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Region Focus: London games companies are trying to not let Brexit get them down

Region Focus: London games companies are trying to not let Brexit get them down

Being the UK's capital, it should come as no surprise that London is a big part of the country's video games industry. But how is this region performing, and what challenges is it facing? 

Imre Jele from Surgeon Simulator Bossa (pictured, bottom left), James Dobrowski of Eve Online maker CCP (top right), Space Ape COO Simon Hade (top centre), Jeff Hickman (top left), SVP and head of NaturalMotion. and Curve Digital chair Stuart Dinsey (bottom right) tell us more

What's the development scene like in London right now - both in terms of how companies are performing and the culture between studios?

Imre Jele, creator-in-chief, Bossa Studios: London has been buzzing for years with great companies, fantastic products, surprisingly strong meetups and events, and a great scene for developers from all sorts of companies mixing socially and exchanging ideas. This proud and energised mood has certainly taken a hit since Brexit. Facing the unknown and uncertainty does not encourage innovation and exploration of new ideas and collaborations.

James Dobrowski, VP of product development, CCP: Anecdotally, the London dev scene and the wider UK feels like it’s in a growth phase right now. Most big studios are on a recruitment drive, we’ve seen some new studios like Wargaming open their doors here, and the UK as a whole has been a hot bed for overseas acquisition. For us here at CCP, we’re very much in a growth phase. We’ve recently been acquired by the Korean developer Pearl Abyss, the makers of Black Desert Online, and our studio in London is heavily recruiting for both our action-MMO and mobile teams.

The culture between studios in London is fairly open and collaborative for the most part. There are a lot of close friendships between developers at various companies due to staff movement over the years, and we regularly have conversations with other development teams working in similar genres to share thinking and advice. Space Ape in particular has been exceptional at opening their doors to the wider development community in London for regular events, and I’d love to see more studios support similar initiatives in the future.

Jeff Hickman, SVP and head of NaturalMotion: The development scene in London is booming. With the UK being home to several top gaming and technology companies, we have to remain competitive in offering candidates the best opportunities possible. Zynga has its NaturalMotion and Gram Games studios based in London and Brighton and is always seeking talented individuals to join our teams. We listen to our employees and prospective candidates and use their feedback to shape the culture of our studios. Employees often seek perks and benefits commonly seen within the tech space - free lunches, team happy hours and most importantly - opportunities that foster career growth.

The London-based gaming and technology industry is a tight-knit community of professionals who often know each other or have crossed paths in their career. NaturalMotion and Gram Games are proud to have members with veteran expertise in their respective areas who bring forth key learnings and knowledge.

London's Bossa Studios is best known for the gorey Surgeon Simulator, which proved to be very popular with YouTubers when it launched back in 2013

What are the advantages of setting up a studio in London?

Jele: Talent density. Ultimately you can find inspiring culture, cool events, and games development talent in most places. But being surrounded by all this in such density as you find it in London creates a critical mass of inspiration.

Stuart Dinsey, chairman, Curve Digital: We are comfortable with studios based anywhere in the world, but I suppose an advantage for London would be access to a diverse spread of staff and skills. If being at the ‘centre’ of the business means anything then London may be an advantage because of its size, transport links and resources etc, but I’m not sure that counts for too much in a digital market.

Dobrowski: Primarily, access to talent. There are a lot of games studios in London, and a very broad range of expertise across triple-A, indie and mobile. London has developers working in Unity and Unreal 4 and for anyone working on heavily online games like ourselves, access to a large network of backend engineers through Google, Facebook and the financial industry. Guildford is also easily commutable, and a number people on our team travel in on the train each day.

Simon Hade, co-founder and COO, Space Ape: Access to multicultural talent is the main advantage, when your audience is global. In addition, the rich history of tech and creative industries and years of free to play game making means that there are a lot of relevant talent that we can tap into.

There is also a healthy cadence of meetups and conferences, from venture capital-backed get-togethers, to focussed conferences like Games First - which we host with Supercell - and all the big conferences etc, as well as less formal events such as IGDA, meet ups and studio sponsored events. I also see a lot of organic collaboration such as game studios helping each other and more star ups coming online or established companies looking to set up or relocate teams here than ever before so it’s only a matter of time before London defines the next generation of gaming.

