When you think about game development towns in the UK, a few big names jump to mind before others. Places like Leamington Spa, which has grown a vibrant indie community from large-scale studios attracting talent, and Guildford, where the collapse of certain big players led to veteran talent leading a generation of new teams. But what about places that never had a Lionhead or a Codemasters in the first place? What kind of dev community emerges when the opportunities aren’t so grand?
Situated in the heart of East Anglia, Norwich is a city of winding cobbled streets, historic buildings, and boutique stores. Norwich fact: it has the largest permanent covered market in Europe. From there you can duck down side streets filled with non-chain stores selling all manner of oddities. It’s a city that in places feels like a bustling urban centre, and in others a smaller town steeped in history.
Thanks to this heritage Norwich is a tourist city, but it’s also very much a university city. Home to both the University of East Anglia and Norwich University of the Arts, these institutions attract young creatives from across the country, and often keeps them there.
While the city lacks any large-scale studios, the number of students moving to the city for NUA’s highly rated Game Design and Development course, alongside the university’s links to a local games festival and developer meetup, have fostered a community of first-time and experimental developers. The idea is providing space for young developers to experiment, share, and promote themselves as they find their way.
Kotaku UK recently spent a day in Norwich meeting developers, students from the university, staff from the local games festival, and staff from the local developer meetup, in order to get a feel for what it’s like developing games in a city that doesn’t (yet) have its own huge studios contributing.
For many, Norwich University of the Arts (NUA) was what first drew them to the city. The course, which focuses on a mix of practical development skills and making your games viable commercial products, has a reputation for hands-on teaching, getting students stuck into making games, and supporting them once their course is over.
“The course covers pretty much everything I would need to know not only to go out into the industry but also to become an indie, all the connections they had, it came together and made it clear NUA was where I wanted to go,” says Charlie Sturgess, a third year student at the university who’s currently preparing to release his first mobile game (which doubles up as his final course project).
The attraction for Sturgess is that practical side: the course focuses not only on the art of making games, but focuses on encouraging students to think about how they’re going to make games into a viable career once the course ends. It’s an angle that seems especially appropriate given the lack of big studio opportunities in the area.
“The tutors keep these things in mind. They’ll say things like ‘that’s fantastic, It’s great you want to make your own stuff, have you considered the business, have you considered your five year plan, who are you going to market to?’”
Of course, just because the opportunities are there doesn’t mean they’re all taken up. The course has recently been tweaked to try and push students to make use of those opportunities, which Sturgess thinks is because too many of his fellow students weren’t engaging with the vocational side.
“I do think too few students take advantage of the amazing out-of-class resources NUA offer. A lot still treat it like they’re in college, doing the project but not thinking about everything outside of that they’ll need later in their careers. [So] NUA has made some of these aspects of development a part of our marked grade, called careers prep. Do you have a CV? Have you been connecting with the wider indie dev community? Job applications? It’s making sure you’re putting in the effort to do this as a job, not just an academic exercise.”
NUA also encourages group projects, which has been the catalyst for small studios forming in the city. This is the case for Lyrelark, a small team in Norwich working on a game called Rhythm of the Gods, which we’ve previously covered on Kotaku UK. It’s a rhythm-action game where players have to jump, duck, and fight their way through levels, all in time with the music, in an attempt to please the gods and halt natural disasters.
“We started working together because we got on really well working on projects together at university, and we just wanted to continue that onwards”, says Fletch Arrow, artist and social media manager at Lyrelark.
“The bulk of the team, we met pretty much our first day at NUA studying game design” chimes in Erin Gray, who handles overall concepts, narrative, scenarios, and editing for the small studio.
“The first time we got to work together on a project was during our second year, that was when we first got assigned group projects as part of the course, we did a game jam together as a team, and worked together a bit longer, maybe eight weeks, on our second project. After that we attended another game jam together. During that one year we made maybe three games together as part of our course.”
While NUA was supportive and helped Lyrelark get on their feet, the team knew their options within Norwich were limited.
— Rhythm of the Gods (@RhythmoftheGods) November 15, 2018
“The uni was really good for helping with indie stuff, but as Gray said they didn’t sugar-coat any of it” adds Luke King, a 3D modeller and coder on the team. “At graduation, I told one of the tutors, George Beard, that we were starting our own studio, we’re carrying on with the indie stuff, and his words were ‘I must have been teaching you wrong’, haha. He’s got his own little indie company. We were just joking around. But it’s a good indicator that they view indie studios as a difficult thing to start on your own.”
The support was more than lip-service, however. The university offered them use of an office to work from as a team, helped with all the paperwork to form a company, and advised on the less-obvious sides of running an independent company. This kind of backing made all the difference to the team, and is a big factor in why they’re still living and working in Norwich.
You might think I’m overstating this, but Norwich isn’t the easiest place to forge ahead in the industry. Most of the developers I spoke to were holding down part-time jobs unconnected to game development, spending their evenings and weekends on passion projects that they hope might one day take off. So what does keep talented young creators making games here?
