrifice the extra disposable income in exchange for the general sense of well-being that comes from being in a city full of friendly and open-minded people. The sunshine and beach helps too.”
So it’s a wonderful locale to live in, but it’s not just its geography that make the town, it’s also its close connection to the capital.
SOUTH SOUTH LONDON?
Brighton has often been referred to as ‘London by sea’ and while it’s lazily aggravating if you live there, the easy transport links between the city and London are undoubtedly a part of its ongoing success.
An additional boon is Gatwick Airport which sits half-way between London and Brighton on the main train line, though it’s worth noting that said train service has suffered terribly in recent years from delays and mismanagement. Things seem to be improving now, but then they couldn’t have gotten much worse.
The proximity of London is another key reason why prices, both for homes and office space, are so high in the city. But overall the closeness appears to be a boon for studios in the area.
Véronique Lallier, global VP marketing and GM Europe at Hi-Rez Studios, feels that it helps keep the business connected to the wider industry: “Getting in and out of London easily is a massive plus for us. With many of our industry events, bodies, partners and associations based there it’s important for us to stay connected and feel part of the broader UK gaming scene too, which the proximity facilitates.”
She adds: “While it’s not cheap compared to other smaller cities on the south coast, Brighton still has a much lower cost of living than central London.“
Ed Daly, studio director at The Chinese Room, notes it attracts talent both from the capital and beyond: “Proximity to London can be a positive factor in attracting overseas talent, who naturally are interested in being within range of the capital. At the same time, we recruit people working and living in London who are keen to escape and for whom the, even slightly, lower cost of living and easier more laidback quality of life is a winning combination.”
Moving away from development studios, other games industry businesses in the city certainly appreciate being close to the capital. The Trailer Farm’s Lavery travels in to work for instance: “I commute down via the M25 two to three times a week, and spend evenings on Rightmove dreaming of a coastal move – the studio is going from strength to strength so the call of the sea may win very soon.”
Sebastian Long, director of Player Research, another Keywords-owned business in the city, adds: “Our business certainly benefits from being commutable. London-based developers can easily catch an express train to watch playtesting sessions for the day, and for those developers who commute in the other direction, spending the day with us is a welcome alternative to the rat race.
“From a recruitment perspective, our staff have such an unusual profile – typically Masters or PhDs – there’s huge competition for hires across all major European game hubs and cities. Of course the proximity to London and Gatwick is a boon, but it’s Brighton’s unique charm that sells; I’d defy anyone to walk the North Laine in the sunshine, or the beachfront promenade at sunset, and not be endeared to this city.”
Those charms have also attracted numerous students to the town, with both the University of Sussex and the University of Brighton based in and around the city. Beyond providing a stream of talent for established businesses, alumni have also set up new firms in the city.
Long continues: “Player Research started as a small playtesting consultancy spun out of the University of Sussex in 2012, and the university is still close to many of our hearts. We have four Sussex alumni on staff, and we return each year to give talks and careers advice. We regularly bring in the local university students as research assistants for projects, providing valuable games industry experience that’s otherwise nearly impossible for them to obtain, but highly valued by employers.”
Dr Paul Newbury runs the University of Sussex’s BSc Games and Multimedia Environments degree. He explains how it was created: “We set up the degree ten years ago with the aim of mixing our core Computer Science teaching and interactive 3D/VR research into a teaching offering that we hoped would be interesting and exciting to students wishing to enter the industry.
“We had some contact with local companies once the degree was running, and found that many of our students would go into jobs in the local game development community and several others would start up on their own, many with help from our careers centre and Sussex Innovation centre.
“However, we also found that we lacked the resources to keep up with all the students who had graduated. What has really helped us over the last few years is the introduction of our industrial placement year. This runs between the second and third years and gives us stronger links to the industry. A significant number of these students will return to their placement company for a full job after graduation. We are ever expanding this placement opportunity, but have done good work with companies such as Unity, Feral Interactive, EA and Disney and hope this will now be a core way in which we engage with the local game development industry.”
“A significant number of these students will return to their placement company for a full job after graduation.”
There’s still undoubtedly work to be done in expanding the programme, with a number of the studio heads we talked to saying they hadn’t had formal contact with either Sussex or Brighton universities in their time in the city but instead had placed students for a few weeks here and there on an individual basis. Get in touch with MCV if you need contact details to help build such relationships.
