What's going on with the UK games market?

What's going on with the UK games market?

The UK is without a shadow of the doubt one of the most important markets in the global video game industry right now.

In part, this is due to its cultural impact. Despite being a rather small island nation, UK video game trade body Ukie reports that there are 2,269 "active" games businesses in operation, with 149 service companies and 100 education institutes also residing in the UK.

Which there's no definitive measure of this, the UK might - square mile for square mile - feature more games talent than any other country on planet Earth. This is the island that produces the likes of Grand Theft Auto, Candy Crush Saga, Fable, GoldenEye, Total War, Tomb Raider and WipEout, to name just a few. That's just IP created in the UK, too, and doesn't take into account the number of talented work-for-hire studios that have been trusted with triple-A IP like Forza, Crackdown, Devil May Cry, and Dead Island.

While much of this is due to the creativity of the British, it's also due to the fact that the UK is simply an attractive place to make video games. There's a variety of funds available for developers such as Creative England and UK Games Fund, in addition to Video Games Tax Relief (VGTR) that was rolled out in 2014. Successes like Grand Theft Auto have helped wake up the UK Government to the benefits of the video games industry. To date over 480 projects have been assisted by VGTR to date. Between July 2017 and 2018, 100 new projects received £131m in assistance. VGTR has been extended to 2023, as well. 

The UK features a huge audience for video games, too. In 2017 alone - according to data sourced from various outlets by Ukie - the population spend £5.11bn on video games - a sizeable increase on the £4.33bn that was splashed out the year before.

Of that figure, £1.6bn was spent on digital and online titles - an increase of 13.4 per cent - more than double the £790m that was spent on physical software, which represents a mere 3.1 per cent rise. Meanwhile, £1.07bn was spent on mobile titles - an increase of 7.8 per cent year-on -year.

That's just new software, too. The data shows that consumers spent £101m on used games.

Hardware saw a massive leap in 2017, no doubt thanks to the launch of Nintendo's Switch console. £659m was spent on games machines, a tasty 29.9 per cent more than in 2016.

PC readers will be happy to note that sales of PC games hardware rose by 51 per cent year-on-year to £376m - the largest rise of any sector in Ukie's report. That being said it's entirely possible that this is, in part, due to the cryptocurrency boom that took place last year.

Last year - in terms of physical sales - EA was the UK's most popular publisher, followed by Activision Blizzard. Nintendo came in third place - again, driven by the success of the Switch - with Ubisoft and Sony finishing off the Top Five.

PlayStation 4 was - perhaps unsurprisingly - the most popular platform for physical purchases, with Sony's machine claiming 50.2 per cent of the total. Second place goes to Xbox One with 31.6 per cent of sales and third being handed to Nintendo's Switch, which claims 7.5 per cent of the market.

It's not all about the latest machines, either. Nintendo's 3DS - due to its low price - was behind 5.3 per cent of game purchases, with Xbox 360 taking a 1.6 per cent slice and PS3 nabbing 0.9 per cent of sales. PC was only 1.3 per cent, but this is purely physical sales so the overall percentage is likely much, much higher.

Nearly all of this data is concerned with physical products but we'll have a greater idea of what is truly selling thanks to the forthcoming combined physical-digital chart that is coming into effect at the start of 2019. This is already being published for countries such as France thanks to a new data initiative.

Looking to 2018, research firm Newzoo reckons the UK will be the sixth biggest games market in the world with $4.5bn spent on video games and 37.3m people playing.

This year, the firm says that 49 per cent of the UK's male "online population" will play games, compared to 48 per cent of women. Men take a decisive proportional lead on the PC side of things with 38 per cent of the "online population" using this platform compared to 26 per cent of women.

Two-thirds of paying gamers have splashed cash in-game, with Newzoo claiming that 24 per cent of women will buy power-ups.

In addition to the population spending time playing and spending cash in-game, there's a decent slice of the UK population that is also watching games content, too. Newzoo predicts that 31 per cent of the "online population" will be watching, with 34 per cent of that figure watching on PC.

Just six per cent of the audience aware of esports watches pro-gaming several times a month, with the most-watched IP being Rocket League.

It's not just consumers that are showing interest and spending money on video games. The finance community has also been paying attention to the market, too, with several companies going public in the last twelve months. Sheffield-based Sumo Digital led the charge in December of last year, before racing specialist Codemasters and indie label Team17 floated in May 2018. We almost had a fourth IPO in digital retailer Green Man Gaming but that appears to have been cancelled. These firms follow in the footsteps of services and development giant Keywords and Elite Dangerous and Screamride studio Frontier Developments in going public. 

It's not all smooth sailing, however. There is, of course, the spectre of Brexit lurking over the UK video games industry. While the market hasn't really changed all too much since the EU Referendum Vote in June 2016, it's expected that this political shift will have a deeply negative impact on the industry - especially if the free movement of people is hampered. The market - for all its pros - does suffer from a lack of native talent; for a while, the UK education system wasn't very strong when it came to coding and other skills that are essential to game development. Since 2011's Livingston-Hope report, this has changed, but the fact remains that for the time being the UK development scene is massively dependant on foreign labour.

There are potential upsides to Brexit for the UK market, however. For example, the Video Games Tax Relief mentioned at the head of this article, which came into effect in 2014, constitutes State Aid and had to be approved by the EU after being approved by the UK Government two years prior. Were the UK entirely free of the European Court, its theoretical that the Government could introduce more competitive tax relief - but this is just speculation on our part. The reality is that the true impact of Brexit on the games industry won't be known until we know what deal is secured between the UK and the EU.

The political and economic turbulence that is Brexit has not stopped big firms such as CCP and Gram Games opening up new offices in the UK - truly a sign of the strength of the country's games market.

There's no doubt that the future is somewhat uncertain for the UK games industry, but the foundation for the market is strong. There is a large population of consumers spending money, a bolstered education system and the support of both the Government and the finance community, the future certainly looks bright for the UK.

Come find out about the future of the PC games market at PC Connects London 2019. Tickets are available to buy right here. One ticket gives you access to not just this event, but also Pocket Gamer Connects and Blockchain Gamer Connects. 

PCGamesInsider Contributing Editor

Alex Calvin is a freelance journalist who writes about the business of games. He started out at UK trade paper MCV in 2013 and left as deputy editor over three years later. In June 2017, he joined Steel Media as the editor for new site In October 2019 he left this full-time position at the company but still contributes to the site on a daily basis. He has also written for, VGC, Games London, The Observer/Guardian and Esquire UK.