The answer is a combination of the town itself, the welcoming indie community, the attraction of NUA, and the strong opportunities presented to first-time developers by Norwich Games Festival.
“For a good few years living and making games in Norwich, I didn’t interact at all with the rest of the development community,” says Andrew Neale, developer of the light-hearted fighting game Irrational Karate.
“I eventually found the game dev meetup group locally which I do now attend. I think I had a lot of issues with imposter syndrome, not feeling like my games were good enough to be involved with meeting other developers.”
“Now I’ve started attending the developer meetups, it feels so silly that I didn’t go sooner. When you’re working solo, and you feel bad about a project, this group is there to tell you things do look promising, to help you out of that worry. It’s massively valuable to me as a solo developer. But they also provide genuine criticism, criticism that’s not friends and family who feel they have to be nice about it.”
The Norfolk Game Developer Meetup, based in Norwich, is currently run by a group including Robin Milton, a games design lecturer at Access Creative College and former student of Norwich University of the Arts. The group, which meets at least once per month, run social events at pubs to keep the local development community connected, as well as more formal meetups in an office space, where developers can bring their builds for feedback.
While some developers like Neil were initially worried to take part in a developer meetup due to the fear that you had to pass some kind of bar of success before attending, Milton makes it clear the focus of the group is for anyone, of any level of game development experience, to feel welcome. The group wants everyone making games to feel part of the community, so that the local scene can grow.
“It tends to be a mixture of people that are maybe working in larger companies for games development that are interested in doing their own projects on the side, and then it's a mixture of people either full time independent developers, or a lot of people that are very new to it, interested in it, playing around with the ideas, and I guess more passion projects you'd call them.”
“My number one aim with the group is that we’re approachable and people don't feel like they have to have done a certain thing, or made a certain number of games or anything like that in order to come along and take part. I think sometimes - I mean, ironically before I started coming to the meetups, I was worried that I wouldn't have enough experience in games development. I'm very keen for people to feel like they can just come along and, you know, take part. They don't have to come every month, they can come a couple times a year and they're still just as welcome. We've had people visit from other areas of the country that have known there's a meetup, and have just come along as part of a holiday in Norfolk, and that's really fun getting their perspective. We had a couple from Nottingham, and a guy from Brighton. That was really special!”
Across the developers we spoke to, this feeling that the meetup group was at the core of the local community was a constant.
“There's a Discord group that we chat in, we share what we do, as well as the monthly meetups and showcase”, added Hannah Rose, an indie developer who has created some fascinating autobiographical games during her time in the city.
“I came across them because I just googled ‘Norfolk games developer meetup’. You come across their page, you go through that to find out there's a Discord group, you go to the Discord group, and there's people there. It's an interesting mix of people. One of the most active members of the community is not actually in Norwich anymore - he works for Crayta in Leamington Spa. They're really lovely. And I think they quite embody the spirit of that group in general.”
“It's like whenever you have these small, niche hobbies - which I guess game design in Norwich kind of is to some degree, even though we have a University of the Arts which specifically offers a course in it, to have a space to connect with what those around you are doing is vital.”
The meetup is one of two things mentioned by every single developer I spoke with. The other area they all found common ground on was the importance of Norwich Games Festival.
“The Norwich Games Festival is a really great opportunity for a local first time game developer, for me it was free promotion and quality testing”, says Dean Clarke, who is developing a 3D mascot platformer called Ascent: Crash Landing under the name Spark Games. “We had young kids playing it, adults playing it, you got feedback both good and bad from people with all levels of game playing experience, and it really helped up get the game ready for the wider public.”
“Everything they show off at the Festival is family friendly, so my game fit in really well.”
I chatted to Dan Scales, producer at the Norwich Games Festival and lead developer at Four Circle Interactive, to try and get a sense of what role it plays in supporting up and coming developers.
“What I really try to do with the event is to show people things that they may not try at home, and make it as accessible to everyone as possible” explains Scales. “So even if you haven't played a game before, or if you only like certain types of games, or if you're not sure what gaming is about, then it's still accessible. But on the other hand we also try and encourage people who do have a great passion for games to be able to engage with developers, showcase stuff they've been working on and visit talks and events that allow them to develop their skills.”
The free event, which draws in around 40,000 attendees annually, feels like a real moment every time it hits the city. You get families with young children, teenagers who game constantly, and even older people who may not game themselves, exploring an event that showcases the type of games you don’t see elsewhere.
“What we do at the festival is provide free exhibition space for developers and we love showcasing developers from Norwich. We've showcased handfuls of games from Norwich and I think we were the first event that Ghost Town Games brought Overcooked! to, which was very exciting. To see them go on and do incredibly well was just really awesome.”
It’s a chance for developers to get their games played by the kind of audience who might not find their work otherwise, and here too NUA gets involved.
