According to UKIE's UK Games Map, there are more than 400 games companies throughout the region, ranging from larger independent studios like simulation specialist Dovetail Games and Total War creator Creative Assembly to smaller, up-and-coming indies.
Brighton, in particular, is home to a wide array of studios, from Mafia maker Hangar 13 and Smite developer Hi-Rez Studios, to Zynga-owned BossAlien (part of NaturalMotion), to Studio Gobo, Electric Square, The Chinese Room, Snap Finger Click and FuturLab – developer of this year's hit PowerWash Simulator.
"Brighton alone has one of the richest and most diverse selection of people working within the games industry," says Justin French, CEO of Dream Harvest – a Brighton-based indie currently working on two cyberpunk titles, Neuroslicers and Neuronet: Mendax Proxy. "It is also home to the UK’s biggest and best industry networking event, Develop:Brighton, each year."
Martijn van der Meulen is co-founder of another Brighton indie, Snap Finger Click – a studio formed by former Relentless Software developers, which was also based in the city.
"It made sense as it was already our home, but we also chose to found our studio here as Brighton is one of the creative hubs of the UK," he says. "It’s the perfect place for an indie studio to set-up.
"One of Brighton’s strengths is that it’s a small city which means it’s easy to organise events with other indie developers. Compared with a larger city like London which is much bigger and more challenging to travel across, it’s more difficult to organise games groups. In Brighton, all the game devs know each other. We have regular games industry drinks every month. There’s a real sense of community within Brighton’s game dev industry. I’ve had many meetings with other indie studio heads where we’ve shared ideas and even resources. There’s always someone you can ask for advice."
Brighton's location is a key advantage for indies. Not only is it just one hour away from London by train, it's also close to Gatwick Airport, which makes travelling to events, trade shows and conferences much easier. And, naturally, as seaside resort it has its own charms.
"Our Snap Finger Click studio itself is in a great location: right on the seafront with a sea view from our desks," says Van der Meulen. "We offer all our staff the option to work from home, but everyone who lives locally chooses to come into the office at least a few times a week because it’s such a nice space to work in."
Not every area in the South East is as beneficial for indies. Kent-based Aaron Morley is founder and studio director of The Next Hype, a new mobile studio founded earlier this year. He previously spent a year at TreesPlease Games and more than six years at the Ubisoft-owned Future Games of London, which produced the highly popular Hungry Shark series.
Morley observes that while Kent does not offer as many benefits for new studios as other regions, it is not without its advantages: "The biggest pluses I can honestly exude are that the cost of living is lower than in London and that there's plenty of green space to inspire you."
Van der Meulen adds that the cost of living can take its toll on businesses: "The South of England and especially Brighton is more expensive to live in than other parts of the UK. We’ve recently had one of our long-term staff move away from Brighton after many years so they could get on the property ladder in the north of England. Luckily, we are fully set-up for remote working, so it doesn’t affect our business too much.
French adds: "Talent competition for local developers can be hard. You need to be able to pay above market rates and have a really good package offering. Also helps if you’re building a cool game.
"Rent and house prices in Brighton are some of the most expensive in the country, with a one-bed flat close to town generally going for over £1,200 a month and the average one-bed apartment selling for upwards for £350,000. It’s pretty much London prices, but you have the advantage of being by the seaside – although it’s a pebble beach rather than sand."
Competition for talent is an issue that faces most developers in the region (and indeed in other regions). Morley says the proximity to London and Brighton hampers Kent-based studios: "Honestly, unless you're able to take on local juniors you have to offer a remote working option in order to hire talented staff."
Van der Meulen adds that, while Brighton has a great pool of local talent, there are more and much larger studios vying to hire them: "It has sometimes been hard, competing with bigger studios on our doorstep who can offer more benefits, but as we’ve grown in the last few years, we’re able to match a lot of those now. We find there are many people out there who value working in a smaller studio and prefer the indie scene."
French adds: "The changes to remote /hybrid working since the pandemic started, we’re seeing more companies being open to this new way of working. We started as a totally remote studio, but now offer both fully remote and hybrid work out of our Brighton office.
"The big thing that’s impacting studios around the country, however, is having to compete with US-based studios who generally can pay much more than UK based studios. Brexit has also been a bit of a kick in the teeth when it comes to hiring European talent."
Fortunately, there are plenty of universities in the region producing new talent every year, including The University of Kent, Mid Kent College, University of Sussex and Surrey University. Relationships between academic institutes and developers can vary, but the studios we speak to seem confident this will improve over time and are keen to work closer with universities on preparing future generations for a career in games.
"We’re still finding students leaving courses unprepared of the realities of the industry, but things are getting better," says French. "Surrey University has produced some pretty good grad/junior level people. I do still feel that we could do with more collaboration and for games courses to be improved further, though."
Brighton is also home to Into Games, an organisation focused on supporting young people seeking a career in games and finding more opportunities to help them prepare for such roles.
There are also a number of regular events and meetups to raise the profile of the local games industry across the South East. In Kent, Morley cites the Medway Rapture Gaming Festival, which is held in Chatham Dockyard, and Margate's Play Expo – although he notes these are "more of a family day out than a B2B/B2C expo."
With such a larger concentration of developers in Brighton, naturally there are more events in the city. In addition to the annual Develop conference, there are two monthly Brighton Games Drinks – one run the last Friday of each month by Dream Harvest's Justin French, and another on the second or third Friday by Boss Aliens' Tom Pickard. Every Wednesday sees a Brighton Indies meet-up, while every few months there is a Sussex Game Makers event.
For Van der Meulen, these sort of gatherings can be very beneficial for a smaller studio: "As an indie, it’s helpful to be close by to the bigger studios who get involved in the local game dev scene and are always happy to advise us. Many studios in Brighton started from the ashes of other big studios like Black Rock and Relentless. Some of those studios have gone on to be even more successful."
While the wider South East may not have the same advantages of specific clusters like Guildford, Brighton and the Solent area, changes in the way people work are opening up new opportunities all the time.
Morley warns that there are additional infrastructure challenges to take into account when setting up a studio in Kent: "Quality office space, event space, and education are not easy to come by. In my ten years of working in games, I'm always excited to meet someone in the industry who grew up in or lives in Kent. I've met dozens and the story is always the same: the opportunities aren't there and they had to struggle to land a role, often going deep into their savings/overdraft balance commuting hours into London, Guildford, or Brighton.
"But the pandemic changed the world and remote working becoming the normal setup for small teams really has changed my life and the lives of friends of mine who live in Kent for the better. We can afford more without 10% to 20% of our salary going on commuting costs and the time saved has made us all happier and healthier."
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