Leamington Spa is one of those towns that I’d always known as something of a development hotbed, but I didn’t know much else about it. Located a little south east of Birmingham, it has a population of around 50,000 and only managed to grow into a town because people in the 18th and 19th centuries thought it had magic water (“the valuable medicinal qualities of which were brought into notice by Dr. Kerr of Northampton in 1784”).
The centre is densely packed with buildings but surrounded by nearby countryside, and has an atmosphere that’s an odd mix between a large village and a populated commuter town. It’s filled with equal parts pubs and cafes, big industrial estates, tall cramped buildings and spread-out residential areas. It’s a place that feels lived-in, energetic, and that community vibe carries over into the energy of the local games development scene.
I recently visited Leamington Spa to get a sense of the what the game development scene in the area was like. One thing to make clear is that much of the area’s special quality derives from large and established studios like Codemasters and Playground Games (Blitz was also part of the scene, until it closed in 2013). But those studios, as interesting and important as they may be, aren’t why we’re visiting.
On this visit I spoke to developers from a 30-person team making a game that’s a creative platform; I met a solo developer working on a mobile game about a cat; and I chatted to two guys who used to be in a punk band together, who are now investing all their cash into a new breed of detective game. We’ll cover each game in a little more depth over the coming days. But for this, I wanted to find out why they all ended up in Leamington, and what is it about this small but bustling town that attracts so many developers. Apart from the magic water, of course.
Dan Walters works at Sunfire Studios, one of a four-person team working underneath a railway bridge in a space that could almost be the interior of a small aircraft hangar. The team has a small bank of desks at the back of this coworking space, multiple monitors with big gaming chairs, and all diligently beaver away, stopping every so often to wheel-glide over to a colleague.
Sunfire’s current project is Stormworks, a game about coastguard and rescue missions that’s currently in early access on Steam. The idea is that players use a wide variety of tools and components to build a series of ships to complete missions out at sea. It takes inspiration from the likes of Kerbal Space Program, but focuses on making every in-game component functional to a deep degree rather than just having surface-level effects. The appeal is all in using the game’s tools in unexpected but logically consistent ways.
“I think Stormworks originally was originally going to be a top-down naval strategy game, kind of like an Eve Online-style game structure,” says Walters. “You’ve got your hull and you rig it out with all sorts of parts, creating the shape and the strategies of what you’re going to do in-game. I wanted to do something like that but in 2D, with a lot more depth to the vehicle design. It was going to be all about building ships from these modules, focused on this modular ship design concept.”
In terms of why Sunfire is in Leamington, Walter’s story mirrors that of many developers in the area: he initially moved here to join Codemasters and, after his time there, stayed for the community and town.
“I’m from Liverpool, went to university in Cardiff, and worked in London doing architecture for a few years,” says Walters. “I’m in Leamington now, and basically came here for Codemasters. It’s quite a small, relaxed town, I think it’s something like 50,000 people, and pretty quickly I knew it was the place for me where London wasn’t. I wasn’t a fan of being in such a built-up area, I grew up on the edge of Liverpool and was used to being on the edge of the countryside. Living in London without leaving for months at a time, I could never see the horizon; there were always four-storey buildings blocking the view on all sides of me. After that, moving to a small town was great.”
Walters joined Codemasters to work on a short-lived team that was designing and prototyping small games. The studio is (these days) known for its excellent high-end racing experiences, but here was looking to hit upon game ideas that wouldn’t require such huge resources to bring to market.
“When I joined Codemasters I had already made a couple of games on my own, so I joined their design and research unit,” says Walters. “That was the area of Codemasters which was looking at smaller experimental titles. It was all about trying to make games for different types of markets. They’re a specialist racing studio, and they’re used to working on games with teams of hundreds of people, so our design and research team was looking into making different types of products.”
“For Codemasters I don’t think that experiment in diversifying went so well, because they made redundancies within that department after I had been there only a few months. I survived, but the unit I was in didn’t, so they relocated me and some of us elsewhere in the business. Most of us from that small experimental games unit left Codemasters not long after we were relocated. We were very much people whose skills were tailored to design and concepts and prototyping, so being moved onto a servicing team as one of hundreds and hundreds of people working exclusively on bug fixing wasn’t what we enjoyed or were specialised in.”
