Defying Gravity games communities outside of London
By Jordan Erica Webber
According to the latest figures from trade body Ukie (The Association for UK Interactive Entertainment), just under a third of all active UK games companies are based in London. And initiatives like Games London — organised by Ukie and Film London, funded by LEAP (the Local Enterprise Partnership for London), and with the tagline “Making London the games capital of the world” — put a renewed industry focus on the capital.
Even when big industry events venture outside of London, you can feel that gravitational pull. EGX, which its organisers call “the UK’s biggest games event” (with, for example, an attendance of 80,000 in 2017), moved in 2015 from the now-closed Earl’s Court in London to the NEC (National Exhibition Centre) in Birmingham, but it doesn’t feel like it’s actually situated in Birmingham itself. And one of the biggest selling points of the venue is its ease of access by car, plane, or fast train to/from London.
But many regions of the UK outside of London boast significant games communities, each with plenty of regional pride and a ready list of benefits to defying the pull of the capital.
The geography of the UK games industry is closely tied to its history. Royal Leamington Spa (my own adopted hometown) and its surrounding areas are home to dozens of games companies, including big hitters like Ubisoft Leamington and Playground Games. But this populous cluster of video games companies can be traced back to two pairs of brothers: David and Richard Darling, who founded Codemasters in Southam in 1986; and Andrew and Philip Oliver, who once made games for Codemasters and went on to found the now closed Blitz Games Studios (originally called Interactive Studios) in Leamington in 1990.
The story is similar for other UK games industry hubs. Dundee had Grand Theft Auto creator DMA Design, founded as Acme Software in 1984, now called Rockstar North and based in Edinburgh. Guildford had Bullfrog Productions, founded in 1987 by Les Edgar and Peter Molyneux, known for games like Populous, Theme Park, and Dungeon Keeper. Cambridge has Frontier Developments, founded by Elite creator David Braben in 1994, and is now also home to the enormous Jagex and the award-winning Ninja Theory. Ukie also highlights areas like Manchester (96 companies, with a vibrant indie scene) and Brighton (73 companies, including mobile developers like West Pier Studio and CSR Racing creator BossAlien; previously home to award-winning studio The Chinese Room).
Several people I spoke to for this series pointed out that improvements in technology and infrastructure mean that game developers don’t have to locate themselves in London, (though they did tend to habitually reel off the brevity of a train journey to the capital). And solo independent developers can work wherever they choose; as Charlotte Gore put it: “You can make games anywhere where there’s a roof.”
But people still want a community, and the UK has several regional organisations and events aimed at bringing together local developers and providing them a sense of group identity, or tempting new talent to relocate from elsewhere. Back in Leamington, for example, many of the games companies are growing and looking to hire, and the council is looking to launch a new event there in early 2019, to celebrate the local games industry and to demonstrate the merits of the area to those with the necessary skills to fill the gaps.
Away from the business side of things, game creators just like to come together, as is demonstrated by the fast growth of Loading, which runs video game bars with gaming-themed cocktails, plenty of games (both digital and analog) to play, and events from live eSports viewing to game-themed karaoke (Marioke) to regular co-working sessions for developers. Most of these bars are in London, but C:\Side Quest opened in Brighton in 2017, and hopefully more will follow elsewhere in the country.
One event guaranteed to bring game creators together is a game jam, events in which participants — individually or in groups — make a game in a limited amount of time, often on a chosen theme. Ajmal Rizni told me how his game Nano Golf came from a prototype he developed for a vaguely Olympics-themed game jam, suggested by someone in a Slack community (Slack is a platform that members of companies and other communities use to connect with each other) for game developers who use GameMaker Studio.
Ajmal’s favourite game jams are Ludum Dare and gm(48), both of which have a 48-hour time limit and a theme voted by the community. Ludum Dare started in 2002 and takes place once every four months. gm(48) is for those who use GameMaker, has been running for more than five years, and takes place quarterly. Entries for both Ludum Dare and gm(48) are submitted online, so participants can work on their games in the comfort of their own homes, but many groups meet up to collaborate.
The Global Game Jam, which is annual, is not an online jam. Participants are required to sign up at one of many local sites that can be found in more than 95 countries across the world, and spend the weekend making a game on site, with attendees encouraged not to come with an existing team but to form one on the Friday. In 2018, the UK had Global Game Jam sites in dozens of places like Guildford, Liverpool, Oxford, Nottingham, Dundee, and at universities across the country.
In 2017 I was invited to judge a more local annual game jam called Jamchester, which takes place over a weekend in Manchester. Attendees ranged from students who’d travelled down from Abertay University to teams made up of developers from companies like Codemasters. The 2016 winners were Acid Nerve (in collaboration with artist Angus Dick), the Manchester-based studio behind Titan Souls who also won Ludum Dare in 2013 (in collaboration with artist Andrew Gleeson), demonstrating the tendency for many developers to participate in multiple jams.
Jamchester was organised by a network called Gameopolis that hopes “to promote and link the Greater Manchester video games industry” and events organiser Hack Manchester. With sponsorship from the likes of Microsoft and Chillingo (a mobile publisher owned by EA), they were able to host the event in a comfortable venue and provide regular meals for participants. Game jams can encourage crunch culture (periods of overwork that many development studios experience close to deadlines), since participants often pull all-nighters to get their entries finished, but well-funded and well-organised local jams like Jamchester send a more positive message of community and self-care.
Another organisation that strives to connect game creators within its region — in this case Yorkshire and the North of England — is Game Republic Ltd, which runs a paid-for network of companies and universities called Game Republic and an informal network of game creators called GaMaYo.
