There’s life in the UK games industry outside London. This was the headline of Kathryn Penny’s recent MCV piece, highlighting her work as director of the Yorkshire Games Festival and fiercely defending that, yes, there’s more to the UK games industry than just London.
And this is certainly a statement that many north of Yorkshire will agree with too.
That’s precisely why we decided to head north for our first regional spotlight – North East more exactly.
From triple-A to indies, the region is a tight knit cluster of talented games studios: Ubisoft Reflections, Coatsink, Double Eleven, Hammerhead, Sumo Digital, High Tea Frog, Pocket Money Games, Atomhawk, People Can Fly, Cardboard Sword, Coconut Lizard, Fox Byte Games and many many more.
And there’s a reason for that – or rather many reasons as David Pattison tells us. He’s inward investment manager at Invest North East England which, as the name gives away, supports investment and relocation into the region.
“There really are so many answers to this question,” he says when we ask about the benefits of being based in North East England. “But for the games sector, in a nutshell, I’d say it’s the strength of the cluster, with over 50 specialist gaming companies here including a significant cluster of immersive technology businesses. Supporting that is the availability of skilled employees and the five North East Universities, who between them offer 90 bespoke courses for the gaming sector and 51,000 students studying STEM subjects. We’re also a very cost competitive location in terms of talent and property, with some world class facilities including the UK’s first industry-led centre of excellence for VR and AR – Proto.”
Remember this name, as we’ll come back to it later. But before that, Pattison adds that another great asset for the region is how symbiotic the industry is: “One thing that we perhaps don’t shout about enough is the supportive ecosystem that exists here, involving the public and private sector, which can’t be underestimated. The North East’s can do attitude and hard working mentality are very much behind our shared success in this area, with everyone supporting each other.
“…Over 50 companies, five universities, 51,000 STEM students…”
“Finally, the excellent quality of life and connectivity that the North East offers is very important. There aren’t many places that offer the balance of city life, surfing beaches and countryside on their doorstep, and within short distance of an award winning international airport and mainline train station.”
The North East’s quality of life is a recurring topic among our respondents, as John Nejady points out – now producer at Coconut Lizard, he has a wealth of experience in the North East, having worked at the likes of Ubisoft Reflections, CCP and Sumo Digital.
“The lifestyle bonuses that are intrinsic to the North East are amplified by working in games,” he says. “Property prices, rent and the general cost of living is lower so you get more bang for your buck. The population is less dense, so you don’t have to endure anything like the London Underground at any stage, but we still have a lot of the culture, entertainment and appeal that you’d get in other, larger and more expensive cities. Also, because some companies are working on projects high profile enough to attract talent globally, the pay can also be competitive on a global scale. I was born and raised here but have worked around the world in another industry. I have chosen to settle here rather than any of those other places.”
Chris Goodyear is creative director at Many Cats Studios – this community interest company (a government-recognised social enterprise) provides employment and training opportunities for people living with disabilities or learning difficulties, hoping to develop games with a better representation of disability issues. And he had a very good reason to choose the North East.
“It was important for me to challenge the concept that you can only do well in the industry if you live in London. The North East has a high level of people living with disabilities which meant that I could have the most social impact encouraging more disabled people to get into games here,” he explains.
“The amount of charities and groups supporting those with disabilities and learning difficulties is high in the North East and they are embracing the games industry and working with me due to the popularity of games in disabled communities. The North East also has an amazing mix of communities that rivals even London, which means there is every chance to improve diversity in your company.”
MADE IN THE NORTH EAST
If that wasn’t enough to convince you that the North East is a great place to be (and work), then now is the right time to come back to Proto.
It was mentioned left, right and center by everyone we talked to, as it’s rapidly become an essential asset for the games industry in the region, especially for indies. The £8m research and development facility, which opened in September 2018, is at the forefront of immersive tech.
Artist and director Laura Millar recently moved into the Proto building, located in Gateshead’s Baltic Quarter, with her studio High Tea Frog.
“We have access to mocap recording, photogrammetry, an audio booth and all the hardware we could ever want, even VR headsets,” she enthuses. “As a small company we never dreamt of having access to this kind of tech, and it’s such a great opportunity to learn how to use all that cool stuff.”
