It doesn't matter who you talk to about what it's like to be a game developer in the South West, the same word comes back again and again and again: community.
"It's the community here, and the spirit in which they make stuff that I like the most. Helping each other out and celebrating each other's successes is awesome; whether they're at Auroch, Ground Shatter, PQube, ColePowered, Raredrop, Lo-Fi or wherever – if they're doing amazing work, everyone's happy for them."
The words above come from Auroch Digital's production director Peter Willington, but really, they could be from anyone who's spent time in this vibrant, collegiate, and supportive oasis of UK games development.
Auroch is currently focused on a "bunch of high-profile stuff" right across the company's expansive remit, including porting, publishing, work-for-hire, partner IP, as well as developing its own original titles, which includes Mars Horizon 2.
But that's just one of the successful titles born in Bristol; Fights in Tight Spaces, Shadows of Doubt, and Warhammer: 40,000: Boltgun all hail from studios rooted in the South West, too. And as Willington reminds us, "plenty more high-quality games have been made [in the South West and] did modestly well and kept those studios afloat."
But the South West doesn't only boast an embarrassment of riches when it comes to its entrepreneurial flair and plentiful talent pool. Deftly balancing a big city feel with plentiful green space ("My old commute often required walking through the middle of a herd of deer!" Carrotcake's Louis Durrant tells us), Bristol is undoubtedly the central hub here. And while the industry continues to evolve in a post-pandemic world and more of us relocate to leafier climes, it seems that in more ways than one, developers in the South West really do get the best of both worlds.
"[The South West development scene is] possibly smaller than you think. It's very vibrant, but largely made up of smaller independent teams outside of the larger studios," adds Matthew Walker, who works alongside Willington at Auroch as an audio designer.
"The vibe of the area and the people working within it – that's one of the best things. Bristol specifically has roots across many artforms, and there are always events on where there are people to meet, and projects to work on, and opportunities to be gained.
"I'd say the feel of the South West [and notably Bristol] has an attractive appeal," he adds. "It has the feel of a big city but is more aligned with a large town, and is very flexible when accessing surrounding areas.
"Again, the multitude of artistic avenues that Bristol houses all blend within one another in some fashion, and often influence each other, too."
Ground Shatter director James Parker couldn't agree more. Describing himself as "proudly Bristol born and bred," he moved away from the region to find work whilst getting a foothold in the industry, but at the very first opportunity he could get, however, he boomeranged back. Today, he cites Bristol's "inspirational" creativity and vibrancy as a key pillar of the game development community.
And it's not only his home – spiritually and literally – but also that of the Bristol Game Hub, too.
"I am immensely proud of the Bristol Games Hub and the work we've done, and I'm hugely privileged to share the region with some amazing and inspirational developers that I'm lucky enough to call friends," Parker explains.
This means that as well as working on the first DLC for Ground Shatter's BAFTA-nominated deck-building, tactical brawler Fights in Tight Spaces, he also works with the Bristol Games Hub to raise the profile of the games scene in a part of the UK where game making sometimes "lives in the shadow of animation and high-end natural history television".
"In order to support the burgeoning indie scene in the area, a number of local individuals and small companies got together to form the Bristol Games Hub, a collective of games professionals dedicated to raising the profile of the games scene in the area, and provide a support network and social group to its members," Parker explains. "I was lucky enough to be asked to be a director of the Bristol Games Hub a couple of years after its inception.
"Through regular monthly meetups, events, game jams and other special events, the Bristol Games Hub has been the focus for networking in the local area, and has been a huge part of the success of Ground Shatter and our ability to meet new people on the scene and tap into the local talent pool."
Willington, who started his career in games media before jumping to join Auroch eight years ago, also cites the Hub as a key feature of the South West's gaming scene. He met Auroch's studio director Tomas Rawlings through the hub, and yet more useful links through the regular Unity and Unreal meet-ups, as well as attending B2B conferences.
"After you meet a certain number of people in the industry, you naturally end up meeting even more whenever you network because they introduce you to their contacts, and so on," Willington explains.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, he also believes networking is still a key part of the gamedev scene, and recommends those new to the industry get involved.
"I'd say it's pretty great for getting your foot through the door, while probably being near to essential for some disciplines," he says. "For production, being able to meet people and connect with them in a genuine and meaningful way is a skill that should be developed and nurtured."
