Well, the inevitable has happened and by the time you’re reading this I’ll have travelled 250 miles to start the next phase of game development career in Guildford, the hub of game development in the UK. This prompted me to reflect on how things have gone over the last few years and what advice I can give.
Why do I think that migrating to a game development hub is inevitable? Because you cannot makes games in a vacuum and both your career and your business need talent to feed on or you will starve.
(BTW pretty much all of my posts are scheduled, but don’t tell anyone)
I have long supported game development throughout the whole of the UK and Europe along with it’s self-sufficient pockets but ultimately the larger your studio becomes or the further your career progresses the more you need to have access to talented people and lots of options.
Long, long ago
I cut my teeth in the video games industry around Sheffield, South Yorkshire, UK. In the late 1980s there was of companies to choose from and lots of people wanting to get into game development. I worked for 5 companies in the area, all with varying degrees of success but we all indirectly relied on the mighty Gremlin Graphics (later to become Infrogrames) to underpin the area. People went in, people came out, they trained people and we trained developers for them. It was a symbiotic relationship that was replicated throughout the UK. We needed each other.
These hubs of game development exist and can attract developers and talent from far and wide, after all if things don’t work out then there’s plenty of other opportunities. Both as a developer looking to work on great games and also as a studio looking for talent. The cream slowly floats to the top and the detritus sink to the bottom and eventually leave.
These symbiotic collections of game development studios and talent are carefully balanced micro-climates and it only takes one thing to go wrong and the whole thing implodes leaving people reeling and trying to make amends.
The collateral effect of this implosion is often a collection of small studios all competing against each other for a dwindling talent pool as the developers leaving seek stability. Some stay behind but new talent is hard to attract, experts are expensive and you need quite a big studio in order to fund this kind of beast, which is beyond the reach of many small studios unless those experts are the ones setting up the studios.
As a developer, it becomes a high risk strategy to relocate yourself into such a dwindling zone for a single job with no alternatives should it not go quite as you, your employer or your staff imagine. This becomes even tougher if you have family in tow.
Regional Development is Key
For this reason, I had many meetings with the Yorkshire and Humberside Regional Development agency to try to encourage them to stop promoting individual companies and to nurture the region. At the time, they were wandering off to E3, GDC and pretty much everywhere saying “Come and work for Company A”, “Why do you graduates come and work for Company B”. Why would anyone? We’re not stupid and we want to be making games for a long time, not just until this bubble bursts and we have to relocate, again.
Far, far away
I am aware that there are some developers who struggle because of their isolation, I have talked to them, been asked by friends about going to work for them and considered them to do business with when I was looking for games to develop. This is primarily a concern for publishers looking to commission games with developers who need to expand as this only makes sense if they can get talent.
You cannot ignore this isolation and the distances involved in connecting with the hubs as it can be a blocking issue. The prize has to be very special to warrant the personal investment in both sides.
Here’s a choice if you were commissioning a game: a) Developer A - easy to get to, has ability to tap talent to expand and game is “sure-fire hit”. b) Developer B - 6 hour one-way journey door-to-door, only “local” people work there, game is “amazing”
Which one would you choose?
Sticky Bad People
There is of course another aspect to this where lack of local options can cause bad people to hang around rather than move on. They start out great but soon they get bored, stagnate, begin to rot and become entrenched in a “job” doing “work” because they now need money to pay the mortgage and they can’t get a job anywhere else. Employment law makes them nearly impossible to remove so you have to be vigilant and pro-actively fix this before it becomes a problem.
Thankfully, there are still a few pockets that are thriving and have proper regional development with protection of their micro-climate and these remain good pockets to aim for: North East UK and South East UK are the hubs right now with the strongest pool being Guildford. Bullfrog, then Electronic Arts was the fuel that the Guildford development community burned to get itself into orbit as a regional star.
From personal experience, sadly my home region is now dead. There’s pretty much 1 developer there now and if you don’t want to work for them then it’s a 1hr trip to the nearest one. This makes it pretty much impossible to choose a nice stable location to setup.
Where should you be?
As a startup business, once you get your game up and running and you start to need more talent to progress you obviously need to be somewhere where there is an existing pool of talent you can tap into. Then the only risk for your staff is the project, not what there future prospects are if you don’t make it.
Think: “If I need 10 people, why would they come and work here?”
As your personal career progresses, you’re likely to want to settle down and to do this you need options so you can keep fresh and hopefully mitigate the threat of redundancy without the need to uproot your life and move somewhere far away. Therefore, settling into a hub seems the right choice.
Non-UK developers - Is this an international phenomenon?
I can only really share my observations of the UK industry but what do you guys think of this internationally?
I assume that the fact that most major publishers and platform holders have their offices in the UK or USA must affect you?
I’ve watched many developers and people make the wrong decisions they need to make to maximise their potential. I hope this post gives you a broader view on the nature of choosing your physical location within the games industry and the impact it has.
Let me know how you feel about this too.