Since Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy in the 1980s, video games have been an important cultural export from the North West, with the region’s cutting edge talent rising to international prominence in the first PlayStation generation with futuristic racer Wipeout. Even one of this year’s best sellers, Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, hails from Knutsford studio Traveller’s Tales, built by a team whose output in the industry spans more than three decades.
Given the celebrated history of bedroom coders in the region, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that indie developers are also thriving in the North West today. Studios like Acid Nerve, which is behind the critically acclaimed and BAFTA-nominated Death’s Door, while Recompile developer Phi Games was one of the first indies opting to release its game exclusively for the latest console generation.
That’s but a handful of examples as, according to UKIE’s Games Map, the North West has 196 developers and publishers currently trading. Meanwhile, people looking to acquire relevant education and skills before entering the industry can find 41 games-related university courses in the region.
The games sector has continued to see growth in recent years too – not just during the pandemic – with the BFI’s 2021 Screen Business report showing that between 2017 and 2019, the GVA (gross value added) had increased by more than 25% in the North West over that period, while direct employment also saw an increase of over 25%.
That growth has nonetheless taken time. For instance, the indie scene in Greater Manchester was only beginning to take shape about a decade ago, which was when White Paper Games was first founded.
“We started with a core team of six that shipped our first title, Ether One,” says co-founder and studio head Pete Bottomley. “We had a core team of nine on The Occupation, and recently we shipped Conway: Disappearance at Dahlia View with a core team of 12.”
As with many other developers, Bottomley says financing initiatives like the UK Games Fund and Video Games Tax Relief have been invaluable, while as a developer working with Unreal Engine, White Paper Games has also been able to take advantage of Epic Games’ Epic Megagrant program. Of course, these resources are also available wherever a developer is based in the UK (or globally in the case of the Epic Megagrant), so what specifically attracts budding developers to the North West?
For Oddbug Studio co-founder Jack Bennett, whose debut game The Lost Bear was funded by Sony as a PlayStation VR title, it was quite straightforward. “We were just there because [Sony] said, 'You'll like Manchester!',” he laughs.
At the time, Bennett and his fellow co-founders, Daniel Robinson and Martin Reimann, had graduated from the Norwich University of the Arts after studying game art and design. They then went to Scotland to participate in Abertay University’s Dare To Be Digital competition.
“Sony Xdev came along and they liked our vibe but they didn't particularly like our game, which was on an iPad, so they asked if we had any other ideas,” he explains. “We showed them The Lost Bear and they said they’d give us money to make a demo.”
Sony XDev Europe, originally part of SCE Studio Liverpool (previously known as Psygnosis, the studio behind Wipeout), is instrumental to Sony’s partnerships with third-party developers, offering services such as production, management and funding. However, as this would be Oddbug’s first game, the XDev team also wanted Bennett and his friends to be based closer to its headquarters in Liverpool, settling on Manchester.
“We were like, ‘We want to make games, so we'll start our own studio.’ So that was how we first moved to Manchester, and got started in game development at the same time.”
This was around 2014, when the indie scene in Manchester was still relatively nascent, although by the time Oddbug had released The Lost Bear in 2017, the next publisher it partnered with, Fabrik, was not only also based in Manchester but in the same building.
That space is The Sharp Project, a warehouse previously owned by the Japanese electronics manufacturer of the same name, but since 2011 has been repurposed into Manchester’s flagship digital production complex, where creative teams can be housed in affordable shipping containers.
“It’s the best place for an indie to start because it's super cheap rent, really good internet, and you can just put five people in a container,” says Bennett. “There were cool creative industries around you doing different things, there was lots of stuff to learn.”
Combined with the heritage of creativity and technology – from its legendary nightlife culture to MediaCity, home to media organisations like the BBC as well as the University of Salford’s media-related courses – Greater Manchester has a naturally creative environment that is also beneficial to indie game developers. But it also has the financial infrastructure that’s necessary for indie developers who are essentially running their own businesses.
“I'm not particularly financially or legally savvy, so being able to go out, get an accountant or lawyer, sit there and talk to them is quite important for me to understand what's actually going on, so that was another bonus for us being in Manchester,” says Bennett.
Besides infrastructure, there are also meetings that provide the opportunity for indies to come together as a community to network or share insights and feedback, which is invaluable for any aspiring developer looking to get their foot in the door or learn from their peers locally. For instance, there’s the Unreal Engine Manchester meetup, which White Paper Games organises with Epic as an initiative for other Unreal developers to connect locally.
