In the first of our two-part series on Scotland’s games industry we look at the latest industry census and talk to leaders from the sector
When it comes to discussions about the UK video game industry, Scotland is often simply thrown into the wider mix – while that makes some sense when we’re trying to shout as loudly as possible apart the strength of development across the country, surely there must be a time to focus on such a key segment of that whole, a segment that’s home to some of the biggest names in the industry, such as Edinburgh’s Rockstar North.
The country’s industry goes well beyond big hitters such as Rockstar, too. Scotland currently has 425 companies working within the video games sector – according to new data from the Scottish Games Network. Of those 425, developers make up 317, tech companies 34 and the remaining 74 are supporting companies – largely specialists in audio, animation, digital design, music etc. Additionally, there are 37 dedicated games freelancers working across the country.
The number of studios have been steadily increasing over the last ten years. From just 12 new game studios registered in 2010, to 85 in 2020. The region’s industry has seen the same benefits from the pandemic as elsewhere in the world too – with the 2020 figure being a huge leap over 2019’s 56 new studios.
And so to provide a much-needed focus to often UK-wide coverage, we reached out to the Scottish games industry, to get a sense of the country’s sector in their own words.
While many will know Scotland’s console and PC success stories, far fewer might be aware of the depth of technical innovation that came alongside.
“Scotland has always been an early adopter and pioneer when it came to exploring new technologies, new devices, new markets, and audiences” says Brian Baglow, the founder and director of the Scottish Games Network.
“Digital Bridges was one of the earliest mobile games companies in the world. Years before the iPhone came out it was building a server-based system to deliver sophisticated, massively multiplayer games in a way which is very recognisable to anyone looking at Stadia, PS Now, etc. However they were delivering these games to dumb terminals – Nokia 3310s, Sony Ericsson T65s, etc. It was hugely successful and they were producing some incredible content, but then the iPhone happened and once the App Store launched, all of the previous technology was swept away.
“Likewise the Edinburgh studio Outerlight was an early adopter of modding. Their first game, The Ship was originally a HL2 mod and was an early success on Steam, though their experience with publishers eventually drove the company out of business. The game lives on to this day via Blazing Griffin and their recent take, Murderous Pursuits.
“Additionally, Denki was an early adopter of interactive TV, and produced over 100 games for Sky in the UK and DirecTV in the US, many based on enormous film and TV licenses.”
Despite this rich history of innovation, and acting as the birthplace of some of the biggest franchises in the industry, does Scotland’s industry specifically get the recognition it deserves from the country and beyond?
“I think the games industry is still poorly understood by many people in the media and government,” says Douglas Hare, founder and CEO of mobile game developer Outplay Entertainment. “I think the situation is improving but at the moment, I don’t think it gets equal treatment or the attention it deserves.”
“Certainly not,” adds Marc Williamson, CEO at Tag Games. “We have products built here that are financial and critical hits across the globe and you really wouldn’t know that they were produced here. The games industry still isn’t taken as seriously as film, TV or music even when they are dwarfed by it. This will change as those that have grown up taking games as a serious medium move into positions of influence in the media. We are nearly there.”
“We’re in a strange position where we have a couple of large studios, producing very high profile and commercially successful game franchises, which is wonderful” notes The Scottish Games Network’s Baglow. “They’re great examples of what’s possible and inspirations to every subsequent generation of game creators.
“However, they’re so big, they tend to obscure the rest of the industry and as a result, very few of the successful, sustainable and scalable studios are getting the recognition they deserve.”
With so much going on in Scotland’s games industry, why is its success sometimes overlooked?
“We are pretty terrible at boasting about ourselves,” says Tag Games’ Williamson. “I think that is going to be hard to change. There is an expectation that good work will be recognised and in the industry, Scotland is known as a powerhouse of development. Others in the industry know of Scotland’s history and development skills, but the wider media are not that clued up on what is going on here in Scotland. Lots of focus is around large publishers as well; the UK doesn’t have many homegrown publishers that can stand up to the big giants of the industry.”
“The local industry doesn’t shout about itself enough but it’s getting better,” agrees PTW regional president Marion Muir. “I think most people would be surprised that the largest entertainment product in human history (Grand Theft Auto) is made in Scotland.”
“The games industry in Scotland has far outstripped any other creative sector in terms of it’s impact internationally,” says Traci Tufte, executive producer of Axis Studios.
“Producing a number of the best selling video games of all time, even those with little knowledge of the video gaming industry knows ‘Grand Theft Auto’ or Minecraft. There are a lot of activities within the games industry outside of game development that also go unnoticed.”
So in the name of getting a better image of the country’s industry, what are the benefits of being located in Scotland? Though of course, as with any country, the answers may vary depending on the city. Edinburgh and Glasgow by far have the most game studios (98 and 64 studios, respectively) though the industry has a sizable presence in Dundee (40), Aberdeen (22) and Inverness (10).