Games courses can't keep up with the demand for talent. We need more and better than ever before
Imre Jele, Bossa Studios

Are local universities, colleges and other educational institutions in the area providing enough talent that fulfils your needs?

Jele: Games education is rather mixed but there certainly are some exceptional educational opportunities in and around London, like the National Film and Television School's games courses. But frankly, they can't keep up with the demand for talent. We need more and better than ever before.

Dobrowski: Here at CCP London we haven’t developed many relationships with further education establishments as yet, as we’re a reasonably new studio and in the early stages of our first project. We’ve therefore been concentrating on hiring senior, experienced people onto the team so far. That being said, we have recently started talking with educational institutions around the UK with the intention of formulating closer working ties next year.

In general, however, I get the impression that university courses around games development are getting better at preparing students for the actual day-to-day of game development, and are allowing and encouraging students to specialise during their course, which is much more closely aligned with how the industry typically operates. We’re very much looking forward to working more closely with universities and students throughout next year.

Hade: The fact that more than half the company is from abroad and the average Space Ape employee has over eight years making games is surely a sign that they are not. But I think that is more of a function of the way we approach game development, rather than an indictment on the institutions. Since we operate in such a distributed way, with teams having a lot of autonomy over not only how they make games but even what games to work on, we need to hire people who already have considerable experience. When we do hire more junior game makers it is usually on the basis of initiative they’ve shown pursuing their own indie projects, or running their own mod server, or having an active Twitch channel - all of which are more interesting than their academic qualifications.

There is, of course, a base level of competence required, but as a general rule I think students under-estimate the value of being current on market trends, knowing what is working and what is not, and being able to demonstrate that awareness through their portfolio. No doubt that is true of many sectors but in an industry that completely reinvents itself every few years it is not reasonable to expect your university to teach you what you need to be relevant.

We do a lot of work with universities here and abroad to input into their curriculum and regularly host events and live streams specifically aimed at helping students and those early in their careers think about game development in a way that we believe is the future.

Hickman: I would say yes, but perhaps not at the level seen at other Universities across Europe or, particularly, within the United States. It’s taken a while for U.K. Universities and the courses they offer for individuals seeking a career within video game development to ‘catch up’ with the current industry and emphasize the skills required to work in a game studio – especially in programming. The quality level of engineering graduates has increased over the past two years, but we often still struggle when it comes to areas such as Product Management. As an example, one of our best Product Management interns this year was from overseas, which is fantastic, but we would love to also see an increase in top local talent too.

The future could be influenced by what Brexit looks like in the end. But talent, creativity and ambition have a habit of coming through and this city has plenty. We need to be able to attract talent from all over the world, as we have always done. But London will be okay.
Stuart Dinsey, Curve Digital

What is London's reputation when it comes to hiring staff from overseas and is this a challenging process?

Jele: London was a powerful hub to attract the best foreign games development talent from all over Europe, even Canada and the States. We had an amazingly positive image all around the world. That has however completely changed with Brexit. The drop in candidates is very obvious and will have long-term negative effect on the games scene in London.

Dobrowski: In many cases, hiring candidates from overseas offers fewer challenges than hiring UK-candidates from outside of London. While there are some nerves around Brexit, London remains one of the world’s leading cities and is a hugely attractive place to live for many people. It is also a very expensive place to live, however, and the cost of living can put people off, particularly developers living in other, much cheaper cities around the UK.

Dinsey: London’s reputation is fine, as is the industry’s as a whole. Games has a history of hiring the best from all over the world and giving people a chance. Maybe it’s the UK’s reputation that is under threat right now due to wider political issues.

What are the biggest changes and challenges you’ve noticed that are affecting the London games industry over the last couple of years?

Jele: Brexit. Honestly. Every other positive or negative influences are dwarfed by it.

Dinsey: We don’t see ourselves as part of the ‘London games industry’ and I’m not sure one even exists. But high cost of living and rising costs for office space are certainly challenges, along with potential constraints on freedom of movement. The biggest recent change may well be how attractive London is to people who want to make their way in the business. Can they afford to live here? Will they feel welcome? I hope so.

Dobrowski: I’ve only been working in games in London for around 4 years, and so my views are relatively short-term. The biggest challenge we’re facing right now seems to come from competition over talent however. While there are a lot of great developers and a broad range of skillsets in London, the growth of the industry has led to an increasing amount of competition between studios. This is great for good, individual developers, as there are always likely to be a range of job opportunities available, however it does mean tougher recruitment and increased recruitment costs for the studios themselves.

