22 Years of Play: Alex Darby, founder of Darbotron, discusses his personal history of Leamington’s Silicon Spa
The UK games scene isn’t one big homogenous industry. Instead, it’s an entire national sector built from the ground up by businesses based in clusters up and down the land.
Leamington Spa is home to one of those clusters. Termed as Silicon Spa, it’s the home of 100 companies employing thousands of people to make games like Forza Horizon 4, F1 2019 and Warhammer 40K: Freeblade.
But how did Leamington Spa come to prominence as a video games industry cluster? And how did it adapt and survive through years of industry change?
Alex Darby, founder of Darbotron and industry veteran, dived into the story of the spa at Interactive Futures. And he told the story through his own experiences working in the thriving tech culture.
Starting out in the spa
Leamington Spa’s reputation as a video games cluster started in the 1980s. While Darby was not working in the industry at the time, some early success stories helped give the region a head start over other national clusters.
Arguably the biggest of these were Codemasters and the Oliver Twins. Although the video games industry was much smaller in the mid 1980s, the combination of Codemasters reach and the Olivers prolific workload (and one famous egg called Dizzy) helped power both to national prominence.
At one point during the home computing boom, the Oliver Twins accounted for seven of the top ten games in the country (and nearly 10% of the overall industry output at the time). This productivity helped Codemasters to scale up, allowing it to become a formidable publisher capable of hiring into the area.
However, that initial growth in employment was principally in marketing and sales teams. Until the mid 1990s, the UK’s hefty home console market allowed relatively simple (some may argue primitive) games to sell well – keeping costs low and margins high.
But the arrival of the Playstation changed the industry and, by dint of fortune, started Alex’s career.
“The Playstation was way more powerful than the home consoles, but this meant that games had to be written in C for the first time,” explained Alex.
This meant that the industry as a whole needed people who could work in C and C++ - forcing development companies to look for individuals with computing backgrounds to add to their staff.
For Alex, this represented a great opportunity to get into the industry. But his route in was, it’s fair to say, somewhat unusual. After failing a programming test at Codemasters in 1997, Alex wrote to Richard Darling – co-founder of the publisher – to tell him that the test was wrong.
“I sent him a letter telling him that his programming test was rubbish,” Darby said, somewhat sheepishly. “I then got a letter back from him inviting him to take a programming test from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and ended up getting a job after passing that.”
Such a daring approach to entering the job market wouldn’t probably work nowadays. But as Darby explained, Codemasters in the late 1990s didn’t have a big development team with stratified roles to call upon.
“Because they were publishers, most of the team was about the publishing side of things. There were only about 20 developers compared to 40 in sales and marketing. And most of the developers were graduates,” Darby elucidated.
“Game Design wasn’t really a job that people had. The company would come up with ideas of games, knock up prototypes and if they liked them we would have to pick them apart to find out what was good and work on them. It was the ultimate doss and felt like I was going to work with The Inbetweeners – and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.”
Even by the late 1990s, the industry still wasn’t really the formal business it is today. But in Leamington Spa, a few developments suggested that change was coming.
Codemasters released Colin McRae Rally in 1998 and made a £25m profit. This encouraged it to rapidly expand its time, working on the assumption that more staff would lead inexorably to higher profits. And with Blitz Games, a spin out studio created by the Oliver Twins in 1990, expanding fast, things look well set for Leamington Spa.
The early 00s crash
But historical progress is never straight. In the early 2000s, the industry in Leamington – and across the country – suffered a sharp shock as a result of two factors.
The first was the dot com crash. After a period of heavy investment by venture capitalists in online businesses between 1995-2000, the “dot com” bubble burst – starving the tech industry (and other associated businesses) of cash as the early internet players failed to produce revenue streams.
And the second was the arrival of the PlayStation 2. While Sony’s console would go on to become a global success story, the arrival of a new, powerful and expensive device briefly fragmented the market into hardcore players – who purchased the costly new console – and the rest who stuck with their existing consoles.
Both of these had an impact on the Leamington scene. The first business to be affected was Codemasters. Despite the success of Colin McRae, Codies did not achieve the level of success needed to generate enough of a cash flow to support a major head count.
This lead to significant lay offs at the Leamington office. Worst of all, the lay offs were announced by the American HQ a day before the British staff were told – meaning that the UK staff discovered their likely fate through an online press release before their bosses spoke to them.
This was Alex’s exit point from Codemasters, where he took voluntary redundancy package. But it’s testament to Leamington’s strength in depth that he was able to find a new role quickly.
“At that point, I didn’t really realise how many game companies there were at Leamington. As soon as I walked out of Codemasters, I walked into another job – which was very lucky,” said Darby.
That company was Smart Dog. It was perceived as a safe place to work at the time because it was a part of the Virgin and Interplay Group dominating the market. However, the arrival of the Playstation 2 and a dalliance with a purchase hungry French publisher put the kibosh on Smart Dog.
The company was bought by a publisher called Titus. It made a bet that it could raise a significant amount of cash through bonded loans, purchase video game companies and see strong enough returns to pay off the loans made by investors.
But that’s not how it worked out. Titus quickly ran into financial difficulty, failing to invest successfully in the right companies as the console generations shifted. This led, in the case of Smart Dog and Darby, into an unfortunate situation.
