Cautiously Optimistic: A Picture of the Scottish Games Industry

GAMESCOT sat down with a number of representatives from the Scottish games industry to discuss the future of the sector, and the unique challenges that lie ahead.

In 1997, Dundee-based video game developers DMA Design released Grand Theft Auto for the PlayStation 1. GTA would go on to become one of the most successful gaming franchises in the world, shifting more than 250 millions units to rank the fourth-highest selling series of all time. Even though DMA would eventually re brand into Rockstar North, and the development of subsequent GTA instalments would take place in North America, a legacy for games development was established in Dundee that has so-far stood the test of time.

Towards the end of last year, trade association Tiga found that the Scottish video games industry was ‘surging,’ and had experienced dramatic growth during 2015. Between December 2014 and March 2016, the industry’s development headcount grew by 25%, which was more than twice the national average. Tiga also found that Scotland was home to an estimated 85 gaming employing some 1300 creative staff, making it the third largest cluster in the UK.

scottish games sectorBut despite the apparent successes, Scotland’s games development scene is facing a number of unique challenges that threaten to limit its growth. Last month, GAMESCOT attended an open-floor event hosted by Scotland’s branch of the International Games Developers Association (IGDA). Enitled, ‘The Past, Present and Future of the Games Industry,’ the event featured round-table discussions on a number of issues plaguing the industry, including; a lack of support for students, the need for a central network or regulatory body, and the difficulties with securing funding.

In the follow-up to the event, GAMESCOT sat down with three representatives from Scotland’s games development and academic sectors to discuss the challenges they face, and how they plan to move forward.


A Cog in a Machine

One of the main complaints raised at the IGDA meeting was the lack of support for students seeking employment in Scotland’s games sector. Whilst students taking a degree in video games are taught the necessary skills to build their own projects, they are not provided with the practical advice needed to turn their hobby into a career.

“The problem with games degrees, is that you have the games companies who need people with a particular set skills and you have students who are expecting to learn how to make games,” Michael Heron, a lecturer at Robert Gordon University explains. “Those two Venn diagrams don’t necessarily overlap as neatly as you would like. Because certainly if you’re looking at a large, AAA kind of game, you are a cog in a machine.”

Heron believes that there is a fundamental disconnect between the skills that universities are giving students in games design, and the skills that development studios are looking for.

“So you’re not the artist, you’re the artist who’s designing the trees for this level. And you’re not the AI programmer, you’re the AI programmer working on the sheep subroutines.”

The problem is that if Universities want to keep students coming through the door, they have to offer a degree course that is attractive to them.

“That’s not what the students want. They don’t want, ‘here’s how you can be the best tree modeller you can ever possibly be.’ Nobody wants to do that degree. They want to make games.”

If a graduate decides to forgo the employment process and create their own games studio, they may run into a fresh set of problems. Indeed, another complaint raised by students at IGDA was that they felt they lacked the skills necessary to establish their own businesses.

“Most of the graduates we have, if they are interested in going into games development, are not particularly considering it from a business perspective,” Heron says. “They don’t have the skills necessary to make a business case for these kind of things, and often very skewed perceptions of what success and games development looks like.”

Matt Bar is a researcher and games studies lecturer at the University of Glasgow. He agrees that more could be done to ensure that students have the necessary skill set to establish and maintain their own studios.

“There’s this idea that you come out, and all you focus on is ‘I want to create a game.’ But when you think about it, if you’re going to build a company you have to be the CEO of said company and you have the right skills.

“The students have great ideas, and sort themselves into fully formed teams, but I’m not sure that they know how to do their taxes.”

Rhys Willis was a student who established his own games firm, Monocool Interactive, after benefiting from business skills learned through the family trade rather than at University.

“You’ve got to take care of your own tax, you’ve got to secure funding, and that wasn’t really pointed out to us to be a super difficult task,” he says.

Whilst studying for a PhD at the University of West of Scotland, Rhys spent time lecturing for a games development degree earlier in the year. Students would often approach him for advice on setting up their own companies, with little knowledge of the skills they would require.

“There were so many people that came up to me and said, ‘ I want to start a games company. How should I start?’”


‘If You Want Money, You Need To be in Dundee’

Academic and business support is only the first hurdle for would-be game developers. The second, and arguably the most important, is access to funding. There are few organisations in Scotland that are willing to offer clear-cut funding to new games businesses, despite their support for other creative arts.

“There are small pots of money available for students, but they tend to be UK wide – if not wider. I absolutely think it’s tough,” says Barr.

