Global Game: David Darling on the mobile mastery of the UK Midlands

Former Codies man trumpets community

Global Game: David Darling on the mobile mastery of the UK Midlands
It's hard to find anyone working in the Midlands games industry who has not been employed by David Darling CBE at one stage of their career.

With his brother, Richard and father, Jim, David founded Codemasters in 1986 - a publisher that, over 25 years later, remains a major local and national force.

David and Jim now run Kwalee, an iPhone game studio in Leamington Spa, and it's no exaggeration to suggest that the Darlings have had a huge impact on the development scene in the Midlands, both economically and creatively.

In the second part of our look at the mobile dev scene in the UK Midlands, we asked David how he got started, and just what drew him to the area in the first place.

"My brother and I had learned how to program while living in Vancouver, Canada," says Darling.

"When we came back to England we first lived in Somerset, then London where we worked for Mastertronic. After we sold half of the company we owned with Mastertronic we decided to start a new business and moved back to where our parents used to live in Brackley near Banbury.

"We set up Codemasters at Beaumont Business Centre, an industrial estate in Banbury. When we outgrew that unit my dad found an old disused farm and riding school with stables near Southam.

"We bought the house and converted the stables into offices."

The Codies cluster

Much of the success of Codemasters came from the company's reputation and ability to attract development talent from all corners of the UK.

However, as the company grew it became necessary to expand to more locations in the UK, Europe and throughout the world, in order to reach more markets.

"There was lots of talk of having studios and subsidiaries around the world," he continues.

"We had a London studio as well as offices in France and Germany because we needed distribution and warehouses for physical products. We needed local sales people too, in order to visit buyers at the big retailers.

"We also had an office in New York and at one stage we bought a studio in Yosemite, Northern California.

"We even set up an art studio in Malaysia after receiving a government grant. We went wherever we needed to for publishing and distribution reasons or because there was development talent which we wanted to acquire."

Local star

In the Midlands, almost every game developer you speak to seems to have worked for the Darlings at some stage in their career. David is proud that many former colleagues and friends have gone on to have success so nearby.

"There are six or seven hundred people working at Codemasters now and there have been four or five hundred for many years prior to today," he says.

"Over the years lots of talent has broken away to form their own studios, like The Oliver Twins at Blitz Games, Gavin Raeburn at Playground Games and Peter Williamson with Supersonic Software.

"Gradually a cluster area emerged with start-ups broken away from the original company. There were no games companies here before we came, but Attention to Detail in Warwick and Silicon Dreams in Banbury were around in the early days.

"They were owned by Geoff Brown who also had US Gold in Birmingham. Once these companies folded or were bought by larger studios the local cluster was largely formed of ex-Codemasters staff."

David believes that the fact the industry is thriving in Leamington and surrounding areas is not only good for the games industry, but also vital to the rejuvenation of the area as a whole.

"I think it's great that the games industry and community is doing really well in Leamington and the surrounding areas," adds Darling.

"The world changes and decades ago farming and manufacturing were big industry here, but this sort of thing has become more and more difficult. New industries like ours have brought creative people to the area to have fulfilling careers. "

Returning to Leamington with Kwalee

Last year, David started his own mobile studio, Kwalee, in Leamington Spa. It seems that the Midlands is a natural home for the David and the talent that he loves to work with.

"I've lived in the area for 25 years," he adds.

"If you want a city, Birmingham is only half an hour away and London is only an hour and ten minutes on the train. You can get to the big population areas very quickly for business, retail and travelling. It's a good place to live. I hate commuting too so I didn't want to set up anywhere else!

"Of course the main reason is that the games cluster here is thriving, so there was no need to look elsewhere. Here, the talent is on your doorstep."

With some many competitors located within walking distance of one another in Leamington, we might expect unpleasant battles for the best talent, investment and resources, but David says this has never been the case in the games industry.

"Most of the senior people know each other and everyone is intelligent and reasonable," he says.

"There hasn't been too much cut-throat headhunting and that kind of thing. I can only speak from personal experience and I quite regularly see the local game companies and we don't have any problems. Lots of us are friends and if even if we're not we can still work together sensibly."

Government support and the death of the "super publishers"

Despite the huge number of small games companies in the Midlands, few big publishers have started studios in the area in recent years.

David believes that a lack of modern day British "super publishers" is to blame.

"When Codies started in there were lots of publishers around. People like Elite, US Gold, Ocean and Domark," he continues.

"They gradually merged or were bought out by larger American or Japanese publishers. For a while, Codemasters and Eidos were the last remaining UK super publishers and now only Codies remains after the purchase of Eidos by Square Enix.

"You wouldn't really expect to have many big studios in the area when there are so few British console publishers."

Perhaps another reason that there are not many large studios in the Midlands is the lack of local Government support offered to games companies. David says the companies in the region have little to thank the Government for, but that things are improving at the moment.

"The reason development studios have been successful here is because of the creative talent, ideas and products," says Darling.

"Like Playground with Forza Horizon and Supersonic with Top Gear for iOS. They have done well because of the games they have developed, rather than help we have had from Government.

"There is now a push to brand Leamington as 'Silicon Spa'. This is being promoted by local government and the UK Business Secretary, Vince Cable MP, has visited to help support the area. There is also talk of other MPs visiting soon.

"There are thousands of talented people here but we want thousands more people to relocate here as well, so we're looking to work with local government in the years ahead to make the area as successful as possible."


David believes that it's important that the success of studios across the Midlands is recognised by the Government if its success is to be sustained.

"It's important that the success of the studios is recognised," he adds.

"We currently have matching grants of £100,000 for start-ups if you're in certain Midlands areas. There are R&D credits for developers too, which reduce tax bills. Of course, there are the recently announced games tax breaks too.

"Companies need to work with their accountants and local Government to figure out exactly what is available to them."

Having had so much success in the Midlands, however, David is unlikely to move elsewhere, but there is another part of the world he admires, Finland.

"Rovio made Angry Birds there, Fingersoft made Hill Climb Racing and Supercell created Clash of Clans," he concludes.

"There are loads of great games coming from Scandinavia, despite its tiny population. It's a really successful region for the games industry."

A small population making great games. Finland sounds a lot like Leamington Spa. No wonder David likes it.
You can read part 1 of our look at the UK Midlands here.
Joseph Barron previously served as Kwalee's community evangelist between January-October 2012.

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, 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.