A Wee Shuftie at Scotland's Gaming Scene, Then and Noo

By Andy McDonald on at

Even in these times of uncertainty — sorry to deploy such cliched political nomenclature – video gaming in Scotland is booming. According to trade association TIGA, the country's game development headcount grew by 25% between December 2014 and March 2016. That's twice the national average, and after Wales the second-fastest growth in the UK, aided by government tax relief. Scotland's 85 game companies employ almost 1,300 staff, collectively contributing an estimated £138 million of the wider Kingdom’s GDP. When you consider that Scotland's most glorious foodstuff, haggis, netted £4.85 million between 2011 and 2015, it would be foolish to underestimate gaming's importance to the country's future.

This is, of course, not news to the Scots themselves. Legendary development studios like DMA Design not only dominated their own time but, in that case, was one of the driving forces behind Dundee's current status as one of the UK scene's crown jewels. From DMA came any number of studios, including current cock of the walk Rockstar North (now based in Edinburgh).

A palpable love of the past runs through Scotland's gaming landscape. A vintage video game bar, Super Bario – very good – opened in Glasgow earlier this year after a Kickstarter campaign raised £6,249 to get it off the ground. I recently visited another retro venue, an exhibition in Edinburgh named the History of Video Games, curated by Future Artists Studios. Currently in its second run, it offers a hands-on experience with old-school major consoles and beyond. As I make my way there it's fair to describe the weather as pishing down, so I can't wait to get inside. Edinburgh's History of Video Games exhibition

The NES is our first stop. I discover I'm better at Mega Man than memory serves. There's Duck Hunt, complete with Zapper light gun, a Balloon Fight arcade cabinet and the original Donkey Kong. Despite the location the exhibition isn't especially interested in flagging up Scotland's unique place in the wider industry, but that's fair enough because this is clearly aimed for nostalgics. There are treats here: I'm impressed to see the Pac-Man cabinet with his original "Puck Man" moniker on the side. Insomnia's Retro stall

The next day holds an event on a much larger – and more modern – scale. Insomnia x Resonate is a vast, collaborative gaming exhibition at Glasgow's SEC, showcasing the latest technology and efforts from Scottish creatives. This has all the nostalgia stuff too, but watch out: I clock a Pokémon Green cartridge and my eyes widen. Never released outside of Japan! Then I notice it's in English, which doesn't add up, and the more obvious bootlegs around it. I buy some pin badges instead.

Rebound from Hexterion

Then it's time to sample the local produce. Glasgow Caledonian University development team Hexterion introduce us to their BAFTA-nominated debut Rebound. It's a futuristic form of dodgeball, with each round introducing more and more challenging, disorientating gameplay elements. It's absolutely frantic and hugely entertaining.

“The Scottish industry is fantastic,” says programmer Alexander MacDiarmid. “It is a big, friendly community who all just love to talk about games and share feedback and experiences. Every time a group of people come back for a second or third play, it always fills us with confidence that we are doing something right.

“Being in Dare To Be Digital was a fantastic experience, so it was unbelievable when we actually won it and got nominated for the BAFTA Ones To Watch Award. We got to talk to tons of people in the industry who were great at giving advice for the game and our future," says MacDiarmid. "It was at the BAFTA that it became apparent we have very quickly made a name for ourselves because we started to meet people from around the UK and Europe who have seen Rebound and wanted to talk to us about it. The whole year since Dare has been an amazing experience that has led to fantastic opportunities that none of us would ever have expected for still being at university.”

Naturally, Dundee's University of Abertay are here to keep the weegies in their place. The city's gaming history and future is rich, a third of Scotland's games companies are still based there, and Abertay itself created the first academic game creation course in the world. Today, the team of students known as Puny Astronaut are showcasing Skye. It's a serene exploration-puzzler that draws inspiration from the Scottish Highlands and stars an eponymous, serpentine dragon who even shares a name with a Hebridean isle. Our brief time with the game isn't enough to fully explore its verdant world, but look out for it next year.

The final and main attraction for us – and most others, judging by the queue – is virtual reality. My first-ever foray comes courtesy of Glasgow's Cape VR, a travelling arcade of sorts. Whacking on the headset, I'm suddenly placed on top of a skyscraper. Now, I'm not one to succumb to vertigo, but so potent is the immersion that my legs turn to jelly as I slowly shuffle forwards to look over the edge. Incredibly, I resist the urge to shove my friend from behind when he later attempts the same thing.

Across Scottish developers there seems to be much enthusiasm for VR as a technology, a sense that it's 'there' in some way, but a realistic perspective on the current commercial prospects. That's almost the Scottish industry in a nutshell. We're right there on the cutting edge and ready to go but, for the moment, we're conscious of the pennies — and Cape VR is a smart business for recognising a gap in how VR can be delivered. It's abundantly clear there's an appetite in Scotland for these events, getting a wee sneak peek at what our country's young talent are up to, and it's great their work remains so consistently surprising and unexpected. Let's hope the government continues to realise that, when it comes to Scotland's future, we should all be playing around.