“We worked really hard to ship a fantasy F1 game, but it didn’t go out, Darby said. “Even though it passed certification, Sony refused to release the discs because Titus hadn’t paid them for the previous game. So it had to go straight in the bargain bin after Titus had paid them back.”
Unsurprisingly, Titus ran out of road. By 2005, the company filed for bankruptcy and took Smart Dog down with it. But while this was far from ideal for the scene or for Darby, it did lead almost directly to the emergence of one of Leamington’s long standing internationally renowned studios.
Accessorise (with Activision)
Following the closure of Smart Dog, Darby took the plunge and got a job at the newly founded FreeStyle Games. Funded by an investment company backed by venture capitalists, FreeStyle Games had to tough out another industry downturn caused by the arrival of the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.
The venture company funded 12 projects from 12 different companies. Freestyle Games was the only one that made it to market. B-Boy was a rhythm action dancing game that allowed players to dance their way through a series of hip hop tracks in 2006. But while the game was shipped successfully, it didn’t do well enough to stop FreeStyle laying off staff – including Darby.
However, the company lived on. By picking up some work for hire, it went back into the black. And though Alex had been laid off, he continued to work for the company to make sure that B-Boy hit the market.
Upon B-Boy’s release, FreeStyle found itself in an interesting position. Because it had shipped a game, it was now able to make a real claim to be a work for hire studio. And at the same time, it gave the team confidence to pitch a bold idea that could only work in the context of the mid 00s.
In 2005, Guitar Hero launched for the first time. Allowing players to strum along with leading tracks on their PS2 initially – and then with its sequels on next gen consoles – Harmonix’s rhythm action game sold 1.5m copies and equally large numbers of plastic guitar controllers to boot.
Beyond its long term impact of inspiring Twitch streamers to complete difficult video games using plastic musical instruments, Guitar Hero’s success allowed FreeStyle to pitch their own accessory powered music game.
“We were looking for someway to make a mass market game as quickly as we could. So we thought, what the world needs is guitar hero without rock music,” explained Darby.
Armed with a reverse engineered USB DJ deck, a demo and a track mixing the delights of Bootylicious with Foxy Lady, FreeStyle’s pitch saw them signed to Vivendi to make their game.
But in a quirk of fortune, the company ended up releasing the game for consoles through Activision. This was partly a result of Vivendi’s decision to buy Activision. But with the creator of Guitar Hero, Harmonix, being bought by MTV, FreeStyle were able to fill the accessory shaped hole in Activision’s heart.
The result was DJ Hero and a bona fide hit for Activision. Made under tough crunch conditions – which Darby vowed never to repeat – it made $200m before Christmas in its first year.
Strangely, that represented a loss for the company (with the likely cause of that loss an overpriced Super Bowl advertising slot) but its performance committed Activision to creating a sequel in DJ Hero 2.
This had two impacts on the local industry. In the immediate short term, it helped a fledgling Leamington Spa studio to find its feet in 2009. Playground Games completed work for hire on DJ Hero 2 while building up to the creation of the Forza series that now defines the company.
And Activision’s investment into FreeStyle Games eventually – inadvertently – helped Ubisoft establish its first office in the area.
As a combination of the financial crash, the rise of mobile and PC gaming and the end of the accessory boom saw FreeStyle struggle to sell games such as Guitar Hero Live, the company was bought out by Ubisoft to become Ubisoft Leamington in 2017 to allow it to support its global triple A releases.
Into the present (and off to the future)
The shifts in the industry that pushed Freestyle to the brink did hit the Leamington and international industry hard.
At a local level, Blitz Games fell apart in 2013 as it struggled to pivot quickly enough from mid priced licensed games to the free to play mobile model that became the norm. And in the same year, THQ went under (to be revived later under the THQ Nordic brand) – a sign of change in the industry.
Yet today, Leamington Spa remains a thriving scene. New players such as Pixel Toys, Kwalee and Viewpoint Games emerged from the wreckage of the big busts.
Arch Creatives was founded at a similar time to provide a creative hub for independent companies enabled by the democratisation of distribution and development, giving independent companies and freelancers a chance to thrive.
And with Playground Games now boasting over 200 staff and owned by Microsoft - and Codemasters successfully IPOing at a value in excess of $100m, the Silicon Spa has – if anything – only grown further since the 2008 crash threatened to smash the bottom out of the industry.
So where next for Leamington? Darby isn’t sure exactly. And there are good reasons to be uncertain. Trends such as console and PC free to play, cross platform play, the emergence of cloud gaming, esports and a rumour of a new console generation could all disrupt the industry.
But if there’s one thing that Alex was able to hang his hat on, it’s that the Leamington scene can ride out (and adapt to) change.
The resilience of the local industry is down to new companies moving in here, who weren’t part of the industry 10 years ago. Shutting down hasn’t affected the local sector,” he explained.
And that’s probably one of the most important things we can learn from the Leamington Spa scene as a whole. A creative industry like the video game business will suffer busts. But with those busts, companies with good foundations and individual talent is released into the market to create the next big thing.
As Darby’s story has shown, the can be tumultuous. But if those challenges are acknowledged, staff are properly supported when challenges emerge and investment continues to flow into areas – from both private enterprise and government – areas like the Silicon Spa can keep growing in the decades to come.