Guildford has long been one of the big hubs for game development in the UK, starting back in 1987 when Peter Molyneux and Les Edgar founded Bulldog Productions – best known for titles including Populous, Syndicate and Dungeon Keeper.
Since then, a number of big names have been active in the region, including Lionhead (also founded by Molyneux), Sony’s Media Molecule, Criterion Games (currently owned by Electronic Arts), and Hello Games of No Man’s Sky fame.With such a strong reputation and heritage, it’s hardly surprising that Guildford continues to be a thriving hub for game development – even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There is always some game dev social or another happening, we have an annual games festival, and there is lots of outreach into the local community going on, plus game jams and Guildford Museum has an excellent exhibition focusing on the history of game development in Guildford,” says Claire Boissiere, studio director at Somerville developer Jumpship and chair of the British Games Institute and National Videogame Museum.
“I think when a community starts celebrating a particular local culture, like Guildford is doing with its game development history, then you'd have to say it's thriving despite COVID. But it's probably more fragmented post-COVID and I think it's still too early to say if that will ultimately have an impact on the Guildford games scene in the long run.”
Cavalier Games design director and co-founder Charles Griffiths adds: “The Guildford games industry is healthy. It has weathered various recessions and events pretty well. But I think like many areas, socially it's probably felt a lot quieter and there have been fewer events and we're probably less well connected or feel less connected than we used to. But overall, I think the sector and the area are both good.”
Thanks to its heritage, there’s no shortage of talent in the Guildford games scene. Between veterans of the area’s triple-A companies, students who are graduating from university or people just flocking to the area to try their luck, there are a lot of people to hire.
“Guildford is very popular with game devs and has a rich history in the industry,” says Glowmade founder Jonny Hopper. “It’s also just a lovely place to live and work, and we’re fairly close to London – which is why there’s no shortage of potential hires.”
Rogue Sun managing director Kostas Zarifis adds: “The proximity to London is a benefit in many ways. We will receive applications from people in London, Guildford and Surrey all the way south. We receive a lot of applications from graduates from Southampton Solent – we always pay attention because they certainly seem to do a good job there. Every time we receive portfolios, they're always very impressive.
"There is no shortage of graduates – that's the impression we have, anyway. We're only a tiny studio and at any given time we are bombarded with applications from graduates, which is great. In terms of more experienced people, given the size of our team, for us specifically we tend to leverage our direct network of contacts.”
Boissiere, meanwhile, says that hiring is a much harder task than it has been previously. But this isn’t to do with other games studios or publishers.
“There is fierce competition for development talent at the moment, it's one of our biggest challenges,” she says. “Since COVID and the rise of remote working, local talent can be hired from companies based anywhere in the world and there are plenty of large-scale games companies offering more money and benefits than a smaller independent studio can afford.
"In addition, there are non-games companies setting up games divisions and they too are hiring local talent from across the world. The talent in the area has always been of a high standard but now they have many more opportunities than they did before and that's possibly having a fragmenting effect on Guildford game development.”
James Brooksby, CEO of Absolutely Games, adds: “There certainly is [competition], and it’s becoming ever more important to emphasise your company’s culture and values when recruiting. Salary is one thing, but for example, we offer a high level of involvement in the game being made for all the team, alongside a culture of no politics or BS – just really nice people who just want to make great games and enjoy their day together.
"It's all well and good offering higher salaries, but if you are going to crunch, or have ‘ivory towers’ and ‘bad apples’ about, then although some may find that environment good for them, many don’t and want to find a place where they can relax and grow.”
How competitive things get when hiring also depends on what kind of experience you are after. As mentioned earlier, there’s a relatively constant stream of graduates and people looking to enter game development at the bottom end of the spectrum, but for those with a few more years under their belt, it’s a different kettle of fish.
“The number of studios in the area is a kiss and a curse for sure,” Griffiths says. “Overall it's a benefit. It's better to have it this way, but there's certainly competition for people. I'd say if you were looking at the more junior end of the spectrum, there's a healthier continuous supply. But when various senior or mid-level people become available, that's competitive. There are a lot of places they can go to. Everyone knows that an indie studio is more of a risk when you could go into some of the bigger ones like EA.”
Though it’s certainly less of a concern now in a post-COVID world, office space is still of interest to many games companies. The Guildford area, likely because of its proximity to London, is quite expensive for office space.
“Guildford is difficult for office space,” Griffiths says. “It's hardest for parking for sure. If you're looking for an office with parking, that is difficult because that's just a problem with the whole town. Office space is expensive. It is possible to find places, but just know that a search will go on for a while. That is the more common thing. It's not that people don't get offices; it's that they won't turn around quickly so if you're going to be looking for office space, you have to be in a situation where you're not looking for it tomorrow.
"It'll probably take a while to find something. There are some shared places. It's a challenge but it's not an insurmountable challenge. We have an office and I think we felt like were we to lose this office there'd be other options. Difficult but not impossible. And as to whether it's a necessity, I think it is. I know people feel differently. Some people, like Moon Studios of Ori fame, have never had a physical location and they make it work. That's great, however you make it work.”
If you aren’t prepared to buy office space, there are other options available to you. In Guildford, for example, there’s the Rocketdesk co-working space. Not only is this a cost-effective way of having office space, but it also potentially puts you in contact with a lot of interesting people that you might want to meet.
“We actually used to hire office space at Rocketdesk on the Research Park,” Zarifis says. “We were very happy there. Again, speaking of that sense of community and togetherness, that was very much the perfect place to be for that kind of thing.
