With 50,000 residents and pristine regency architecture, Leamington Spa seems like any other scenic countryside settlement. But this Midlands town, once a hotspot for holidaying Victorian aristocrats desperate to bathe in its healing waters, has quietly become one of the UK’s video game industry biggest hubs.
AAA titles including Far Cry, Little Big Planet and Forza were all developed in a slice of rural Warwickshire known in the industry as “the silicon spa”. One in every 50 people in Leamington works for a games developer, and the industry contributes over £100m to local GDP. So how did a small town in the Midlands become a miniature Silicon Valley?
“It’s like something out of a fairytale,” says Jordan Erica Webber, a games journalist who has been living in Leamington for the last ten years. “The story goes in the 80s there were two pairs of brothers, the Darling brothers and the Oliver twins, who started out making games in their bedrooms as teenagers and eventually managed to start their own companies.”
In 1986, the Darlings founded Codemasters, which became one of the early pioneers in the UK gaming scene. The Olivers, who initially worked at Codemasters, would go on to set up their own company, Blitz Games. “These companies grew and grew and grew, and then at a certain point they started to splinter off and the people who left – having gained experience at Codemasters and Blitz – would form their own studios, and those studios would splinter and so on,” says Webber. That splintering is integral to a growing sector where smaller startup studios make up 99.5 per cent of UK games companies and generate the vast majority of the sector’s economic output.
But the reasons may go further than history. “The two local universities and Warwickshire College as well are all really important,” says Leamington’s Labour MP Matt Western. “They help create a fusion between various skill sets that the games industry needs, from sound engineers to physicists and historians. They help grow the industry.” And the industry is growing: it’s estimated 500 more jobs in game development will be created in the town in the next two years, and Mediatonic, the studio behind the Gears of War mobile game, recently announced plans to open an outpost in Leamington.
The area is also home to car company Jaguar Land Rover and the steady stream of engineers and specialists working at its Gaydon hub has had a knock-on effect for the games industry. Local developers are famous for their racing games, like Forza, Dirt or F1, so it’s often said the “silicon spa” specialises in making cars and games about racing them.
“When we first moved here we were expecting San Francisco or something. Especially given the nickname,” says Shaun Wall, a local games developer. “But unless you know there’s a gaming hub here you will not see anything about it on the street level. There’s a sense that these big game studios all feel completely separate with their individual campuses all off in different places.”
Wall started a group called Checkpoint with developer Maggie Tan to try and bring together the local gaming community, but both admit the often overlooked games industry doesn’t exactly define the town. While that may be changing – the town is now home to a yearly gaming festival called Interactive Futures – you could be forgiven for missing the Leamington’s trademark industry.
But the presence of the industry certainly has indirectly shaped the area. “It brings in a diversity of both skills and nationalities and the entire town is enriched by that,” says Western, who sits on the all-parliamentary group on video games. His 2017 election in this once solidly Conservative seat may reflect the changing demographics of the town, driven by the growing games industry.
Many of those in the town hope that their situation can serve as a roadmap for a country with a technology sector increasingly centralised in London, which receives more investment and job opportunities in tech than the rest of the country put together. “If you’ve got a new industry as big and growing as game development whose workers skew young, places like Leamington can really help decentralise the UK economy,” Webber says. “That can only be good for the countless towns that have been negatively impacted by the concentration of industry around London.”
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