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Serious Games Booming In West Midlands

Via: The Birmingham Post

As the Serious Games Institute is officially launched at Coventry University, business reporter Joanna Geary examines the growth of the computer games market, one of the region's fastest-growing industries.

It is not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. By tapping into how we might play the computer games of the future is exactly what will ensure the continued success of one of the region’s fastest-growing industries.

Internationally, the computer games market has an estimated value of over £25 billion with exports topping £500 million annually.

According to the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association, more than 65 million games were sold in the UK market alone during 2006 – a seven per cent increase on 2005 and worth an estimated £1.36 billion.

The industry is also burgeoning in the Midlands. The region employs almost as many staff in the sector as London – a major feat considering the UK is the third-largest producer of video games behind America and Japan.

The gaming industry in the UK also has a positive balance of trade and employs around 6,000 people. This booming sector has spawned an estimated 160 interactive media companies in the region, providing animation, design, video and music support.

The region also benefits from a steady stream of games design and software development graduates from five major universities – Warwick, Staffordshire, Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry.

But the industry’s regional home is Leamington Spa, or Silicon Spa as its known to many local developers. Established names such as Codemasters, Blitz and Freestyle Games are all based there.

This means that at any one time Leamington can hold a hip-hop break-dancing contest, a grand prix or a premiership football match without a single resident batting an eyelid.

This unlikely mecca for game developers has grown up thanks to the innovation and success of two local brothers, David and Richard Darling.

They founded Codemasters, one of the UK’s oldest video game companies, in 1986 while still in their teens. With a initial focus on budget games, the company saw astronomic growth, supported by its much-loved Dizzy series of games.The firm will celebrate its coming of age this year with more than 400 staff and 64 chart-topping games in the UK. Codemasters’ use of local freelance staff also helped to spawn a local pool of talented developers, many of which started their own companies in the area – Silicon Spa was born.

The company is now one of the UK’s largest independent game publishers. Employing a workforce of around 400, the company develops licensed titles for Club Football, Lord of the Rings and MTV.

Unlike many other developers in the region, the brothers have never succumbed to the lure of a buyout offer from an industry giant."They have never sold out because there has never been a reason to," said global communications manager Sam Cordier. "Our games and distribution are working very well for us. We are happy where we are."

Elsewhere, the region has embraced the industry's consolidation as global conglomerates have sought to bring gaming expertise "in house". In 2002, Microsoft made its largest UK acquisition with the £238.9million buyout of Warwickshire's Rare Games – now a major developer of Xbox console titles.

Other acquisition targets include Birmingham-based Swordfish, the company behind titles such as UEFA Striker and Brian Lara International Cricket, which was bought in 2005 by Vivendi Universal Games.

But the West Midlands does not just attract the eye of the acquisitive. Big names have also brought their own expertise to the region.

Last September, SEGA announced the launch of its Racing Studio in Solihull's Blythe Valley Business Park, with the creation of 60 jobs.

At the time Gary Dunn, development director for SEGA Europe, said: "We chose to locate the SEGA Racing Studio in the West Midlands because of the thriving computer games industry already based here.

"The central location also means that we very well placed to reach a wide pool of specialist staff who are a vital resource for the development of our games."
The region is also host to international offices for Datel Design and Development, Ascaron and Majesco.

With skilled and experienced workforce available, there is no doubt that the West Midland games industry has grown up.

Now it plans to flex its muscle in the new sector of "Serious Games".
Working with local universities, many of the region's established firms have ambitions to dominate this emerging market, which uses games technology to help individuals learn.

It may never be as big as the entertainment sector – which current outstrips the CD market in sales – but e-learning is currently valued at $10 billion globally. The Department for Trade and Industry also acknowledges Serious Games is the new ‘hot topic’ among mainstream games producers.

Currently the US is leading the way with software focused on health, education, military, business training, simulation and virtual environments.
But there are also local companies, such as Leamington Spa-based Blitz and Coventry's Pixelearning, that are spearheading research and development in the area.

It is for this reason the Serious Games Institute was officially launched at Coventry University last month.

The first of its kind in the UK, the £7 million centre will provide incubator office space for games developers, a laboratory for games testing, training courses and a knowledge centre to access expertise. Combining fun with education – that is how one game of the future will played and it is something Midland firms have the skills to exploit.