How we built a digital games empire

Dr Jake Habgood of Sheffield Hallam University
Dr Jake Habgood of Sheffield Hallam University
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The computer games industry is a global business and Sheffield is one of the key places helping train the next generation of developers and designers. Chris Bond reports.

BACK in 1984, while fashion-conscious teenagers were out having fun and dancing like robots, Ian Stewart and Kevin Norburn were busy thinking ahead.

These two friends had just set up a small computer games development company, Gremlin Graphics (later Gremlin Interactive), from a tiny shop in Sheffield city centre.

It quickly found success with popular and colourful games for the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 (remember them?), but little could they have guessed that 15 years later the company they started would be bought for £24m.

The computer games industry has since become big business and is now worth more than £2.8bn in the UK alone. Here in Yorkshire we have around 10 per cent of the nation’s games development talent with Sheffield still a key player, 30 years after Gremlin first made a name for itself.

Dr Jake Habgood was one of Gremlin’s development team and now runs Sheffield Hallam University’s games development undergraduate course, teaching students how to programme for Sony’s PlayStation platforms, among others. He also organises Games Britannia, the university’s annual video games education festival, which encourages children to be creative using computers.

Dr Habgood has seen gaming go from little more than a cottage industry to a global success story in the space of just a few decades. “Back in the 1980s games were being created in people’s bedrooms and a few of them became big hits which made some people a lot of money.”

Young whizzkids were churning out games but soon just about anyone with a bit of design flair and computer know-how were trying to get in on the act. “You would walk into somewhere like WH Smith’s and the shelves were crammed with different games, but it reached the point where you needed the big names and companies to promote your games.”

The cost of getting games published went up but in the last few years the pendulum has swung back the other way, thanks to innovations in digital downloading and the rise of mobile phone apps. “It’s come full circle,” says Dr Habgood. “Games like Flappy Bird became a huge international sensation overnight even though the technology used to make it is no better than what was being used for some games back in the 80s and 90s.”

What has changed is the cost of making these games has dropped significantly which has made them more affordable. At the same time the development of the Wii console meant older generations who previously had little or no interest in playing video games were suddenly playing ‘virtual’ tennis in their front rooms.

This boom has led to more universities offering games-related courses. At Sheffield Hallam they have their own in-house game development studio, Steel Minions, which gives students the chance to work together on ideas for new games and has already had its first big success with Bounceback, which was released on the PlayStation Network in 2012.

The university’s partnership with Sony gives students access to PlayStation 3 and 4 development kits, while it also offers work placements through its links with Sumo Digital.

Computer games courses are sometimes viewed as being less academically rigorous than traditional subjects like maths or chemistry, but Dr Habgood believes they can be just as challenging as a science degree. “It’s a difficult subject and we tell that to our students. It’s not the easy ride that it’s sometimes made out to be. Students have to get their heads around 3D mathematics, modern programming languages and understand how to write computer codes.”

These days computer games are no longer the sole preserve of nerdy teenagers which means courses attract students from all kinds of academic backgrounds. “You have programmers as well as artists and designers and they have to work on projects together, so teamwork is important.”

The UK has long been at the forefront of the industry but there are concerns that we’ve fallen away from the leading pack. In February, Tiga, which represents independent UK developers, said the UK games industry was “stuck in the slow lane” while the European Commission investigates planned tax breaks.

The tax relief scheme was announced by George Osborne two years ago aimed at bringing Britain in line with other countries that have a thriving games development industry, like France and Canada.

Dr Habgood says it’s crucial that our top games designers aren’t tempted abroad. “It’s really important we stay at the forefront of an industry that we’ve played a huge role in over the years. Games like Grand Theft Auto and Tomb Raider have come from this country, but over the last five years our place has dropped a bit and there’s been talk of a brain drain to places like Canada.”

Thankfully, people like Wesley Arthur are happy to hone their skills closer to home. He was 12 when he first got into video games. “I used to go round to a friend’s house and play games like Bugs Bunny Lost in Time and that was me hooked,” he says.

Like most youngsters he didn’t think it would ever amount to anything more than a hobby, but nine years on and the 21 year-old games design student is looking forward to a bright future. “When I was at school I didn’t know these kind of courses existed so I focused on maths and chemistry. But when I found out you could actually do this sort of thing as a degree I thought ‘that’s what I want to do.’”

At one time computer games courses were the butt of people’s jokes but Arthur, a third year student at Sheffield Hallam University, says attitudes have changed. “In the past some people saw something like this as a bit of a ‘Mickey Mouse’ course and they would look down their nose at it, but it’s a lot more challenging than many people realise. You’re trying to recreate things from the real world and it’s given me a greater appreciation of the world around me because it’s helped me understand the way things work and how people behave.

“You hear people saying things like ‘that’s where the money is now’, but for me it’s about doing something I enjoy. A lot of people go to university and study what they think they should be doing, but I’d rather do something I’m quite good at and enjoy doing.”

He’s in the process of deciding whether to start his own business or go and work for someone else, which at a time when many graduates are struggling to find a decent job is an enviable position to be in.

“The games industry has continued growing, even during the economic downturn, and it seems to be one of the few industries that’s always going to be in demand because people enjoy playing computer games and they want that escapism.”

Unstoppable rise of video games

1972 - Atari releases its first game, a simple bat and ball game called Pong.

1978 - Space Invaders ushers in the golden age of arcade video games.

1980 - Japanese firm Namco release the world famous Pac-Man game.

1984 - Nintendo release the puzzle game Tetris which has gone on to sell 43 million copies.

1991 - Sega’s Sonic The Hedgehog is released and becomes an overnight success.

1997 - The first Grand Theft is published. The series is now the most successful in history.

2006 - The Nintendo Wii revolutionises gaming and brings it to a whole new audience.

2009 - Angry Birds becomes the world’s most downloaded free game.