Feature

North West England Week: How indies are bringing Manchester back from the brink

North West England Week: How indies are bringing Manchester back from the brink

Manchester is fast becoming the most important media hub in the whole of the North of England.

Though it caused much controversy amongst the leading lights in London, 2012 was the year when the most powerful media organisation in the UK – the BBC – chose to uproot a huge chunk of its operations and relocate them in Salford's Media City.

The area has been transformed. A whole host of media-focused companies have since attached themselves to the edge of the BBC's bubble, helping to bring the buzz back to the former docks that helped power the Industrial Revolution more than 100 years ago.

But there's no denying that, while television and film are flourishing in the streets of Cottonopolis, game development – once one of Manchester's flagships – has been in decline in recent years.

Several major game studios once made Manchester their home – names like Ocean and Acclaim as recognisable to many locals as that of Oasis or The Smiths – but the city now lacks a triple-A studio to call its own.

Filling the gap, however, is a growing number of indies. Manchester's mainly-mobile development scene has, in part, been fostered by the rise of gaming education led by Futureworks, the city's School of Media.

We spoke to tow local outfits, Greenfly Studios and White Paper Games, to discuss the indie local and both studios' side projects, lecturing at the prestigious Futureworks media university.

Centre of attention

Benjamin Hill is the co-founder and narrative designer at White Paper Games, a studio started by classmates from the nearby University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN).

White Paper was also one of the first companies to have a title successfully steered through the Greenlight process on Steam with psychological first-person adventure Ether One.

Interestingly, it's Hill's perspective that Manchester – though lingering at the lower end of the game development league for some time now – still has an aura of creativity that draws developers to the city.

"There aren't that many game developers in the city, so that gave us a stamp as being a Manchester studio making unique games," Hill claims.

"We were always fond of Manchester's bohemian outlook on creative media. That was a nice focal point to be associated with. We realised later on that there aren't many developers in Manchester - there are few developers in the North West making our kinds of games, let alone in Manchester itself."

White Paper Games, with Benjamin Hill second from the left

While the bohemian lifestyle is likely to attract many new business to the city, the arrival of huge media firms and the regeneration of Manchester city centre - which still continues to this day after the 1996 IRA bombing - has driven up the price of work space in the area.

White Paper has solved this problem by locating its studio just across the city border with Salford, directly opposite the Futureworks university.

It's Hill's belief that fresh indie studios intent on setting up in Manchester find significant capital first – either that or revert to the model of a classic bedroom coding outfit.

Starting small

It's a situation that means much of Manchester's burgeoning indie scene actually exists outside the confines of what many people would understand to be the city itself.

"You definitely need significant investment or venture capital to get setup in Manchester," Hill tells us.

"There's a growing number of developers working from home in Manchester who are having some significant success. Even if they're not technically in the city centre, they affiliate themselves with the city if they're based in the surrounding area, such as Cheshire and Lancashire.

"This really helps to build Manchester's profile even if the developers aren't technically in the city.

"We weren't freemium or free-to-play and that actually made us more unique."

White Paper's most significant move when starting out was to choose to work on PC rather than chase what Hill calls a "gold rush" on mobile platforms.

At a time when some developers are questioning the validity of publishing only on mobile devices, White Paper Games is one of many small studios choosing to focus its efforts on the PC.

Interestingly, Hill believes that without this decision, it would have been extremely difficult to attract funding for the studio's first game, Ether One.

"We attracted interest because we were outside the mobile gaming gold rush. We weren't freemium or free-to-play and that actually made us more unique," argues Hill.

"Our game deals with philosophical issues and that's not interesting to venture capitalists who are only interested in making money. However, the Abertay University Prototype Fund understood our vision and our market. We had an interesting game with a niche audience."

Hill goes on the claim that the Apple and Android filtering processes for games breeds fear amongst many publishers that games pushed out on their respective platforms will be buried under shovelware or titles from significantly larger companies.

"Apple and Android have a hierarchy and criteria for filtering titles but it doesn't work in the same way as Steam," says Hill

"Without a massive marketing budget, we have got on to Steam through Greenlight so there is a high chance that we'll make our money back. On mobile, you can get buried even if you make a good game and never make your money back. There is a fear with that now."

Taking on the big boys

Budget is another area which Hill believes makes it incredibly difficult to compete on mobile.

