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Prolific North’s ‘Unlocking the next level of Liverpool’s gaming industry’ review: Mayor Steve Rotheram opens event

Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotheram hailed the potential of the region’s £220m gaming sector at the opening of Prolific North’s first gaming event in the city.

Hosted at Barclays Eagle Lab on 23 May, Rotheram welcomed attendees and said the city region has “all the raw ingredients” to help it become the next Silicon Valley.

In the general election frenzy this week, it wasn’t without an unsurprising nod to the potential of an incumbent Labour government. “Liverpool City Region has done really well in the last 14 years, but especially the last seven with a metro mayor working with a Tory government. 

“Collectively, we need to decide the possibilities if we had a Labour government and the things we could do,” he said, asking gaming leaders for their thoughts and suggestions to help bring the sector to the attention of the next government to help it level up further.

Following a further welcome from Chris Butler, Digital academy manager and partnerships lead at The City of Liverpool College, the event kicked off with a panel session delving deeper into Liverpool’s games sector and what makes it unique chaired by Prolific North’s editor David Prior.

The panel featured speakers including Phil Owen, Head of Engineering at d3t; Clemens Wangerin, Founder of Digital Advisors; George Rule, Community and Marketing Lead at Lucid Games; Caroline White, Creative Consultant and Community Engagement Manager at MediaCity Immersive Technologies Innovation Hub; and Christian Bartley, Managing Director at Chillblast.

For Phil Owen (d3t) the games sector in the Liverpool City Region has had its “ups and downs”  with companies thriving, closing down, then splintering off into other companies that have then had major growth. “There’s a determination and drive to make high quality games,” he explained. “You wouldn’t believe the number of games that came from this area. There is enormous potential here.”

There have been waves of the industry peaking, with major studios like Sony or Activision investing money in the city but this has been followed by decisions to close studios, added Clemens Wangerin (Digital Advisors). But this has paved the way for a “huge amount of experience and seniority” to filter through and set up their own businesses which “really sets Liverpool City Region apart” from other hubs. 

“When it comes to making AAA games, it’s been a great proving ground for more than four decades, and all with titles that have gone on to be mainstream successes.”

George Rule (Lucid Games) reflected on how “one of the largest companies in the world”, Tencent subsidiary Lightspeed Studios, acquired Lucid Games last year. Lucid is already doubling its floor size next door, but wants to grow “sustainably”. He added: “That heritage, drive, hunger to make great games is in Liverpool’s DNA.”

The innovation in Liverpool City Region’s games hub is “unique”, explained Caroline White (MediaCity Immersive Technologies Innovation Hub), with major players creating original IP. Despite a challenging time globally for the games industry, in Liverpool there is “resilience”. Christian Bartley (Chillblast) agreed, reflecting on Liverpool’s rich gaming heritage and said that’s what makes it “unique”.

Collaboration has “really exploded” over the past few years with games companies now coming together across the region, said Owen (d3t), pointing to the launch of the LCR Games Board and Gamechangers initiative to tackle talent. The panel agreed that the region is “striving” to collaborate more.

But it’s not so easy for smaller start-ups in the city as there “isn’t really a supply chain” of opportunities yet, said Wangerin (Digital Advisors). Over the next 10 years, the city region would “really benefit” if smaller companies could plug into those bigger companies or contracts. There is “still a disconnect” but collaboration still “definitely happens”.

White (MediaCity Immersive Technologies Innovation Hub) urged that the games sector needs something similar to the region’s films board, which has grants to attract productions to the region. “There is brilliant work going on but I think there’s more we can do,” she said, highlighting a “lack of connectivity” with education, the combined authority and councils.

On the Gamechangers initiative, the panel discussed how the sector is coming together to create pathways into the industry. Bartley (Chillblast) added the sector is “becoming one of the most exciting employers in the region” with a variety of roles that extend beyond being a developer. Owen (d3t) agreed, adding there’s an “enormous wealth of skills needed to create a game.”

“There is space for everyone in the games industry, if you cant see a role we can carve that out,” added Rule (Lucid Games).

The panel was followed by a keynote session delivered by Ben Hughes, Global Learning & Development Manager at Sumo Group. Hughes provided an overview on Sumo’s mission for developing career pathways and offered his advice and top tips when it comes to talent.

