Generation Game: Liverpool’s Console Rooms

A feature on Liverpool’s flourishing gaming industry, written for The City Tribune (Issuu below).

Just two years ago the gaming landscape in Liverpool looked bleak. Sony’s Studio Liverpool — the bedrock of the region’s landscape in various guises for decades, responsible for genre-defining games including Lemmings, Colony Wars and WipEout — was closed down, just a year after Bizarre Creations, of Project Gotham Racing fame, became defunct.

However, with the city’s nurturing of industry talents it was only a matter of time before new companies started to spring up. In a matter of two short years, Liverpool is packed with games studios that have emerged from Studio Liverpool and Bizarre. Lucid Games, Playrise Digital, Starship and Firesprite are among them, with a dozen more companies in the city working in the sector.

Nick Burcombe who, along with artist Jim Bowers, conceived Wipeout in a pub in Oxton, is just one of a series of former Studio Liverpool employees who is starting out again, with his own start-up, Playrise Digital — a mobile developer. The studio’s first two games were a light-hearted physics puzzler called Baby Nom Nom and Table Top Racing, the latter a cross between Mario Kart and Micro Machines that has lit up the download charts — five million and counting with a port to PS Vita on the cards too.

Table Top Racing by Playrise Digital

Table Top Racing by Playrise Digital

“Right now, Liverpool is fast becoming another hot-bed of game development and we’re very proud to be a part of it,” says Burcombe of the nascent industry.

“It’s great to see such a creative resilience after the devastating closure of Sony’s Studio Liverpool and Bizarre Creations. “The loss of the studio is very big deal, but in Elevator Studios and the Baltic Triangle Liverpool has a hive of creative industries. You have the bands and music publishers too. Playrise, Lucid, Starship, Ripstone, Paw Print, Catalyst, Atomicom and Firesprite — plus many other new companies are at the cutting edge of this new era of game development in the region.”

Firesprite is another company that has risen from the ashes of Psygnosis and Studio Liverpool, boasting a team has worked on their key titles. Firesprite’s The Playroom is an alternate reality game that comes pre-loaded on PlayStation 4 — using AR technology it projects cute miniature robots into players’ living rooms.

While Firesprite’s founders all worked at Studio Liverpool. Art Director Lee Carus believes Liverpool’s current success in the sector is indivisible from the industries history in the city. “It’s part of the fabric of Liverpool now and you only have to look at the amount of people who have stayed in the city since the closure of the big studios. Having that talent base on your doorstep is a massive consideration.

“I think Liverpool is experiencing a boom in the gaming sector now. You only have to look at the number of developers in the city right now to see that. Ranging from two or three people right up to the bigger players like ourselves and Lucid Games.

Starship’s Martin Kenwright has also benefited from the glut of talent in the city, but while his company is creating traditional games, Starship is also venturing into new territories by developing apps that have a function beyond entertainment.

“We’ve created a business model which has ‘gamification’ at its core, and we’re using that to disrupt other sectors and to create new vertical revenue channels,” says Kenwright “The power of play is something that we’re really interested in here at Starship, and it’s influenced our IPs massively.” However, while Kenwright is a big believer in the city, he also believes it has to attract more investment and help existing companies develop more commercial skills.

It’s an area in which Carri Cunliffe of Secret Sauce is heavily invested. Cunliffe created north-east games network GameHorizon that, in turn, spawned an annual conference and works in the games industry to develop networks, curate industry events and work with games companies in business development.

As part of the International Festival of Business, and in co-operation with industry trade body the UK Interactive Entertainment Association, Cunliffe will be realising a two-day expo showcasing games currently in development. In addition there’ll be workshops with the government’s UK Trade & Investment arm, looking at how to make the most of new industry tax breaks, exports, new territories and learning from companies that have a background in those areas.

“There are some industry clusters around the UK and Liverpool is one of them. When a company like Psygnosis bases itself in a region it seeds a whole new growth of businesses as the people involved start their own businesses.” Cunliffe believes that new tax breaks that will allow games developers to claw back 25% of their production costs, if they are gauged to be sufficiently British and use a certain proportion of talent from Britain, will be significant in aiding small, independent developers. “What we find with smaller, independent developers is that there’s a strong cultural aspect to their product, so they will be able to claim back a percentage of money.

This is something which the UK film industry has benefited from for a number of years and is why many British films have a cultural essence. “It’s a little help for an industry that’s growing and it signals that the government recognises it’s important to the growth of the economy. After all, the domestic games industry is bigger than television and films put together.”

With a critical mass of developers in the city and the expertise to create games and apps that sit at the top tables of the industry, Liverpool appears set to take advantage of these unique conditions. In that respect the closure of Studio Liverpool and Bizarre appears less of a terminal blow and more of a reboot.