dwlt.thinksOutLoud

The Scale of the Problem

This morning, Rory Cellan-Jones of the BBC reported from Dundee about the games industry. In the preview of his visit to Dundee (and reiterated in his report), Cellan-Jones makes the following statement:

[I] struggled to pinpoint any firm big enough to give this cluster some real weight.

He’s right of course. But it’s worse than that.

A Geographical Aside

A few years ago, we talked about the “Scottish games industry”. Companies elsewhere in the UK (and abroad) referred to it as the “Scottish games mafia” — whether that was tongue-in-cheek or out of annoyance (or perhaps even fear) is open to question. Over the last few years, though, we’ve gone from talking about “Scottish games” to talking about “Dundee games” as companies across the country disappeared, and now to try and remind people that things still happen in other cities, “Greater Glasgow games”. I appreciate what people are trying to do, but I dislike the locality of these terms. I find them divisive and parochial.

I work in the Scottish games industry. My career in the industry has seen me work for companies based in Livingston, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and now Glasgow again. I want to talk about the Scottish games industry. That’s what matters to me. Above that, though, I believe Scotland can only support a burgeoning technology and digital media sector across the country as a whole. Dundee might well be the epicentre for digital media, but we need to think at the right scale.

Siren Calls

One of the biggest problems we saw at Denki was on the recruitment side. We struggled to bring in the extra people we needed and wanted on the production side. Of course, we were trying to recruit at the beginning of a terrible recession which didn’t help, but it’s also indicative of a larger problem for the Scottish industry: we lack the siren call of the industry’s sexiest games.

It seems to me, on a purely anecdotal basis, that graduates in Scotland who want to work in games are drawn to the bright lights and big names of the games and companies people have heard of, so they go off to work for EA or Ubisoft on games like FIFA, Assassin’s Creed or the latest Tom Clancy game. I don’t have a problem with that, it’s good to get experience, and of course there were few jobs in the sector going even prior to last month. But the lack of famous games and companies becomes a problem if you want to tempt people home again, or attract talent from elsewhere in the world.

With the exception of Rockstar North and GTA, there’s no glamour or glitter to attract people here yet. Nothing they can work on here will give them that kudos.

Do You Know The Way To Puget Sound?

Following last week’s post about the Scottish games industry being in transition, I’ve been asked a couple of times about exactly what I think the Scottish games industry is transitioning to.

Clearly, I can’t say exactly what the industry will look like in a few years, but I know what I want it to look like. And it’s not anywhere in Canada.

Rather, as the subhead suggests, I’m looking at Seattle and the surrounding area. Not only does it have a very similar climate to Scotland, but it has an incredible list of games companies (not to mention Microsoft):

That’s just a partial list, which is pretty damned impressive, I think. It’s a good mix of companies that work on their own thing and work with publishers; of companies that are independent and companies that are part of larger organisations. And that’s before I’ve mentioned another pair you may have heard of: PopCap and Valve.

I’d love to think Scotland could have a couple of companies as strong and world-renowned as PopCap and Valve are today. Of course, there’s no particular reason why it can’t happen, but we should realise that these companies have a head start for one big reason: Microsoft had already ensured that the Seattle area was a draw for software developers, and Amazon and Real built on that. That ensured there was a large pool of talent for other games companies to tap into, and it means that people have options. As we’ve seen in Scotland recently on the back of Realtime Worlds’ demise, people don’t really have much in the way of options here.

Another reason for comparing Scotland to this area: the population of the Seattle area is around 3.4 million people. Scotland’s population is just over 5 million. We need to work at the right scale.

One Step At A Time

At the recent games workshop organised by Revolver, one of the speakers was from Blitz. It struck me that far from even producing our equivalent of PopCap or Valve, we’ve yet to produce our equivalent of Blitz or Team 17 or Frontier: successful independent development companies who have success between developing projects for customers and working on their own products.

As Cellan-Jones says, the Scottish games industry lacks weight, and it lacks hits. We had some for a while with Realtime Worlds (Rockstar North tend to keep themselves to themselves, in my experience). As I said last week, it’s not going to come overnight and it’s definitely not going to come without a fight.

There’s a longer term ambition here, to create an industry that matters not because it’s deemed to be politically important or because it keeps a few people employed, but to create an industry that matters because it’s creating products that people want to play and that they want to be a part of making.

Thinking at the right scale is one of the greatest problems we need to overcome. Given the choice, I’d prefer we didn’t fail because we were thinking on the small side.

No amount of goodwill or public policy can do what Cellan-Jones identifies in his preview: produce a billion-dollar games company. To be clear, when I talk about a billion-dollar games company, I don’t expect that it would have a billion dollars of revenue – even PopCap and Valve haven’t hit that level (yet). But a company capable of consistently producing hit games and that has the wider world salivating at the prospect of its next game? Yes, please.

Will tax breaks help build such a company? Clearly they would, since that’s exactly what they’re designed for. They won’t will such a company into existence, though. Only the industry itself can make that happen, and I for one won’t care if it’s in Dundee or Aberdeen or Elgin. I’ll just be delighted we have the first one.