Capital Gains: Why It’s Great to Be a Mobile Game Dev in London
The U.K. has a long history of dominance in the mobile game industry. And, despite the country’s recent Brexit and the unclear economic implications associated with this impending secession from the European Union, it shows no signs of slowing when it comes to mobile game growth.
While the U.K.’s mobile gaming success is often eclipsed by white-hot markets such as China, the country actually ranks sixth in the world in annual mobile game revenue. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, the North of England was the U.K.’s hot spot for games. But in recent years the buzz has gone urban: making London the epicenter of mobile gaming in the country.
One reason for this urban growth? The city’s large and growing population of small, indie studios.
“It’s been a big shift over the last few years,” explains Daniel Gray, head of ustwo, the group behind award-winning puzzle game Monument Valley. Gray says the lack of larger studios in the area actually makes way for a smaller movement in London focused specifically on mobile. The result is a dynamic, creative climate where developers can thrive, but the question remains (and is heightened due to Brexit): is this indie-dominant environment one that’s built to last?
London’s diversity offers opportunity for smaller shops
Gray believes that the diversity of industry in London plays a big part in the success of small studios in the area, including his own. “[London’s] energy makes you feel like you’re on the cusp of all things creative, and being in East London around a bunch of artists and fashion designers forced us to not think so traditionally with the way we make games,” Gray says. “It felt like we managed to make a game for non-gamers, by not surrounding ourselves with just gamers.”
Funding is easier to come by in London than many cities both in the U.K. and Europe, as well. “Although we don’t have access to the regional funds other parts of the U.K. do, we do have the biggest startup and investment community in the country,” says Ian Masters of mobile studio QuizTix. London-based businesses were responsible for 75 percent of total funding raised in the U.K. in 2015, which was itself a record-setting year in venture capital for the country.
Once the capital flows in, Gray believes that London’s engaged developer community contributes to continued growth. “I think the density around cities like London spawns all kinds of additional community events that fuels growth and visibility further,” Gray says. This includes things like hackspaces with devs building their own crazy game controllers, to lunch meet-ups in Soho, to regular indie drinks in South and North London. Masters adds that co-working spaces—including one right by Google’s London campus—are popping up across the city.
Rising prices are the resident evil
Though the city’s economic boom of the 1980s onwards has drawn creative industries like mobile gaming to London, the cost of both living and working there rises just as quickly as the opportunities do.
“It might become a real financial problem to be creative in the capital if things continue the way they are going,” says Gray, warning that studios may be forced to contain themselves creatively in the years ahead just to stay afloat. “When rents are so high it would be shame if people began to take less risks in favor of safer bets.”
The average value for tenancies in London—the equivalent of about $2,092 per month in the U.S.—are 103 percent higher than the rest of the U.K. For the population under 30 living in London, these sky-high rent costs eat up an average 57 percent of their monthly earnings. But that doesn’t seem to deter them from wanting to live and work in the city.
“We’ve discussed at length in our own team about the possibility of moving out of London,” Gray says. “We’d save an incredible amount of money and be able to take even more risks with our games. It always comes down to one core issue, though, and that’s recruitment…It’s a real benefit to have a top tier city to attract [qualified employees].”
To remain top dog, London should embrace new (and old) technologies
Though the likes of Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham are taking steps to overtake London’s grip on the U.K. gaming industry, they’re not there yet. And despite cost of living concerns, Masters and Gray are hopeful about the longevity of London’s developer scene.
Gray says mobile game development is “a difficult, specialized discipline to get right,” adding “as studios grow and also fail we’ll see more indies popping up full of people who already know what they’re doing. We’ve already seen a magnified version of this in Helsinki.”
For Masters, London’s role in the future of gaming could be a uniting one. As technologies converge, so should the talent in London-based studios. “I hope we’ll see more collaboration between the console and mobile ends of the industry in the city,” he says. “We’ve seen mobile devices pass performance of Xbox 360, and we’ve seen traditional mobile-first skills like UX and analytics become increasingly important for console. I think VR may just be the collision point that needs and makes the best of both worlds.”