Yorkshire’s game makers leading the way in our brave new digital world

The games industry is worth tens of millions of pounds to the Yorkshire economy and continues to flourish, as Chris Bond reports.

A scene from Oddworld: New n Tasty made by Otley games developer Just Add Water. PIC: Game Republic
A scene from Oddworld: New n Tasty made by Otley games developer Just Add Water. PIC: Game Republic

Last month Grand Theft Auto V was all over the news like a rash after it made a staggering $1bn in its first three days of sales.

The latest incarnation of the adult cops ’n’ robbers game, part of a long-running franchise, has become a smash hit around the world. But if you were to ask many of the people who’ve immersed themselves in the game – and its make-believe city Los Santos – where it was actually made, few would probably say “Leeds”. Yet they’d be right.

Rockstar Leeds has been developing games from its studio on the outskirts of the city since 1997, and it isn’t alone. The UK games industry is worth more than £2.8bn, excluding digital sales, with around 10 per cent of its games development talent based here in Yorkshire.

Jamie Sefton, managing director of Leeds-based Game Republic – a games network set up a decade ago to support Yorkshire companies involved in the industry – says the region is 
a major player in the industry. “We have global brands right 
here on our doorstep. We’re taking on the world and beating them at the moment, especially since the dawn of the new digital stores.”

The recent innovations in digital-downloading such as Apple’s App Store have opened up new markets for Yorkshire companies, many of whom are now self-publishing their own games to huge worldwide success – including Revolution Software in York, the brains behind the Broken Sword adventure games, Wakefield’s Team17, famous for their Worms series, and Otley-based Just Add Water, best known for their Oddworld projects.

“It’s almost gone full circle from the 80s when it was a bit of a cottage industry to this huge, global business,” says Sefton.

Game Republic held its sixth Student Showcase event in Leeds earlier this year with 23 projects from five universities and he says this has created a link between the region’s students and big businesses like Sony and Microsoft.

“We bring these companies to Yorkshire and the students get to meet the digital gatekeepers. There were dozens and dozens of work placements and full-time job offers on the back of this year’s event alone,” he says.

Events like this have crucial knock-on effects. “The better the links the universities have the better the courses they can offer, which means more opportunities and more skilled people coming to Yorkshire.”

Team17, based in Wakefield, is one the companies that helped put the region on the industry’s map. Its flagship games include the Worms series which has been a video gaming institution since 1995, selling around 55 million games in the process.

Debbie Bestwick is Team 17’s managing director and one of its founding members, and first came across the world of gaming after taking a summer job with an independent retailer while doing her A-levels. “They offered me the manager’s position at the end of the summer so it was bye bye A-levels,” she says.

That was 26 years ago, since when her career has blossomed. “It’s the best entertainment industry in the world, as far as I’m concerned. Every day is different and it moves at an incredibly fast pace, so it constantly challenges you.”

The games industry has often been viewed as a male-dominated environment, so is it harder for women to get a foot in the door? “It certainly used to be, when I started there were very few but that’s all changed over the last five years in particular and now there are lots of women in senior positions.”

She says Yorkshire’s games industry has enjoyed a resurgence in the last five years. “Events hosted by Ga-Ma-Yo [Game Makers Yorkshire] and Game Republic are really important and the work they do is incredible. The universities are also very proactive and employment has never been as high in our sector. We just need to help and support all these companies to help them maintain growth, along with proper support for new business start-ups which is a massive growth area in games.”

Sefton agrees that the games industry has changed dramatically in recent years. “It used to be geared towards producing games for teenage boys. It was seen as the dark side of the entertainments industry and was all about violent video games. That’s now seen as nonsense and politicians realise that this is a creative industry employing a lot of people and producing amazing entertainment.”

Technological developments mean people can now play games on their consoles at home or on their mobile phones while on the move, which has broadened their appeal. “Last year I saw that Opera North had a game on its website and I thought if Opera North are doing this then they really are mass market.”

However, he warns that we need to make sure the UK remains a world leader in this field. “We have fallen down the league table in terms of influence. We used to be third and we’re now about fifth because countries like Canada and France have tax breaks, so we don’t have a level playing field.”

He believes this will be addressed and says the Government does recognise the importance of the games industry. “It ticks all the boxes, it’s getting more girls to do science, it’s entrepreneurial and there’s now even a cross-party committee in Parliament that lobbies on behalf of the games industry. That would never have happened 10 years ago.”

Dr Jake Habgood, senior lecturer in games design at Sheffield Hallam University, says attitudes have changed. “In the past there was a stigma attached to gaming, it was seen as a solitary and reclusive thing to do. But now it’s become acceptable and you get games suitable for all ages and I can play games with my young children.”

He’s keen to point out that the games industry doesn’t just refer to one thing. “You have companies creating big budget games for the Xbox and Wii consoles and you have independent games companies that have set up on their own. But there are also people who hire out their skills and you have web game developers doing games, so there’s a broad spectrum,” he says.

It’s also become a much more attractive career option for graduates which wasn’t the case just a generation ago. “In the last few years students have found it easier to get jobs and we’ve been bucking the economic trend. It’s still a fairly small part of the economy but it’s one that generates a lot of income for the number of people in it.”

The skills required can also be used in other areas. “It brings together different skills including art, design, programming and audio, so programming skills can be transferred to something like brain scanning and 3D animators often cross over into movies.”

Dr Habgood was director of this year’s Games Britannia festival in Sheffield, which aims to inspire the next generation of British video game talent, and says it’s important to get more children interested in computer science.

“We give kids the chance to see what it’s like to programme games and create animation. Most of them won’t go on and work in the industry but that’s not the point, because these programming skills are transferable and can feed into other parts of the economy.”

Sefton agrees. “Programmers and artists can have fantastic careers here in Yorkshire, they don’t have to move to America. It’s an important message and we should be shouting about it from the rooftops because we really do have an amazing games industry here.”