Game Republic el presidente Jamie Sefton grants an audience to Richie Shoemaker as Yorkshire’s industry network celebrates 20 years of interdependence.
Here’s a question for you: Do you consider yourself a part of the games industry or the game industry? For most, we’d wager, the plural is the dominant term. It’s a subject that comes up early in our discussion with Jamie Sefton, because, as you can imagine, people often refer to him out of habit as the managing director of Games Republic. We have been equally errant in the past (and have a vexed email from Sefton to prove it), and on the day before our call ITV’s caption writers were guilty of the exact same sin.
“I fucking told them it’s Game Republic,” says Sefton with faux rage. “It’s because they were covering the Yorkshire Games Festival, so it’s obviously a typo… Sloppy local TV! “I can’t complain,” he adds with a smile. “There’s the National Video Game Museum and I’ve called it the National Video Games museum, so I do it myself.”
If you take nothing else from the words that follow, dear game/games industry reader, heed these: It’s Game Republic. Games Republic is something else. Let’s continue shall we.
The reason for our catch-up is because this year is the 20th anniversary since Yorkshire’s preeminent games industry network was founded. Back then Sefton was just establishing himself as the second-in-command on PC Zone magazine (a tough gig given the shoes he had to fill), but by 2008 he’d taken over and then vacated the editor’s chair, moved back home to Saltaire and was ready for a new challenge. Thankfully, one presented itself when a friend pointed out that Game Republic was looking for a new head of state to run local events and provide support for Yorkshire’s gamedev community.
“I just thought ‘God Almighty, that job is just perfect for me’,” recalls Sefton, who realised with dread that he might have to do something he’d not done for years – write a CV. “I hate doing all that stuff. My wife however is brilliant, so she helped me get everything together.”
Inevitably Sefton found himself called for an interview, which, thanks to a list of global contacts built up from a decade of games journalism and no small amount of enthusiasm in spite of it, secured him the job of managing director. By way of a thanks, Sefton bought his friend who’d seen the original job ad a Nintendo Wii. “Because it really did change my life,” he says. “Otherwise I was going to have to freelance from Yorkshire.”
Sefton sank himself into the role immediately; as he characterises it “by giving it a rocket up the backside.” He reached out to contacts and talked them into taking a train north to talk about PR, media and publishing. Another early target was Apple: “The App Store had just started and I just thought I’m just going to harass Apple until we get a meeting with them. Bless him, David Currall, who is no longer with us and was just absolutely lovely, came up to meet our companies and it was transformational.”
Among the studios that brought their games to mobile was York’s Revolution Software, which managed to sell 160,000 copies of the first Broken Sword game during its first year on the App Store, earning the developer ten times the amount from each sale that it enjoyed when the series was shifting more than a million big box copies in the nineties.
“Charles Cecil has basically said that it saved the company and turned their fortunes around,” says Sefton. “That early relationship with Apple was vital for all our companies because 2008, 2009 was a very tricky time. The smaller publishers were falling by the wayside a little bit and it was all being taken over by digital stores and I was right in the middle, helping our companies to get on the App Store and Android as well. It was really nice to help the Yorkshire companies make that change.”
Another contact to receive a call from Game Republic’s eager new force-of-nature was Rupert Loman, then still heading up a pre-ReedPop Gamer Network. With Yorkshire having never hosted a major gaming event, Sefton went down to Brighton to pitch the idea of the Eurogamer Expo – which had debuted in London in 2008 – coming to Leeds in 2009. With Screen Yorkshire pledging to cover the venue costs it was perhaps an easy sell, but also something of a success, with the Leeds event proving to be just as popular as it had been in the capital the previous year. In addition, with the Leeds event preceding a subsequent London event by a few days, Sefton found himself fielding the lion’s share of the media coverage.
“We got the BBC covering it and I was live on GMTV with Ellie Gibson,” he recalls. “We were both bricking it because we were doing live interviews in front of four million people. But the coverage we got was brilliant and it really put the spotlight on the region.” It felt like things were clicking into place: “Really from that moment Game Republic was up and running and we just carried on that momentum. We did some really cool stuff in that first couple of years.”
While it must be tempting to want to act as a kind of gatekeeping organisation for a region like Yorkshire; to be the one that jealousy guards their external contacts and puts on a few events to bring in influential figures from outside, Sefton appears to take his networking role very seriously; not simply to enable social interaction and develop relationships, but to encourage and maintain a Yorkshire-wide support structure, a full spectrum exchange of resources, if you will.
“We share contacts and even equipment,” says Sefton, recalling when, before his time, Game Republic bought a number of PS2 dev kits to share among its members. “In the early days companies that were on downtime would also lend their stuff to other companies who had a project to finish. Things like that are the reason why Game Republic exists, because of the games companies themselves. They set it up to be a louder voice and to access funding and just basically share information and share contacts … and because people are so generous and friendly in the region, it really works. That’s the difference, I think, [versus] other parts of the UK. I’m not saying that other parts of the UK don’t share, but it’s just in our DNA.”
