Geographically speaking, the Solent is the strait and shipping lane, between the Isle of Wight and England's south coast. In terms of the video games industry, it describes the region around Southampton and Portsmouth, where there are at least a dozen indie studios bringing their own unique ideas to market.
While perhaps not the most well-known development hub in the UK, the Solent is still home to a number of successful studios, including two veterans of the British games industry: Climax Studios, which first opened doors in 1988 and has contributed to the development of scores of good games such as Crackdown 3 and the Assassin's Creed Chronicles series, and Stainless Studios, which has been making classics such as Carmageddon and various Magic: The Gathering games since 1994.
Newer studios have also made their mark. The Solent is home to Phasmophobia dev Kinetic Games, Xeno Crisis developer Bitmap Bureau, Laser Drift Overdrive creator Martin Jenkins, Robocraft developer Freejam, Orbitect studio Propulsion Games, and more. It was also previously home to Multiplay, the creator of the Insomnia gaming festival and LAN party events, until the business was bought by UK retailer GAME, rebranded, and moved to Guildford.
"The Solent Area is a fantastic part of the country and a great place to live," says Freejam CEO Mark Simmons. "Many developers who we employ set up their homes here and enjoy working with us for many years supporting their families as they grow. Being close to the sea with the great weather we have in the summer months provides a great way of living when outside of work too. We love the ocean vista that we can see from our office. In Portsmouth specifically, we have regular public transport links to places like London and Brighton, too.
Bitmap Bureau design director Mike Tucker adds: "Southampton is a dynamic and creative city with two excellent universities each with their own games courses that are constantly bringing new talent to the area and nurturing local talent. Being able to jump on a train to London, Guildford and Brighton is also useful at times, but we spend most of our days in our office."
Patrick Day-Childs helps run local developer organisation Hampshire Gaming Hub, as well as working for new studio Lovewish and offering his services as a freelance social media manager. He points to the huge range of diversity found in the Solent region: "People come from all backgrounds and have really unique skill sets. Then there is the fact that it's a really beautiful part of the country – Southampton in particular has a huge amount of green areas. More and more studios are taking a really proactive approach to ensuring staff wellbeing, and having access to national parks on your doorstep is genuinely wonderful."
As with any area with a multitude of games studios, competition for the best recruits becomes a factor. Day-Childs notes that while Solent "generally has an incredible output of talent," the fact there aren't as many games studios as there are in other UK hubs means it becomes a challenge to keep that talent in the region.
"We seem to lose our best to Surrey and Berkshire," he says.
Similarly, Simmons says competition is "healthy but not as fierce as it is in places like Brighton or London," adding: "This is one of the untold secrets about setting up development in the Solent area. Lots of talent, but less aggressively fought over."
Tucker says: "Many studios are happy for their employees to work remotely these days, and we have several staff and contractors based outside of Southampton and indeed the UK, so we have to compete on both a local and international level when it comes to recruiting new – or even old – talent."
Fortunately, there's a steady flow of graduates as well, thanks to the handful of prestigious universities in the region, such as Portsmouth University, University of Southampton and Solent University. There are also other resources, such as the Centre for Creative, Immersive and Xtended Reality (CCIXR) – a significant investment into all things XR by Portsmouth University and the Solent LEP.
On the relationship between industry and academia; Simmons notes that it's something Freejam "wants to expand upon."
Tucker, reports that Bitmap Bureau has established a great relationship with local educational institutions, particularly Solent University: "I lectured there part-time for three years and got to know the other lecturers and students, a few of whom worked with us on a couple of our early titles. We also participate in game jams held at both Portsmouth University and the University of Southampton, which we also sponsored in the form of pizza.
"We often get approaches from local students looking for work experience and placements and do our best to accommodate them, although it’s tricky given that our office is already at capacity. We do, however, attend local get-togethers for the Southampton Game Developers group where local developers are welcome to show their work to get feedback or just chat."
Get-togethers are another advantage to running a studio in the Solent region. The developers we spoke to report there are a range of events held in the area, with Day-Childs and his team running Hampshire's biggest: The Southampton Game Fest. This attracts over 300 attendees, and has been known to showcase upcoming hits before they appear on the show floor at EGX. Unfortunately, the event is currently on hold.
"We've had to hit the brakes due to lack of suitable venues," Day-Childs explains. "The event was good for small studios to get feedback on their game, and we didn't charge developers a penny to attend. But outside of that, we work closely with the local developers on monthly meet ups that are more for advice and discussion.
"We're looking at potentially running an event aimed at developers and creatives in Southampton on a more professional level -- industry talks and that kind of thing, as opposed to games showcasing."
Barclays also holds events throughout the year at the Southampton Eagle Labs, as well as the city's St. Mary's Stadium, which Tucker describes as "well worth attending."
"Southampton Eagle lab has been helping to bring together the local games community," says the lab's ecosystem manager Mark Rands. "There is so much talent in the region but previously it has been very separated and siloed. A big focus has been to support the local universities and colleges to educate the students on pathways into the industry and to create opportunities for them. This takes shape in many ways such as introductions, the creation of the 'Barclays Games Collective,' a future student accelerator for the games industry and talks during their enterprise topics."
Barclays has also run activities alongside UKIE and the trade body's Hubcrawl events, and worked with Southampton City Council to organise Southampton Games Frenzy.
"This included many talks on careers and routes into the industry, chances to demonstrate games and network with people from the industry," says Rands.
That's not to say life for Solent developers is not without its challenges. Simmons notes that the low profile of studios in the region means local game makers need to work a little harder to raise their profile.
"People don’t normally associate the Solent area as a game development hub but so many great games have been created here with so much great talent. This requires effort in communication when hiring devs to work in-studio."
The Solent is a promising region for UK-based indies and it's worth watching studios from this area to see how they might make their own mark upon the market.
"The talent coming out of the region is fantastic with creative ideas, vision and technical skills," says Rands. "The biggest challenge is retaining that talent with Hubs like Guilford less 90 minutes away and a lack of publishers in the region it can be a struggle to find the financial support around.
"We will endeavour to continue our support by linking the South Coast up with the rest of the country and creating opportunities for businesses to flourish."
Simmons concludes: "Please don’t tell everyone how great the talent is in the Solent area. We want to keep it as our own secret."
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