London’s video game development industry is thriving – from AAA blockbusters to indie mobile games

Capital games: London has an important position in the worldwide gaming industry
Capital games: London has an important position in the worldwide gaming industry

For video game developers, casual “noobs” and hardcore joystick junkies alike, London is a renaissance city.

The capital is a pixel powerhouse with more than 500 games companies, the largest hub of its kind in the UK. The industry as a whole is worth about £4.2 billion to our economy, outstripping the contribution of film, TV, music, publishing, design, fashion, and architecture combined, according to Wired magazine, and it’s surging ahead despite economic fears.

On March 30 a pixel Sadiq Khan will open the second annual London Games Festival to celebrate what he calls “the richness of our thriving games industry”. With 50,000 people expected over the 11 days, the event’s organiser Michael French says the festival hopes to rival Gamescom, E3, and the Tokyo Game Show as one of the world’s largest gaming events, piggybacking on the city’s reputation as a “real creative crossroads” where tech-driven areas such as film, animation, special effects and games work in “great complement”.

Things are looking rosy. “The London game development scene is thriving,” says Dr Jo Twist OBE, CEO of Ukie, the trade body for the UK games and interactive entertainment industry. “We have a uniquely competitive offering globally. Many don’t realise some of the biggest worldwide successes, such as Football Manager, Monument Valley, the Batman Arkham series and huge free-to-play mobile titles are all made in London.”

So what’s driving the surge? Tax breaks have “changed the game for developers in the UK”, according to French, with productions now benefiting from the same reduced costs enjoyed by film and TV.

Growth is being dragged up from the top, as the biggest console platforms, such as Xbox and Playstation, put out reliable blockbuster hits like the Batman Arkham series, developed by Kentish Town-based Rocksteady Studios. French says: “Our game productions are just as financially competitive as a Star Wars or The Crown, and that’s conducive to both growing businesses here and attracting investors.”

While the big beasts continue to roar — EA, Square Enix, King and Rockstar Studios also have offices in London —smaller indie studios are also wagging their tails. Monument Valley, a puzzle game devloped by ustwo, an independent Shoreditch-based developer, was downloaded more than 26 million times and won 20 international awards, including Apple iPad Game of the Year 2014 and the 2015 Baftas for both Best Mobile & Handheld and Best British Game — quite an achievement for a small studio with fewer than 60 people. Apple CEO Tim Cook met Monument Valley’s creators on a trip here last week and was impressed.

Roberta Lucca, the Bafta-winning Brazilian co-founder of Bossa Studios, another Shoreditch company, says London provides a unique foothold for small studios getting themselves off the ground. “It’s a sought-after environment where we can get people from all over the world, the best designers and the best engineers,” she explains. “Our multicultural environment helps us to create games that go viral all over the world because we have an understanding of what’s out there.”

Lucca, like many, has capitalised on the mercurial shift in the way we consume entertainment. With our lives dominated by greater screen time — under-16s spend an average of three hours a day online, overtaking time spent watching television for the first time last year — we are more susceptible to the allure of the viral hit.

Angry Birds, Flappy Wings, Candy Crush — the list goes on. The ubiquity of smartphones has greased the wheels of a revolution in mobile gaming, with smaller developers dreaming of rolling out their own Pokémon Go — the Nintendo augmented-reality app that went viral worldwide last year — and London is at the forefront.

The success of both big titles and niche offerings is good news for gamers — but they give back too. Ben Barker, CEO at Run an Empire, an augmented-real-world running app pitched at fans of Pokémon Go and Game of Thrones, profited from an effective Kickstarter campaign, and the entertainment industry is becoming more reactive to the crowdsourced consumption of video games.

Barker says if he wasn’t in London he would have struggled to find the same levels of support. “We’re not narrow in our view here like, say, Helsinki or Stockholm are with mobile gaming,” he says. “We support everything from conventional console games through to weird new things. It’s that inclusivity that allows us to make something like Run an Empire — a strategy game that people play out on the streets of the city. It feels like the UK, and London specifically is waking up to how important computer games are to our economy.”

The knock-on effects of that awakening are everywhere. Vue has converted two screens at its Fulham Broadway multiplex into venues for multiplayer video games, with individual monitors for players while the action is also projected onto the big screen. CEO Tim Richards was inspired by a trip to South Korea, where he saw a crowd of 65,000 watching two people play a computer game. He said: “I realised that people will sit for hours, cheering players on exactly like Wimbledon. And, most importantly, they will pay for it.”

Abbey Road, the studio made famous by The Beatles, now regularly hosts recording sessions for the scores of video games, from Tomb Raider to The Sims and Final Fantasy XV.

But it’s not all fun and games. Like most industries, London’s gaming nexus is feeling Brexit shocks. Lucca tells me that among the 50 people her company employs there are more than 40 nationalities and she doesn’t know what the next five years will hold. “I’m an optimist,” she says. “So I hope that we will have enough support in the current climate to continue to bring great talent from all over the world. I’m a great believer in the cluster of the companies that work in London, and I believe that if we continue to foster our sense of community there’s no reason we can’t still produce great games, great technology for games and great businesses.” For London, it’s game on.

Follow Samuel Fishwick on Twitter: @Fish_o_wick

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