Speaking with Walters it became clear that, while it was Codemasters that brought him here initially, what kept him in Leamington was the community of smaller developers with similar ambitions to his own: an indie studio making a game it wants to make in nice surroundings. Leamington’s a place where almost everything’s within walking distance, and all the developers either know or know of each other. It’s the kind of town where you easily make friends in the same industry, and can get advice and have a moan over a few drinks.
Codemasters does deserve a lot of credit here: it’s an attractive employer, a studio of serious scale, and has been around for decades. It’s the reason a lot of programmers end up in Leamington, and the reason that this is a good place to look to hire a small team. If you go to any kind of Leamington developer meet-up and throw a stone, you’d hit someone who’s ex-Codies.
“In terms of coming to work in Leamington,” says Walters, “the people I have met by being here, both the social side of things and the professional connections, that has been what really set me off and put me on the path to doing my own thing. Without meeting those people, I would never have been able to meet investors, make connections, and get to this point with a studio this small.”
Bubbles the Cat
A little later, in a boutique coffee shop on the fringes of the town centre, I met up with Johnny Wallbank, the solo developer behind an upcoming mobile and PC game called Bubbles the Cat. A single-button platformer about a cat who has fallen into another dimension, the game has cute art, a load of different power ups, and an accessible design that has the classic ‘easy to play / tough to master’ feel. It’s simple but a lot of fun.
Wallbank doesn’t use a studio space: he largely works from home, or occasionally treats himself to an afternoon coding in places like this coffee shop.
“It’s something I’ve done most of my life. I got my start making terrible text-based adventure games when I was about six. My dad showed me how to do some programming. I used that knowledge to create a not-very-good Sonic fan game.”
I like this guy’s style.
“I’ve been working on Bubbles now for about… nine, ten months? It was going to be a hybrid between Lemmings and a platformer. I wanted to keep it right from the beginning as a single-button game, so I tried making it have those sort of puzzle elements — so different bubbles will give you power-ups and you’ll be able to use those elements to defeat stage elements. It’s quite finicky, so you have to be precise where you click, and it wasn’t really working out. So the process of turning that into a single-button platformer, that worked a treat.”
Wallbank settled in Leamington Spa to make indie games for that familiar reason: Codemasters.
“I’ve always been pretty local. I’ve been based in the West Midlands for most of my life. I popped away to Essex for uni, and then came back and it just so happened that there was a job going at Codemasters. You’ll keep bumping into people who’ve worked at Codemasters. As you change jobs, people will be like ‘oh, I worked at Codemasters 15 years ago, ten years ago, five years ago…’”
Elsewhere I mention that Leamington’s a good area for studios to look for talent. But even for a solo developer, the sheer number of other people in the same industry is a blessing. We all need feedback, especially if it’s delivered at a decent boozer.
“I’ve got a lot of friends that I’ve met in the last two jobs I’ve done, and they’re some of my biggest allies in terms of game development as it’s a huge resource for getting people’s feedback. I’m very pleased with that — and it’s a nice area, and there’s even a nice local pub for games developers.”
Wallbank’s big challenge in becoming a solo developer post-Codemasters was that he’d been working as part of a big team, but now had to pick up the skills to do everything himself.
“Previously my remit was just games design, but all of a sudden it’s something that takes you quite by surprise — you have to do everything. All of a sudden you have to start worrying about Twitter management all on your own, and a bit of art direction,” Walters laughs. “I’m not very good at art.”
Moving on to a pub in the centre of town, I sat down with Oli Clarke Smith and Phil Crabtree, who are developing a game called Paradise Killer. The game is an open-world murder mystery, but one that doesn’t tell the player for certain if they have the correct answers or not. Similar to something like Her Story, progress can be roughly measured by how many clues you’ve found, and if you’ve found enough to make a convincing case for a prosecution, but the game isn’t clear on whether you’ve found the ‘real’ version of events or not.
Clarke Smith joined Supermassive Games as a designer when he was 20, while Crabtree was working in back-end software development before deciding he wanted to move into games. The pair quit their day jobs to work on Paradise Killer, with a development timescale based on how long their savings are going to last.
“We went to school together, and we used to hang out and skateboard and drink and play Dreamcast together”, says Clarke Smith. “We formed a punk band together, I was the vocalist and he was the drummer. We just hung out all the time. Phil used to have a permanent toothbrush at my parents’ house because he stayed over so often.”
Clarke Smith is currently still based in Guildford, a holdover from his time working at Supermassive, while Crabtree lives in Leamington and was initially drawn here by the bigger studios and the supportive game development community.
