Scotland has one of the most successful computer games industries on the planet - in fact, we basically invented the entire sector - and lockdown has only made the boom get bigger.

Yet, why do we never talk about it? Is it the Scottish cringe? Are we a nation of technophobes? Do we just not get it? Writer at Large Neil Mackay talks to the industry’s point-man in Scotland Brian Baglow

BRIAN Baglow can’t help but wonder what’s up with Scotland. The industry he’s worked so hard at building from the ground up is one of the country’s greatest success stories – not that you would know it. There’s almost universal silence when it comes to how this small nation of ours turned the bedroom hobby of computer games into a global entertainment giant.

From a standing start, with roots going back no more than 40 years, our games industry hasn’t just made some of the biggest games in the world, it’s made the biggest games in the world, from Grand Theft Auto to Minecraft – franchises worth billions. We were the first nation to create video game university degrees, and we’ve got the world’s greatest studios right here. 

It’s like having Hollywood on our doorstep. In fact, the games industry globally is actually worth way more than the revenues from all film worldwide – $152 billion versus $42bn – yet there’s barely a word said when we should be singing our success from the rooftops.
Why don’t we shout about it more? “Because we’re Scottish,” says Baglow, the director of the Scottish Games Network, which represents the industry here at home.

HeraldScotland:

The Dundee connection
Scotland’s path to success in the games industry can be traced back to 1982 when Clive Sinclair decided to have his new invention, the Spectrum home computer, made at Dundee’s Timex factory. It became a huge UK hit, ushering in a revolution in home computing. A little seed was planted in Scotland. Today, Dundee is a global games factory on the Tay.

With local parents working at Timex, Dundee kids got turned on to gaming. In 1987, one group of Dundee twentysomethings set up DMA Design, and brought out an early hit called Menace – a shoot ‘em up with spaceships. It sold well, allowing them to lay the foundations of today’s industry.

DMA Design, founded by David Jones, had its first real worldwide hit with Lemmings – now hailed as one of the greatest games of all time. Baglow sees the release of Lemmings as the moment Scotland’s games industry was really born – when Scotland went global. “It came out in 1991,” he says, “so it’s just celebrated its 30th anniversary.”

Come 1997, just 10 years after its founding, DMA released Grand Theft Auto (GTA) and changed gaming forever. GTA became one of the most popular and bestselling franchises in history, worth around £10bn. 
Baglow says: “If you took Pirates Of The Caribbean and multiplied it by whisky you’d get GTA.”

DMA would eventually become part of the international giant Rockstar Games with key bases in Edinburgh and, of course, Dundee. Rockstar was behind the hit series Red Dead Redemption, acclaimed for bridging the gap between gaming and cinema with its sophisticated, long-form character-driven storytelling. The game had writers proclaiming it a rival to the novel.

When GTA arrived, games were still very much about “boys and their toys”. That’s all changed. In the last decade, the biggest demographic shift in gaming has come from an influx of older people and women. 

That’s made gaming increasingly emotionally sophisticated. Low-key games like What Remains of Edith Finch are driven solely by character and storyline. There’s no shooting, no explosions – playing Edith Finch is more like being immersed in an animated novel exploring the life of a dysfunctional family. It’s a female-driven Twin Peaks-style experience.

By 2005, another big studio arrived – 4J, also in Dundee, founded by entrepreneur Chris van der Kuyl. By 2012, 4J helped bring Minecraft to the world. It’s one of the biggest commercial success stories on the planet, spawning films and novels, and lauded as one of the most influential games ever made, worth around $2.5bn.

Gorillas in the room
With Minecraft and GTA alone, says Baglow, “Scotland has two 800-pound gorillas in the room”.

Many of the world’s other big beasts, though, rent space here too. The American company, Epic Games, which made the global smash hit Fortnite, has studios in Edinburgh. Unity, from San Francisco, which provides the tech for dozens of the world’s biggest games like Pokemon Go, has a base after buying deltaDNA, also in Edinburgh.

If the games industry globally is like a burgeoning Hollywood then the best way to think of Scotland is that we made some of the best silent movies, pioneered the talkies, and introduced glorious technicolour.

It’s hard to think of any other nation – especially one our size – which has done so much in such a short space of time in so new an industry.

In terms of what the industry brings to the Scottish economy, the figure stands at around £350 million a year – about the same as the entire textile industry, or 10 times the fintech sector, seen as the “promised land” by many investors when it comes to making it rich it today’s digital economy.