She continues: “The North East is home to loads of great games companies. In our early days we relied on the local network to help us get certain hard to come by dev kits. People outside the industry might assume indie developers are in competition with each other, but up here it’s far from the case – it’s a great atmosphere of skill sharing and helping everyone out. We recently signed a publishing deal with Coatsink who are based nearby, in Sunderland too – they’re helping us make Cake Bash even better, so we’re a big fan of the locals!”
Sophie Smart, producer at said Coatsink, details the reasons why the North East has embraced immersive tech at such a high level.
“When you are a small company just starting out you have to find a unique selling point,” she explains. “As the North East’s tech sector was starting to grow, the first rumblings of VR and immersive tech started to happen. With so many grants to help companies try immersive tech it was a no brainer to explore it, and many companies have reaped the benefits. As a result, VRTGO/XRTGO, an immersive tech community hub, was setup with an annual exhibition and show, which brings in people from all over the country.”
Owen O’Brien, studio director at Sumo Digital Newcastle (formerly CCP Newcastle), echoes Smart’s explanation: “There’s definitely a pioneering spirit to the studios currently embracing this tech, partly due to the less established markets and more indie style approach to creating experiences. Maybe that resonates with the North East attitude to spot potential opportunities and get in there before it becomes too mainstream.”
Olly Bennett, CEO at indie studio Cardboard Sword, adds: “There’s a real drive to push digital here. A lot of the old industries are all but dead, so councils are looking at what jobs can replace them for the new generations. Government and EU funding helped massively with these regions’ digital growth spurts, and that’s attracted very talented developers to start up companies here. Both were growing at the same time, so it made sense that many of them would embrace VR and the immersive tech sector.”
Natalie Wicks, player engagement and content creator at Middlesbrough-based Double Eleven, tells us more about what the funding Bennet is referring to has done for them: “In the Tees Valley, we’ve got a strong and well established tech cluster called the Boho Zone, which is about to celebrate its ten year anniversary. It was part-funded by EU investment funds and local government as a way of offering very high quality workspace for digital companies.
“There’s a pioneering spirit to the studios currently embracing immersive tech.”
“The Boho Zone project is due to grow even bigger, with Boho Next Generation in the works, which will offer an additional 60,000 square feet of office space, making room for another 1,000 tech jobs. In our building alone, we’ve personally worked with digital marketing agencies, web developers and filmmakers on various projects.”
What Pattison calls the North East’s “rich heritage of innovation” is also what makes it such an attractive place for indies, as detailed by Fox Byte Games’ CEO Aaron Preece, located in Teesside: “There are a lot of indie studios here. In the building we’re based in there are three indie studios at present. Across Middlesbrough that number increases, and looking towards Newcastle there are even more. These studios are all working on different projects, from their own IP to amazing contract work for non-games organisations. Gamification projects for people like the NHS are growing in popularity and offer games studios a chance to show the power of video games to people that wouldn’t usually be involved in games.”
Many Cats’ Goodyear adds that “the North East embraces the entrepreneurial spirit of small studios. There is a lot of indie devs in the community that support each other. There is a real pride in having something ‘Made in the North East’.”
MORE AND BETTER JOBS
Being a booming region for games and tech comes with three challenges though: keeping the new skilled talent local, attracting people from outside the area and staff retention.
For the first one, there are universities aplenty, which means there’s a lot of opportunity for internship programmes, as Sumo Digital’s O’Brien explains.
“We have developed very close relationships with the local educational establishments so we try and scoop up the best talent and keep them in the region,” he says. “We run an intern programme and a very high percentage of our interns are offered full time jobs. For more experienced developers we find that people tend to stay in the region. A high proportion of our new hires are from recommendations from current employees.”
Coatsink’s Smart confirms the invaluable link between universities and games industry companies: “There are so many universities in the North East that have specialist courses in games development. Coatsink works very closely with these universities, hiring their best talent and taking on interns and placement students. A large percentage of our staff attended the likes of Teesside, Newcastle or Northumbria University. We recognise that these institutions are working incredibly hard to push out talent which is ready to work in the industry and we are never disappointed with the dedication and new ways of thinking these individuals bring to Coatsink.”