From new starters to the lack of career development, he said one of the “biggest things to retain talent” is to talk about wellbeing, performance development and professional development in 121s. When it comes to promotions, staff need “lots of opportunities to practice” first so they feel more prepared for their next role.

Reflecting on the previous panel, he added he “loves” that the games sector in Liverpool collaborates but it isn’t like that everywhere. Showcasing Sumo’s internal learning and development structure for its staff, he explained the importance of mentorship opportunities and skills development to not only attract staff, but retain and nurture them too. 

“It’s allowed us to find our talent very quickly,” he added.

A final panel session wrapped up the event, exploring industry talent and how the Liverpool City Region can prepare for future success. The panel included Alison Lacy, Location Manager at Avalanche Studios Group’s Liverpool Studio; Chris Butler, Digital Academy Manager & Partnerships Lead, The City of Liverpool College; Sarah Goulden, Project Director at Form; and Arthur Parsons, Head of Publishing and Co-Founder at 10:10 Games.

Alison Lacy (Avalanche) said there was an industry “skills crisis” which paved the way for the launch of Gamechangers for studios to tackle the issue together thanks to the “community spirit” across the region’s games industry.

For Arthur Parsons (10:10 Games), the industry is “not sustainable”. “It’s great to see what’s happening in Liverpool but across the UK, there needs to be entry level roles. If we are not bringing people in, everyone ends up poaching staff.”

As someone who has worked in the industry for 28 years he set up 10:10 Games, which has since grown from 3 staff to 87. 10:10 Games is set to launch its first game in September, and for over 50% of staff it will be their first game. He highlighted a lack of investment and no support when it comes to bringing in interns, adding “there’s a massive problem here”.

Gamechangers is a “great step in the right direction” said Chris Butler (The City of Liverpool College) but “a lot of further change is needed from governing bodies”. 

The curriculum can be “very structured” around what can or can’t be done and this can have an “impact on students” but The City of Liverpool College has “worked hard to refine the level 2 and 3 curriculum”.

The ecosystem is “crucial” added Sarah Goulden (Form) and in the Liverpool City Region there are “open ears” from the combined authority and Liverpool’s Growth Platform. She explained how Form delivers Gather, a community for digital, creative and tech leaders in the Liverpool City Region, and is set to launch business support specifically for the tech-led creatives in the city with a major focus on gaming.

She said there’s often a “siloed nature” in the gaming industry but it needs to extend wider across the digital and creative ecosystem to really plug into more connections to fuel its potential.

Lacy (Avalanche) agreed, as she sits on the newly established digital and creative clusterboard. “In games we can be inward looking and we need to look outwards more, we have a lot to teach but a lot to learn and we need to leverage that entrepreneurialism and creativity in the region.” 

She pointed to the importance of Liverpool’s “strong marketing industry” and said there needs to be a better way to connect with that sector to support the games industry’s needs. 

On talent, she highlighted that there’s still only around 20% of women working across the games industry in the UK. It’s been a “problem for a long time” and there has barely been a shift since she first entered the sector 15 years ago. 

Parsons (10:10 Games) explained the games industry needs to engage better with education to tackle skills shortages. “We can affect that change,” he said, but explained a stumbling block when it comes to the sector inspiring the next generation of talent at primary and secondary school level to showcase how viable the games industry is as a career pathway.

Butler (The City of Liverpool College) agreed, and said the industry and educational institutions “need to tackle that learning curve of students”. On the furture, Lacy (Avalanche) said there needs to be more support for indie developers and start-ups, and an emphasis on established companies becoming good employers. “If the staff are happy, you are going to make great games.”

The industry needs to “give back and take risks” added Parsons (10:10 Games). “Get students in, take risks on people,” he said. “We will always take a gamble on someone who is a good person with fresh ideas. The biggest thing we can do for the region is find a way to get the next start-up off the ground, there’s no funding to support students with the next great idea.”

Wrapping up the conversation, Butler (The City of Liverpool College) said students are the “future” driving digital and hopes the sector and educational institutions can continue working together to give students the “opportunities they deserve in Liverpool”.

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