Game Republic’s Jamie Sefton managed to tempt Richie Shoemaker from his editorial lair to talk to Yorkshire game industry figures about the challenges and advantages of being based in the region.
You may recall back in our April issue we spoke to Jamie Sefton, the managing director of Yorkshire’s Game Republic, about the 20 year anniversary of the networking organisation, how Sefton came to lead it after his time editing games magazines and how it had become something of a source of pride, not just for Sefton himself, but for Yorkshire’s gaming community more widely. Sefton was eager for us to not just take his word for it, however, but to speak to some of the region’s foremost industry figures, so a follow-up meeting was set up, at the offices of Red Kite Games in Leeds.
Founded in 2012 by Simon Iwaniszak, work-for-hire studio Red Kite was acquired by Sumo Digital in 2019 and has since has contributed to the likes of Fall Guys and Hogwarts Legacy, among many other titles. Talking to Iwaniszak, however, you get the sense that Red Kite’s success is part of something bigger, a shared success that Sefton has been integral to.
Iwaniszak recounts the story of his first meeting with Sefton, just weeks after establishing Red Kite. Sefton pressed Iwaniszak to go to GDC, but he couldn’t afford it, in any case, he recalls, the deadline to register had long since passed. Sefton insisted he’d sort it and, of course, he did.
“I went over to GDC with pretty much nothing to sell and nothing to say but came back with loads of friends and contacts and things carried on from there,” says Iwaniszak, who credits Game Republic not just in terms of offering direct support, but by building and maintaining the personal and professional relationships between members that appear to have helped Yorkshire’s game development community to thrive. “Whether it’s been a kind word or an encouraging word, it all adds up. I think that’s what makes the Yorkshire games industry really strong and powerful.”
Revolution Software’s Noirin Carmody is equally effusive, calling Sefton “The voice of Yorkshire within the UK and beyond.” Thanks to his ability to get Game Republic members talking, meeting and collaborating, and because he could and continues to attract the likes of Apple, Sony, Epic and Microsoft, “It has meant tens and tens of millions of pounds to Revolution Software.” Escape Technology account director Neil Parmar says of Sefton that “It’s like having a dad in the industry” before delivering, in true Yorkshire fashion, a heartfelt compliment that is also a considerable understatement: “You’ve created a bit more than a meet-up.”
Since taking ownership of Game Republic a decade or so ago (subsequent to Screen Yorkshire withdrawing funding), Sefton has taken it upon himself to bring educational establishments into the Game Republic fold. It’s allowed colleges and universities to talk to one another, so that studios can influence course design and students can enjoy direct feedback, and ultimately find gainful employment after their studies are complete. It’s an element of Sefton’s work that he’s particularly proud of, but we perhaps didn’t grasp its importance until hearing from those that have benefited from it, because, as Nigel Little of Distinctive Games points out – and this is as Yorkshire as it gets – Sefton treats every Game Republic member with equal enthusiasm, whether they happen to be part of Sumo or Rockstar, or a relatively tiny independent studio (like Distinctive) that’s behind a series of free-to-play mobile sports titles.
Sefton recognised early on that smaller studios were just as eager to engage with universities as the larger studios that could, but perhaps lacked the opportunity or resources to do so. The same was true of Yorkshire’s smaller educational establishments. With events like Game Republic’s Student Showcase, however, students from across the region can garner valuable feedback, while studios can gauge the breadth of talent that is breaking through. It’s very much a win-win situation, although Sefton readily admits there is still work to do.
THE SKILLS ISSUE
“One of the things for us is keeping the students here, in the region,” says Parmar. Part of the solution there has been to equip universities with the same technology that’s being used commercially, to avoid the situation where graduates require more training or education that might unnecessarily drive them elsewhere. There are still plenty of issues, Parmar admits, such as a failure of some universities to understand commercial technology outside of an education setting, and there remain areas of underinvestment, which is impacting the scope of what students can learn, not just in terms of technology, but teaching resources.
Rob Reed, creative arts manager at Leeds City College, adds that programming teachers can expect to earn less than half what a programmer might earn at a top studio, which, given the skills shortages at studios, is only going to make the situation worse.
“It’s really difficult,” says Simon Barratt, co-founder and CEO of Cooperative Innovations. “Knowledge is going out of the industry.” Senior programmers, he says, “Are either extremely rich and retired, or in industries which have a much different work-life balance.”
The issue of finding and retaining talent isn’t unique to Yorkshire, of course, but through a shared recognition of the issues, and a desire for educators and business across the region to work together, the search for solutions just might be.
“There’s no right or wrong answer,” says Barratt, “but we’re working together with Game Republic, with the universities and the colleges feeding into that, and that opens opportunities.” Barratt would like to see more investment into universities and from the universities themselves, while, in the meantime, remains hopeful that apprenticeships and retraining will provide some of the shortfall moving forward.
There is a recognition that if the talent in the region is to be directed more towards Yorkshire’s game studios, there will have to be a degree of synergy levied from the region’s wider tech and creative industries, but just how established are they? Just across the way, the North West is increasingly becoming a centre in TV and film media and is no barren wasteland when it comes to games, so how does its regional neighbour compare?
