How the Midlands secretly became the heart of gaming in the UK

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 3rd May 2018, 1:50 pm
Updated Thursday, 3rd May 2018, 3:10 pm

Tomb Raider was the very first video game Louise O'Connor fell in love with as a teenager, long before she held a prominent position in the UK gaming industry.

Now an Executive Producer at renowned Leicestershire developer Rare, it seems fitting that O'Connor should have ended up working a stone's throw from where Lara Croft was born.

"I always forget she’s a Midlands lassie," says O'Connor of the gaming icon, who was conceived 30 miles away in Derby. "People are surprised at how many well-known games have come from the Midlands."

Most Popular

    In nearly 19 years at Rare, O'Connor has seen her fair share created, from beloved platformer Banjo-Kazooie to cult classic Conker's Bad Fur Day - her first game for the company after studying animation in Dublin.

    "I think the Midlands is literally the heart of game development in the UK," she says. "It’s a growing base for indie and mobile developers - and over the years I’ve seen really exciting studios pop up.

    "The Midlands has become a thriving hub of creativity and development."

    "The movement for the monkeys in Donkey Kong Country was captured at Twycross Zoo!"

    Dr Alex Wade

    From fish and chip coders, to pop culture phenomenons

    Dr Alex Wade is an expert in the history of British games, and a Senior Research Fellow at Birmingham City University. Ask him about the Midlands' place in gaming, and he reels off a host of pioneering achievements, notched over many decades.

    How the Darling brothers founded Codemasters in Southam, and "pioneered budget gaming with their 'Simulator' range".

    How Tim and Chris Stamper founded the company that would eventually become Rare.

    "Their games include arguably the greatest licensed game of all time in the form of GoldenEye 007 and the beautifully rendered Donkey Kong Country. It is true to say that it is unlikely that the latter could have been made anywhere else in the world, not only because of the talent that Rare had, but also in that the movement for the monkeys was captured at the very local Twycross Zoo!"

    It was Core Design in Derby who originated the Tomb Raider series. Heroine Lara Croft would go on to become a pop culture phenomenon in film and advertising, as well as games. The first two Tomb Raider titles, developed in the Midlands, sold more than 10 million copies on the PlayStation alone.

    Lara Croft: "Midlands lassie" (Photo: Eidos/Core Design)

    Elite Systems, Wade notes, were originally located above a fish and chip shop in Walsall - "but were the first Western firm to sign a Japanese arcade game (Commando from Capcom)".

    The original Championship Manager, meanwhile, "was coded by Paul and Oliver Collyer in a bedroom in Shropshire".

    Datel Systems, a video game peripheral manufacturer in Stone, Staffordshire, "are a real testament to the innovation of the Midlands Games Industry", Wade adds.

    "Their Action Replay cartridges were a revelation in being able to access infinite lives, energy and time within Sega and Nintendo consoles."

    "We should be proud of our history - especially as regards to games"

    Despite all of this however, the Midlands rarely gets the kind of recognition for its gaming achievements that regions such as Scotland, Yorkshire and the South-East receive.

    "Even locals are not aware of the importance of the industry, or that many of the games that they play will have had some Midlands influence in their production, publication, promotion or distribution," notes Wade.

    "Jasper Carrot is very fond of saying how the Midlands is a wonderful place, but any pride of the place is always tempered with self-deprecation. We should be proud of our history - especially as regards to games."

    'Silicon Spa'

    It is perhaps fitting that Thurmaston in Leicester is home to the Retro Computer Museum - which houses decades of video game history.

    But the Midlands' place at the forefront of gaming is not merely confined to the nostalgic past.

    In March, Rare released the high-profile pirate adventure Sea of Thieves. It rapidly became publisher Microsoft's biggest new 'property' this console generation - amassing two million players soon after launch.

