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From Bradford market to global gaming success: How Bobby Thandi is achieving his dreams with XR Games


The gaming industry is often seen as notoriously competitive to break into – especially if you’re a young boy working on the market stalls in Bradford. 

But Bobby Thandi has been able to turn what was once a “pipe dream” into success with his game development studio XR Games, in Leeds.

Since launching in 2017, XR Games has become an established player across the gaming scene.

It has collaborated with big brands from Sony Pictures to Rovio Entertainment to release titles such as Angry Birds The Movie 2 VR: Under Pressure and Zombieland: Headshot Fever, with a focus on immersive virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). 

Earlier this year, the VR games developer raised significant investment of £5.9m from existing investors act media ventures, Praetura Ventures and Maven, using a slice of the funds to move into a brand new studio, based at The Half Roundhouse, to support its expansion plans.

“It’s to help us grow and scale faster than we would have done without that funding,” XR Games founder and CEO Bobby Thandi told Prolific North

On a visit to Leeds, I met Thandi and was able to take a glimpse around the new headquarters, spread across two floors equipped with a gym, a dedicated bar area and games room for its 100 staff.

Although the glossy studio is almost complete – he’s already very familiar with the building. In fact, it was where he took his first steps into the gaming industry, working for globally renowned games studio Dubit and the same office where the idea to launch XR Games was born.

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“It was very poetic how it started,” he said. “In 2012, I first entered this building because Dubit was based upstairs here, a different company was downstairs.

“Dubit’s CEO Ian Douthwaite was sitting there [gestures to where I’m sitting] and I was getting interviewed by him. I remember him saying: ‘Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?’ And I jokingly said: ‘Sat in your seat!’ He’s laughing, I’m laughing.”

Back in 2017, XR Games’ small team of five began operating out of what was then Dubit’s office until the company began to expand, moving to The Drying House before returning to its original home.

“10 years later, I’m sitting here as CEO of XR Games. To come back here where XR Games was born? It’s fantastic.”

Growing up in Bradford and ambition to become an entrepreneur

Although the opportunity to work at Dubit became the driving force behind launching XR Games, his desire to work in the gaming industry began when he was just 13 years old.

“I grew up in a very poor neighbourhood in Bradford. I used to work the market stalls with my dad on the weekends, working 12-hour days,” he said. “I used to love it because it was like being an entrepreneur.”

Soon after, he found a second love through gaming. One Christmas he excitedly unwrapped a Commodore Amiga and Batman pack, which came with a limited number of games.

“My parents had, by some miracle, managed to buy this computer for me and it was also very clear to me that I wasn’t going to get any more games!”

After figuring out a way to sell second-hand games and spend time gaming with friends, it only accelerated his ambition to become an entrepreneur after making some extra pocket money. But it didn’t last long.

“I felt it was a dead end in the video games industry because growing up in Bradford where I did, I had zero connections with anyone in the video games industry,” he reflected.

“I didn’t know how to get into the industry, I didn’t even know if one existed in Leeds and Bradford.”

He decided to turn his focus elsewhere, unsure of how to achieve his dreams.

“I thought that was the end of my career because I assumed it was like wanting to become a footballer or an astronaut or an actor. I thought it was just a pipe dream and didn’t happen to people from Bradford, that’s for sure.”

With an entrepreneurial ambition still bubbling away following university, he worked in various roles where he learnt to code, work with data and come up with creative solutions.

Bobby Thandi
Bobby Thandi

“I had coding skills, sales skills and client management skills. Unbeknownst to me, those were the three core skills a video game studio called Dubit needed for their new salesperson.”

The opportunity to join Dubit came at a fortuitous moment. He recalls sitting in his living room 10 years ago as a 36-year-old on the eve of his one-year-old daughter’s birthday. He said to her: “I’m just coasting through life, still partying too much. I really want to give you the best life that I can afford. So from this day forward, I promise I will try my hardest.

“She didn’t understand what I was saying but I then received two text messages from two different friends – one offered me a job at a bank and one offered me a job at Dubit in Business Development.”