With Dundee right at the heart of the global games industry, Abertay University got in on the action quickly, launching the world’s first video games degree in 1997. The university is now regularly voted the best in Europe to study game design.

Scottish Enterprise – often bashed by critics – was proactive and quick to see the games industry’s potential. It helped Scottish companies get to an early Californian event called E3 – today the world’s biggest games expo. Scotland was one of the first nations, Baglow says, to have a presence there. It helped build relationships that still pay off to this day.

Boom time
BOOM time was just around the corner. There were now six big studios across the country, Abertay was producing graduates, and the Government was getting behind the young industry. Then, come the early 2000s, mobiles and broadband changed everything. People who didn’t think of themselves as gamers, because they didn’t have an Xbox in their living room, suddenly turned to games like FarmVille on their phone.

Mobile games were a gold rush – and Scotland was in from the start. “Scotland had a real pioneering sense at that point,” says Baglow, including some of the “very first mobile gaming publishers in the world”.

Then, in 2003, Steam arrived – an online service where customers can download games straight to their home computer rather than buy a physical product. Steam has over 100 million users today, many playing games built here in Scotland.

Games were now everywhere – on TVs through consoles like Xbox, beeping on the phone in your pocket, and just a click away online.

Soon games will be all about streaming – like movies from Netflix. That won’t just mean an end to downloading, but an end to the physical product – the game on a disc – which could go the way of CDs with the advent of iTunes. The result?

Costs go down, sales go up, and the boom just keeps booming.

Scotland has myriad small companies working away on the unsung technology needed to keep the country at the head of the industry. One firm, Ninja Kiwi, which develops mobile and web games, was recently bought by a Swedish giant for $142m.

Not long before, Hutch Games was sold for $375m. And all with hardly any publicity or fanfare. Ninja Kiwi is famous for the game Bloons, beloved by parents and kids everywhere.

The games industry ecosystem in Scotland is huge and diverse – there’s room for just about every type of entrepreneur.

In Stirling, there’s a firm called Rivet Games which makes bespoke content for one of the world’s most unlikely hits – a train simulator. If you want to take your online train for a chug around a replica of an Alpine track then the work is done in Stirling. Millions play these games. 

There’s a cluster of games companies in Elgin that sprung up around a couple of Abertay graduates who moved back home to Moray and started the firm Hunted Cow.

E-sports
ONE big future trend is esports –professional competitions of gamers with a global audience of more than 450 million, seven-figure prize pots, and a value of around $1BN. It’s huge in Asia, and growing daily in Europe and America.

Unsurprisingly, Dundee is set to have its own esports arena by 2024 with a £60M price tag.

For an idea of how big gaming is – and how crazy it is we talk so little about it in Scotland given our success – Microsoft’s gaming division doesn’t now see itself in competition with other games companies, says Baglow. It sees itself in competition with Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify and Facebook. 

Global entertainment is about gaming, music, social media, film and TV – they interlock, and each sector is trying to get in on the act of competitors. Netflix recently brought out an interactive film, for instance – a kind of hybrid game-meets-cinema called Bandersnatch from Charlie Brooker, creator of its Black Mirror franchise.

Games are ubiquitous, Baglow points out. “The reality is that we’re in a war for attention, he says. “People only have so much time in the day and so playing a game competes with watching Line Of Duty or reading a book or going for a walk.”

Adults only
THERE are few better guides to the Scottish gaming industry than Baglow. He was working with DMA – the company behind Lemmings and GTA –back in 1997, and ended up writing for the game which would eventually become GTA.

While GTA shaped much of the modern industry it also caused a moral panic similar to the scare stories around video nasties in the 1980s.

While the game is sexual and violent, most critics forget that it comes with an adult rating – it’s meant for grown-ups, not kids. Rockstar deliberately creates games with “mature content and adult themes”, says Baglow. Attacking Rockstar for GTA is like attacking a rapper for swearing.

This gives us a clue to the biggest problem facing gaming in Scotland: because we talk so little about the industry too many people still think it’s about entertainment for kids, when it’s clearly not. 

That creates a feedback loop. If something is for kids, why should serious people talk about it? “We’ve a tendency to see video games as just digital toys for kids which therefore have no inherent social value,” says Baglow. Too many people also think “fun is a dirty word”, he adds. As a result, nearly all the economic good news about the industry in Scotland, Baglow suggests, “flies under the radar”.

There’s also the tired old trope that games are for nerds. Add in the fact that Scotland isn’t very good at boasting and it all adds up to a wall of silence around the industry.

