How Leamington Spa is Changing — and Challenging — its Game Development Legacy

By Alistair Jones on at

“It was quiet,” Thomas Was Alone developer Mike Bithell tells me when I ask him about Leamington Spa, the town in which he began his career, “it was just a really nice, quiet town to learn a trade.” Bithell has just been speaking about a different world — the Hollywood boardrooms and stunt choreography studios that helped shape his most recent game, John Wick Hex — and in that global context Leamington might seem small-fry. But this quiet town is one of the largest per-capita game development hubs in the UK.

In fact it's even earned a silly nickname: Leamington Spa is sometimes called 'Silicon Spa' because of the number of tech companies nestled within its bounds. It was also named recently alongside London, Manchester, and Edinburgh as one of the UK’s biggest games hubs. As of 2015 Warwickshire is estimated to account for 10% of the UK games industry's jobs, despite making up less than 1% of the national population. 34 studios employ nearly 1,000 people and bring an estimated £100 million into the local economy, the largest single contribution outside London.

Some big names have called the town home for years. Long-running licensed game developer Blitz Games was based in Leamington for years before its closure in 2013, while the Codemasters campus is found just a few miles away in neighbouring Southam. Codemasters’ success helped lead to a number of new studios as developers moved away from the company to start their own projects; FreeStyle Games (now Ubisoft Leamington) was founded in 2002, followed by Playground Games in 2010. In recent years, the town’s status as one of the country’s foremost game development hubs seems to have accelerated: Sumo Digital, which has worked on everything from Forza to Hitman, arrived in 2019; while Gears Pop and Fall Guys developer Mediatonic has just announced its own new studio, set to open later this year. Bithell reckons that “if any journalist ever sat down in a pub on a Friday night in Leamington, they could have gotten four or five big stories.”

Despite the sheer number of developers that call the town home, Leamington's importance to the UK games industry can be easy to miss: I spent nearly four years in and around Leamington as a student, ignorant of the studios dotted throughout both the town and the surrounding countryside. While it may be difficult to spot from the outside, those involved are part of a thriving community. At Interactive Futures, a convention set up in 2019 by local councils to highlight the Leamington Games Hub, a Sega Hardlight developer told me that “on a managerial level, everyone knows everyone,” but there’s a social aspect too, with developers talking about everything from joint nights out to charity events that help to knit the wider community together.

The advantages of Leamington extend further than a few evenings in the pub. Phil Warner, the art director at Mediatonic who is helping set up the developer’s 60-person studio, tells me that there’s “only so much talent you can drag into London.” Mediatonic currently has one office just a stone’s throw from the Thames, as well as two more — in Guildford and Brighton — that find themselves well within the capital’s catchment area, but Leamington’s pull extends far beyond the West Midlands. Warner referenced a developer from the company’s Madrid studio who asked to relocate to the new studio, saying they had wanted to move to the UK, but that London was too daunting a prospect. Liam Rudel, senior programmer at SEGA Hardlight, told me that when he was made redundant from his job in Brighton, Leamington was the closest place he was able to find a job. When that role ended, the network of studios within the town meant he could find something much closer to his new home.

Warner, who spent 14 years working at Codemasters before moving first to Oxford, then to London, seemed thrilled to be returning to Warwickshire, telling me that for Mediatonic, “there was never an alternative to Leamington.” He also says that the company has had plenty of help from the local authorities — a potential site for the new studio, just off the town’s historic and broadly retail-focused Parade, was a tip-off from the local council. Government involvement continues on a parliamentary level - former Warwick and Leamington MP Chris White was chair of the All Party Group on videogames, helping secure the Video Games Tax Relief Scheme. His successor, Labour MP Matt Western, says that he is “hugely proud of the games industry locally,” and that he wants to continue his work with the industry “to ensure they grow and remain a huge asset to the community.”

Image credit: Vauxford, edited by G-13114

The growth that Western is so keen to see seems to already be on its way. The arrivals of new companies like Mediatonic and Sumo are helping swell Leamington’s ranks, while Sega Hardlight has spoken about its desire to double in size over the next four years. Other institutions are starting to take note - the University of Warwick’s new Media and Creative Industries degree is part of an attempt to maintain relevance in a region currently dominated by Stratford-upon-Avon in the south and Coventry — European City of Culture 2021 — at its centre. Thousands of Warwick students live across Coventry and Warwickshire during term time, and as a result Dr Carolina Bandinelli, director of the new degree course, says that “it is very important for us to have Leamington’s game development hub so close. It is part of our strategic vision to implement connections with the creative industries in the region.”

In spite of Leamington’s long history, a suite of new arrivals makes it seem as though the local scene is stepping into a new era. The legacy of Codemasters and Blitz Games can still be keenly felt, but Warner says that he’s wary of the ripple effect of those older studios, and that a more diverse local and national industry is changing the kind of games people are trying to make in Leamington. It’s not just the new faces that are changing things (Warner himself says that “if I was still here, I’d be looking to make something new”) but wider social and industry changes, new possibilities of ambition and scale. At one point Bithell fondly recalls the "nerdy contingent of game developers” that Leamington once was, and in parts probably still is. But these days that's far from the whole story.