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.

Roger McGough Interview: Visualising The Verbal

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“We were talking about the project and came up with this idea of having door-sized canvases with old poems written on them,” says Roger McGough.

“But after about three pints we decided to have doors as canvases.” It is at such points in an evening that inspiration is most frequently forthcoming, I suggest, and Roger McGough laughs.

Most of the doors here are, indeed, canvases for Roger McGough’s witticisms and poetry. He’s a hard man to pin down – with children’s poetry, music, theatre adaptations in Tartuffe and assorted media among his body of work.

His wordplay and lexical dexterity are famed. But McGough is not simply a man of funny words. He has been a front-runner, twice, for the position of poet laureate and is currently President of the Poetry Society. He’s seriously good, if not always totally serious. Perhaps it is better to sum him up by saying that he is a very clever man.

And McGough, along with book binder and artist Mark Cockram and students from Liverpool John Moores, has created a delightful installation at the Museum of Liverpool in the shape of Liverpool Doors. It’s a funny, warm, clever and engaging corner of a museum that, dare we say it, needs an offbeat element.

“Some of the doors have resonance and some were simply sent in by people,” explains McGough.

Among the doors are examples from Bold Street curry house Asha, a door from sculptor Arthur Dooley’s studio, the Trophy Room door from Anfield and a turnstile door from Goodison, a door from Myrtle Street’s old art college (with Museum of Liverpool employee Linda Pinewood’s name on it) and doors from the Everyman and Everyman bistro.

“I wanted the people of Liverpool to be represented too, so we’ve got the Liverpool Saga (a lengthy poem written by the people of Liverpool for 2008, bookended by McGough’s words) at the end of this barricade of doors, mounted on doors from the Everyman,” says Roger as we pass a small painting of a clergyman with a glowing hat on, a recent addition. It’s called Arch Beacon.

“It’s about verbalising the visual and visualising the verbal.”

There are so many details to take in and to mull over that every door in the installation needs consideration. Some, like satisfying puzzles, only reveal their mysteries and pay-offs after a few moments of thought. Liverpool Doors truly does reward an investment of time and effort, something its creator has clearly thought about.

“I read something fascinating recently; apparently people who go to art galleries only spend an average of 2.5 seconds looking at each work of art. I’m hoping people are drawn to the riddles and the motifs here.”

McGough is clearly enthused by the project, as is co-creator Mark Cockram, who created the physical Liverpool Saga book on display as part of Liverpool Doors.

“It’s very satisfying for me, working the way I do, to see the finished product. I think of them as pages of a book; phonetics, diptychs, triptychs, politics,” he adds, with what sounds like the start of an impromptu spot of rhyming.

The ambiguity of what a door can represent is alluring, and Cockram is clearly excited by the potential for viewers to project onto the Liverpool Doors their own thoughts and feelings.

“There are so many sayings about doors: closed doors, early doors, locked doors. And they can mean security or insecurity.

“With the regeneration in Liverpool a lot of doors are being thrown away, used to line skips or to barricade houses; they’re little pieces of history.”

They are indeed. As an object both physical and metaphysical they’re intrinsically ambiguous and, because of that, they’re instantly fascinating. A gateway to another world. Or, more prosaically, the entry to the downstairs loo, toilet duck and Andrex.

Doors are fascinating in their own right; a little time capsule of a house or public building, whose interiors may have changed time and time again while the door survives intact. A door in the exhibition has been left totally untouched; a mural of Madonna and ancient sun-bleached stickers tell of a child’s bedroom, unchanged for perhaps 25 years.

Everything at Liverpool Doors is worth examining, chiefly because they’re covered in little McGough asides or witticisms, but there’s a lot more to them beyond that. Little reflections on Liverpool life and a physical representation of the different paths our life can take, simply by stepping from one door to another.

Just as I’m leaving Cockram comes over with a hinge, opening and closing it. “Look,” he says, “it’s like a book.” It is too.

“This guy’s been feeding me angles all night,” I say to no-one in particular, stupidly pleased with a rare crumb of wit. Cockram laughs generously.

But Roger McGough hasn’t heard what what may be the sharpest bit of wordplay I’ll come out with in my whole life. He’s pondering where to put another arrow in a door called Objet Dart.