She adds: “We really care about taking care of our employees, and with that friendlier rapport we are able to work together to keep crunch to a minimum and really enjoy a good work/life balance which in turn keeps people at Coatsink for longer.”
At Double Eleven, the collaboration with universities goes as far as “providing guidance to education providers on their specific course content and syllabuses,” Wicks says. The studio also offers paid work placements for students, which can lead to full time employment. “For senior staff, we focus on offering job security, meaningful work and advancement opportunities, and are working on increasing awareness about the industry in the wider community,” she continues.
Fox Byte’s Preece also highlights opportunities that show young, local talent that the industry is a viable career path: “There are businesses, such as RAW Digital Training, that send professionals from various tech fields, including games, to run courses for college-level students, teaching them skills they can then use to learn more about the tech industry and the roles available.
“Fox Byte Games often works with students from Teesside University either as playtesters or just offering support and advice on the places and companies in the area they can go to, when looking for work.
“Launchpad, Teesside University’s department to support postgraduate students starting out in business – especially in tech – is also a Tranzfuser hub. Tranzfuser is a UK Games Fund offshoot for graduate games start-ups, a competition that provides studios with a bit of funding and exhibition space at EGX. At the end of the competition the companies are able to pitch for further funding that can be used to help get the studios first game to launch.”
As far as attracting people to the region goes, Invest North East England’s Pattison points out that, similarly to retaining talent, the significant cluster of innovative employers in the region is vital to providing careers at all levels: “There are a range of partners in the region all working to ensure that the North East LEP’s Strategic Economic Plan to create ‘more and better jobs’ is achieved, which will in turn ensure that talent is attracted to the North East and offer those who have perhaps moved elsewhere in the past an opportunity to return for an excellent quality of life, while also furthering their career.”
Double Eleven’s Wicks adds that they’re working on “outreach with global universities as well as recruiters,” adding: “Where it’s feasible, we like to bring prospective employees into the office for a visit. By showing people around and introducing them to the area, you get the opportunity to fall in love with the region since there is so much to like.”
THE $1BN RIVER TYNE
This doesn’t mean that everything is perfect in North East England, as there are some downsides to consider.
Tim Wilson, managing director at Atomhawk, having first and foremost mentioned the “high quality of life” in the region as well as its “high pedigree in design and video game development,” adds with regret: “The region isn’t as instantly recognisable as the likes of London, Manchester or major foreign cities. So there’s always a bit of a sales job involved when talking to non-North East candidates who we’re trying to attract to join our team in Gateshead. However, once they arrive, they’re very happy with their decision to join and we have several employees from overseas who have stayed to work with us for many years!”
Lucy Kyriakidou, a veteran freelance 2D artist and animator based in Newcastle, adds: “With more and more big industry events happening in London, it becomes hard to attend many of them and on a regular basis. Planning to go also means accounting for the long travel and high costs but these usually balance out with the low living costs in the area. In terms of jobs, the North East is still growing, so opportunities are more limited. Since the biggest number of local studios are small indies, these opportunities are even fewer for more experienced talent who are looking for a role and pay that corresponds to this experience.”
Finally, Coconut Lizard’s Nejady paints a grim portrait of the impact the unjust reputation of the region has: “I think the biggest downside of being based here is probably the stigma attached to ‘The North East’. On a personal level that belief is absolutely fine by me, because I know that for the most part it’s a fallacy; an intangible fantasy borne of perceptual bias which people are more than welcome to have, because that means they won’t come and crowd up the place for us.
“On a professional level, however, that stigma is problematic in that it can make people not want to visit, let alone interview for a job here. People still see the North East as some parochial wildland where the outlook is bleak and the people downtrodden. An old boss of mine moved to Newcastle from Cambridge. Upon hearing of the planned move a friend asked him: ‘How could you do that to your kids?! They’ll never be able to find a job!’. There are plenty of thriving industries up here, and in my career I’ve worked on eight games that have generated over $1bn dollars in revenue – from desks that were never more than half a mile away from the River Tyne.”
By now you surely have understood that the games industry in the North East is a tight knit community where mutual assistance is second nature.
