With so much of the video games industry now more accessible than ever – from the availability of game design engines to self-publishing – never before have developers had to adapt so quickly to shifting challenges and opportunities.
From the growth of esports, streaming, and subscription services, to the struggle to recruit – and retain – the best talent in the midst of a pandemic, developers the world over are having to constantly tweak and adjust not just their game development plans, but how they run all aspects of their business, too.
We asked three studios to give us their thoughts on what they think is the cold, hard reality of running a games studio in the UK today.
Skyhook Games may have only recently announced its first new IP, Lawn Mowing Simulator, but it has been in operation for seven years now and employs 18 full-time staff with two main verticals to its business: providing artwork to clients and nurturing its own IPs.
Managing director David Harper says that over that time, the “tools of the trade" have become much more widely accessible to everyone.
"Where once the software could have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, it is now perfectly possible to create a game using free, off the shelf software, to a very high standard," Harper says. "Online training via YouTube and support forums allows anyone with the time to invest to reach a professional level for little cost.
"While some games demand teams in the hundreds, it is also possible to be a one-person army and do everything themselves," he says. "The final games will of course be of different scopes, but someone with a good idea and the determination to work through the challenges has all the tools and support at their disposal to achieve great things."
Ant Workshop director Tony Gowland agrees. He's been developing games for almost 21 years now – even though he'd "never originally intended this as a career!" – and suggests that the previous "walled garden" has now been removed thanks to commercial engines like Unreal and Unity, as well as easier access to online storefronts like Steam.
"Although there are still plenty of hurdles to making a game and getting it in front of its audience, I think it’s much easier now and there’s a much wider variety of things to play," he says.
When it comes to talent selection, Ash Habib – who founded Steel City Interactive just a year ago with "no prior game dev experience" alongside two brothers and a friend – outsources the issue entirely. But even then, he admits he struggles to recruit to technical roles to develop self-published boxing game, Esports Boxing Club.
"We have partnered with recruitment agencies,” he says. “However, some of the more technical roles have been challenging in terms of availability – there does seem to be an industry-wide shortage in specific areas. But he adds that, once they're in the door, staff retention “has not been an issue for us at all.”
Ant Workshop's Gowland, on the other hand, was the only permanent member of staff for the first four "bootstrapped" years in business in Liverpool. The company grew by bringing in the services of freelancers when needed, but now the team targets recruitment differently depending upon what the studio is seeking.
"Our recruitment is generally a mix of word-of-mouth and social media – finding good people can be very time consuming so recommendations are very useful," he says. "We have a pool of regular freelancers that we go to for certain things, and I think we’ve developed a reputation for treating people well. When we’re dealing with individuals, we pay invoices on receipt as I’ve been on the other side of this having to chase folks up for payment and it’s no fun. Because of the blend of internal projects and work-for-hire we do, there’s a big variety of things for folks to work on which I think helps keeps it fresh."
Skyhook Games says it advertises for contractors via "talent searches on LinkedIn and industry specific websites" while full-time positions are generally posted on social media, the studio's website, and "paid industry job boards as well as a select number of agencies.”
"We have a [Customer Relationship Manager] funnel that then captures all candidates and manages them for review," Harper explains. "This is an invaluable resource that allows us to quickly scale up to meet clients’ needs.
"I rely heavily on demonstrable skills and a ‘can-do attitude,’ not qualifications. While we have hired people with good degrees, every single one of them also demonstrated to me what they could do outside of that environment in their own time and an enthusiasm for their discipline. That’s what stands out to me."
Flexibility and the ability to juggle hats may also be necessary for even the most senior roles, too.
"As with any self-funded start-up, resources were limited so I had to do many tasks and wear many hats without impacting results, so my role of CEO covered everything from dealing with all the licenses, to studio facilities, HR, finance and marketing, whilst also being the creative lead on the title," Habib says. "So I’ve been pretty busy over the last 18 months."
But while innovations in game engines have broadly been accepted as a positive step, especially for start-up and indie studios, what do our respondents think about subscription services like PS Plus and Xbox Game Pass?
"I’m a big fan of Xbox Game Pass – it’s something I’ve used as a gamer since its inception," says Steel City Interactive's Habib. "I’m sure it’s also appealing to game studios in getting their games out to markets that they perhaps weren’t focused on."
Skyhook Games' managing director, Harper, agrees – at least from a "player's perspective" – and suggests it's "arguably one of [Microsoft's] most powerful selling points". Ant Workshop's Gowland, however, is a little more cautious, and while he acknowledges they're "excellent value for money for players,” there may be downsides.
"I think they’re broadly a good thing for developers as players who are subscribed to these are playing a wider variety of titles that they may never have considered before," he says. "There is a slight worry that they make it harder to sell games outside of the services – the argument is that if a player is already paying £10 a month for access to hundreds of free games, why would they spend £20 on yours – but I think this is just another shift in where the difficulty is in selling a game.
"It used to be that consoles were inaccessible to indies; then they were accessible and it was hard to get your game seen because the store is flooded; now it’s about getting your games on streaming services. The industry shifts and adapts a lot."
On a similar note, Habib suggests that while livestreaming – another relatively recent development in the long-running industry – is "great for studios", it can also be a “risk for start-ups.” Skyhook's Harper, on the other hand, opines that "there is no point bemoaning Twitch in a Luddite display of angst at new ways of doing things – it's just the next logical evolution of the medium.”
"Whatever your view, more and more people get their gaming news via streaming services such as Twitch and YouTube," Harper argues. "While review websites still have their place, and even traditional print media clings on with a few long-serving bastions, people want to find out about new games by watching someone they can relate to playing the actual game."
Gowland also speaks positively about the impact of streaming, suggesting it has "helped plenty of games, big and small, with their discovery,” and "even spawned some interesting interaction and possibilities between streamers and their audiences.” For instance, Ant Workshop's previous title – Ghostbusters-style action game Dead End Job – allowed audiences to choose power ups for the streamer.
But there are other realities of running a games business these developers want to advise their fellow game makers about. Harper says you should first and foremost take care with your spending, as "nothing will put you out of business quicker than running out of cash, so be mindful of where every pound is being spent.”
"It may not be the most glamorous aspect for many people, but having good financial records and a forecast as far out as you can manage will stand you in good stead," he says.
Steel City Interactive's Habib adds: "Never put anything out unless you’re 110% happy with the content – regardless of any pressure that may be coming from fans or partners."
Ant Workshop’s Gowland concludes: "There are two types of people: those who are motivated towards success, and those who are motivated away from failure – and you need both in equal measure. Without the former you will never shoot for risky 'big ideas', but you need the latter to look out for the 'what ifs' and make sure you’re not heading down blind alleys.”
"It’s an emotional rollercoaster, and you need to have a strong network of support outside of the company – whether that’s friends, family, your partner, or peers. Just people you can relax and be honest around."
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