London's Video Game Industry: A Selective History

By Londonist Last edited 57 months ago
London's Video Game Industry: A Selective History

The UK video game industry surpassed both video and music as the largest earner in the British entertainment market in 2011. London is not the heart of British video game development, as it is for those other two industries, but it has been key in producing creative talent responsible for the shape of the industry today.

In 1979 a report, funded by the Manpower Services Commission and entitled The Silicon Factor, found that the UK lagged behind almost all comparable countries in digital literacy. This call to action led to an unusual partnership between Westminster and the BBC, which produced the much-loved BBC Micro computer and a number of hypnotically boring TV shows like ‘Making the most of the Micro’. It was on this machine, along with a number of competitors, that a handful of Londoners created a video games industry.

From Edgware to Infinity, and Beyond

stargliderOne such Londoner was Jez San without whom the international video game scene would be completely different. In his Edgware bedroom in 1978, a 12-year-old San taught himself to code. Four years later he would found Argonaut Games and create Starglider, an extremely successful first person 3D flight sim known for its speed and smooth vector graphics.

A dedication to 3-D games, at a time when it was not clear that this was a direction in which games would go, led to his unique partnership with Nintendo. With the hacker mentality that led him to hack an episode of the BBC’s Micro Live in 1983 live on air, San developed a hardware workaround that would allow Nintendo’s new Gameboy to play unlicensed games, and showed it to Nintendo officials during a games conference.

This gained San a reputation. He was flown out to Japan where he sold his 3-D technology for $2 million dollars, the most outrageous number he could think of at the time. He and his team spent one week a month teaching Nintendo employees and working with Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario and Zelda and undoubtedly the most famous name in video games at that time. Famously insular, it is thought that this relationship is the closest Nintendo has had with an outside developer.

During development of a Super Nintendo version of Starglider, San complained at the lack of graphical power of the system, claiming he could do so much better. To back up his boast, he created the FX chip that allowed the Super Nintendo to showcase the potential of 3D graphics. Using this technology, Argonaut's wireframe shooter Starglider would be repurposed as Star Fox, one of the seminal games of that generation of hardware.

Tactical Masterclass From Stoke Newington

rebelIn 1984, at the Stoke Newington offices of Red Shift games, Julian Gollop developed Rebelstar Raiders. It was highly successful in its own time, but is now heralded as the forerunner to any number of modern games in the turn-based strategy genre. This multiplayer combat and tactical simulator featured squad-based missions, multiple maps and the creation of teams whose members displayed different strengths and weaknesses.

Gollop would use similar themes in X-COM, which was recently rebooted by 2K Games in the shape of X-COM: Enemy Unknown and was universally lauded as one of the best games of the past 10 years. In 2009, IGN voted Gollop 66th overall on its list of top video game creators.

GTA: London

londonAny list of genre defining creatives, as selective and incomplete as they will always be, should include Sam and Dan Houser. These brothers, born and educated in London are the creative force behind the Grand Theft Auto games and, as such, can be credited with the popularity of open-world games that grant unparalleled freedom and agency to the player.

Although the GTA series — one early instalment of which was set in London — is their best known work, Dan also produced 2007’s often overlooked but exceptional Bully on PS2, which thoughtfully addressed the issue of childhood violence while mercifully free of the crushingly heavy-handed satire of the GTA games.

Elite Programming

To round out the list of London trail blazers we have to mention David Braben, co-creator of Elite, one of the most-loved games of all time. His formative years were spent in Chigwell, on the north-eastern edge of London, where he attended Buckhurst Hill County High School.

Elite is an exploration game featuring eight galaxies, each consisting of 256 procedurally generated planets; that is to say, worlds generated by the computer on the fly without the original programmers having to create them. This unrivalled size along with its trading- and mission-based mechanics prefigured today’s open world and resource-collecting games, but is also worthy of note as a direct ancestor to Hello Games’ upcoming No Man’s Sky, which features another entirely procedurally generated universe to explore.

Braben is also a trustee of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, the charity responsible for the incredibly cheap Raspberry Pi computer created to encourage the imaginative teaching of computer science in primary schools. It is hoped that this might result in an explosion of interest in computer science similar that which produced all of these creators in the 1970s and 80s.

It is interesting to note that most of these genius creators left London to succeed elsewhere. Liverpool and Edinburgh are two such cities that have benefited in this way. Guildford is famous worldwide as the home to many exciting developers, such as LionsHead, Criterion and Media Molecule, responsible for the LittleBigPlant series and last year’s wonderful Tearaway. This is perhaps a useful reminder that London holds no entitlement to be the centre for any modern digital industry.It needs to prove itself like any other location vying for the attention of creative people.

Other countries have been quick to exploit the popularity of video games and have offered enticing tax breaks to lure away talent. Our Government intends to follow suit by providing the same tax reliefs for games as offered to film and television creators. However, these proposals are currently being investigated by the European Commission. The Greater London Authority has told us that it has no plans to offer London-based creators any additional financial incentives.

In part 2, we'll look more closely at the current state and possible future of London's video game industry.

See also: The Capital in Video Games, part 1, and part 2.

By Neil McComb

Last Updated 25 February 2014