Normally we’d take issue with such sweeping regional stereotypes, but it isn’t simply the case that being a Yorkshire native qualifies Sefton to make them, it’s that he himself has benefitted from the exact same willingness to pull together.
LOWS AND HIGHS
In 2011, Screen Yorkshire announced it would no longer be funding Game Republic due to public funding cuts, which meant Sefton was going to be out of a job. Contemplating a return to game journalism, he was understandably at something of a low point. Once again his wife, Jackie Mulligan – now business partner in Game Republic – saved the day, suggesting that he take Game Republic over. It would mean going to the membership and asking if they’d be willing to keep paying their fees directly to the acquired company rather than Screen Yorkshire as they had been doing. Sefton found that not only did they, some even suggested he raise the subscription fees. He was, he was told, doing too much for too little.
“Which is just ridiculous,” says Sefton, still incredulous a decade later. “I mean, where does that ever happen in other industries, where they say they’re not paying enough! It was that level of support that was so amazing.” With renewed confidence (and income), Sefton brought Yorkshire’s colleges and universities into the Game Republic fold, so that he could broaden support to education and skills as well as game development. It’s an aspect of his work he is particularly proud of, especially the annual Student Showcase, which has become increasingly popular with each passing year.
“We’ve looked back on previous winners and there are hundreds and hundreds that are now in the games industry, working all over the world,” says Sefton, admitting that until this year, he hadn’t taken stock of all that had been achieved. “I had a lad come up to me the other day at the Yorkshire Games festival and he’d been to all our events and is now working at Double Eleven in the northeast. He just came in – it was lovely – and just said ‘Thank you for helping me. I wouldn’t have gotten into Double Eleven without your help.’ … and, you know, it’s those moments that just make it all worthwhile. That’s what makes it such an absolute pleasure to run Game Republic. People in the industry have, since joining, become friends of mine. I’ve been to their weddings. I’ve been to their parties and celebrations. I think that’s the difference. This is part of my life as well as my job. It’s my passion.”
Being synonymous with Game Republic, Sefton is uneasy with the idea of it being held up as a model for other regional games industry networks if the implication is that its success is down to him alone.
“I just do the best job that I can. It’s lovely if people say that, but if people want to join Game Republic, I just say talk to the other members if you need an opinion. Game Republic exists because it has the support of the games companies and the universities and colleges and the affiliates. If it wasn’t needed I wouldn’t do it anymore. I’m not gonna flog a dead horse. But I keep finding year after year that companies and universities and colleges do need our help.”
PUTTING YORKSHIRE ON THE MAP
If you were to ask someone from outside the UK to list the most notable centres of game development excellence, no doubt you’d get the usual places: Guildford if they’re old school; Brighton if they’re hip; Leamington Spa if they like racing games; London if you’ve cornered a tourist by mistake.
We doubt however whether many would mention Leeds, Wakefield or Sheffield as global development hotspots, but being places that Sefton has a singular knowledge of and regard for, it’s something of a mission of his to put such places on the global map.
“There is an amazing breadth of companies in the region doing everything from mobile VR right through to AAA,” he says. “As well as the well established ones like Team17, Sumo, Revolution and Rockstar Leeds, who’ve been in the region for decades, there’s other companies that have that have started to break through, like XR Games, who are doing fantastically well; Just Add Water is still going strong in Leeds and in Sheffield we’ve got some incredible companies like Boneloaf. Leeds’ Red Kite Games recently worked on Hogwarts Legacy, one of the biggest launches this year!”
Sefton has ruled himself out of leading Game Republic towards its 40th anniversary (he’ll be in his seventies) and is pleased to have survived to see its 20th, given the recent challenges of a global pandemic. With Game Dev Days, GaMaYo socials and providing support for members and ongoing collaborations with other regional and national networks, it’s a wonder he’s managed to squeeze in anything other than a celebratory fat rascal, let alone plan extra events. Thankfully, recently announced partnerships with Barclays, Red Kite Games and Escape Technologies mean that Sefton is able to push the boat out a little.
“Having official partners is a big deal for us because it means that we can do more,” such as a 2023 Student Showcase that will bring back previous winners and a graduate panel that will include those that have since thrived at studios around the world. “Then we’ve got our Summer Arcade Party, when we’re having a big birthday party. We’re going to have games on show from the last 20 years of the Yorkshire games industry. Then, in November, we’re gonna have our first awards ceremony, to reward the games companies and individuals in the region that we think are doing fantastic work.”
Naturally Sefton won’t be allowing anyone to nominate him for any awards, but, should there be an one for Outstanding Contribution to the Yorkshire Games Industry in a future where Sefton is no longer its head of state, do keep him in mind. Be sure to spell Game Republic incorrectly in your nomination. He won’t have any cause to complain.