Steel City Game Changers

As the big game development studios wage their endless wars against each other, the profusion of new game-playing technology has paved the way for a smaller, less aggressive subculture of developers…

Welcome to the world of the Indie Dev. What was originally the domain of the lonely bedroom geek has once again returned to simpler times, with a resurgence of small studios and individual developers. Although never truly gone, the smaller companies were often overshadowed by the big boys and their bigger wallets, but the explosion of game-capable devices in recent years has opened the market to a wider audience and given the indies a new lease of life and vigour, with break-out hits such as Angry Birds and Minecraft to name but a few.

The Sheffield scene in particular has an abundance of talent who are not only uninterested in outdoing their counterparts, but actively assist and support each other in a way that even the tree hugging hippies of the sixties would be proud of. It’s this sense of community and camaraderie that’s helping to put Sheffield on the gaming radar.

I spoke to 3 prominent devs on the Sheffield scene; Jamie Woodhouse of Mr Qwak, whose recent release Retro Racing went to the top spot in the racing app charts, Tim Cooper of Team Cooper/Robot Lizard, whose first game Beastie Burgers had more than a million hits in the first week alone, and Alex Amsel of Tuna, who successfully released their hit Eufloria on the Playstation Network last year. With all 3 members belonging to Shindig (Sheffield Indie Game Developers) community, and Tuna also being founding members of Game Republic, which covers Yorkshire as a whole, it seems there’s a very strong network of devs in the area, but is it really a case of having each other’s backs? Or is it an excuse to keep an eye on the competition?

“The thing about indie game development is it’s really really hard. Having other people look at your game during development really helps,” Tim assures me when we talk in the company's offices at Sheffield's Electric Works. “You learn off each other and help with each other’s products,” says Tuna's Alex, “In fact, the better one of us does, in theory, you can help the other one do better as well.” Which all sounds lovely, and I’ve got to admit, seems very courteous and even mutually beneficial, but aren’t you in competition with each other?

“Years ago when Game Republic was set up those questions were asked,” explains Alex , “and it’s proved beyond any doubt we’re not in competition with each other.” “There’s no sense of competition – except in a good, inspirational way,” reveals Jamie, who also informs me that the Shindig members often get together as a group and chat about their games and playtest each other’s games.
So the city’s indie dev community is obviously an important factor in your work, but what about the city itself? Are there any Sheffield influences in the city's games? “I would happily put a Sheffield reference in there, the opportunity just hasn’t arisen,” says Alex. “Em’s keen to do it,” says Tim, referring to his wife and fellow Team Cooper maestro Emma Cooper, “She’s Sheffield born and bred and she’s always saying we can re-skin this or that with Sheffield stuff,” but alas, it appears that the perfect Sheffield inspired game is yet to find its way into the devs’ heads.

But fear not, It’s not just the games themselves that are helping put Sheffield on the gaming map, with Games Britannia taking the place in the city in July, and Sheffield Doc/Fest showing the UK premier of Indie Game: The Movie this month, there's a lot going on to raise awareness of the game development market. So how does this make our devs feel?

Alex Tuna was lucky enough to see Indie Game:The Movie whilst in New Zealand recently. “It helps people understand a little bit about why we do it, a little bit about why we are completely mental to try and do it and gives the recognition to people who make games, especially small games, as artists,” Tim hopes it will inspire people and open their eyes to a world they may not have known existed. “There’s kids at home playing their PS3 who don’t realise that getting into games can be a lot simpler, you don’t have to work for a massive 200 people company to make a game.”

Just as ambitious in its own way, Games Britannia is a games convention that encompasses not just indie devs but the games industry as a whole, with names such as Nintendo and Bandai Namco strutting their stuff. All our devs saw GB as a hugely encouraging development for the city, helping Sheffield to reach its full potential and become a destination in the gaming industry. So with room for fresh meat in the market, and a new found awareness of the city’s indie dev presence, what advice would you give to the next generation of ‘Shindiggers’?

“Just make games, just do it, whatever it is,” says Tim. “Even if you never make a game that’s commercially successful you might find that it leads to work that is very similar.” “Make as many games as possible. As long as you have interesting products, at some point, one of them will make it,” explains Alex, whereas Jamie simplifies it even further, offering up “trust yourself” as his parting words of wisdom. Take heed! These guys know their stuff.

In an age where everyone from your niece to your nan plays games, and where the popularity of 'pick up and play' titles seems likely to continue to encourage the growth of indie devs, it really puts a spring in our step to find the city's principles of collaboration shining through. It feels like a real city wide effort to find and nurture the talent that will one day make Sheffield a big name on the industry’s lips, and despite the fact that Sheffield influences may not be evident in the games that are produced in the city, there’s still a sense of the Shindig spirit that has gone into the work. Unlike the indie music scene the city is famous for, with its regional accents and lyrics as sticky as a nightclub floor, the influences in the indie games are more subtle, and are the result of the devs doing what they love in a place that they love to do it. Though if you ask me, I think a game with some Blue Ninja Owls facing off against some Red Samurai Blades has a certain amount of potential…

Words by Craig Goldring

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