    As Dr Wade points out, the Formula One series - one of the biggest annual franchises in gaming - continues to be developed and published by Codemasters in Birmingham, who remain one of the biggest UK developers and "the only top-tier UK publisher operating today".

    Another Birmingham outfit, VooFoo Studios, "are keeping the arcade aesthetic alive".

    Leamington Spa meanwhile is home to Playground Games, "an independent developer who work closely with Microsoft" on the Forza Horizon series.

    One in eight of all the UK's games have been developed in the Midlands

    Zuby Ahmed, Senior Lecturer and Programme Director in Video Game Enterprise, Production and Design at Birmingham City University, goes so far as to dub Leamington 'Silicon Spa', due to its recent boom in gaming developers.

    "Pixel Toys, Lab 42, Lockwood and Playground Games. All of these studios started in Leamington within the last five to 10 years and they have grown their numbers substantially, due to their successes."

    A region on the rise

    Ahmed, who has worked in the games industry for nearly 25 years, has seen a notable surge in demand for game design courses, and maintains close links with the studios seeking future stars of gaming.

    Birmingham graduates have gone on to work at local firms such as Codemasters, and also further afield on the Lego titles at TT Games, The Division 2 at Ubisoft, and Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption 2 at Rockstar.

    The university's Gamer Camp programme saw it become only one of four higher education institutes in Europe to be first awarded access to Sony’s PlayStation First initiative, and was cited as one of three examples of leading practice within games higher education in the 2011 Next-Gen Report.

    Birmingham's 8bit Lounge will be joining a forthcoming event at the University (Photo: Supplied)

    Gamer Camp was also cited in a 2017 UK Interactive Entertainment Association white paper to 'have had meaningful engagement with industry' and 'the best reputation among students and employers'.

    "With the rise of games companies in the region... the need for talented graduates and experienced professionals is also on the rise," adds Ahmed.

    Outlasting the competition

    According to research by online retailer and marketplace OnBuy, the West and East Midlands have produced 13% of all the UK's games - a bigger total than any other region barring the South East.

    Perhaps most interestingly, the West Midlands is home - on average - to the longest surviving video games companies in the country.

    "It’s really the ultimate cottage industry"

    Dr Alex Wade

    O'Connor attributes Rare's own longevity in this notoriously fickle industry to "passion" and "fearlessness".

    "We continue to evaluate our culture, our team, our products and how we build things. I feel like I’m part of studio that embraces ambition. We have a wonderful team, who like a challenge, who build worlds for our fans to fall in love with.

    "The Midlands houses some of the older companies, but because of the location and because of the experience around here, new companies have been able to start up and take advantage of the surrounding development experience and the ability to take advantage of sensibly-priced real estate."

    Donkey Kong Country: a classic Rare game (Photo: Rare/Nintendo)

    In explaining how the Midlands became such a powerhouse in game development to begin with, Dr Wade points to some inspired economic decisions.

    An early business, US Gold, was so-called because it imported games from top-tier American developers. Their sister firm, Centresoft, distributed many of the UK’s largest selling games from an industrial unit in Birmingham; its eponymous central location and transport links making it well-placed to ship games around the UK.

    "This distribution network was closely combined with the nous of bedroom coders around the region who were not only great programmers, but were confident enough to go into shops like WH Smith and Boots and sell their games directly," notes Wade.

    "It’s really the ultimate cottage industry.

    "As we look to the future of games development in the Midlands, it is essential that we recall the past and isolate just what made our region – and this industry – such a success nationally and globally."

    Louise O'Connor, Zuby Ahmed and Dr Alex Wade will all be appearing at Level Up: A History of Computer Games in the Midlands, which takes place on Wednesday 9 May from 6.15pm – 8pm, at The Parkside Building of Birmingham City University. The event is free. For more information, visit the university website.

    Dr Wade's book, 'The Pac-Man Principle: A User's Guide to Capitalism', will be available from July.

    [Main image: Rare/Nintendo, Eidos Interactive, Codemasters]