Meanwhile, Hi-Rez is moving in the right direction, as Lallier tells us: “We are keen to engage with educational institutions in the area so we’re holding a student open day at our Brighton offices on July 10th between 10:00 and 12:00 – we’ll be inviting the next generation of gaming talent to meet our teams and play our games.”
Brighton’s LGBTQ+ community is arguably the most vibrant in the UK, with its Pride festivities running for a full week across the city. And the community provides a bedrock upon which a far broader, cosmopolitan and creative community has thrived.
And though the city remains close to the national average when it comes to racial diversity – with 80 per cent of the Brighton’s inhabitants being ‘white British’ according to the last census – it remains far more welcoming than that statistic suggests, with a more liberal and accepting mindset than you’ll find in almost any English city of its size. It’s hard to quantify these things, but 68 per cent voted remain in the EU referendum, one of the highest proportions outside
As Futurlab’s Marsden explains: “In Brighton very few people bat an eyelid at how you look or how you choose to live your life. It’s an oasis in that respect, and I believe that the LGBTQ+ population in Brighton acts as a protective shield, stopping small-minded people from moving here.”
Hangar 13’s general manager Nick Baynes, a Black Rock veteran who has spent almost 20 years in the city, certainly believes that Brighton’s attitudes inform the studio’s attitudes: “We are a modern, inclusive studio that strongly believes that our differences make us stronger. We’re vocal champions of women, BAME and LGBTQ+ representation in the industry, and this is a mindset that permeates through Brighton as a city, its universities, who we enjoy partnering with, and its culture.
“At Hangar 13 we believe that the diversity of our teams leads to more believable worlds and immersive experiences for our players, drawing from the various backgrounds of the amazing developers we have working at our offices around the world.”
Field agrees, telling us that Brighton was a key part of why Wish Studios had such a great culture: “We won a ‘Best Places to Work’ award in both 2017 and 2018, and I think being able to draw on a talent pool of diverse, creative, liberal people played a part in that. We had a fantastic team – I miss working with them.”
Field goes on to tell us that the city’s outlook directly affected the studios output: “Wish invented the PlayLink concept for Sony back in 2013, and a strong element in the early design meetings, and the initial pitch doc for the franchise, was around inclusivity and accessibility. I’d say that the Wish crew were very typical of the kind of open-minded and easy-going people that you often meet in Brighton, and that some of that vibe will have inevitably filtered through to what we made. That’s You was specifically and deeply designed to be as inclusive as possible, in some very clever and quite subtle ways.”
Continuing the chorus of praise is Matthew Hemby, general manager of Boss Alien, which is currently working on a mobile Star Wars title. He cuts straight to the point: “Brighton’s values are Boss Alien’s values.”
He then continues: “They drive everything we create here together, and define the character and mindset of the people and partners we want to work with. Too often, games are small-minded – in tone, themes, or accessibility. We make games for everyone. Brighton is our home, and we could not operate, find and grow the right talent, or be inspired to do the work we do anywhere else in the UK.
“On every level, from the bottom up, our team champions diversity and inclusivity in the development of our characters, worlds, stories and gameplay, and how we collaborate with each other. Progressive ideals guide everything from our creative vision to our business practices; we want to put joyful, hopeful experiences in the hands of players that reflect who we are – and which are enriching, not exploitative.”
The Chinese Room’s Daly is next up to the pulpit: “Brighton’s earned bohemian reputation is important, the city is a draw to creatives, and so to creative businesses. It’s important to have a diverse team, there’s clearly more to be gained when adding someone to a team with a different background and perspective than by accumulating from a narrow group.”
Though Daly does also note that the town’s inhabitants have a certain Shoreditch-by-sea stereotype of their own: “I appreciate there’s also an irony here, with a certain Brighton-type, though games dev studios will never be cool enough go full-hipster – fortunately, might I add!”
And he agrees that all this has a direct impact on the studio’s output of fresh IP: “The Chinese Room is here to make the games we want to make, we’re not working on other people’s IP, and so the stories we want to tell, the direction we take will follow from who we are. Of course, we don’t directly make games to reflect our ‘values’ in that sense, but certainly there are plenty of games it wouldn’t occur to us to make.”
Or to put it another way: you probably wouldn’t set up a studio in Brighton to make a military shooter.
