Game On: How the North Dominates UK Game Creation

by Jane McConnell

The North of England is a hotspot for game development. Our correspondent spoke to Pixelbomb Games about an industry that’s thriving among the derelict mills of Manchester, Yorkshire and Tyneside. 

A dystopian future Manchester - the aftermath of the closing down sale TK Maxx.

A dystopian future Manchester –  here’s the aftermath of the closing down sale at TK Maxx.

Cities compete for different glories: financial success, sports, glamour or retail.

In the north of England, digital creativity is coming to the fore – and the games industry is leading the charge.

One of the beauties of digital is its lack of centre – geography and per-capita city spend do not define the success of a tech business. A global audience can be built from just about anywhere.

Even Manchester.

The lower overheads, property and competitive capital outlay have attracted the world’s biggest names in games, who employ local artists that would otherwise be forced to pick up and move away, taking their talent with them.

“Some of the biggest names in the world exist in the North,” say Phil Muwanga and Lee Blacklock, project leads at Manchester indie studio, Pixelbomb Games.

Lee reels the names off; “Rockstar Games (creators of GTA, L.A. Noire, Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne) have big studios in Leeds and Edinburgh, there’s Ubisoft Reflections (Assasin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, Rayman) and Eutechnyx in the North East. TT Games (Lego franchise) in Knutsford and Wilmslow; there’s many, many more.”

They’re well served by the region’s universities.

“About 70 per cent of our work force are very, very talented local graduates,” says Lee, “We can give them our experience and they are given a real opportunity to create and develop their art.”

Pixelbomb Games is a staunchly Mancunian studio overlooking the divide between Manchester and Salford (even though it employs talent from beyond the River Irwell, Preston and Sheffield).

The studio is currently making a game called Beyond Flesh and Blood. It uses 3rd person shooter mechanics to explore aspects of transhumanism and futurism; challenging players to defeat hostile scavengers and mutating enemy threats on a mission to reclaim the surface of Earth. It fits well with a pop culture that’s currently obsessed with tales of dystopian survival. (The Walking Dead anyone?)

Then again, fitting in is never really something that indie developers are comfortable with. What stands out about Beyond Flesh and Blood is that the game is directly inspired by Manchester, with artwork straight from the city streets.

“We are still creating a game after all – but we can look out of our window and go ‘hey, let’s make this more… epic,’” says Lee, opening the blinds to demonstrate where the muse comes from.

Beyond Flesh and Blood concept artwork, depicting a post-apocalyptic Manchester.

Beyond Flesh and Blood concept artwork, depicting a post-apocalyptic Manchester.

The game is ambitious, with Phil and Lee explaining that elements of AR (Augmented Reality) can be used to point out and explain the significance of real landmarks; they include World War facts and a biography that pops up over the famous red post-box on Corporation Street which survived the IRA attacks in 1996. Things we walk past in real life without a second look.

“You know; this is where we live, you don’t see a lot of games that do this.” Phil is enthusiastic to point out that Beyond Flesh and Blood is “not just a token gesture or a passive, strange caricature; we are capturing the essence and flavour of the area.”

“Looking at a future setting combined with the city’s Victorian architecture… what would it look like with skytrains?” Lee says, still looking out of the window.

“We can also look at an underground Manchester,” says Phil, “and reimagine a much larger space with people living there… robots; even alien life forms and the fauna they might bring…”

Phil brings an indie mentality to the studio, with a catalogue of his own titles behind him. Lee co-leads as senior developer, with years of experience working on blockbuster, studio titles.

“Being a small studio means we can keep it indie; keep it personal and be an alternative – we really like our developers and we want them to stay with us.”

The pre-release success of Beyond Flesh and Blood has proven that there’s an appetite for all things northern and all things new. It was given a green light in just 13 days on Steam – the world-leading games distribution platform that allows users to choose what they want to see released online.

A screenshot from actual gameplay. We reckon the Bannatyne Fitness Centre must be just around the corner.

A screenshot from actual gameplay. We reckon the Bannatyne Fitness Centre must be just around the corner.

“It is what we wanted to do as kids,” says Phil.

“Yeah – you can be a fire fighter or a warrior in your hometown; or get chased into the Arndale by a huge monster,” says Lee.

It sounds like a typical Saturday night in Manchester to us. But outfits like Pixelbomb prove one thing above all; the future of games development is northern.