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Taking off in style

How a start-up games studio won the support of a global player

UK developer Silver Rain Games outlines the progressive approach behind its success in an evolving and exciting sector.

In just over a year from its public debut, independent UK studio Silver Rain Games has secured its first game development deal with US-based industry giant Electronic Arts.

It’s an impressive achievement illustrating the enormous creativity, potential and marketability of the UK’s independent games developers.

Details of the game, to be released under the EA Originals label, remain strictly under wraps, but Silver Rain says it will be creating “an exciting universe that unlocks the power of storytelling.”

The studio, founded by BAFTA-nominated actor and producer Abu Salim and former BAFTA Games Programme Manager Mel Phillips, has rapidly grown to 30 people and is set to expand further.

Head of Studio Mel says: “Abu and I met through BAFTA, when he was working on Assassin’s Creed: Origins. He told me about his amazing idea, I left my job to start the company with him in 2019 and we announced the studio in March 2020.

“We did all the things a start-up does; we made mistakes, had discussions about direction and how the team would work together. We ran the gauntlet of trying to speak to publishers and secure funding. There’s no ‘typical’ funding pathway, and every project is different, but we did what was right for us.”

The studio won support from the UK Games Fund to develop a protype, which they took to EA. “They really bought into it and are supporting us in a way that gives us flexibility and enables us to retain our identity.”

Remote working first

Silver Rain chose a purely remote-working model from the outset, mainly because of Abu’s acting commitments and it provides a different proposition, enabling them to attract talent.

“It offers flexibility and a better work-life balance for us and employees with families or who live in places away from well-known games hubs like London or Guildford.”

But this working model also brings challenges, notably in managing a team working in nine different countries across five time zones, being mindful of people’s wellbeing and ensuring we’re able to actively manage colleagues’ work-life balance. Mel explains: “From the very early stages of the formation of the company we recognised that video meetings can be exhausting, and when you’re trying to be creative and solve problems this is far from ideal, so we limit them to three hours a day maximum.

Mel says team members have embraced the model, which has delivered strong productivity.

“When you’re a small team it’s very easy to identify a drop-off in productivity, and we’ve been very fortunate that it has positioned the studio very well.”

Commenting on the wider impact of Covid-19 on the industry she says: “I don’t think games are being developed that directly reflect it but there’s been greater interest in social gaming, with some great titles really coming through. People have taken huge comfort in going back to much-loved games they’ve enjoyed before, but there’s still massive demand for big triple-A titles.”

Attracting the right talent

Mel adds: “EA’s backing means we can put down roots, expand and invest in the team and watch people grow. Video meetings are now pretty normal in the industry and it’s easier to recruit incredibly talented people from around the world who fit our needs as they evolve.”

She believes UK schools and universities have a vital role to play in educating and preparing young people for a career in games development to maximise the full potential of the growing, multibillion pound games industry. As the lines between games and TV and film blur, the skills required to create games – for example programming, engine development, SFX and animation – are proving highly transferrable to traditional audiovisual media.

“However, an interest in games isn’t enough anymore, what’s required is talent with specific, technical skills the industry requires. It’s good that more schools and universities are embracing games development, but the fact is that many generalist courses don’t equip students for a role in the games industry and this needs to be addressed.”

Diversity challenge

For Mel, tackling the issue of diversity in the games industry – as in many sectors – has, disappointingly, frequently been a tick-box exercise based on grouping people by physical characteristics, and filling quotas.

“Employers often neglect other equally important factors such as educational background, socioeconomic status and sexuality. Abu and I believe change needs to come right from the top and be embedded at every level down, because people need be able to see somebody like themselves doing the things they want to do, including being in a boardroom.”

Perceptions of women working within the games industry and growth in the number of female game players are thankfully being challenged and things are changing. For example, a recent report has indicated that 50% of people in the UK who play games most days are women.

Mel argues that strong women have long been a feature of the industry but weren’t necessarily given the attention they deserve because of marketing ‘skew’.

“I think we should always challenge the status quo and it’s vital that we encourage visible female role model leaders like UKIE CEO Jo Twist and a number of award-winning game designers and directors.”

There’s actually a wonderful sisterhood supporting and empowering other women and bringing them forward but I look forward to gender not being an issue.

Breaking boundaries

Looking to the future, she sees games going from strength to strength and increasingly blurring societal boundaries as successive generations have easier access to them.

“People play games to escape but also to connect with each other – they’re for everyone, of all ages and always were, but industry marketing was steered another way.

“Things are evolving fast but there’s still so much opportunity out there for games developers to explore – and we’re going to be a part of that.” 

Read our full report on the UK games sector.

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