“Norwich University of the Arts is our lead educational partner for the festival, and we work really closely with them – we host exhibitions to show off their art, and we started a couple of years ago working to make sure students have a space to exhibit their games and projects. The content that the students are bringing along is really great. I went around and played each and every one of those games last year, and I had a great time. I know quite a few of them have gone on from the course to starting up their own game development companies. I just think it's awesome.”
“The University was really proactive, making us all aware of the Festival and how we could get involved quite early on,” adds Erin Gray. “Either my first or second year I went to the festival and did concept art on the NUA stand, and the following year I did the same while the rest of the team were sat directly opposite showing off Rhythm of the Gods.”
“The university do definitely encourage students to get involved in the local Games Festival, and that obviously does intensify the closer to the end of the course you get”, says Sturgess.
“During our second year it was very much optional, if you have something to show off then show it at NGF, but if you’re not showing something off you should still definitely be going along. It’s a great event for networking.”
“However, in third year, the indie dev section of our course, the tutors are much more saying ‘what are you going to show?’ It’s more a statement than a question, they really want you to utilise that opportunity. There is no reason not to, sensibly, if you have something you can show. If you want to get the experience and feedback early, in a safe environment, go do it.”
“I think it really helps that the Games Festival has a very strong link with the University of the Arts”, added Stuart Ashen, a popular YouTuber, as well as author of retro video game books Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of and Attack of the Flickering Skeletons. Ashen is a Norwich local, and frequently does talks at the Games Festival, as well as taking an active interest in the local development scene.
“Kids who are into Fortnite can go there and find stuff that interests them, but they’ll end up encountering a bunch of other stuff that widens the kind of games they’re experiencing."
“It’s just so much more accessible than 4,000 screens in a dark room. It’s much more chilled, bright, and properly family friendly. Somebody can take the kids and have a look around safely, it’s all just nice and welcoming.”
After a day in Norwich, a few things about the development scene became apparent. The Norwich game dev scene isn’t like the others we’ve previously visited: it’s not held together by veteran talent, big-name studios, or even necessarily opportunities for work connected to games. It’s at a different stage, a town (and a very committed university) that’s laying the foundations for a creative future and held together by a welcoming atmosphere and a number of local superstars who go above and beyond.
Still it’s hard to ignore the fact that, despite it all, Norwich doesn’t yet seem to have taken off. Norwich University of the Arts brings in young talent excited to make games, supports them as best it can, there’s a welcoming local festival with a high turnout, and a bunch of welcoming indies. The future looks bright, but I wondered why the present isn’t brighter too.
“There are opportunities here, they do exist, but they’re few and far between, and frankly it really surprises me that there’s no plans for a big studio here,” says Sturgess. “There’s all this talent coming out of the university, it’s such a good course. The city clearly knows games are important to them, they have the Festival. There’s One Life Left, the gaming cafe which is doing incredibly well.”
“Studios have set up here before, and they’ve moved on. Sometimes they fall apart, other times they grow and move to bigger areas. It’s very telling that there’s not a single notable large studio that has stayed here and thrived for several years, growing and hiring positions. It’s truly unfortunate”
When we’ve covered places like Leamington and Guildford, the big studios play such an important role in the ecosystem. They act as a kind of safety net for the folk going out on their own. Many indies in these towns have had various stints at Codemasters or Playground or Lionhead or whatever, and in this way the big studios make the solo path a little more viable.
If it all goes wrong, at least you know you can get a job at one of those. It’s the kind of thing that a 20-year old developer might scoff at, but a 40-year old developer will recognise as an incredibly important consideration.
Norwich has some of the ideal conditions for a big studio, not least a university continually producing young talent, but it just doesn’t have one.
“There’s a lot of talent coming out of the university but there’s very little business experience within those groups,” says Sturgess. “These are uni students who have never run companies before launching out, and that’s a difficult thing to manage. They’re risking a lot, because they’ve often never had to take the step from game to product before.”
“It’s ridiculous that there isn’t a big studio here just hoovering up talent, there’s so much skill and enthusiasm.”
“The people making games in Norwich who I have met have really exciting and forward thinking ideas. They want these ideas to become reality. This isn’t a town producing people eager to make the next big triple A game as part of a wall of developers, they generally want to make what seem like very interesting ideas. They want to make games only they could make. They have stories to tell and perspectives to share. There’s a great amount of diverse representation. But it all just dissipates and filters away. If that talent had something to keep it here, we could really be a powerhouse."
In 2016, The Guardian carried an article on the 10 Happiest Cities To Work in the UK, and in first place was Norwich. Even on brief acquaintance I can see why: its strange mix of feeling like both a big city and a local community, those fascinating little side-streets that shoot off everywhere. The scale of a city, but a feeling of a tight-knit community.
Norwich may not have its huge studio, yet, but this is a place looking to the future. Those who are there now know that, no matter how big or small their project is, they’ll have the support of everyone around them in making it a success.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.