"Game developers are human beings, and a conversation 'about a thing' has weight," Walker adds. "The more you do this, and the more you show your face, coupling all with enthusiasm and energy will inevitably send the right messages to the right people. Attending these types of events are absolutely necessary for sure."
Carrotcake's Durrant came to the South West for university and loved it so much, they never left. Having studied graphic design at UWE – a local university which runs several bespoke games programs through which studios like Ground Shatter have "recruited regularly" – they followed interactive graphics "not dissimilar to game design", using game engines to build their final projects.
After those "artsy and experiential" offerings, Durrant started working on ideas for what would become The Garden Path in late 2017, a relaxing life sim about gardening that has been partly inspired by the green spaces in and around Bristol. The game was successfully Kickstarted the project in 2021.
But even after moving away from the centre of the city scrum in search of their own garden path, Durrant says they're "constantly surprised to find no shortage of artists, composers, developers".
"There's some really interesting small pockets of work all around the South West, I think it would be a mistake to keep focusing attention on city centres," Durrant says. "Don't be afraid to let people know you're in the South West area on your social media, you're in good company."
As most cities outside of the South-Eastern bubble will attest, however, the South West hub isn't without some challenges. Parker says that while other big regional hubs have sprung up around large central studios, such as DMA in Scotland, Bullfrog/EA in Guildford and "everyone in Leamington Spa", the South West scene hasn't necessarily had that same single-studio focus, so it's grown organically over the last fifteen years or so.
"Living in the shadow of animation and high-end natural history television means that sometimes don't benefit from the attention that the other creative/tech fields might enjoy," Parker admits.
But while the South West's gamedev scene may feel less developed than its animation or TV counterparts, the game industry's neater footprint means regional studios don't have so much competition for local grants. That said, most teams here seem to pursue more "traditional" games-funding models, such as courting publishers, investors, and national grants such as the UK Games Fund.
And while yes, it's expensive to live in the lively heart of any city in the South West – particularly Bristol, as many of our interviewees will attest – remote or hybrid working patterns permit some to move towards the outskirts. Plus Bristol's excellent public transport links and close proximity to the M4 means it's just a couple of hours or so from London, with further afield European cities just a stone's throw away courtesy of Bristol's local airport, which is the UK's fourth biggest outside of London.
"Bristol isn't the cheapest place to live, but it could be worse," Durrant says. "I used to do more networking and meetups, but the cost of spaces and drinks made it a hard habit to stick with. Travel, too – the bus timetables are infamous!
"Since COVID, I think a lot of folks, including myself, have been keeping it online. But the ball is starting to roll again. These things take time."
But if you are new to game development – or just new to the South West – it seems that the best way to get ahead is to simply get involved.
"Go to the events: Global Game Jam, the meetups, and so on," Willington suggests. "You'll meet lovely people, have fascinating conversations, and they're folks who can probably answer any question you might have about any games-related subject you care to mention. When you go to networking events, there's always new faces, but you also see a lot of the same folks. There's lots of talented people in the area, but there's never enough."
Walker adds: "Approaching these events with the attitude of 'slipping someone your card' and 'out muscling the competition' isn't the way to go at all, though. Simply attending, showing intrigue and interest in the speakers and games on show is far more valuable."
Perhaps the most enduring takeaway from talking to South West developers is how welcoming the people are, and how keen they are to help each other get on, with Bristol's "cross-stimulation of artforms" making for more interesting games, people, and places to work. As Ground Shatter's Parker so eloquently puts it: "A rising tide lifts all boats!"
Auroch's Walker even goes so far as to suggest that he's "not come across a studio or indie within the South West that crunches" and believes there's a "universal attitude" to eliminate the compulsory (and often uncompensated) overtime practice that sometimes feels endemic across the global industry.
"Crunch only serves to demotivate and drive out talent from the industry – it's not a healthy approach to game development at all," he says.
But perhaps it's indie developer Louis Durrant who best encapsulates for us the thrill of working in the South West.
"I remind myself almost every day how lucky I am to live so close to a city centre and yet also a stone's throw from so many parks and woods. Game development can be a lot of hours, and it's a real boon to be able to step away once in a while, or get lost on a lunch break.
"Prepare yourself for the muck spreading, though. And the water gets cold in the winter!"
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