Video game development in Scotland doesn't start and end with Rockstar North – did you know that there's a vibrant indie scene across the country too?
The spirit of independent video games does flow through Rockstar, which started out as an indie developer creating games such as Lemmings, before eventually moving on to Grand Theft Auto and becoming the video game goliath it is today. Similarly, Ruffian Games – which worked on the likes of Crackdown 2 – was later welcomed into the Rockstar family as Rockstar Dundee following a 2019 takeover.
But there's a thriving community of indie studios across the nation to the north – although this hasn't always been the case. Back in the early 2000s, indie games were far fewer in number – or at the very least, the number of them that you'd hear about was a lot lower. Fortunately, the rise of social media, and the ease of sharing content through platforms such as YouTube, Twitter and TikTok, means developers can keep people – and more specifically, their fans – up to date with information about their game, as well as being able to promote their content without the full financial requirements of days past.
For some, indie game development can start in higher education. Abertay University, situated in Dundee, was recently ranked as the number one educational establishment in Europe for video game-related degrees for the fifth year in a row; and there are a bunch of other universities and colleges providing excellent courses for people looking to get into the games industry – whether that is specifically game development, or other areas of the business. Naturally, not all who study in Scotland will go on to work for Scottish game developers, but it's no surprise that Dundee houses a number of different independent studios.
4J Studios, which worked on the various console ports for Minecraft (as well as a number of popular texture packs for the game) calls Dundee its home, as does Konglomerate Games – the studio's Cape Breeze game utilises a specialised breathing apparatus as a controller to help those with Cystic Fibrosis to practise and learn breathing exercises that can improve their quality of life.
Other Dundee studios include: Puny Astronaut, which is working on adorable puzzle-exploration game Skye Tales; Hyper Luminal Games, which is currently developing "an itsy-bitsy open world puzzle game" known as Pine Hearts for PC and Switch; and Denki, which recently released Autonauts. In fact, all three are within a short distance of each other, situated close to the River Tay.
Denki Games' managing director Colin Anderson tells us why, in an age when you can set up a games studio anywhere in the world, he and his team deliberately chose to start their business in Scotland.
"It's partly because we were already working here, but also because we were aware that Scotland, through its successes with games such as Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto, had built up a large pool of experienced talent to draw from," he says.
"It also meant that government agencies and organisations were familiar with the video games industry and were supporting businesses working in that sector. All of that was really important to our decision to base the business in Scotland."
While Anderson says there's a strong pool of local developers and graduates to draw from when recruiting, Denki considers itself to be a global business.
"Our aim is to work with the best people, regardless of where they're located – fortunately that's often in Scotland," he says. "It's obviously become significantly easier to work with people anywhere in the world since 2020, because everyone is now set up for working remotely, which wasn't always the case before. There's always been lots of competition for the best talent, but we don't see that as a negative – it creates an environment that draws more people into the industry and forces all businesses working within it to get better."
Further north, the Granite City of Aberdeen is home to a handful of developers such as Brilliant Skies, which developed From the Depths. There's also FireFly Studios, creators of the Stronghold series, which have one of its offices based in Aberdeen, too. Strange Sickness, a game based around the real-life historical records of the city, has also recently been released by local developer Common Profyt Games – it's always interesting to see a developer base their game around the area they're most familiar with.
Heading south, the capital city of Edinburgh has a few studios taking up residence. Aside from Rockstar North, there's Ant Workshop, developers of the fantastic twin-stick shooter Dead End Job, which is currently working on a new game called Dungeon Golf. There is also Wardog Studios, which produce high-quality assets for games as well as film.
Finally moving west to sunny Glasgow, you'll find Blazing Griffin, which not only works with games, but movies and television, too. There's also the multi-award winning No Code, which developed the likes of Observation, Stories Untold and Super Arc Light, and Chunk, which creates interactive experiences such as games and apps in conjunction with a number of different collaborators, from BBC to Penguin Books.
With Barclays Eagle Labs in Aberdeen, Kilmarnock, Edinburgh and with a new games biased Lab set up in Glasgow too, these offer fantastic opportunities and support for new businesses setting up in the area, whether they're gaming related or not. In addition to expert support, they can also give you links to investors and access to co-working spaces for those that need it, and having that extra backing can make a huge difference as launching your own start-up is a very challenging and daunting process for many.