Iceland-based CCP set up shop in London in 2016

How is Brexit affecting your company?

Jele: No one can tell because no one knows what Brexit means. But it is clear that this uncertainty discourages both investment and applications from the best foreign talent.

Dinsey: Brexit isn't affecting Curve right now. We take games to market from all over the world. We are a global publisher and have benefited from the rise in value of our dollar and Euro transactions. Attracting talent could become more difficult for our expanding operations, as we are very much an international employer, and tariffs would be a challenge - but hopefully things won’t come to that.

Dobrowski: Right now, it hasn’t had a significant effect on our business. We’re fortunate that we’re an international company, with studios in Reykjavik and Shanghai and a parent company in South Korea, so we’re somewhat shielded from the financial impact of Brexit. Hiring into Iceland for over 15-years means we’re also very experienced when it comes to arranging visas, and regularly relocate people from Europe and elsewhere.

That being said, Brexit has definitely caused some trepidation in European candidates, and I expect this has had a negative impact on the number of people from Europe looking at roles in the UK overall.

Hade: Brexit doesn’t really affect us much since we are already established and profitable so we are well equipped to hire internationally. Brexit will be felt most in the start-up community as it will undoubtedly make it harder to find talent for new ventures to get off the ground. I’m concerned about the impact on talent but also for any downstream pressure on tightening tax and other incentives for establishing operations in the UK. Currently, there are very good financial reasons for games companies to start up here, from Video Games Tax Relief, Entrepreneurs Relief and so on. Finland and Canada have similar schemes that go even further in some respects but at no time has it ever been attractive to set up an office elsewhere. I think through all the Brexit transitions it’s important to maintain this kind of environment so that it is a no-brainer for the next generation of games start-ups to choose to be based here.

Hickman: In short, it’s not right now. Whilst from a recruitment standpoint we’ve had some hesitancy from candidates within the EU considering roles at NaturalMotion, the number of these incidents are still extremely low. Brexit hasn’t impacted our ability to hire or attract top talent. As the negotiations in Brussels continue, we are working with external partners to provide as much information as we can to our employees who may be impacted to ensure that everyone is prepared for whatever outcome presents itself.

What does the future hold for London as a games hub?

Jele: It's hard to tell at the moment. We just have to wait and see what Brexit means to us.

Dinsey: The future could be influenced by what Brexit looks like in the end. But talent, creativity and ambition have a habit of coming through and this city has plenty. We need to be able to attract talent from all over the world, as we have always done. But London will be okay.

Dobrowski: This is a difficult one, as the future of Brexit is still so uncertain. I expect the weaker pound has had some influence over the increased number of acquisitions, and amount of work-for-hire funding moving into the UK, as we’re a cheaper place to do business for overseas companies. As mentioned previously however, it is causing some difficulties when it comes to recruiting European talent. In the short term I expect the industry will continue on its current course. Long term will depend on the outcome of the next few months. Whatever the outcome, I think certainty will help studios better plan and better prepare for the future, which can only be a good thing.

Hade: I think the future is very positive. Brexit headwinds notwithstanding, all of the fundamentals that make London such a great place to make games are there, and as new generations of studios come online, and bigger studios limit their focus making it easier for teams to leave and take investment the ecosystem will continue to grow.

Hickman: The future is extremely bright and there are a ton of positive opportunities within the gaming industry in London. NaturalMotion and Gram Games are examples of talented teams based here who make phenomenal games that are loved by players around the world. The aforementioned tax break by the government helps start-ups get off the ground and smaller studios with running costs, this has been a huge part of attracting talent and bringing business into the U.K. which in turn helps the economy grow. Over the past two years the growth of the games sector to over £5bn clearly shows an industry producing world-class content for an ever-expanding eager audience.

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. 

Editor - PC Games Insider

Alex Calvin launched PCGamesInsider.biz in August 2017 and has been its editor since. Prior to this, he was deputy editor at UK based games trade paper MCV and content editor for marketing and events for London Games Festival 2017. His work has also appeared in Eurogamer, The Observer, Kotaku UK, Esquire UK and Develop.

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