Britain's unlikely techno-capital
What turns a town into a hotbed of hi-tech talent and creativity? Rhodri Marsden pays a visit to Leamington Spa to find out
Wednesday 02 December 2009
If you ask any British occultist what they know about Royal Leamington Spa, they'll tell you as quick as a flash that Aleister Crowley was born there. The average person on the street, however, will look at you quizzically before venturing a guess that there might be a spa there. (Once, perhaps; today the Pump Rooms comprise a gallery, museum and tourist information centre.) But Leamington is the hub of a thriving computer gaming industry in the West Midlands, and could even be considered the heart of the industry in the UK as a whole. The local press, however, seem uninterested when companies such as Blitz and Codemasters regularly produce chart hits, and while a local multi-million pound industry is gaining Leamington a glorious reputation as a "Silicon Spa" in gaming circles, the public seems strangely unaware of it.
In any other creative industry in any big city, the ability to whizz round the town centre and point out the companies at the top of their game would almost be worthy of a tourist bus route. But our tour comes almost by accident, with Codemasters' Sion Lenton casually dropping names as we drive past elegant Georgian townhouses in a seven-seater taxi. "There's Blitz," he says, "and we've got FreeStyle-Games at the end of this street – in fact, look, there's my brother having a cigarette, he works for them. Now here's Bigbig Studios ... " It's an almost surreal concentration of talent that has brought wealth to the area at a time when most creative industries are panicking over what the future might hold. "Games are selling in colossal numbers," says Sion's colleague Simon Miles, "and there are huge amounts of money involved in their production – but for some reason the industry is still referred to in a slightly patronising tone."
You won't find employees at Codemasters complaining, however. For them, and indeed most who work within the industry, it's their dream job – although it's infinitely more demanding than expected. "It's not about sitting around playing games – it's incredibly hard work," says Lenton, "particularly during crunch, the run-up to a deadline." Some 476 staff members work here on the outskirts of the village of Southam (six miles outside Leamington itself) at a sprawling UK complex which is the historical epicentre of the local gaming phenomenon. The farmhouse on to which the modern office buildings are tacked ("the biggest extension you've even seen", grins Lenton) is where Codemasters' founders, brothers Richard and David Darling, worked on their very first computer games for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum as teenagers in the mid-1980s. Their phenomenal success at producing large numbers of high-quality, low-cost computer games on cassette saw them start the company, hire a workforce (many of whom would end up coding in hastily erected Portakabins on adjoining farmland) and eventually turn the entire farm over to gaming; a former cattle insemination shed now houses Codemasters' QA team, those industry rookies getting their foot on the ladder by testing every aspect of new game titles.
Two of the people beavering away in those makeshift offices on early Codemasters games were Andrew and Philip Oliver, twins from Trowbridge who today head up Blitz Games Studios, a three-floor office above a shoe shop in Leamington's town centre. "No-one was salaried in those days," reminisces Philip. "Everyone just turned up and worked on their games. If they were good enough Codemasters would publish them, and we were lucky ours did really well. The money we earned allowed us to buy a house in Trowbridge – but by that point our work and social life were all in Leamington, so we moved here." Since that time, Leamington has been an unlikely magnet for games developers, as Blitz's art director John Nash explains. "It became clear early on that the industry was self-sufficient and didn't need to be in a big city," he says. "The businesses attracted the talent; of course it helped that Leamington is a really nice place to live, and well-connected for the Cotswolds, London and Birmingham. So people have tended to stay. Actually, the internet's ability to shift huge quantities of data across the world means location is less of an issue these days, but we still need a large number of people on site because of the sheer volume of games we're producing."
Blitz's offices are a hive of activity – indeed, they're well known to the local energy company for popping fuses – and while the setting could never be described as glamourous (hundreds of mostly male, bespectacled staff beavering away in front of computer screens) the product they're making is. Andrew Oliver, sporting a natty pair of 3D specs, is demonstrating the newly-released Invincible Fighter, the world's first stereoscopic 3D game; he stresses the importance of education, within the company and in colleges and universities, to help keep Leamington surfing this cutting edge. "Technology is moving so fast," he says, "that you have to disseminate information incredibly quickly to keep everyone up to speed."
Its award-winning Blitz Academy takes care of internal training, and that informs the work done with the government's Skillset programme to try to ensure that the 300-plus gaming-related courses in universities across the UK are relevant and useful. It's not always easy. "It's not always the universities' fault," says Andrew. "You get course content signed off but by the following year it's completely out of date."
Nearby, at Leamington's Warwickshire College, Andrew Brazier heads up a two-year National Diploma in Games Development for 16- to 18-year-old school leavers, grounding them in basics like 3D modelling and digital graphics with the hope of creating the next generation of local developers. "Many local kids still don't realise that they can have a career in the gaming industry," he says, "and that it's right on their doorstep."
Andrew Oliver blames much of this on the widely-held belief among parents in particular that games development is somehow not a real job. "But building technological entertainment is what we're doing best right now," he enthuses, "and our industry is on the up." Brazier uses his close contact with the likes of Blitz and Codemasters to ensure what he's teaching is bang up-to-date, while still staying within the guidelines of the examination board. "We're in such a privileged position to have some of the biggest developers within five miles of here," he says, "and word's getting out – we have kids coming in here from as far as Oxford." Indeed, the work done by Brazier and his colleagues was recently recognised by the Association of Colleges as a perfect example of a college meeting the needs of local industry.
Said industry, it should be stressed, is far from in a staffing crisis; the competition for jobs is described by Nash as "insane", and simply being a local lad or lass is never going to be enough. He says:"The people who make it in this industry are the ones who bought a computer, went online, downloaded the free software, started building their own stuff, made modifications to existing games and came to us with passion and a big portfolio." With Codemasters recruiting dozens of staff and expanding its premises, and with the likes of Blitz leading the way in new gaming technologies, it may be time for parents to revise their opinion of kids dabbling in computer games as a dead-end activity. It's exactly that kind of messing about that has put Leamington Spa on the map.
Playing away: Other UK game hubs
Dundee's Timex factory was the main manufacturing centre for the ZX Spectrum in the 1980s, and this led to a local profusion of games development; DMA Design, founded in 1988, went on to make the hugely successful Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto series. Other big names of the era included VIS, Red Lemon and Visual Science. Today's companies include Denki, Realtime Worlds, Ruffian, Tag and Cohort; Dundee's first ever Digital Arts Festival has further cemented its reputation as a gaming hub.
Peter Molyneux, current Creative Director of Microsoft Game Studios, began his video game career in Guildford in 1984 with the production of a business simulation game called The Entrepreneur which sold two copies. However, his co-founding of Bullfrog Productions in 1987 and the huge success of the game Populous in 1989 saw developers flock to the area; today's line-up includes Lionhead, Critereon, Media Molecule, EAUK Bright Light and a southern office for Codemasters.
Proximity to London and Guildford, its almost-clichéd creative-bohemian reputation and an inexhaustible supply of media students has seen Brighton become a mini hub of the industry, with Relentless, Zoe Mode and Disney's Black Rock Studio perched on the South coast. Second Life's creators, Linden Labs, also have an office here.
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