The traditionally industrial North East has seen a great deal of changes in the last 30 years, and chief among them is the blossoming of its digital sector. At the forefront of that transition was Reflections, founded by Martin Edmondson and Nicholas Chamberlain in Newcastle in 1984. The studio scored early hits with the Amiga game Shadow of the Beast and PlayStation title Destruction Derby, but it was their Driver series that truly put them and the North East on the game development map. After a brief stint with GT Interactive and Infogrames, Reflections became part of Ubisoft 2006 and have since worked on the Watch Dogs and The Division and released their own original game, Grow Home.
Another pioneer was Optimus Software, formed by brothers Darren and Jason Falcus in 1988. The pair ported dozens of games for Codemasters across different eight consoles, resulting in a buyout by Iguana Entertainment and a name change to Iguana UK in 1993. As Iguana, the now larger team developed 12 versions of Acclaim’s NBA Jam in just five years, including a port for the Sega Mega Drive’s ill-fated 32X add-on. Clearly impressed with their work, the publisher bought Iguana in-house in 1999, re-christening them Acclaim Studios Teeside in the process.
In Sunderland, meanwhile, a group of eight programmers and artists known as Pitbull Syndicate followed a similar trajectory. After forming in 1997, the team made a name for themselves working on the Test Drive and Demolition Racer series, eventually being commissioned by Midway to make L.A. Rush. On the eve of the game’s release in October 2005, Midway acquired the studio altogether, moving them to Gateshead in 2005 to become Midway Studios Newcastle.
While both Midway and Acclaim’s North Eastern ventures turned out to be short-lived, they were indicative of a growing game development presence in the area. The Falcus brothers began a new chapter in Middlesbrough as Atomic Planet, working in partnership with the likes of Capcom and Infogrames, while Icelandic studio CCP planted their flag in Gateshead.
Today, more than 50 games companies call the North East home. CCP has since morphed into Sumo Digital’s Newcastle office and their neighbours include Ubisoft Reflections, Atomhawk (a team of digital artists and designers that includes ex-Midway staff) and a Gateshead branch of Polish developer People Can Fly.
The North East has become a games and technology cluster, with big name studios, a spirited indie scene and five universities offering professional games programmes. Developers in the area enjoy privileged access to state-of-the-art and emerging technologies thanks to PROTO, a council-run space offering inexpensive access to VR, AR and 3D Capture technology to local studios. In fact, smaller studios Pocket Money Games and High Tea Frog operate out of the PROTO building at Gateshead.
Newcastle city centre is where you’ll find one of the areas biggest purveyor of games jobs, Ubisoft Reflections, a 200 strong team of employees of all disciplines, from programming, to art, to level design and web development. Middlesborough is home to Double Eleven, SockMonkey and Cardboard Sword, as well as indie team Fox Byte Games who are located on the Teesside University campus. Coatsink, meanwhile, are based out of Sunderland.
Don’t let the cliche photos fool you – there’s much more to the North East than old bridges and a big steel statue. On the contrary, it’s a lively, multifaceted place buzzing with activity and packed with things to do, and we’re not just talking about the nightlife.
History buffs are spoilt for choice, between a host of Roman forts and settlements to visit along Handrian’s Wall, not to mention the cathedral city of Durham and Newcastle’s subterranean Victoria Tunnel.
There are museums and galleries aplenty too – one which is “alive”. Beamish, a school trip favourite, is an award-winning museum where visitors can re-enact North Eastern life circa 1913, complete with a working railway and vintage sweets shop. On the more contemporary side of things, the towering flour mill-turned-art institution Baltic Centre in Gateshead is an essential visit, as is the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art.
There’s lots of climbing to be done in the North East, both outside in the striking Northumberland countryside and inside in at Climb Newcastle, The Valley Climbing Centre or any other of the region’s many climbing gyms. If you’re opting for the outdoor option, you’ll want to take a trip to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Accessible by an ancient pilgrims’ path that surfaces at low tide, the island has a fascinating history involving Viking raids and precious religious texts but it’s also just a very pleasant sight to behold.
If that’s all starting to sound a bit too high brow, then allow us to introduce Ghetto Golf, a new favourite for nights out in the Newcastle area. As if being an 18-hole minigolf course with an alcohol licence wasn’t enough, Ghetto Golf features bizarrely themed rooms, including some with videogame characters sprayed in luminescent paint and others that are a little less safe for work.
Definitely not to be mixed with alcohol is Hatchet Harry’s Axe Throwing, which speaks for itself, while FPS heads can test their digital skills in the physical realm at No Limits Paintball and Laser, where contestants can duck and strafe to their hearts content amongst an indoor town built more than a square kilometre in size.
The North East has a wealth of game dev organisations and social groups befitting its cluster status. Taking its name from the iconic Tees Transporter Bridge, Game Bridge is a Middlesbrough-based networking event that’s as much about celebrating the region’s work as it is getting folks into games jobs. Teeside University runs a similar gathering called Animex, which focuses on animation and VFX in games, while the NOVA Games Conference is something like the GDC of the North East – an event organised by the NOVA Games Collective that targets “people working as designers, programmers, artists, producers, audio engineers” and not “your boss or your bosses’ boss”.
Another great organisation is Woman Making Games. WOMG runs monthly meetups as well as talks and workshops and is dedicated to supporting not only women working in the industry but also those looking to find jobs in it.
Business in the North East: https://investnortheastengland.co.uk/
Article by Andrew Gordon