To further that aspect even more, local meetups and knowledge-sharing events are thriving, as Invest North East England’s Pattison explains: “We’re blessed with a fantastic support ecosystem in the region. You’re never far from an event or meetup. Whether it be over a coffee at one of the regions specialist innovation hubs such as Proto, or at an arranged event, such as those organised by Digital Union, Dynamo or Sunderland Software City, there are countless opportunities to meet and collaborate.”
Pocket Money Games’ lead designer and producer Jonathon Wilson is behind some of these events that help keep the community together.
“There is a strong sense of community in the North East and it’s great to see it continuing to grow,” he says.
“In Newcastle, there is a monthly game dev meet that runs on the first Friday of every month which is run by myself and [Pocket Money Games CEO] Frankie Cavanagh. This is a really chilled event where people can come and unwind after work. We have been running the event for almost two years now and we still get to see new people showing up, which is great as it means the community is growing.
“There is also a Unity User group set up here which sees developers come together to share knowledge and learn about the latest Unity features and development techniques. Game Bridge is another meet-up run in Middlesbrough which also helps bring the community together. Teesside University also runs Animex every year which brings a lot of people from outside the region to the area. As you can see there is a lot going on here and that’s not all – new events and communities are cropping up all the time.”
One of the newest additions to this roster of meetups is Women Making Games NE, “to support and promote the talented women in the area,” Lucy Kyriakidou says, before adding: “We have already had some relaxed events and are planning more, some on a regular basis and some focusing on game creation and skill sharing.”
“There’s a tangible feeling that the tech sector is really important to the North East.”
Coatsink’s Smart continues: “[Women Making Games NE] has been great with a whole host of different events from dinners out, crazy golf and even visits to the local dog café. It’s been wonderful to have the opportunity to go along to events with other women to help socialise, have fun and elevate each others’ careers.”
And the list of networking opportunities doesn’t stop here, as Jonathon Wilson explains: “As the development community has grown, Gateshead council and Proto have been very supportive working with local companies to help establish Nova [the official games collective for the North East of England], to help champion the great games and ideas that come out of the region. It’s bringing everyone together and linking designers, developers, gamers and studios through meet-ups, conferences, podcasts and online support. It’s still early days for Nova but it already has the support of a lot of local companies including Pocket Money Games, Hammerhead, Sumo Digital, Atomhawk, High Tea Frog and People Can Fly. These companies make up Nova’s steering group which is focused on bringing new gaming-focused events to the area.”
The first one will be the Nova Game Conference, created “by developers for developers,” which will take place on June 27-28th.
A BLOSSOMING TREE
These thriving hubs and fantastic meetup opportunities have been years in the making, with some studios having spent over a decade in the region. They can testify to its wonderful evolution – despite what mainstream media wants you to believe. That includes Double Eleven, founded in 2009, with Wicks saying that “everything is growing.” She continues: “While the narrative of the region’s past economic downturn has been popularised in the media, the reality is that the sector feels invigorated, with major projects such as Boho Next Gen, increased infrastructure spending and the near constant arrival of new and better equipped companies. There’s a tangible feeling that the tech sector is really important to the North East, and especially here in the Tees Valley. We’ve grown from around 25 direct employees in 2017 to now over 70, and we see other companies growing on similar trajectories.”
Atomhawk was also established in 2009, with Wilson explaining: “Atomhawk was founded out of the ashes of Midway, and many other studios have risen from the same group of developers. The community has remained buoyant and now has offices for major developers as well as fantastic indie studios.”
Sophie Smart confirms that the region has drastically changed in recent years, echoing Wilson’s story: “Since Coatsink was founded ten years ago, the community here in the North East has changed hugely. Midway Studios had just closed down and Eutechnyx and Reflections were the major companies in the area when Coatsink was first founded.
“Over time more support has become available and the community has widened with more diversity in both people and games that they are working on.”
It sounds like the future is bright for North East England, with the games industry looking all set to live there happily ever after.
“I’ve seen an evolution in games courses to adapt to the changing industry, and seen and been a part of community growth across the region, as networks and events establish,” Cardboard Sword’s Bennett concludes. “There have been some indies that have survived, some that have not, some companies that have had rocky patches, but that now see great growth, and some big companies moving to the region or taking over from others. In my nine years here, it feels like the games industry has really buried its roots, and now we’re starting to see it flower.”