Making Scotland’s video games sector a winner - comment

Most people know two things about the video games industry in Scotland: a) we have one, and b) it made Grand Theft Auto, didn’t it?

Monday, 14th September 2020, 7:30 am
Baglow has since 2004 run the Scottish Games Network. Picture: contributed.
Baglow has since 2004 run the Scottish Games Network. Picture: contributed.

If pushed, they might add that it “punches above its weight”. Combine that with a general sense that globally videogames are doing rather well gives a general sense that Scotland’s video games sector is being quietly successful.

I’m not sure that’s the case. From some recent informal research, despite the global uptick in gaming, some of the industry here in Scotland may be struggling. Since 2016 it looks like we’ve lost around 65 per cent of our developers, totalling around 40 today.

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Is that worrying? It could be. The problem is that the video games industry evolves fast. Not just with new consoles, but with whole new classes of device, business models, audiences and entirely different kinds of experience.

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Back in the ’90s, when I joined the industry as a writer on the original Grand Theft Auto, making video games was a major undertaking. You needed large teams and lots of time and money. To get your game released you needed a publisher, who could get the game manufactured on disks or cartridges (ask your parents) for dedicated video games consoles.

Contrast this with today’s market. Games are ubiquitous. Every device with a screen and a processor now plays games. Most are “non-dedicated” i.e. their primary function is something other than gaming. This has shifted the audience for games quite profoundly. The games engines used by the world’s largest companies are now freely available to everyone.

“Applied” games bring tools, technologies and techniques from video games to sectors such as film, television, education, and the workplace. Making games can now be done by individuals or small teams. Hobbyists and part-time developers are common.

Large studios are now the exception rather than the rule. Esports (playing games competitively at a professional level) has hit Scotland, along with massive growth of streaming games on Twitch and YouTube.

Lack of visibility

We just don’t know how big Scotland’s games industry is. We don’t know where it’s based or what it comprises. We’ve no visibility of freelancers, or of the actual games being released. The information we do have is inconsistent, out of date, or focused on old definitions of “real games”.

From what we do know, it seems like we should be doing better. We now have six universities and almost every college across Scotland offering games courses. But we’re not seeing many new start-ups. Very few games firms appear in Scottish incubators, accelerators, competitions or innovation centres.

Why are we losing so many development studios? If new employers are not coming through then where are our graduates going? Are we really struggling as badly as it seems?

Thankfully there is a way forward. Since 2004 I‘ve run the Scottish Games Network, which carries news from everyone in the sector. In July I was awarded a Connected Innovator grant, which will let me map Scotland’s games sector. The games industry has never really considered itself part of the whole “tech sector,” nor as part of the wider creative industries.

As the Logan Review said, we’re all part of a larger, interconnected ecosystem. If we want to build a better, more collaborative digital future, then games and interactive media should be a key part of that. Mapping the industry in Scotland is a key first step.

I’m also lobbying the Scottish Government and public sector organisations to support the creation of a video games industry cluster. We are proud of our video gaming legacy. From Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto to the world’s first games degree course, Scotland’s games industry has a strong cultural heritage.

To echo the Logan Review, our challenge in a rapidly evolving and disruptive global market is to make Scotland a place where the next tech unicorn is as likely to be a games studio, as a fintech, cyber or data firm. Wish me luck.

Brian Baglow, founding director, Scottish Games Network

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