Also bringing Greater Manchester’s indie community together is Gameopolis, an organisation that runs regular informal gatherings like Indie Drinks and North West Playtesters, where people can catch up as well as showcase and test each others’ games, as well as annual game jam event Jamchester. Gameopolis was also founded so that local and national government would have a contact who represented the games industry in Greater Manchester – something co-founder Simon Smith realised had been absent when the city council had organised its annual Manchester Day in 2015 themed around video games, but had not approached anyone from the game development community about it.
“The symbol of the event was cartoony Game Boy with arms, but people organising indie meet-ups like myself were like, ‘Why haven’t they spoken to us about it?’,” says Smith. “What we realised is the council didn't know who to speak to. The games community in Manchester wasn't on their radar.”
Fortunately, after approaching the council about this, the entire top floor of Manchester Town Hall was provided as a space for an indie games exhibition, which Smith filled with games from 20 game developers both local and around the country.
The event proved a huge success, sowing the seeds for Smith and his fellow co-founders to launch Gameopolis, a more formalised version of the Indie Drinks he had already been helping to organise. The team also arranged other industry-focused events featuring talks from key industry figures, such as the inaugural talk from Michael Pattison, then the head of third party development for Sony and currently CEO of Team17 Digital.
Not only are these gatherings fertile ground for networking and gaining valuable insight from influential games professionals, but they are also an opportunity for business. For instance, it was at a 2019 event when Team17’s Debbie Bestwick met Mike Delves of Yippee Entertainment. She would subsequently buy his company, which has since become Team17 Manchester, where Smith also now works as a senior talent scout.
Naturally, both Greater Manchester’s regional qualities and the value of in-person meetings have shifted somewhat thanks to the pandemic. Certainly, it was a lesson Oddbug learned the hard way, having signed up to a studio tenancy in the Ancoats area just before the pandemic struck, which it couldn’t back out of nor make use of given the space was a converted red brick factory with tight spaces and poor ventilation.
“We decided not to have another studio again,” Bennett explains. “Now we basically just sit on Discord all day, and it allows our employees to stay home for an extra hour in the morning. I do miss the spontaneity of where we go for lunch, but developing the game is pretty much the same.”
White Paper Games on the other hand is continuing to invest in its Manchester studio, although it’s adopting a hybrid approach where some team members will work just a couple days a week at the studio and the rest remotely.
“It hasn’t necessarily affected our hiring,” says Bottomley. “We’re seeing a shortage of programmers in the area but Manchester has a thriving development scene so there isn’t an overall lack of talent.”
The pandemic has certainly changed priorities with some studios, with some of Oddbug’s members now also relocated to other parts of the country, while those opting for remote work means talent isn’t limited to geography. Nonetheless, Manchester remains an attractive place for tech-driven industries since there’s plenty of opportunity for meeting a new potential recruit at an indie drinks gathering, which have started to return this year. Gameopolis also had its first post-COVID event this May.
As well as intending its events to be about people meeting in person, Smith has also wanted these events to not just be held in Central Manchester but throughout the Greater Manchester area and nearby, including Warrington and Macclesfield, in order to reflect the diversity of the region. Since working at Team17, he’s also broadened the remit of Gameopolis so the organisation now has a board, whose members aren’t just affiliated with games but have a background in law and local government – a reflection on how it does require a diverse collective of knowledge and expertise to support the thriving indie scene.
There’s also talks and panels from organisations including UKIE and Barclays that’s always bringing the industry’s brightest insights to the region, such as the Games Collective Series hosted at Barclays Eagle Labs in Liverpool, while its Manchester lab – previously closed due to COVID – is due to re-open soon.
“The North West is one of the key clusters in the UK video games industry,” says UKIE CEO Jo Twist. “It played a significant role in developing our sector during the early days of the industry and has matured into a major hub known for its world class talent, studios and games. We will continue to work with great regional groups like Gameopolis, local government and other partners to further its development in the coming year.”
The North West’s indie scene has come a long way in the past decade, though even those who have been around for that time still feel like they’re just getting started. It’s for that reason local developers advise any other aspiring game maker to just get into it.
“It takes a long-term commitment, but don’t try to plan too many years out,” says Bottomley. “Just start with your first project and slowly build from there. You’ll make plenty of mistakes along the way, but that’s okay. They’ll create better pieces of work with each title you release.
“My key takeaway would be to just go out, meet people, and become part of the community. If you can do that, then that's really going to push you forward.”
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