“Particularly for smaller companies. They wait, you know, 18 months for a decision to be made which is statistically likely to be a no. So that’s not particularly helpful.”

Heron believes that the high volume of students with degrees in games development, who are willing to create games for little or nothing, contributes to the problem.

“There’s very little that I know of that’s specifically about ‘here’s some funding to make a game.’ And it comes down to over-saturation. You don’t have to provide this funding because people are doing all of this labour for nothing anyway. You don’t have to pay somebody to make games… There really isn’t the necessary incentive for organisations to provide funding to kick start this industry, because it’s flourishing in cottage industries.

“There are organisations like Creative Scotland and such, but they’re also very competitive and very difficult to actually get.”

Many independent game developers and studios turn to crowdfunding websites such as Crowd Sourcer andscottish games sector Kickstarter as a source for money. But as Heron explains, these often come with a host of unanticipated complications.

“We often turn to things like Kickstarter to bridge the gap. But then again there are a whole pile of problems that come with Kickstarters. The largest one being that people often think about it as a source of money without realising that it’s a source of money plus a source of a massive amount of logistical work that you suddenly have to be responsible for.

“People don’t realise what they’re actually getting into as the publishers. Any kind of award you offer has got to be shipped out. Any kind of promise that you make, has to be met.”

Wallis has experienced the struggle to finance projects first hand. After being rejected for funding from multiple organisations, he was forced to take out bank loans to pay for games development, despite receiving positive feedback from thousands of reviewers online. Wallis attributes a lot of funding issues within Scotland’s game sector to organisations’ reluctance to focus on anywhere other than Dundee.

“The biggest obstacle for me has been that I’m not from Dundee. If you’re not from Dundee, or at least North of Edinburgh, you can’t make games – at least that what it feels like in Scotland.”

He maintains that whilst funding opportunities may be forthcoming in Dundee, thanks to its legacy for games development, they are extremely difficult to come by elsewhere.

“I think like most things, once you’ve got something in the water, everything else gathers around there.” He likens it to actors seeking to break into the industry by relocating to Hollywood – In Scotland, games developers move to Dundee.

“There’s so many good game developers in Edinburgh and Glasgow and so on. If you ask them what their biggest problem is, it’s that they haven’t got the money to hire the people they need, or to do the work they need. In Dundee, they do.”

He believes that the industry needs a regulatory body overseeing the fair distribution of resources, but acknowledges that bringing about such changes would be a monumental task.

“You’d have to change everything. It’s a massive amount of work to change how localities give out money. But if you had someone who regulated that, and said ‘we have x amount of games companies in Scotland, these are the people who need money’ that would be hugely beneficial… if the support that people get in Dundee could be shared around, well then who knows how well Scotland could do, instead of just Dundee.

“The IGDA was about the current state of games in Scotland. It’s not – it’s the current state of games in Dundee.”


A Limit to Success?

So how do these challenges fit in with the perception that Scotland is home to a thriving games industry?

scottish games sector“Like anything, there’s a long tale of success,” Heron explains. “So there’s a handful of really successful stories that you will see come up again and again and again largely because they were the exceptions.”

Titles such as Grand Theft Auto, Lemmings, and Crackdown, have done much to elevate Scotland’s name in the global games scene, but they are few examples in a sea of independent studios that have failed and folded.

“I think Scotland punches above its weight, but I don’t think Scotland is the great success in gaming that we would all like it to be. We did have an awful lot of a head start in this kind of thing, but then it moved away from hobbyist and independent stuff and moved into big studio AAA stuff.

“We just don’t have the infrastructure to move to that kind of stuff on a regular basis. There’s a limit, I think, to what we can consider successful in Scotland.”


Cautiously Optimistic

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to remain positive about. Scotland is still home to a huge pool of talented games students, encouraged and motivated by the country’s history of success.

“Scotland has a self-confidence in games that a lot of countries don’t. And while that’s not a tangible benefit it has a very significant effect on how people see us,” says Heron. “And it’s one of the reasons why so many students go into game development.

“I think if we do realign it, there is a lot that can come from the Scottish education industry feeding into games and the Scottish games industry itself. But it is going to take somebody blinking first and re-designing their courses along what the industry actually needs.”

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Barr tells us. “I know people who have been in the industry for 20 or 30 years that are not that optimistic, but I think it’s so fluid it’s hard to come down on either side – and that includes saying it’s all doom and gloom.

“The talent is here. The enthusiasm is here. The heritage is here. Scotland is in a better position than other places. So I’m cautiously optimistic.”


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