Throughout gaming history, the giants of the industry typically emerged from Japan – think PlayStation, Nintendo and Sega – while Xbox was born within American tech behemoth Microsoft.
When people think about the UK’s role, they often hark back to the 1980s and Clive Sinclair’s 8-bit Spectrum home computer.
However many of the AAA games you know and love were created right here. The North of England and Scotland have given us the likes of Wipeout and Grand Theft Auto, while many studios in the North have worked upon world-leading franchises including Call of Duty: Vanguard, Mortal Kombat 11 and Tom Clancy’s The Division.
From Aberdeen to Manchester and Sheffield to Leamington Spa, there is an abundance of talent in the North. “So many great games were made in the North of England and Scotland, but people just don’t see it,” says Simon Benson, creator of PlayStation VR and director of immersive technology at IN4 Group, operator of innovation hub HOST. “I was keen to shine a light on this.
“Individually, all these different businesses [creating games] want to be known, but they all try to do it on their own. I wanted to try and collect them together in some way and give them a central voice.”
Speaking to TechBlast on the latest episode of our webinar series Launchpad – watch below – Benson says Gametech365, based at MediaCity, is a community which aims to provide aspiring games entrepreneurs with the connections necessary to survive in an industry with a sky-high failure rate.
Before explaining how this will work, it’s worth looking back at a career which began as an immersive simulation engineer at BAE Systems. A keen gamer since childhood, he left the firm for the world of videogames after seeing a development studio squeeze a version of his Eurofighter Typhoon simulator into software “which had the same memory as our joystick”.
Joining Evolution Studios, he led development of PlayStation 3 launch title MotorStorm. After Sony acquired Evolution, he pioneered stereoscopic 3D on PS3 before pitching and bringing to life PlayStation VR on the PS4 – the world’s most popular virtual reality platform.
“Stereoscopic 3D was just really a stepping stone to what people really wanted, which was this idea of full immersion gaming – I always say it’s like the Star Trek Holodeck,” he says. “That’s the ultimate vision: ‘I’m in my game. And it just feels as real as I want it to be.’”
Benson claims he once offered Palmer Luckey – founder of Oculus – a job when he was still a student. And while his small team worked on PlayStation VR, it would be the virtual reality giant that convinced Sony to go all-in on immersive technology.
“When the Oculus was first shown at E3 – with John Carmack making it a big hit – that catapulted our project further along, because that was the ultimate validation that the world really wanted this kind of stuff. We were way along the line by that point, but then all of a sudden, the acceleration was huge – pretty much any resources we ever needed, we could just have.”
He describes the importance to PlayStation of making products accessible. “People could just go out, buy this thing, plug it in – and it just worked. It fit into their ecosystem: anyone who already had a camera or the Move controllers, or just the PlayStation controller itself, could use those with it.
“Don’t get me wrong: it was really difficult to get to that point because we were making something which had never been done before in the consumer space. We had teams in Japan, Europe, America, all collaborating really closely together.
“We found that, ergonomically, people in those territories have got very, very different physical characteristics: on average, we in the UK we tend to have larger, Roman noses, so we were always complaining about the fit around them; in America there were more people with larger head circumferences; people in the Asian territories often don’t like pressure on the cheeks. We were able to iron all this out [so the product was comfortable for everyone].
“It became an amazing product. For several years, Playstation VR was the highest-selling virtual reality console in the world.”
The rise of games
Videogames are now a multi-billion-pound industry, worth more than movies, music and TV combined – a fact unthinkable before the turn of the century.
Acknowledging this, Benson adds: “People forget that the games business is still a very young industry in a lot of ways. And now it’s this massive, massive industry… it’s phenomenal.
“It’s been on such a journey. It used to be the case that you could make a game on your own, then it went through a spell where you couldn’t make a game unless you were as a team of about 150; and now we’re getting back to the point where you probably make a game on your own again.”
The prevalence of games engines and other tools these days means that developers need not build every line of code when making a game, while even areas such as quality assurance can be outsourced. Practically unlimited memory also allows teams to run wild with their creativity and not optimise every byte of data, as was the case in the days of the Speccy and Commodore 64.
“All the pieces are there at scale, giving people lots of choices about how they go about constructing a game,” says Benson. “There’s a whole process around it now that never existed before: there’s a lot more maturity, roles are getting more defined.”
After PlayStation he sought new horizons by striking out as a consultant across industries.
Linking up with business mentor Mo Isap, CEO of IN4 Group, led to a conversation which saw them working more closely together to support the games industry in the North.
“He had exactly the same vision: he said ‘we’ll do this together – let’s get on with it!’ And so we set off on that journey. It’s now really grabbing a lot of momentum.”
After helping to cement a centre of excellence for games engine giant Unity at MediaCity, they are now launching immersive campus Gametech365.
“Gametech365 really is a community. We did a lot of research into the indie developers, in particular, and anyone building companies that utilise game tech as their primary point of value within their business: there’s a very good startup rate – something like 500 typically start up in a year – but they don’t have that greatest survival rate.
“Around 90% stay at around four people in scale and many don’t make it long-term. So we looked at all these problems and said ‘okay, what do we do about this?’
“Up until the last few years, most businesses that started in this space had no support, apart from their friends in the industry. Gametech 365 is all about trying to put a process around that kind of peer-to-peer support, so those people who want to give back can do so in a more targeted way.
“We can do the introductions and connect people where there’s a need and where there’s a supply – and reinforce that natural thing which has been the main factor in those businesses which survive.”
Asked on the podcast for his ‘rocket fuel’ tip for fledgling entrepreneurs in this space, he answers: “Embrace your passion – but also understand your limitations!
“The things that you’re good at [for example the creative side] – if you spend time on them – you’ll get even better at very, very quickly and move the needle 10 notches.
“But the things you’re not so good at [for example sales], it’ll take you 10 times as long to move that needle one notch.
“So play to your strengths, ignore your weaknesses – and supplement those weaknesses with others that have got strength in those areas. Everyone can then live their best lives.”