Wed, May 15, 2013 | 13:55 BST
Wales: the UK games industry’s forgotten fourth quarter
Wales has struggled for recognition as a viable option for games developers, but Ray Willmott finds passion and funding are pointing to a bright future for the country’s industry.
“If you go to events like Develop, GameCity or London indie meet ups, you run into a lot of the same developers and journalists. That kind of networking is really valuable. It is starting to happen in Cardiff, but South Wales just doesn’t have the profile at the moment.”
On the outskirts of Cardiff, from the comfort of his own home, Ian Thomas has been quietly coding key features and story systems for many AAA titles away from the rest of the world. Communicating with other members of his team through Skype and the occasional commute, Ian is one of the most established game developers in the country.
Ian currently works for Double Elven and most recently worked on Little Big Planet for Playstation Vita. Prior to that he worked with Traveller’s Tales and, up next, Ian and his team will be responsible for the ports of Frozen Synapse and Limbo, also on Vita.
It’s not often you hear of major developers being based out of Cardiff. Most have uprooted and moved around the country to bigger things. Ian was of the same mind for a long time.
“I’ve believed for years that there’s not much of an industry here, but that there was the potential for there to be one, given what’s happened in places like Dundee and the north of England,” he says.
“I’ve always been frustrated at having to commute long distances or work remotely to have a chance to chat with other developers.”
Wondering if he truly was alone, it occurred to Ian that he should at least attempt to find out.
“At the beginning of 2012, I started talking to interested parties, to find out who was working in the field and what everyone was up to. As we talked it quickly became apparent that there is a games industry here; it just suffers from the perennial issue of lack of communication. There are a handful of small companies, a fair few one-man bands, and universities running a number of courses. Many of these people didn’t know about each other and, like me, thought they were working in a vacuum.
“After a couple of chance discussions with others who felt the same, I decided to set something social up, and it’s all grown from that.”
From a few drinks in a local bar, to presentations on how to ‘write for video games’ by Andy Walsh, as well as support from BAFTA Cymru, Ian’s social experiment has helped set the foundations for a united gaming front in South Wales. The Game Dev South Wales events have allowed networking to flourish and even been a catalyst for a Welsh Games Development show.
But what does all of this mean in terms of evolving the development space?
“Growing a lively games scene partly comes down to the belief that there is a local games scene, and that’s really what we’re trying to address. It encourages students to stay here after university, it encourages local clients to search for local companies rather than to immediately go elsewhere, it encourages government to look at provisions that the industry needs to grow.”
Small development teams such as Angry Mango have already set up shop in South Wales, had a title published by Microsoft for Windows Phone 7 and even been nominated for a TIGA award. As they progress and develop as a team, however, they are starting to see the drawbacks of working remotely and having the necessary experience to create bigger and better games.
Kate Killick, lead artist at Angry Mango is especially concerned by how much Wales is cut off from the rest of the UK games industry.
“If you go to events like Develop, GameCity or London indie meet ups, you run into a lot of the same developers and journalists. That kind of networking is really valuable. It is starting to happen in Cardiff, but South Wales just doesn’t have the profile at the moment.
“Wales is attractive for start-ups and small teams because of the financial and business support that’s available. It doesn’t make sense when you’re starting out and living on the bare minimum to go to London. It costs twice as much and doesn’t have the commitment to nurturing start-ups that Wales currently has.”
While Kate is enthusiastic about potential expansion in Wales, she’s concerned that things aren’t developing quickly enough for Angry Mango, and remaining in Cardiff long-term may not be a viable option.
“Our team has been working remotely since graduating, and we are all keen to have a physical office to work in. It’s just tough when it feels like a trade-off between the financial benefits and my personal preference for staying in Cardiff and the opportunity to regularly connect with the wider community that London could offer.”
Unfortunately, Dr Mike Reddy, a local senior lecturer in the Department of Computing at the University of South Wales, is fearful the development stage is still a long way off, and meanwhile Wales will continue to lose fantastic talent. Many of his students from the degree level Games and AI, saw students graduate and work at Rebellion, Angry Mango and Dark Rock Games.
The course has been crucially important for the video games industry, but sadly wasn’t seen as a priority for the Welsh Government back in 2011. The University claims between 35-71% of graduates from the course found relevant industry jobs each year, but the course was forcibly cut due to political and financial strains.
Despite the incredible work Dr Reddy has done for the industry, his future working life as a lecturer is in jeopardy, yet his passion for the role is far from diminished.
Wales will be the first to benefit from fibre-based broadband by 2015 and transfer speeds that will be open to 96% of Welsh businesses ahead of anywhere else in the UK. The Welsh Government’s involvement has afforded big results.
“Teaching games development is difficult in this day and age,” he says. “There’s so much opportunity available, so I allow my students complete freedom in the classroom. They are given free rein to develop for the platform of their choice and I will support them with guidance and counselling. Some develop for PC, some on Mobile, others on Vita, but all of them have a common aim to produce worthwhile, engaging projects. I’m blessed to work in such a unique environment.’
Fortunately, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.
Iain Tweedsdale is a leading figure for Welsh games development at the BBC, and in addition to working on the Doctor Who Adventures, his team are also focusing on big brands under the CBBC umbrella.
During my visit to his studio in Llandaff, Iain told me there is a great deal of funding in place to help support games development in Wales and the BBC are hoping to work closely with independents and freelancers in the future. BBC Wales is keen to commission multi-platform productions where new media content is essential for the production.
The BBC also allows people to retain their intellectual property. For instance, creating a game around Rastamouse would be down to Michael De Souza and Genevieve Webster, rather than the BBC, as they own the character. This is one of the major benefits of creating intellectual property in the UK and it being published and transmitted by the BBC.
Learning from previous mistakes, the Welsh Government is also closely working alongside the BBC, pledging a great deal of finance and attention to games development in South Wales.
Within the Welsh Government is a specialist team, supported by an external advisory panel of experienced professionals from the creative industries. The Welsh Government is actively working with educational institutions to provide skills required by businesses in the coming years. This will be especially important as Wales will be the first to benefit from fibre-based broadband by 2015 and transfer speeds that will be open to 96% of Welsh businesses ahead of anywhere else in the UK.
The Welsh Government’s involvement has afforded big results.
A £50,000 match funding for digital product and service development for businesses in the creative industries sector from the Digital Development Fund, including the games industry, has been commissioned. Cardiff-based Dakko Dakko Games are the first major recipient of this. The studio has been given official games developer status for Nintendo and is currently developing a Wii U exclusive title entitled Scram Kitty and his Buddy on Rails, due for release later this year.
S4C has also entered into a partnership with Wales Interactive to publish e-books with gaming content. The Millennium Centre will again host the Wales Game Developer Show on June 26, and BAFTA Cymru will be presenting the inaugural BAFTA Cymru Games Awards this year.
Ian’s small group has helped put the right people together in a short space of time, and kickstarted a very promising gaming future for Wales.
“People are starting to realise that South Wales can do games, and that’s important.”
With the next-generation of systems looming on the horizon, there’s never been a better time for that level of recognition.
Interested in networking with Games Dev South Wales? Visit the website here. You can also find out how to submit your game for BAFTA Cymru consideration here. And for further information on the Wales Games Development Show, go here.