Guildford is one of the crown jewels of big-budget UK video game development. Over the years it’s been home to huge studios like Born Ready Games, Bullfrog, Criterion, Hello Games, Lionhead, Media Molecule, Supermassive ... the list goes on. Not all of those developers are still going, and that’s one reason why Guildford is changing with the times.
Where once you’d associate Guildford with the huge studios making top-end AAA games, now it feels more fragmented (in a good way). There are still top-tier games flying out of here - to pick just two examples, this year will see the release of Media Molecule’s Dreams and Supermassive’s Man of Medan – but there are many more studios working on a different scale, from solo development to team sizes in the low double figures.
Many of these arose from the ashes of Lionhead, closed by Microsoft in 2016. That in itself was history repeating, because many credit it’s predecessor Bullfrog as playing the key role in establishing Guildford as a game development hub in the first place – before it was acquired and then closed by EA in 2001.
I recently visited Guildford to meet several developers, and a thread through all their accounts is what happens when big studios like this close. The same elements recur across different stories. People who moved here a decade or more ago, usually drawn by one of the biggies.
When a studio like Lionhead closes, tales of experienced senior staff departing with pockets of talent, who then looked towards development on a smaller scale: tiny teams of three or four, all the way to 20 to 30 person studios, all focused on passion projects and a shared desire to escape Guildford’s unhappy history of crunch culture.
It’s a town full of developers who have often lived the 16-hour work days, the seven-day work weeks, and don’t want to repeat those mistakes in the future they’re creating now.
Over the course of a lengthy day in the city, we spoke to Jessica Saunders, Director at Salix Games developing Du Lac & Fey: Dance of Death, Oli Clarke Smith, one of the developers on open-ended murder mystery game Paradise Killer, Oli Purkiss, Lead Designer on co-operative MMO Boundless, Mojiworks CEO Matthew Wiggins, working on games designed for mobile messaging platforms, Christian West, Founder of PlaySport and developer behind Motorsport Manager, and finally Guildford veteran Peter Molyneux.
The point was to get a cross-section of developers and perspectives, and get into the nitty-gritty of what brought them to and kept them in Guildford.
My first chat was with Jessica Saunders, and she established the theme of smaller studios rising from the ashes of larger studio closures. For many independent developers, they’re here because they moved to work for one of the biggies.
“We came up, essentially from the ashes of Lionhead. Myself, I'm ex-Lionhead; Ed Reed, our technical director, his company - he was on Fable: The Journey at the time. I finished my contract at Rocksteady, I just won the Breakthrough Bafta, and I was sort of, ‘What am I doing with my life?’. I was looking for a job, thinking about things.”
Clarke Smith was also brought to the area by the allure of big studios, alongside the stability that their prior density offered those looking for work.
“What’s cool is that when I was made redundant in Derby and everything was closing, that was really scary. But Guildford was different. When EA closed there were suddenly loads more studios around, and I basically just went over the road to Supermassive. Supermassive was spawned out of people who had worked at EA and Sony, like Pete Samuels, He’d risen up the ranks and then wanted to do his own thing, so he spawned another company.”
“So I came here in 1999 to work for Lionhead, and at that time the scene was a lot younger,” states Oli Purkiss. “I was 20, maybe 21. It was a much younger scene back then, the community was very tight, and there was a lot of stuff happening in the Guildford game dev social scene. Most of the companies that were here sort of spawned out of Bullfrog, which was one of the predecessors of Lionhead obviously.”
While the Guildford game development scene of decades past was full of these bigger name studios, it’s not what drew everyone to the area. If there are two things Guildford’s game development scene is known for it’s that old yesteryear density of triple-A development, as well as a wealth of passionate developers who might sometimes say more than they should in their excitement.
For West, part of the allure of Guildford back in the day was not simply the big name studios, but in particular the contagious enthusiasm of Hello Games' Sean Murray, whose magnetic charm convinced him to take a less lucrative job.
“This is going to sound so geeky, but I moved to Guildford because of Sean Murray. I interviewed at a few different companies, most of them in Cambridge actually. I interviewed for one in Guildford, and the guy who interviewed me was Sean Murray, back when he was just a programmer on this particular team. His passion and enthusiasm for the games industry, and the way he talked about making games in Guildford, it just instantly made me want to come down here and work with him. The job paid me way less than the ones up in Cambridge would have, but I wanted to do it, he sold the job and the area to me in that way he does. He’s always been good at achieving that kind of excitement about games."
“I worked together with Sean for a couple of years, and then he left to go and set up Hello Games, alongside most of the team who had been sitting around me. They all disappeared, went to set up Hello Games, and I suddenly realised that was a thing people could do, I could go set up my own games studio, and that’s what I did. I hadn’t really realised it before that.”
Guildford has certainly benefited from some outsize personalities over the years. Peter Molyneux is perhaps the key figure in the area’s scene, and 22Cans represents his third (and smallest) studio in Guildford. So I asked him about the changes he’d seen over that time
“The games industry, it's like a living organism here. It started with a couple of tiny little developers, making games that were reasonably successful, and those seeds started to kind of blossom and grow. And what happens when something grows is that all these offshoots start coming out.”
“So, from these little tiny companies that grew bigger, and some were acquired, they grew bigger and then people left and they set up other companies. Where are they going to set up? Well, if their kids are maybe at school here, they're going to set up in Guildford. And those companies grew and other companies spooled out.”
“What's happened in the end is you've got this vibrant mix of companies that have been around for really quite a long time, and that are full of veterans. From those veterans you've got these incredibly vibrant, disruptive idea-generating smaller companies, and they all come together within Guildford.”
It does seem true, because talking to a variety of developers through my time in the city, time and again that story pops up.The fact that these are often teams led by industry veterans, however, does mean they’ve experienced the negative sides of the industry, and want to avoid that in their own work.