Turning a “pipe dream” into a reality and Dubit support

After joining Dubit, with “lots of hard work and lots of good luck” he had finally found a way to align his passion with his career. He was given the opportunity to become an executive producer after securing one of his first deals with DreamWorks, which eventually led to him leading Dubit’s digital team of 50. Within five years, he was already being headhunted by EA. 

But instead of taking up the opportunity, he received an offer he couldn’t refuse which led him turning what was once a “pipe dream” into a reality.

“Dubit helped me set up my own studio and I realised that’s what I really wanted to do. They gave me a £100,000 seed capital cheque back in March 2017. 

“It’s only when we raised VC investment did we officially start XR Games and create our first game. It’s coming up to our fifth year anniversary now!”

Back in 2017, the initial aim was to make a simple game to “gel the team” and work on Angry Birds Under Pressure for VR. 

“It’s a two-hour story behind how I closed that deal but it took a lot of effort – a year and a half in total. Before XR Games was even born, I knew the type of deal I wanted to close. It came out on time, on budget, and to critical acclaim in August 2019.”

Angry Birds Under Pressure for VR.
Angry Birds Under Pressure for VR

Although the game was a hit, it didn’t do as well as expected commercially. He praised how Praetura Ventures still saw potential in the team and invested.

“In addition to investing with us, they said rather than us funding all the games ourselves, let’s develop work for a higher revenue stream where clients pay us to make games. It just de-risked the whole studio.”

Following the barriers he initially faced with landing his own dream career in the industry, he is now on a mission to support the next wave of gaming talent.

With the recent launch of a new talent initiative called XR Futures, the company is offering opportunities to young people looking to break into the industry through internship or apprenticeship programmes. 

“We’ll help train them and support the next generation coming through. The staff that perform really well, we’ll offer them jobs afterwards. 

“Especially from my own experience with finding it really difficult to break through into the games industry, I’m very keen to go out there help educate students on what XR Games is, how they can get into the games industry and what they need to be thinking about to kind of stand out amongst the crowd.”

“It’s very important to us and that’s underway right now.”

Zombieland success, VR and the future

In March last year, the team released Zombieland VR: Headshot Fever which became the “launchpad” for XR Games’ growth after its international success.

“Lots of people became aware of us and wanted to work with us after seeing us deliver a commercially successful game. We’re in a position now where we’re working on five games concurrently.”

With that success though, “all eyes are on you”, whether it’s from the direction of potential clients, investors or acquirers. 

“It’s just a case of continuing to make sure that the games you make are on the same level of quality, if not better than the previous game, to continue that momentum of success.”

Although the tech world is taking notice of what the future might hold with VR and AR, back in 2017 it was still a “difficult” time to raise investment. Undeterred, he remained passionate about becoming a pioneer in the VR world – especially when he first tried an Oculus headset. 

“It reminded me very much of my youth, my love of co-operative gaming. Me and my mate Steve would play games like Bubble Bobble and it was one of the first games we ever completed 100 levels. 

“Half the fun was what was happening on the screen then the other half was us high fiving each other with a playful punch in the ribs if we messed up! When I tried Oculus for the first time, I was like: ‘Oh my god, now we have stepped into the experience!’ That’s where the love of VR and AR comes from.”

He believes VR and AR is the future, particularly when looking at how tech leaders like Mark Zuckerberg have pivoted their entire business towards it.

“My firm belief is the VR studios honing their craft now, and have been doing so for the past five years, will become valuable studios in the future as this new medium begins to go mass market.” 

As for the future, although he is “very mindful” of what’s happening in the global economic market, he’s excited to continue innovating and building on the company’s success.

“There’s a rise in living costs, the recession, job cuts being announced on a daily basis by the big tech firms and other large corporations but the appetite for gaming and entertainment is strong.

“We’re super excited for the games we’re working on to come out. They are different types of games to Zombieland. So, I’m very excited to see how they perform!”

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