“Edinburgh is home to one of the most vibrant digital tech ecosystems in the whole of the UK,” says The Scottish Games Network’s Baglow. “There’s a thriving hub around Codebase, Europe’s largest tech incubator which brings together almost every ‘x-tech’ sector known to man – fintech, healthtech, spacetech, you name it. It’s also home to startup events, such as EIE (Engage Invest Exploit), the Turing Festival and of course the creative whirlwind which is the Edinburgh festival and the beating heart of Scotland’s creative and cultural heritage.
“It’s the perfect place to give you context for the games industry, to see how other sectors are addressing their challenges and to help them understand all of the ways in which games are pioneering new approaches to user journey, business models, engagement, gamification and good old fashioned being-incredibly-commercially-successful.”
“Dundee’s not a big city but it’s pretty fully-formed, has a great quality of life, low cost of living, and has ready access to other bigger cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow’’ says Outplay’s Hare.
“Higher education-wise we have Abertay University and Dundee University on our doorstep, the University of St Andrews nearby and other world-class universities throughout Scotland. Finally, I think that the game sector in Scotland has benefitted from having Scottish Enterprise recognition and support that Outplay, and the sector at large, has valued greatly.”
Still, for all its history of innovation and a rich games community, working in any country has its challenges. What issues have our experts encountered?
“Location for attracting talent and business can sometimes be an issue,” says Tag Games’ Williamson. “Dundee connectivity could be better. While it is a beautiful train journey from Edinburgh, being over an hour away by train has its disadvantages. The flight into Dundee airport is great when needing to have a meeting in London, we could do with more of that.”
“Post-Brexit, our access to multilingual talent has been reduced, as the local industry suffers somewhat from a lack of entrepreneurs and business acumen to grow” adds PTW’s Muir. “Local businesses do not tend to work with one another very often, so overcoming this hurdle will take some work.”
On that note, how easy is it to attract sufficient talent, working in Scotland – particularly globally?
“Our talent pipeline should be excellent,” says Scottish Games Network’s Baglow. “We’ve got seven universities producing games graduates, and eleven colleges offering game development at HNC & HND, so entry level positions should be taken care of.
“However, it seems much harder to recruit senior staff and find people for positions outside the technical and creative roles, since we’ve not done a particularly excellent job in terms of shouting about the incredibly vibrant ecosystem we have here in Scotland, which makes it difficult…”
“Due to remote working capabilities we have in place now, attracting and working with international talent remotely on an ongoing basis is more achievable and sustainable,” adds Axis Studios’ Tufte.
“Before COVID attracting talent to move to Scotland had some challenges with shorter term and non-permanent contracts. But Scotland and Glasgow have a lot to offer, it has a thriving arts and music scene and benefits from a big city feel without the big city hassles.”
Closer to home though, government support can be vital to any thriving industry. Scotland may not appear in games media as much as it perhaps should, but what has the Government done to support the Scottish games industry?
“The short answer is: a lot!” says Muir. “Scottish support for video games goes all the way from local government incubation at startup levels, to the Scottish National Investment Bank co-investing millions of pounds into games companies (Blazing Griffin, Outplay, etc.). We’re also anticipating the Dundee Esports Arena that was announced last year (£40-60m project in co-op with the Dundee city council).”
“Scotland has been lucky to receive a whole lot of support from the public sector organisations across the country,” says the Scottish Games Network’s Baglow. “Scottish Enterprise pioneered dedicated support with the creation of the Scottish Games Alliance back in 1997, while the country had its own presence at E3 and GDC since the early 2000s.
“The Scottish government was an early supporter of Video Games Tax Relief, providing a platform for the industry and also the creation of the cross-party group on video games Technology in 2013. I’m hoping to resurrect the group once the 2021 elections are over.
“Finally, the Scottish government produced the extraordinary Logan Report at the end of 2020, which reviewed the whole of Scotland’s technology ecosystem and made a number of recommendations for how to make it more connected, collaborative and commercially successful. It focuses upon education, infrastructure and funding, and was accepted in full for the programme for government in 2021.
“This applies to the games sector as much as it does the wider software world, so this could be transformative. Off the back of the Logan Report I’m currently lobbying the Scottish government to support the creation of a videogames industry cluster, which would give us the infrastructure and the power to make collective long-term strategic decisions to make Scotland an even better place to make video games.”
So that’s the past and present of the Scottish games industry – But to an outsider, what might surprise people to learn about the country’s games community?
“How diverse it is!” says Outplay’s Hare. “Even just in terms of nationalities, Outplay has hired people from nearly 40 different countries in the last ten years and it’s something we’re extremely happy about. I’ve been in the industry since the mid-80s and have never worked with a more diverse and representative team in my life. Having looked at other game companies in Scotland, I know we’re not alone so I think that it’s as diverse as it is would be a surprise to many.”
Or, to sum it up in a sentence, Tag Games’s Williamson adds:
“How many countries can say they birthed Lemmings and GTA?
“There have been so many brands, IPs and games built here. We are only five million people, and the subset of us building games have created worlds and products enjoyed by millions and million of people across the globe and forged a place in people’s hearts and become a meaningful part of their life.
“We can’t always look to products of the past and the next global hit is just around the corner.”