Managing director Jamie Sefton told me that Game Republic has the remit, “More business for our members,” which involves things like connecting local games companies with each other and with “major industry players” like Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, and helping the area to “attract better students and keep more skilled graduates in Yorkshire and the North.” GaMaYo (which stands for “Game Makers Yorkshire”, though its 800+ members are based across the North) has a Facebook group and regular meetups for anyone who makes games.
Jamie referenced the fact that more than 60 percent of UK games companies are based outside of London as a reason why it’s important to have networks elsewhere in the country. He also echoed the sentiments expressed by others on the expense of life in the capital, and the ease with which developers can now develop and publish games digitally from anywhere.
When it comes to basing a games community in Yorkshire specifically, Jamie said Game Republic benefits from the region’s history with the games industry, with big names like Charles Cecil — who has been making games since the 1980s — still based in the area and willing to pass on their expertise. He also highlighted games courses at local universities, like Hull. When asked how the networks reflect the area, Jamie said; “I think that the network and the industry here have that Yorkshire spirit of not waiting for things to happen, but just getting on and doing it with hard work, a sense of humour and (hopefully) modesty.”
The regional networks face challenges, however, especially when it comes to funds, as Jamie explained; “Game Republic and GaMaYo do not receive any regional development funding and are purely privately financed. Game Republic used to be funded by the membership fees and the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) but once these were abolished in 2011, Game Republic could only survive with the generous backing of the games companies who agreed to keep funding the network when the public money disappeared. More investment/funding from local and national government would allow Game Republic to do more to help companies get additional CPD training, access to skills and access to finance, and universities/colleges to get the help they need for student placements.”
One event that Game Republic helps to organise is the Yorkshire Games Festival, which took place at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford in 2016 and 2017 and is due to return in early 2019 (and which I’ve been involved with — as an on-stage interviewer — since the start). Festival director Kathryn Penny said that the event is meant to celebrate the local games industry — for instance by including local speakers (like Bradford College alumnus Iki Ikram) and exhibiting work by local developers — and provide an opportunity for people who live in the region, especially those who might not be able to afford to go to London, to meet game makers and learn about the industry.
“People are playing and making games all over the country,” Kathryn said. “Therefore it is essential that events which celebrate games culture and develop new games makers happen all over the country. Regional representation democratises attendance at these events. On the most basic level, the nearer something is to you, generally the less expensive it is to attend, which helps attract people from more deprived backgrounds.”
Another event with an eye on accessibility is Feral Vector, which also takes place once a year in Yorkshire (though it began in London). “Feral Vector temporarily offers a place to people who feel they’re on the margins,” said organiser David Hayward. “Last year, someone took it upon themselves to get some of those people to write letters about it. Among many things, they told us Feral Vector was the only games event where they’d ever felt at home, and that it offered them respite from the industry.”
Feral Vector, which now takes place in an old church on top of a hill in the quirky town of Hebden Bridge, is a very different from the industry-focused games events that dominate in the UK (perhaps with the exception of the GameCity Festival, run by the people behind Nottingham’s National Video game Arcade, which has been going since 2006 but took a year off in 2017). The aim, David said, is; “To encourage, support, and provoke experimental game design. In so doing, to push at the boundaries of the medium, and illustrate that video games are, in fact, a fully grown creative form. It’s the industry that needs to mature.”
Typical Feral Vector activities include making games and controllers out of cardboard, walking through the woods, and LARPing (live-action roleplaying) as businesspeople in some kind of post-apocalypse. “We make video game developers go outside,” said David, “And they’re starting to figure out that even in the context of a games event, it’s a worthwhile thing to do.”
David also mentioned the cost of London as a reason to host an event elsewhere, since independent developers cannot afford to live there, and although it’s easier to attract a bigger audience to an event based in the capital, he said that; “In 2014 it became apparent that rising costs were about to neutralise any advantages London previously had.” It gets easier each year to resist the gravitational pull of the city, he said, because, “People are leaving London faster than they used to.”
And there are obvious advantages besides the cost (Feral Vector is 60–70% funded through ticket sales and the rest comes from individual supporters) to hosting an event in a small town in the countryside. “Siting Feral Vector outside of cities puts people in a different frame of mind,” David said. And although Feral Vector has only been in Hebden Bridge for the past three years, he said that it feels like a home for the event, and that locals are starting to show support.
Feral Vector is popular with game creators from all over the country (and abroad), but particularly those who live in Yorkshire. Charlotte described it as “Just the best weird little game event. I just love it. Even if all I ever do when I go there is just run around in the fields, I don’t care.”
Charlotte was a particularly interesting person to talk to about game development outside of London, since she makes games specifically about the region in which she lives (Yorkshire), as does Ed Key (Cumbria). Both emphasised the low cost of living and high quality of life. Ed mentioned that there is less of a games community in Cumbria than in Cambridge (where he used to live), and bemoaned the difficulty of travelling “across the spokes” to elsewhere in the North versus heading to London, but neither seemed to think there were many disadvantages to living and working where they do.
In fact, both Charlotte and Ed found their geographical location to be a boon to their art. Charlotte, whose episodic point-and-click adventure game Yorkshire Gubbins is a comedy love letter to her adopted home, said that deciding to make a game about Yorkshire offered a useful constraint that “made everything else click into place”, and expressed a desire for more games with a sense of place.
And as Ed, who makes games about walking through the countryside and is currently working on one about Cumbrian horizons, put it; “If you want to make something and not just try and scale some massive design mountain, then perhaps the most effective thing for you to try and make is something which is kind of unique to you. The place where you live is something that you can bring to that work.”