“Leamington is, I think, really the original hub to make games, isn’t it? We had Codies and Blitz started out here,” says Crabtree. “When you go out to a pub or a coffee shop here, you’re going to see someone else there who has a jacket on for Playground or Pixel Toys, or some other studio. There’s so many here, both large and small, that the town supports the community inherently.”
Crabtree goes even further: he’s something of an evangelist for Leamington, and sees its games industry as both self-sustaining and A Very Good Thing for the town as a whole.
“It’s strangely dense with talent, and I think that’s because this is where much of the big talent settled originally. People leave the big studios, form their own new studios, and it just keeps growing and reforming naturally, and it keeps going. In terms of why I’m here, it’s purely because I worked in the industry here, and I stayed afterwards. Maybe if our studio grows we might think about setting up an office here together. This area has existing talent, and there’s nearby universities churning out new talent, and it would be great to keep them coming in.”
“It’s important to have these clusters because the access to knowledge and talent, the fact you’ll know someone who you can go and ask for help or advice, can ask for QA help or design information, having that cluster is so important. And the city of Leamington knows how important game development is for the area.”
The civic support cannot be understated: last year the government announced that Leamington and its surrounding areas is to be designated a ‘high potential opportunity’ area. This follows the news that Warwick council is increasing investment in office space, and what it all means is that this small town is now being promoted to investors as one of the UK’s places to be.
Away from the grants and government initiatives, however, Crabtree sees the town changing to accommodate its contemporary identity.
“Leamington the town itself has adapted to the culture. The average person here outside the industry might not notice it, but we have things like pubs popping up that support game developers using their space, having artwork up on the wall representing some of the area’s development history, that sort of thing. It’s making Leamington a home for game development, it has a great feel and I would be loathe to leave it. There’s just so much of it here.”
My last visit of the day was to go and see Unit 2, a 30-person team made up largely of ex-Radiant Worlds staff. Set up across a couple of floors in an industrial estate 20 minutes’ walk out of town, the studio is working on Crayta, a game development platform that aims to bridge the gap between casual and professional tools.
The idea is pretty similar to something like Roblox, inasmuch as you create games using the developer’s toolset. But unlike Roblox it integrates the game-playing and creation tools into one, making creation an intrinsic part of the whole experience.
The service supports creation of online multiplayer games, having multiple people messing around creating a game together at the same time with their friends, and even digging down into the coding.
I sat down with Hannah Waddilove and Natalie Griffith from Unit 2 games, who talked me through the history of the studio, and where it’s at currently.
“Unit 2 has existed in Leamington for a little over a year now,” says Waddilove. “We formed as a splinter group, a section of staff who left Radiant Worlds when it was bought by Rebellion. There were 18 of us who moved over… now we’re nearly double that.”
“A lot of us have been working together a really, really long time. I’ve been working with Richard [Smithies], our CEO, for eight or nine years, Chris [Swan, publishing director] has been working with him close to 20 years, probably longer than he cares to remember. Many of them came from Blitz, to Radiant Worlds, on to here, together that whole way.”
Griffiths tells me that a big part of testing for the game has been centred around the local community, and in particular Warwickshire College.
“We’ve got quite a good relationship with the local art course at Warwickshire College, they’re throwing one of their courses basically at it. They’re each week spending a chunk of time on Crayta and it’s amazing the sort of things they’re creating with it. It’s really reassuring, because people create things that you don't think are possible.”
“We’re game developers, so it’s sometimes hard to know when things are the right level of accessibility, but working with 16 and 17 year olds on a games art course, they’re not necessarily people who have done much coding before, or who have done much game design before, and they all have really interesting ideas they want to try implementing. They really reassure us these tools are accessible.”
After spending some time at Unit 2 and seeing the weird and wonderful potential of Crayta up-close, the whole day had left a strong impression of not just Leamington’s exciting development scene, but its sheer variety. You almost feel that if you tripped out of one studio’s door, you’d land in another’s entranceway.
Leamington is a small town, population-wise, that punches far above its weight in the games industry. The locals schools and college feed the big studios. When the lustre of AAA studio development wears off for young developers, then there's such a knowledge- and skills-rich community around that finding new work – or help to start your own project – is not just possible but positively encouraged. It’s a town of opportunities with a rich history, and the future looks bright indeed. Perhaps there really is something in the water.