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Can Dundee play with the big boys?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:19 UK time, Tuesday, 21 September 2010

After a day in Dundee I can't make up my mind - is this city ready to take its place as one of the world's biggest centres for the games industry? Or will it remain a backwater in a business where all the real action is taking place in Canada and the US?

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There are plenty of reasons to be cheerful when you visit Abertay University's Centre for Games Education. We arrived on the first day of term, the place bustling with eager new students. Our tour of the state-of-the art facilities included the Hive visualisation lab where graduate students worked on all manner of fascinating projects, from monitoring stress levels during play to using 3D animation techniques to involve the public in planning decisions.

Most impressive, though, was the very first lesson in animation for some of the class of 2010. In a room packed with computers, the lecturer instead handed out packs of sticky notes and asked the students to make simple cartoons, to teach them the basics of how animation has worked from the days of Georges Melies.

As well as what you might call the softer creative skills, some students here will also need the high-level maths and physics demanded by games programming. Everywhere we went there was a sense of pride and purpose that studies once derided as the equivalent of golf-course management should now be recognised as a key contributor to one of the UK's fastest-growing industries.

Barry Petrie and David Hamilton


The hope is that these students will provide much-needed talent for an industry still suffering skill shortages - and may even start their own businesses, just like Barry Petrie and David Hamilton, the co-founders of Digital Goldfish. They left Abertay five years ago, and worked as a supermarket shelf-stacker and a hospital security guard before devoting themselves full-time to their business.

It was the success of Bloons for the iPhone, a game licensed from a New Zealand company which got Digital Goldfish off the ground, and the economics of "app" games for new platforms are proving attractive to this and other small businesses across Dundee.

As we travelled around the city one subject was on everyone's minds - the demise of Realtime Worlds. The company founded by Dave Jones, the creator of Grand Theft Auto and a Dundee legend, had promised to move the city's games sector up to a new level with its online blockbuster APB. When the game flopped after its launch earlier this year, the company collapsed, and the confidence of many of Dundee's smaller firms took a hit too.

Developers say that the loss of a company which had swallowed up £100m in investment, has made it almost impossible to talk to banks about funding. The image of the young industry has also been damaged - Realtime Worlds was the games company that visiting politicians came to to see, and there is nothing else of a similar size here.

Person walks past computer screen at Abertay University


Back at Abertay, Paul Durrant - who has spent more than a decade cementing links between the university and the wider games industry - was determined to cheer me up.

"One of this country's key strengths," he told me, "is its creativity and its ability to generate its own intellectual property: original ideas which have been turned into mass-market products. Our only problem has been getting the investment behind them."

He also thinks that the changing structure of the industry, where mobile and casual games are created by tiny new businesses, plays to Dundee's strengths. "If you get a critical mass of small developers, that may be enough."

I hope he is right. I'm sure it would be a comfort to the swarms of young games entrepreneurs clustered in tiny offices and reconditioned mills across Dundee if one of the lumbering giants of their industry pitched up in their city. EA, Sony, and Microsoft have all had work done by small developers here - but shouldn't at least one of them take a permanent trip to Tayside?


  • Comment number 1.

    Rory, an interesting piece. I was in Dundee a few weeks ago successfully recruiting games developers out of the fallout from RTW. Abertay seems to give a good grounding in the basics of computer gaming and many people I have hired have the University on their cv (albeit with some real world experience under their belts as well).

    Will this help the UK games scene? Not sure. The number of developers based in the UK seems to be falling whilst the big names are still massed in the US with some notable exceptions in mainland Europe. However, getting those crucial few years of hands on, commercial games development experience is still of critical importance if you want to work for some of the more well known developers. In this case, some of the smaller, more 'Indie' UK games studios can offer some great opportunities to people starting out on the bottom rung. As an ex-pat now living in Iceland, I hope this continues to happen. Indeed, we have opened a small studio ourselves in Newcastle to take advantage of some of the great talent there.

    The UK has a great heritage in producing truly visionary games developers (Braybrook, Braben and Bell in particular are responsible for my career), surely there is something that can be done to take advantage of that talent on home shores. Whether this is Government backed or something else I don't know but it seems a shame we are losing a lot of our best talent overseas, even if I end up benefiting as a result.

  • Comment number 2.

    RTW collapsed because they spend a ridiculous amount of money to develop a terrible product, then compounded their error with a dreadful payment model which practically nobody was going to stomach. They must have known that it stank whilst folk like you were hyping it.

    A studio with a kickass product can make money in Dundee or anywhere else.

  • Comment number 3.

    Why be so last century? You can be anywhere you like on the net so place is irrellevant especially if you are programming.

    To be in Dundee? You have to be joking - New Zealand, South of France anywhere is feasible in the virtual world.

    As for Dundee - the cake is OK as for the place too wet and too Scottish.

  • Comment number 4.

    I'm sorry I missed your visit to Dundee. We are a software company based in Dundee who provide a Sofware as a Service(SaaS) Remote Management and Monitoring (RMM) solution to IT Support Companies around the world. We employ 50 people and are experiencing 100% year on year growth. We recruit developers from around the UK and Europe,and also use both Abertay and Dundee Universities to recruit graduates

    Dundee is a great city to do business with low rents, excellent IT professionals and good communications links. It has changed beyond all recognition over the last 10 years or so, and I believe it's going to play an increasingly important role in the UK software industry


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