Northern Ireland might not be the UK’s most well-known hub for game development, but the region is thriving and responsible for many past (and future) indie gems.
Buildings Have Feelings Too, Her Majesty's Spiffing, Stargazing, Supermarket Shriek – all these indie titles were made on Northern Ireland's soil, with highly anticipated games like Hytale, Murder At Malone Manor, Paleo Pines, and Dynasty of the Sands also on the horizon.
According to trade body UKIE’s Games Map, the region is currently home to around 40 studios, publishers, or game services companies. In 2020, a report from the BFI and UKIE highlighted 35 active games firms in Northern Ireland, contributing £5.6 million in Gross Value Added (GVA) to the UK economy.
The industry in the region is strongly supported by public body NI Screen, which noted in its business plan for 2019/2020 that "the screen industry in Northern Ireland develops a considerable number of startups every year," mentioning that "over 30 startups have been supported in the interactive/games sector" between 2014 and 2018.
For the 2020-2021 season, NI Screen awarded over £752,500 to companies in the games sector, including more than £400,000 to Hytale developer Hypixel, which went on to be acquired by Riot Games.
Studios in Northern Ireland can also count on the support of Kippie, a company that provides workshops for aspiring devs to help them make their titles and get them to market. The region even has a thriving co-working space and incubation programme for the games industry, primarily through The Pixel Mill (which is also funded by NI Screen). Barclays also have one of their games biased Eagle Lab located next to Pixel Mill.
When asked for the reasons why Northern Ireland makes for a good location for a game studio, the first thing that comes to mind for Amelia Lingman Beimers, COO at developer Italic Pig, is the wealth of options when it comes to support in the region.
"Northern Ireland Screen, Invest NI and Future Screens provide incredible business growth support to creative industries, and the gaming industry is an example of the success that this support drives," she says. "Not only is their financial support available for projects produced here, but their reach is long enough to provide mentorship and business guidance as you grow."
She adds: "The typical path for a studio, or a studio-to-be, would start at an incubator such as the Pixel Mill run by Northern Ireland Screen. They can avail of slate funding or development funding and employment grants from both Northern Ireland Screen and Invest NI. As they grow and begin to attract their own funding to the region from production deals, they can pitch for Northern Ireland Screen’s production support. In some cases, projects may also suit Innovate UK and Future Screens’ more technological funding. At every stage of growth, there is a variety of support available."
The second reason for settling in Northern Ireland is the lifestyle, Lingman Beimers continues.
"We’ve found that since the pandemic, our team cares more about their personal time than ever before. Most of our team are not interested in getting burnt out in a big city – they’re looking for a location that has something to offer them during the three days they’re not working. Being in Northern Ireland means going for a walk on the beach during your lunch break, or a hike on the weekend, is entirely possible."
Italic Pig is based in Holywood, just outside of Belfast, and has been around for about eight years, working on games such as Schrodinger’s Cat And The Raiders Of The Lost Quark and the upcoming Paleo Pines, as well as various animation projects.
"During that time, we’ve grown from just three people to our current team of 24," Lingman Beimer says. "We've been focused mostly on creating and developing award-winning, narrative-driven video games across all platforms, and, with some of the most talented artists, animators and developers in the country, we’ve recently begun dipping our toes into the waters of animation and series development."
The growth that Italic Pig has experienced is denotative of a wider movement in Northern Ireland, with the games industry expanding at a fast pace.
"It’s definitely grown up a lot in recent years with so many new studios opening," Lingman Beimer says. "But at the same time, you’re also seeing the studios that have been around for years start to mature, grow and thrive in their established genres. It’s incredible for an industry that typically has a high level of turnover to see these companies inching towards the ten-year mark with the same leaders at the helm. I think it creates a more solid foundation for the new studios opening. They also know that they can reach out for support when needed."
One such studio is Her Majesty's Spiffing and Supermarket Shriek developer BillyGoat Entertainment, now in its thirteenth year of operations.
"Much to the amazement of myself, casual acquaintances, and passive observers," director William Barr jokes. "We make jovial, light-hearted video games for consoles and have been working towards the lofty goal of achieving medium term financial stability. Coincidentally in our thirteenth year we now house 13 members of staff in our South Belfast studio.
"After the modest success of our previous title, Supermarket Shriek, we’ve naturally thrown caution to the wind and placed all our resources into our next, upcoming project. If we’re lucky, we’ll get to make another one once we’re done."
BillyGoat is currently working on a brand new IP to be published by Sumo-owned Secret Mode, and Barr is also keen to acknowledge the invaluable support of NI Screen for the local industry.
