How can game businesses succeed whilst being located outside of the hub of the capital?
We spoke to Chris Coates, Head of Studio at Team17, Thomas Painçon Operations Director at Ubisoft Reflections, and Paddy Burns CEO of 4J Studios to hear their thoughts and insight into how they built thriving games businesses far away from London and the South East.
Much of the UK games industry, certainly at a publishing level, is centred around London. Every platform holder and major publishers -- plus a variety of other games businesses -- are based in and around the capital, no doubt capitalising on the abundance of transport links as well as the dense population and the talent pool it represents.
But the success of the video games business in the UK stretches across the length and breadth of the country, with plenty of examples of thriving firms that have long established a base far from the capital.
Take, for instance, Team17; the indie publisher and developer is headquartered in Wakefield – some 160 miles from Barclays’ own base in London – with an additional development studio in Manchester and a commercial division in the Midlands. While known by many for the long-running Worms franchise, the company is also responsible for bringing recent hits such as Overcooked, Moving Out, Yooka-Laylee and The Escapists to market.
Head of studio Chris Coates says that while being located in Wakefield has “certainly provided us with challenges” when it comes to hiring, the expansion to Manchester and introduction of flexible working has “definitely helped us to find people.”
“I think the industry as a whole has challenges with certain key or specialist roles as the industry has maybe grown so fast that supply is maybe outweighing the demand and it can become a very competitive market,” he says. “As an industry we need to catch up a little when it comes to schemes like apprenticeships and internships in order to develop those key skills and specialisms, but also as individual companies we need to play up to our own strengths and what we offer.”
“For example, a lot of companies may offer the chance to work on a big AAA game, but it may just be that one game and its sequels, whereas at Team17 we offer the opportunity to work on many, many titles on multiple platforms in almost every genre imaginable. It really depends on what you want to do.”
Thanks to its indie publishing business, the UK-based Team17 has also worked directly with up-and-coming developers from around the world; Moving Out, for example, was created by Australian developer SMG Studio.
“One of our key strengths is that we not only have a huge dedication to our games label partners, but we also are devs at heart and continue to make our own IP and projects internally,” Coates says on how a Wakefield business can attract interest from so far afield. “This allows us to offer up support and co-development to our partners, approach things from a dev perspective as we will be going through the same challenges as they are, and also allows us to develop our skills, technology and ideas that not only benefit our partners but the company as whole too.”
90 miles north of Team17’s HQ, Ubisoft Reflections continues to work on some of the Assassin’s Creed publisher’s biggest blockbusters from its home in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. Originally known for the classic Driver and Destruction Derby series, prior to Ubisoft’s acquisition in 2006, it has since been instrumental in the development of best-selling titles like Watch Dogs Legion, The Division 2, The Crew 2 and multiple Just Dance games.
Thomas Painçon, studio operations director for Ubisoft Reflections and Ubisoft Leamington, says part of the studio’s long-running success has been due to the close relationship it has established with local academia, tapping into the pipeline of skilled graduates that emerge from the area.
“We work closely with local universities in particular to identify really strong talent and often explore outside of the industry to bring in new perspectives and diverse ideas,” he says. “Really growing and nurturing our talent is key and we place a lot of emphasis on carving out pathways for our teams and developing not only core skills but also soft skills and leadership skills to ensure we maintain the well-rounded strength in our teams.” And Reflections doesn’t just source talent locally. The team in Newcastle is now a multicultural one comprising over 28 different nationalities and it continues to attract new recruits from around the world.
“Newcastle offers a competitive cost-of-living and while we try to focus first on our current local talent pool and resources, we also have a fantastic relocation package for our overseas employees, which has been a great advantage in attracting talent on a global scale,” says Painçon.
“The games industry is cool, it’s a viable career, so we are able to connect with young people and help them see where they could fit in. We have a number of mentors across our studio who dedicate their time to inspiring the next generation of developers. While we may not be able to march through the colourful and joyous streets of Newcastle this year as we normally do, together with the EMEA CRC, we have been able to show our commitment to our support of the local LGBTQ+ community by sponsoring Northern Pride’s Life in Lockdown project, which focuses on how the COVID-19 pandemic has altered people’s lives and documents how the LGBTQ+ community has been able to thrive, remain creative and maintain contact throughout.”
Even further north – a full 362 miles from London – lies the Scottish city of Dundee, home to 4J Studios. The youngest of the three studios featured here, having been founded in 2005, 4J is no less successful. Having made a name for itself with ports of titles like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion on PS3 and Xbox 360 remasters of Nintendo 64 classic Banjo-Kazooie and Perfect Dark, the Scottish studio got its big break when it was entrusted with bringing Minecraft to consoles, contributing to the game’s rise as a global phenomenon.