“The tech sector in Leeds is massive,” says Simon Barratt, recalling the disruptive arrival of Sky Bet five years ago. “There is now a really strong startup culture and some pretty decent sized companies with a lot of money.” The expectation, or perhaps hope, is that this will benefit games, at least via an influx of skills, if not new gaming studios and other organisations.
“Medical science is big in the region and there’s quite a big digital tech sector,” adds Sefton, who thinks that many are now looking at games, not just as a side hustle, but as a focus for their business. “Channel Four has just moved here, lots of the big film and TV companies have set up in Leeds, we’ve got Tileyard North in Wakefield, we’ve got the Production Park in Wakefield as well, with a music site and VR production suite.” Sefton brings up MediaCityUK in Salford and all that’s happening in Manchester as indicative of how the creative industries are becoming firmly established right across the North, all of which is a help to what is happening in Yorkshire rather than a hindrance.
As well as hosting a number of the UK’s most established and prominent game studios and developers (Sumo Digital, Rebellion, Team17, Rockstar Leeds, Curve, and Rebellion among them), Sefton is just as excited by the newcomers to the region. Attracting new talent into the North and seeing new faces turn up to Game Republic and GaMaYo events month after month, year after year, means he is doing something right.
For those established studios, the network becomes self-perpetuating. They attract the talent, they keep the talent, and when the talent does decide to move on, the support network in the region is strong enough that the talent reestablishes themselves locally.
“We’re starting to see more of that happening now,” says Barratt, “where people do work at somewhere like Sumo for five or ten years, do a great job, leave on good terms, then starting up and doing something else.” He cites ‘boutique code studio’ Weasentron, whose roots draw from Rockstar Leeds (as do those of Red Kite). “I think the industry has changed to support that,” adds Iwaniszak. “We’re more mature and there isn’t always the bad blood of employees leaving, setting up and being successful.” The increased need for external partnerships means that studios are far more interconnected. “It’s a nice thing to know that some people could leave Red Kite, create a start-up, and might even work with us as an external partner. Previously it would have been, ‘Well, they’re dead to us now.’”
Fundamentally, Nigel Little believes, “It’s about trying to create some sort of critical mass in the region” in order to counter external threats that, in the past, might have come from the US and Japan. “Now you’ve got big, rich, oil-producing nations investing heavily in games.” If Yorkshire is going to remain competitive, he says “You’ve got to bring the universities along, make sure we’ve got skilled people in the area and keep working together where we can to keep the momentum going. Because if we don’t, then we’re gonna get overrun.”
Essential to that, adds Simon Iwaniszak, is working on the best games and the coolest tech. “Because that’s ultimately what’s attracting people to come and work here. If we don’t maintain the quality of projects, then people are gonna go look elsewhere. It’s not necessarily the name of the company as such, there are some great companies in Yorkshire, but if people can see the games that are being made here then that’s pretty critical.”
“That’s a big part of my job,” adds Sefton. “I do lots of talks at universities and colleges and one of the first things I start with is all the amazing games from the region. Often the students doing the courses don’t realise what they have on their doorstep. I’ve done family events as well, because, obviously, parents have a big influence on kids. It’s about saying, ‘Look, your child can have a really good career in games right here in the region.’ It’s getting that across.”
We’ve talked a lot about the advantages of being in Yorkshire – particularly the benefits that Game Republic seems to be able to bring to bear in the region, but what about the challenges beyond the persistent skills shortage that are more specific to the area? What are the immediate issues that perhaps hold Yorkshire back as one of the UK’s preeminent games hubs? “Northern Rail,” says Simon Barratt without hesitation, pointing out that the distance from Manchester to Leeds is as long as London’s Central Line, and takes just as long to travel, but whereas there are 49 stops on one, the train to Leeds has just three. “How does that even happen?”
Sefton adds that it takes just as long to get to Liverpool by train, 65 miles away, as it does to London, almost 200 miles away. When it comes to capital cities, Leeds appears better connected to Dublin than it is to any in the UK – a country, it’s quickly pointed out, that has better corporation tax benefits and higher videogame tax relief than the UK.
Before the conversation becomes a parody of the Four Yorkshiremen sketch, Revolution Software’s Noirin Carmody brings up the thorny subject of government investment, which over the years has shifted from Yorkshire Forward (which helped Game Republic get started) to the Department of International Trade and now the Department for Business and Trade. “The focus really shifted to international trade, so it was more outward looking rather than investing in the area itself, and I think we’ve never really recovered from that.”
Remembering her time in the chair of the board of trade body Ukie, Carmody recalls a succession of government ministers and a process of having to make the same arguments to different people time and again. “But on the positive side of that,” adds Barratt, “with all the devolution stuff going on and central government letting us keep our money to spend on problems we need to solve rather than it going to a central pot for them to decide what happens… I think that could be massive for us. I’m quite bullish about that, but obviously we need to get through the next year or two, with the cost of living and everything else.”
There are many reasons to be cheerful about the future for Yorkshire as a centre of game development excellence (certainly more so than for the future of its travel infrastructure). Where we might list the studios based in a region, or the games that have originated there (both of which Yorkshire has in abundance), what really marks the region out is a shared sense of success and interconnectedness, at the centre of which is the Game Republic network. Because it represents so many aspects of the gamedev community and works so hard to bring them together and connect them, and crucially, because the gamedev community is so strong and successful, it seems an inevitability that things can only get better. We said it before and we’ll say it again: Viva the Republic!