Lallier continues: “Hi-Rez is a forward thinking, diverse and creative studio so the values of equality, inclusivity and acceptance, with an open-minded approach to challenging the norm, all of which beat at the heart of Brighton, align perfectly with our own.
“A diverse workplace is a far healthier, positive, productive and more creative environment from which to stimulate new ideas and fresh thinking. Hi-Rez has never shied from taking risks on ideas that are more than a little leftfield. A workplace and living environment which is a hub for alternative and creative thinking in all areas of arts, culture, technology and music only inspires us more.”
Futurlab’s Marsden takes a more holistic view of Brighton’s creative spirit: “It’s important for life outside of work. If people feel supported, engaged and generally nourished outside of work, they have more energy, focus and patience at work. Over the decades this overwhelmingly liberal mindset has given Brighton a collective conscious that is forward-looking and readily accepting of new ideas, which was immediately apparent upon moving here.”
For Long at Player Research, such diversity is a must if the company is to properly assess the way that games interact with their increasingly diverse audiences.
“Diversity is hugely important to everyone here; our diversity initiatives aren’t just top-down, they’re thought about every day by every member of staff, from the demographics of the playtesters we recruit, to asking each playtester by which pronouns they’d prefer to be addressed, to reducing gendered language in job descriptions, to building diversity into our company values.
“Diversity isn’t just sought, it’s celebrated in Brighton – perhaps even more so at Player Research, where our staff of psychologists are commonly themselves an atypical voice in the development studios we partner with.”
While development studios’ core work can be quite insular, Brighton at least provides a more compact shared space than those spread across say the Cambridgeshire countryside. That closeness was certainly key for Player Research when it was getting started, Long recalls: “Our collaborations with Brighton studios were so important in getting our company off the ground in 2012, working with Boss Alien, Relentless, Mind Candy, Paper Seven,” he says. “Being so local allows us to work very closely with these local teams, almost embedded in the studios, learning what player data their games needed and when. We’re now part of the Keywords Studios family, strengthening our collaborations with our sister-companies Studio Gobo, Electric Square and The Trailer Farm.”
The latter has close relations in the city, Lavery confirms: “We talk to [the Keywords Studios family] all the time, sharing people, knowledge, events and space. We also have customers like Hi-Rez and Warner Bros TT locally here in Brighton.”
Futurlab’s Marsden didn’t have the usual network from a previous role in the area, but built contacts at local events which proved invaluable.
“I sought advice and input from individuals at key milestones, such as our first pitch to PlayStation, in which we consulted Relentless Software,” he recalls. “A few years later, after missing the open sharing of information that is characteristic of the web industry, I set up a mailing list for Brighton game studio owners for knowledge sharing, which has added some value to Brighton studios over the years. I wish there was time to do more.”
“Being so local allows us to work very closely with these local teams, almost embedded in the studios, learning what player data their games needed and when.”
Field also notes Marsden’s initiative: “I’m on the mailing list, we share information about events and ask for help if we need it. There’s a good sense that we can be pretty open with one another. FuturLab were good friends of Wish, and we got along well with others like Electric Square – quite a few of the Wish team went to work at those two places after we closed. Unity having a big office in town is good too, although they did play a part in an escalation of salaries that we perhaps could have done without, as a business!”
Hi-Rez’s Lallier tells us that relationships in the city go beyond development studios: “The Eurogamer network is an important media and event partner for us so having them on our doorstep is a particular positive. Our creative agency 05 Creative, who works with multiple gaming clients, is also just around the corner in Hove, while our PR consultancy The Treks, and PR agency ICO Partners, are also based here in Brighton.
“There are ongoing industry events and networking activities both professional and social which take place and we are keen to participate as often as we can. We also host our own events from time to time which this year will revolve around Develop.”
It’s own conference, easy connections to London and the globe, plus a progressive and liberal outlook, Brighton’s development community looks all set for the future, as its values seem to mirror the broader industry changes.
After all, ours is an industry with a growing acceptance of the part that smaller and more agile teams can play. An industry than can grow by making games designed to be more attractive to diverse audiences. And one which should increasingly reflect the cultural outlook and passions of its creators.
Take all that into account and Brighton’s development scene seems perfectly positioned to punch well above its weight and continue to shine in the south-coast sun.