Big mobile publishers like Cheshire-based Chillingo have the resources and connections to dominate the mobile app stores, meaning that self-publishing indies are increasingly feeling the pressure to spend immense amount of times promoting their games before they're even out.

"Creating original IP on mobile now requires an awful lot of marketing to get your game seen and get the right people playing it. You can't release a game on the App Store without people knowing about it beforehand and make a big splash unless you're very, very lucky," claims Hill.

"There was a time a couple of years ago when a lot of interesting mobile games were being made and PC was in a lull. There's a renaissance now on PC because the indie scene has things like the Humble Bundle and Steam Greenlight to make small games more accessible, attracting people to the market again."

As well as taking the unusual step of shunning mobile development, at least for now, White Paper Games also takes a very different approach to funding the day-to-day lives of its team and its project.

Whereas many indie developers decide to take on contract work from corporate clients, several of the White Paper staff teach to earn their living on the side.

Hill and some of his colleagues lecture at Futureworks, a remote campus of UCLAN located on the edge of Manchester in Salford.

It teaches a variety of film, TV and sound disciplines but it is the gaming courses which have arguably the best reputation. For Hill and his team, teaching has financial benefits but there are some other advantages too.

"We all need extra income and creating new IP requires a lot of capital. At the same time, it keeps our development skills on our toes. The students see us pushing ourselves and that inspires them to do the same thing," says Hill.

"We haven't had students freelance for us, but we have used them as playtesters, which has been really successful. We've done some class based assignments too.

"Our art designer had students working in our art style. The best asset was put into our game and the student will receive credit for it. That sort of experience is really exciting for students because they get to work in the professional process."

Future focus

Another local game designer involved at Futureworks is Stephen Morris of Greenfly Studios.

Unlike White Paper, Greenfly has focused the majority of its work on mobile and has developed some unique marketing strategies to combat the visibility and budget problems that turned White Paper away from these platforms – proving, perhaps, that Hill's concerns don't ring true for everyone.

At Futureworks, Morris' job is to take away the first year students' preconceived ideas about the nature of the games industry.

"I take the first years and break down their preconceptions about games and then build them back up so that they understand the reality of development," Morris says.

"A lot of people come in thinking that just playing games at home gives you experience but they need to be actively creating games. Quite a few of them are at the point now where given the choice of playing a game or making a game, they would rather be making one."

Stephen Morris

One of the preconceptions Morris has had to deal with is the notion that 3D console and PC games are the end goal for almost all of the new students he sees.

He has made it his personal mantra to make sure they become aware of a greater variety of experiences.

"A lot of the students have been brought up on 3D games, but I introduce them to 2D independent games," he says.

"Only a couple of students are looking at mobile. Most of them are interested in PC or console. However, it will be interesting to see the next generation of designers who have been brought up with touch screens to see which way they go."

Promo power

Morris' own work at Greenfly Studios centres around mobile, but he combats the marketing problems feared by White Paper Games with a very unusual approach.

Greenfly champions experimental gaming in order get the company's name into the games media, with seemingly bizarre projects which attract the interest of hardcore gamers who would not normally be interested in the studio's mobile titles.

Showing off weird titles like Johann Sebastian Joust and Quick Draw at games industry events, including E3 and Rezzed, has significantly raised Greenfly Studios' profile. It's the studio's games themselves, however, that remain the most important aspect.

"With Ski Solitaire and Drop That Candy we put in what we expected a mobile consumer would want," he concluded.

"With the experimental stuff we're just exploring ideas, we're not expecting to get much money from them.

"This stuff has opened the door to contract work though. We've been included in the E3 Indiecade, the Develop Selection, Rezzed and other competitions and events, so people can see that we know how to make a quality title and experiment a bit as well.

"A nice balance of everything that contributes towards a sustainable development company."

Join us throughout this week as we examine the changing the face of game development in the North West of England, touching down in Liverpool - with help from former Bizarre Creations staff at the developers of 2K Drive, Lucid Games – and at Macclesfield-based publishing powerhouse Chillingo.

Joe just loves to go fast. That's both a reflection of his status as a self-proclaimed 'racing game expert', and the fact he spends his days frantically freelancing for a bevy of games sites. For PocketGamer.biz, however, Joe brings his insight from previous job as a community manager at iOS developer Kwalee. He also has a crippling addiction to Skittles, but the sugar gets him through the day.

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