Watching events such as this year's Summer Games Fest really slams home just how much talent indie developers have – and how much creativity they put into their games. Indies hit us with a variety of art styles, intriguing gameplay and often plenty of unique elements that really take you by surprise. From sci-fi-thrillers like Observation that fill you with complete and utter dread, to much more light-hearted (yet still very in-depth) gameplay such as Autonauts, there's a wide range of genres and styles released by Scottish studios already, so it's exciting to think about what else is yet to come.
Although there are plenty of studios based in Scotland, that's not to say the nation is without its disadvantages. Anderson says a significant drawback to being based in Scotland – and particularly in Dundee – is the reliance on limited transport infrastructure.
"The UK is so heavily skewed towards being London-centric that it's harder to attend national and international events whenever your business is more than a few hours from London," he says. "Limitations, like the lack of an electrified east coast rail line north of Edinburgh, places businesses in the Dundee area at a distinct disadvantage over their central belt counterparts. But then we also have the Grampian Mountains half-an-hour up the road, so you know – it’s swings and roundabouts I guess."
Thankfully, a more local event is on the way. From October 24 to 28 this year (2022), the first ever Scottish Games Week will be running a series of events across the country, both to support and celebrate the games industry within Scotland. Events such as a two-day conference taking place in Dundee will focus on game design and development as well as publishing, funding and more. There will also be the first ever Scottish Game Awards, to give recognition to all of the ground-breaking work and creativity that is taking place across the country.
Brian Baglow, founder of Scottish Games Network and director of Scottish Games Week, shared the inspiration behind it: "Scotland has a really thriving indie games scene, with new studios popping up all over the country. While Dundee was traditionally the heart of Scotland's game sector, thanks to COVID and the ongoing changes in technology, we're now seeing smaller studios and businesses setting up all over the country – from the Borders to the Highlands and Islands.
"However, one of the things that is lacking is the opportunity for all of these developers to get together locally. The irony is that you're far more likely to meet your neighbouring studios, friends and colleagues in Brighton for Develop or San Francisco for GDC than you are anywhere in Scotland."
It's not hard to see that Scotland has a lack of events structured around games and the gaming community. Events such as Comic Con have only started to grow in number in Scotland over the last decade, and whilst these often have some connections to games, there have not been many gaming-centric events until now. For Baglow, it's crucial to the local industry that this changes.
"The Scottish events calendar has started to pick up with some of the amazing work from Colin Macdonald with GamesJobsLive and GamesTalksLive, but we don't have anything - and we've not had anything - on a global scale since about 2007/2008," he says. "We're doing so much work in games in Scotland, and pioneering in so many different ways, and yet far too many studios and games are overlooked or unknown. I wanted to change that so that we have a platform to highlight the work being done in our country, and some of the pioneering work from Scots from all over the world. We needed our own event, and so Scottish Games Week was born.
"This was supported in 2021 when the Scottish government launched the Scottish Tech Ecosystem Review (STER), which aimed very specifically to build world-class events for Scotland's world-class tech ecosystem. Thankfully they agreed with me that games had to be included in this because it is very clearly one of the key digital sectors for Scotland's future. Now, after months of planning, Scottish Games Week is being delivered by the Scottish Games Network between 24 and 28 October, 2022 and is supported by the STER programme."
Naturally, creating an event comes with its own set of challenges, particularly something as large as what Baglow and his team has planned.
"Building a brand new event from scratch has been incredibly challenging, but very rewarding," he says. "The initial pitch was for a week-long series of events, covering everything to do with Scotland's games ecosystem, taking place across the whole country - no mean feat to organise.
"Everything from finding and securing venues to nailing down speakers to encouraging entries for the first ever Scottish Games Awards and building a team to deliver each event, has been incredibly time consuming and had a steep learning curve. We're going from a standing start but we're putting everything in place to ensure that this is an amazing event and something that can take place in the future - we're not looking at this as a one-off. However, it is year one in an ongoing series of events that we hope to make the centrepoint of Scotland's games calendar."
With plenty of opportunities up and down the country for aspiring games developers, tonnes of exciting news spanning Scottish Games Week plus interesting new titles that have recently been revealed from Scottish developers, it's the dawn of a new era in Scottish Indie Gaming – and it will be fascinating to see where it goes next.
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