“I was just fed up of the crunch. I think crunch is just really, really unhealthy” says Saunders about her time working on bigger budget titles. “I don't like the way it's normalised in the industry. I don't like the way it became a competition within the studio. ‘Oh, I've done more hours than you!’ ‘My beard's bigger than your beard because I haven't been home to see my wife and kids in three months!’ And I'm like, seriously, this is a point of pride? I love games, I do, but I want a wash!”
“I started off working on a game called Bodycount [from Codemasters], and if you mention that game to probably half the developers in Guildford you’ll just get this thousand yard stare. It was just the most absolute development hell any of us have ever been through. Times were rough, but what we all got out of it was this sense of camaraderie that really brought together everyone making games in Guildford, got us all on the same page.”
Whether it’s Codemasters or Lionhead, the experience tends to have the same effect on those that have gone through it. “It has certainly been my experience that, as the local scene has shifted away from AAA and towards smaller studios, that we’ve moved away from crunch too”, Purkiss chimes in.
“When I was working at Lionhead we were working 16 hour days, working six or seven days a week. It was crazy. People lived the job, and it was exciting, you sort of got swept up in it.”
“Things are definitely different now. It feels reasonably universal that companies like us here working on Boundless understand that people need to be able to live lives outside of their work. I came to this conclusion a while ago living through it. You get a lot better work out of people by having them work less.”
“I remember once at Lionhead coming in the day after working until 2am, and looking at what I’d done and just thinking ‘this is rubbish.’ I had to spend half the next day fixing it.”
I ask the founder of Lionhead how he feels about that crunch culture now.
“It has been fascinating to grow up with the games industry, and I think that’s what we’ve done as an industry, we’ve grown up”, Molyneux says. “We were originally these new kids on the entertainment block back in the 80’s and 90’s, and we as developers were probably more surprised than anyone by the success that was growing around us. We didn’t have a direction, we sort of just existed every day. We’ve gone through from that to now, being a serious business, and that serious business has to take the development of games seriously.”
“If you compare the culture back when I started with the culture now, now it’s unthinkable that I would ask anyone here to work beyond 6pm, it’s just unthinkable. Now, often, if I’m working late, I get to 6pm and sometimes have to ask people to leave, because where I’m at in my life now it’s unthinkable to ask our team to burn their life away for their job.”
The developers I spoke to, perhaps unsurprisingly, all feel that Guildford is on the up again, after a few years when it had felt a little stagnant.
“You see the legacy these big companies being in Guildford have created if you look at the area now,” says Saunders. “It’s a lot of smaller companies like ours, rather than those three of four big companies which used to define the area. It’s just really interesting seeing lots of different games sprouting out of the ashes of the studios that came before. Seeing the breadth of creativity in the local industry.”
“There was a time with EA and Lionhead, Codemasters too, when it it was just lots and lots of big developers,” adds Purkiss. “It looked for a while like the local scene was maybe dying off, but now suddenly with Media Molecule being as big as they are, Hello Games becoming as big as they are now, it has drawn in this real influx of new talent.”
“It’s a great local scene, and right now it definitely feels like it’s on an up-swing, on a real high. We’ve got these massive worldwide success stories coming through. If you look at 22Cans they had a bit of a bumpy start if we’re honest, but but they’ve definitely stabilised now which is really great to see.”
“Five or so years ago I would have said the dev scene needed a shot in the arm,” says Wiggins. “I think that’s changing a lot now. When I first worked here, Guildford had that reputation really strongly as a UK game development hub. I think over the past ten or fifteen years we’ve really started to lose that a bit. In maybe the last five years that reputation has finally started to come back.”
As strong as Guildford’s smaller, more manageable game development scene currently appears to be, it’s not without its drawbacks. In particular, a few developers highlighted that the local city council hasn’t done enough to support the scene’s growth.
“I do think though that Guildford could help and do more to encourage those startups”, Molyneux explained. “The unfortunate thing you will find with councils and with government is their rhythm of working is so much lower than games, and so it takes a long time for those things to come through, I'm sure in Guildford's case they are thinking about it all the time.”
The thing that is impossible to escape in Guildford is that sense of community. Developers here have been through thick-and-thin, often with each other, and every studio appreciates they’re part of an unusually dense gaming ecosystem.
“We want Guildford to be a hub, we want all the companies here to thrive and grow, it’s not a competition,” says Saunders. “There is this incredible, incredible wealth of talent. It’s just so amazing to be able to draw from that when starting a new studio.”
“Supermassive had a very good project where they would get college and university kids to come in and pitch games, they had close ties. Just before I left I hired a bunch of university students to come in and work on one of their games. There was this feeling of young talent coming into studios and into the area, and injecting that kind of enthusiasm and thirst into the scene,” added Clarke Smith.
“Tonight there’s Guildford game dev drinks meet up for example. It’s really cool that there’s that sense of community there, and I think that’s what was missing in Derby and other places. When you go to the pub, everyone’s talking about what they’re working on, whether they’re supposed to be or not. I’ve always thought, if a games journalist just came and sat in a pub in Guildford, they could learn so much.”
Roger that: see you there!
After spending a day immersed in chat with Guildford developers, a clear picture emerged. The big studios of the past decades are mostly gone or changed beyond recognition: but what’s emerged is an eclectic, varied, and creative scene that produces everything from top-tier console exclusives to indie hits and mobile games.
A theme in this town of veterans was how many had learned the hard way the harm done by crunch, and have gone out of their way to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Guildford these days is a town of developers with families and lives outside of gaming. A place where experienced leaders are making passion projects and finding heaps of talented staff to pick from. It’s a hub that’s full of both fresh-faced excitement and hard-won wisdom, and its future looks brighter than ever.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.