How Yorkshire’s video games industry giants are making waves on global stage

Jamie Sefton
Jamie Sefton
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Video games development is a fairly nascent industry in comparison with many others, but Yorkshire is already establishing itself in the sector’s history books.

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You need only look as far as the London Stock Exchange to see developers such as Wakefield-based Team 17 and Sheffield-based Sumo Digital leading the charge in the sector.

Leeds is in the top three when it comes to leading gaming industries, according to the UK Digital Technology Census from The Data City.

So why is Yorkshire at the forefront of the video game revolution? To understand the reason you need to rewind more than three decades.

During the home computer boom of the 1980s a lot of video games developers started out in the region. In fact, many of the mature businesses that are thriving today can trace their roots back to the age of Sinclair and Commodore Amiga computers.

“We had companies in the region back then that have morphed into the companies that we see today,” says Jamie Sefton, managing director of northern games industry network Game Republic.

“We had Gremlin Graphics in Sheffield, making games in the early 80s. Now some of the people that were involved in Gremlin Graphics are now involved in Sumo Digital, which is one of the biggest independent games companies in the UK. They’re still based in Sheffield – 30 years on they’re still making games. The same goes for Team 17; they were set up as 17-bit software in the late 80s, making games for Amiga and they’re now one of our biggest companies in the region.”

Sumo Group, which develops games for Microsoft, Sega and Sony, recently said it continues to create “strong demand” for its services and has just announced plans to increase its staff by 15 per cent over the next 12 months.

The company currently employs 650 staff across nine studios in the UK, India and Canada.

The new jobs will be at Sumo Digital’s City Studios, The Chinese Room, Red Kite Games and Atomhawk by mid-2020.

Team 17 in June said a strong performance from new games had boosted trading in the first half and both earnings and revenue would be ahead of market expectations.

The firm, which is now a truly global developer, launched a number of new titles, including the multi-platform release of My Time at Portia, along with Hell Let Loose.

It’s not just new titles that are boosting developers. The launch of online stores that enable players to download games have helped increase the shelf-life of games.

“These are all bringing in new and interesting ways for companies to make money from their back catalogues,” Mr Sefton says.

Google is in the process of launching its ‘Stadia’ platform, which will allow users to stream games across multiple platforms. Streaming will present its own challenges for developers, according to Mr Sefton.

“We have to make sure that we learn from the issues that came up from streaming for the music industry,” he says.

Video game developers in Yorkshire also have a more collaborative approach to working, adds Mr Sefton.

“Companies really talk to each other, they really help each other, they outsource work to each other and that was part of the reason why Game Republic was set up,” he adds.

Game Republic was created as a network to give the region’s video game industry a louder voice.

One of the biggest challenges for the video games industry is access to talent.

The Independent Game Developers’ Association (TIGA) found in its 2018-19 Business Opinion Survey that 77 per cent of respondents planned to grow their organisation’s workforce over the course of 2019.

However, skills gaps or shortages remained a key obstacle, with 30 per cent identifying the issue as a problem within their business. “We speak to some of the companies that are fast growing and they always say they could employ 10-15 more people tomorrow; they just haven’t got access to the talent that they need,” Mr Sefton says.

Universities and colleges in the region are answering the call of developers and looking to forge closer ties with the industry.

Game Republic, which also has a remit of bringing academia and business closer together, now has 12 universities and colleges as part of its network.

“There’s always more that can be done,” says Mr Sefton. “It’s very much a two-way process. This is about universities and industry working together to solve the issues they’ve got.

“There are some really good examples of universities working with industry. Sheffield Hallam has a really good relationship with Sumo.”

The UK video games market grew 12.4 per cent in 2017 to a record £5.11bn, according to industry trade body Ukie.

Another issue for the sector is a lack of diversity. Although Mr Sefton believes the situation is improving, again he says there is more still to be done. “We need more diversity because diverse teams make for more interesting and better games,” he says.

One of the main reasons for the lack of diversity, Mr Sefton says, is due to perceptions of the video game industry.

“When I got into the industry in the late 90s it was still very much perceived that games were for teenage boys – that women didn’t play games,” he says. “Of course that’s nonsense, but the perception was like that.

“Women and people from diverse backgrounds maybe saw the industry as very white male and thought ‘is this an industry for me?’”

But things are looking up, and positive role models are playing an important part in the process.

“It’s changing for the better,” says Mr Sefton. “Team 17 is run by Debbie Bestwick; she’s a fantastic business person. Ukie is run by Dr Jo Twist. So we now have prominent women in the industry.”

Developers in other parts of the UK are taking note of Yorkshire businesses. Recently, Wakefield-based Ticktock Games was snapped up by developer Rebellion.

Even larger Yorkshire players such as Sumo are getting in on the act with the Sheffield-based firm acquiring Red Kite Games in Huddersfield.

Technology has disrupted many sectors in recent years, but the video game industry is one that has been built off the back of technological change.

The more technology advances, the more the region’s video game developers are taking advantage of the opportunities presented.

Sumo Digital has joined forces with Yorkshire-based social enterprise Ahead Partnership to encourage more female and BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) students to engage with gaming careers.

The two organisations are aiming to break down stereotypes and the perceived barriers that may stop young people from working in the sector.

Last month, they ran a series of careers challenges at schools across Sheffield, focusing on helping students understand the different roles available in game development and the processes behind some of their favourite computer and video games.

Becca Askham, HR and recruitment partner at Sumo Digital, said: “In creating these activities with Ahead Partnership we aim to give pupils a taste of what’s involved in creating video games and hope to inspire a new generation of game developers. As part of a thriving industry we believe it’s important to demonstrate the wealth of career opportunities available to all.”

The latest figures from TIGA show that just 14 per cent of people working in the UK games industry are women.

Reports from Creative Skillset showed that BAME industry representation stood at 4 per cent in 2015.

Stephanie Burras CBE, chief executive of Ahead Partnership, said: “It’s clear that some specific groups of young people are not adequately represented in the gaming sector and it’s important that we address this.”Sxci