"At the time when we were there, I'd say there were about another 40 individuals. It was a mix of people in the tech sector in different ways. A lot of them were in the games sector as well. We'd have our team meetings – our projects and so on – and then we'd go out for lunch with [other games developers]. We'd frequently have conversations about games publishers, investment, trends and all kinds of things, or if you had a technical problem specifically, you could call someone over from another team to your PC and pick their brain about animation or whatever.
"If you want to go more self-catered or co-working space or something that's managed, plenty of options. It doesn't seem to be massively expensive either. Rocketdesk was very affordable. Even if you want to go more central there's a Regis, a Spaces, as well as plenty of traditional places where you can hire office space."
The fact that you don’t need to have office space in a specific place can be something of a positive. It allows studios to start off small scale and grow over time.
“I think the landscape has changed and setting up a studio is easier than ever,” Boissiere says. “You can start off remote, there are plenty of easily accessible and cost-effective engine options and there are very talented people working on a freelance basis enabling studios to hire what skillset they need when they need it and that in turn means games can be made with smaller budgets.
"Previously there was a lot of upfront commitment required in terms of funding to sign multi-year office leases and hire a full-time team but organically growing teams and the flexibility that comes with that means there are more opportunities to set up a studio. The real limiting factor is – how good is your game concept? Can it compete successfully for audience share?”
Even though office space is less of a concern for developers in a post-pandemic world – and there are options when it comes to places to work – Brooksby says there should be more support for smaller teams when it comes to workspace.
“A subsidised space where we can house incubators would be great to add to the town so really small teams can get started,” he says. “I do hope that happens at some point. It is surprising how many people move into each other’s old offices around here also, as it is convenient to move into somewhere pretty much ready-made.
"You would think it’s all hyper-expensive in Guildford, but if you look, there are some real bargain spaces, and some teams are not that fussy when they are starting out. Offices are still important and there are still a lot of people are keen to get back into an office so that they can collaborate more effectively, albeit with changing working patterns throughout the week.”
Despite the wealth of developers in the region, there isn’t much in the way of financial support available, at least nothing specific to the Guildford area. That being said, the usual suspects are available in the region.
“There's also Creative England, as well as the UK Games Fund” Zarifis says. “A lot of these aren't necessarily regional to the Guildford/Surrey area. There's also Video Games Tax Relief (VGTR), which is brilliant and our studio has benefitted from it multiple times. I don't think I know a single studio that hasn't benefitted from it. But again, none of these is necessarily regional.”
Hopper adds: “The most useful piece of generally available support is VGTR. It can add up very quickly and is pretty easy to access. There is an argument to make a Research & Development tax claim because it is slightly more generous, but it’s harder to set up. You can’t claim both for the same thing, obviously.
“One of the things many people struggled with through COVID was the availability of financial support. If the studio wasn’t making revenue from a game, it was very hard to access, but obviously, those studios with no revenue are the ones who really need help.”
Part of the reason why there isn’t much in the way of financial support specific to Guildford is the fact that it’s in the, generally, much more prosperous South of the UK.
“It felt like there were a lot of schemes that were specifically targetting every area of the country except for London and the South East,” he says. “I can absolutely understand the logic behind that, but it doesn't change the fact that there are lots of people here in London and the South East, and the tech industry will continue to congregate here no matter what – same with financial services and other things.
"Ultimately, those people also need startup help as well. I do recall having that sense when I first looked at these things finding that it did feel like the area might be excluded. Perhaps there are some trade-offs there. In Guildford, there's a huge talent pool and lots of people and many studios both here and in London, so you get those benefits, but perhaps it rules you out of some of the more regional grants.”
While there isn’t a lot of financial support unique to the Guildford scene, that’s made up for by the fact that there is a wealth of experienced people working in the region. Not only do they know what they are talking about, they are more than happy to share that information.
“The Guildford Games meetups are always a good place to meet new people,” Hopper explains. “In my experience, there’s always someone local who is one or two steps further down their journey than you, and I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t been happy to lend an ear and some expertise to help you get moving. It’s a joy to help people out who have the same passions as you.”
As with many things, the COVID-19 pandemic had something of an impact on the Guildford scene. Developers weren’t able to meet up as regularly as they were able to before lockdowns came into effect. After restrictions were eased, the social side of the scene has returned slowly.
“That hasn’t returned the way we thought it might,” Zarifis says. “It's slowly getting there. Most of us have even forgotten what that's like. I think you're starting to see a little bit of that, which is nice. There’s the Guildford Games Dev Drinks that Liquid Crimson and Dan Thomas over at Etch organise. They do some amazing events. It was a very nice opportunity to stick our heads up from work and get together and catch up with everyone, meet people and network. There’s also a Guildford Discord server.”
Despite the various challenges that face the Guildford games scene, developers in the region are optimistic about its future.
“There are fewer impediments to getting started than ever. We’re nowhere near any kind of oversaturation – would that even be possible?” Hopper says. “It’s a wonderful place to live and work with a huge pool of talent working on all manner of games. It’s a pleasure to call it Glowmade’s home.”
Boissiere adds: “Guildford still has a strong reputation and a high concentration of awesome games companies. Even if the studios themselves are more hybrid these days, there is still that sense of belonging to something special when you're a Guildford game dev.
“There is competition from other geographical centres now though, like Brighton and Sheffield, who also have a growing concentration of game studios. But this can only be a good thing for the UK as a whole, most major players having a UK base now and our independent studios are a leading light when it comes to innovation and creativity.”
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