Since then, 4J Studios has set up a second branch in East Linton, just outside Edinburgh, and earlier this year formed investment arm Chroma Ventures. While it still develops and updates content packs, including the recent Star Wars collaboration, the console editions have now been replaced by the Bedrock version developed by Minecraft creator Mojang, leaving 4J to explore new projects.
“We have always powered the games we’ve made with our own in-house game engine technology, and we are continuing to develop this for our own IP projects, as well as trying out the Unreal engine on some of our game ideas,” says CEO Paddy Burns.
“Our 4J Studios games business has had a decade of Minecraft involvement now and 2020 was the biggest year yet in terms of engagement and user numbers, so there's no end in sight for that and long may it continue. That success will, in turn, enable us to invest in games and technology led-businesses over the coming years.”
As with Team17 and Reflections, Burns reports that 4J Studios’ seemingly remote location has not hampered its ability to track the talent it needs.
“Both the Dundee and Edinburgh areas are great places to live and work, and have a good local talent pool, with world-leading universities and colleges, but we also help people relocate if needed,” he says.
The developer has even been investing in new games businesses from the same area, such as Puny Astronaut, a studio formed by graduates of the local Abertay University, one of the most prominent institutions for games education in the world.
All three companies are prime examples of how robust a business one can build far beyond the UK’s capital – and Burns in particular is quick to assert that links to London aren’t as necessary as you might think.
“I wasn’t aware that there was a need for a games business to be based in or around London – it certainly hasn’t affected us,” he says. “I expect that large cities are always a magnet for populations, so are likely to have more of every type of industry than less populated places.” In fact, according to a 2020 report from UKIE, more than 50% of the 50,000 individuals employed in gaming in the UK are based outside London and the South East.
“I think the UK has always been known as a powerhouse for games development, and location within the UK has never been an issue for us and with covid changing the way we work it’s even less important.”
Coates agrees, adding: “Obviously with the current events in the world gaming has provided a real refuge to a lot of people and is arguably bigger than ever. The UK has always been a great hub for gaming with some of the biggest titles known worldwide and some of the largest companies originating from or having studios here. Also, a lot of those success stories have come from outside of the capital, which you can do just by listing some of it’s most famous games – be that our very own Worms, to games like Tomb Raider, Goldeneye, Lemmings, Driver, Forza Horizon, Fall Guys, the LEGO games, or Grand Theft Auto. All these games were made outside of London and a number were made in the Midlands, the North or, in GTA’s case, Scotland.”
“There are often bubbles around the country that grow out of past success stories. Games are more popular than ever and people are wanting to get into games all around the country. Numerous universities such as Teesside, Abertay, Salford or Stafford amongst many others are becoming strong centres for developing our future talent and as companies like Team17, or Sumo start to expand it may also bring in some of the big guns like Ubisoft and EA to the areas where the talent is being developed and where London living costs are not a thing.”
Coates points to the Games Jobs Live Report, an email newsletter for industry professionals offering stats on how many positions are available around the country. In the June edition, there were more open roles available outside London and the South East than within both of them combined.
“Yes, those two areas had the highest as individual locations, but what is interesting is that the Midlands and North West of England combined had more open roles than London,” he continues. “To put even more perspective on that, Leamington Spa in the Midlands – a town with around 70,000 people – had almost half the number of roles that are open in London, which has a population of over nine million. London clearly has a very concentrated network and a large pool of diverse talent from all over the world, but people across the globe want to be in games so companies like ourselves have had great success finding talent all over as the lure of the games industry to a lot of people goes beyond the lure of London.”
Paincon adds: “The North East in particular has been able to foster a technology sector and environment that enables all the tech companies, like us, to benefit from a wider local skilled talent pool in an attractive environment. There is a strong desire amongst the tech industry to collaborate to really highlight the benefits of establishing and growing business in the North East which is supported by organisations such as Newcastle Gateshead Initiative and Dynamo.”
“Newcastle is a friendly and welcoming environment, coupled with a strong university ecosystem, competitive cost of living and a growing arts and cultural scene; the North provides an attractive offering.”
The message then is clear: anyone looking to set up a games business in the UK need only find an area they like, rather than the one they think they need – although Coates adds this can vary depending on how large you expect your business to scale.
“If it’s a small indie dev you could be anywhere,” he concludes, “but for the big companies they will often look at where the talent pool is to fill up and maintain a large studio… you only have to look at Leamington Spa for this where they now have EA, Ubisoft, Microsoft, and Sega. But as companies like ourselves grow, you can see that we, too, are moving into new areas.”
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