The only time the games industry ever got in-depth media coverage in Scotland, Baglow says, was when the company Realtime Worlds collapsed in 2010. “And that was a bad news story,” he says. Two years earlier, though, when the company was riding high globally, there was hardly any coverage at all.

Gamification of life
RIGHT now, games and film are merging. The tech used to make games is increasingly used in cinema – just check all those superhero movies. Mass-market “augmented reality” (AR) is just around the corner too.

AR is a sort of version of virtuality reality where donning a pair of glasses, or using an app on your phone, allows you to see computer-generated images laid over the real world. So, imagine walking into the park, putting on a pair of AR specs and playing a live game of The Walking Dead where you’re chased by zombies.

That hints at where gaming is going – “the gamification of life”, as Baglow calls it. If you’ve got a Fitbit you’re already “gamifying” your life. It will be linked to an app on your phone which rewards you with little notifications that you’ve slept well, or done 10,000 steps. “Games,” says Baglow, “will become part of everyday life.”

Lockdown was like a performance-enhancing drug for gaming. Millions who hadn’t played games switched on – and more and more of these “gamified” apps for health and wellbeing were downloaded.

Today, the narrative around gaming isn’t that it makes kids violent, it’s that games are mindful. Had a stressful day? Switch off by playing your game. That’s quite a difference to how other forms of technology are seen in this era of fear around social media. Although, obviously, gaming still has its faults – too much screen time is a bad thing.

They’re everywhere
GAMES are being used by teachers and parents to educate kids. Other games hide education in plain sight. The Assassin’s Creed franchise – an adventure story which spans time from Ancient Egypt to the American Revolution – is filled with encyclopedia-level historical detail. 

Gaming is also changing how companies which are traditionally non-digital operate in the online world. Scottish games firms like Chilli Connect, says Baglow, are about mastering the art of caring for customers online with a host of them specialising in adding extra value to digital products, keeping customers coming back, analysing customer behaviour, and crucially developing a strategy to make a buck in a world of free stuff. To survive in the digital world those are the skills traditional firms need.

Creatively, writers who once would only think of the novel, stage or screen as their medium, are trying their hand at games, excited about long-form narrative and the emotional depth characters can be given. In games, the player isn’t a passive recipient of a story – they’re actively taking part. Baglow says in terms of what players get out of a game like the western Red Dead Redemption they would have to “pretty much watch every western ever made back to back”. The emotional depth, he says, “comes close to the novel”.

Soon gaming could become something much deeper culturally. The multi-billion-dollar “metaverse” is under construction, where a virtual “you” can live almost entirely online playing games, or be inserted into a movie, or experience a virtual reality trip to the pyramids. It truly would be a “Second Life” – an online game which falteringly and ultimately unsuccessfully tried to build a world filled with the digital avatars of real people.

At its height, Reuters news agency had an embedded correspondent in Second Life, and Sweden owned an embassy – that’s not a joke.

The future
FOR Baglow, Scotland’s success isn’t just a matter of chance. “It’s no more happenstance than the fact DC Thomson created the Beano and the Dandy,” he says, “and launched the modern comic industry. It’s about talent. We’re good at this stuff and we should be proud of that.” 

For once, with gaming, we’ve also got an industry that isn’t fed up to the back teeth with Government. Politicians in London and Edinburgh have helped nurture gaming here with financial help.

Despite its huge successes, gaming is still a risky business – developing a hit takes years and millions, and if it fails there’s a lot to lose – that’s why it’s an industry with so many franchises launching repeats with guaranteed box office.

Scottish Finance Secretary Kate Forbes commissioned Mark Logan of Skyscanner – Scotland’s first “unicorn”, or billion-dollar tech company – to investigate improving our tech sector, and recommendations include policies like “tech scalers”, a network of hubs around the country where digital startups can riff off each other.

All this gets the thumbs-up from games people like Baglow.
So, how far can Scotland go when it comes to the games industry? “I don’t think there’s an upper limit,” says Baglow. He believes the sector can easily rival the whisky industry in the next decade as technology converges around film, music, games and social media.

Baglow notes that the Scottish film industry has been lobbying for years to get a studio so it can fulfil its potential. “We don’t need that – give us decent broadband and some laptops and we’re away,” he says. “Games are the fundamental underpinning of an entirely new cultural future for Scotland. We represent the conjunction of technology and creativity – that’s the 21st century … People need to realise there’s more to games than blowing s**t up.”

Scotland’s games industry in numbers

Worth - between £330-350 million a year
Number of companies - 425
New games developers registered since 2020 alone - 85
Game studio employees - 1307
Universities and colleges offering courses - 18