"We’ve availed of a number of schemes they’ve run, recruiting and training, development funding, participating in trade missions, conference assistance and staff ‘levelling up’ initiatives," he says. "They also manage the Pixel Mill, an incubator for fledgling, start-up game studios. This covers the ever escalating day-to-day costs. There is also the opportunity to work out of the same space as peers at a similar stage in their journey, creating opportunities for collaboration, or possibly just procrastination. But it’s a great resource nonetheless."
Barr agrees that the scene in Northern Ireland is "certainly growing" with a "collection of smaller studios" having managed to remain on the "right side of insolvency long enough to become somewhat established."
However, Northern Ireland is facing similar challenges to other areas of the UK when it comes to its talent pool.
"There is a worldwide talent shortage made worse by the pandemic and the ability for talent to find work anywhere," Lingman Beimer says. "This has caused salaries to rise dramatically and studios everywhere are struggling to recruit the people that they need. In particular in Northern Ireland, the industry hasn’t yet had time to create a large pool of senior talent so we need to look further afield for now. The flip side of this is, by attracting those senior people, our teams benefit from their knowledge and have their own skill sets expanded."
Barr agrees that, because there aren’t so many established studios in Northern Ireland, "it can be difficult to recruit battle hardened, experienced staff locally."
He continues: "Relocating people from elsewhere in the UK or further afield is expensive and can be a hard sell when folks have started to lay roots down elsewhere. This will become less of an issue over time as the industry here matures and more folks have experienced the cathartic joy of shipping a game and never having to look at it again.
"Regardless of industry, it’s true what they say, it’s hard to find good staff. While there are a lot of graduates coming out of the art college and local universities you’re always on the lookout for that special someone who could be described as not mediocre. Most of our recent hires initially joined us through some sort of training scheme, typically organised by Northern Ireland Screen.
"Obviously the experience isn’t there initially, but we typically look for folks with potential that can integrate well into our team. It can be difficult for a small studio to invest the time into individuals like this, which is why we’re quite picky, but we’re very happy with the folks that we have at the moment."
Northern Ireland is home to a number of events that can be very valuable for young studios. Lingman Beimers mentions the Belfast Media Festival, Future Screen Future Tuesdays at the Pixel Mill, UKIE Hub Crawls, and the weekly Lean Coffee chat on the NI Game Dev Network Discord as “a good spot for those starting up to share experiences.”
Barr mentions the Play My Demo events, also organised by the NI Game Dev Network, and the “occasional 2D3D pub meetups for those more interested in the art side of things.”
“Pre-COVID, these events were fairly regular,” he says. “Now that some semblance of normality has returned, these events are slowly returning to before-times levels."
The impact of COVID on the games industry in Northern Ireland has been “huge” Lingman Beimers says.
“But I think we’ve been extremely lucky compared to other industries such as hospitality,” she adds. “It took a lot of juggling, pivoting and budgeting to make it through the pandemic but, as a whole, the indie gaming industry is used to facing up to challenges and we have such a dynamic workforce here that they were up for the changes. I think the bigger surprise is that many people are not interested in shifting back to the way things were and many of the changes are here to stay."
BillyGoat Entertainment’s experience was a bit different, with Barr noting that his team moved into a larger studio space following the pandemic and has been enjoying going back to the office.
“We’ve found that being in the same room is conducive to more productive working. Game development is a collaborative process and being able to walk over to someone’s desk and quickly run something past them is much more efficient than scheduling a Teams meeting or firing a message over Discord that can be easily missed (or ignored!). Other studios have different approaches, however it seems to be what has worked best for us.”
Concluding our chat, we ask both Lingman Beimers and Barr whether they’d recommend Northern Ireland to newcomers.
“No, go somewhere else, this is our turf!" laughs Barr. "I jest, somewhat, but the support offered to new studios is very impressive. There are individuals very keen to see a successful, well established video game sector in Northern Ireland, best keep in with them.”
And Lingman Beimers concludes: "If they’re looking for a supportive industry in a gorgeous location that feels vibrant and exciting yet still hasn’t reached nearly the peak of all it can become, then yes.
“I think in Northern Ireland we can be a bit subdued about shouting about our accomplishments and feeling as though we can compete on the world market. This is changing though as companies mature and the industry as a whole is more confident in its offerings.”
Barclays (including its employees, Directors and agents) accepts no responsibility and shall have no liability in contract, tort or otherwise to any person in connection with this content or the use of or reliance on any information or data set out in this content unless it expressly agrees otherwise in writing. It does not constitute an offer to sell or buy any security, investment, financial product or service and does not constitute investment, professional, legal or tax advice, or a recommendation with respect to any securities or financial instruments.
The information, statements and opinions contained in this content are of a general nature only and do not take into account your individual circumstances including any laws, policies, procedures or practices you, or your employer or businesses may have or be subject to. Although the statements of fact on this page have been obtained from and are based upon sources that Barclays believes to be reliable, Barclays does not guarantee their accuracy or completeness.