Forget the popular image of the computer gamer — a young, spotty teenage boy playing at home in his back bedroom. He (and it usually is a he) has grown up.
The industry has gone mainstream, according to games developers Charles Chapman and David Hawkins. Their company, Exient, grew out of a back bedroom, but now employs 45-50 people in central Oxford.
Mr Chapman started inventing computer games when he was 14. But he was far from a stereotypical teenage games addict, being also football mad and a grade A student. He freelanced all through his maths and computation degree at Keble College, Oxford, and then hawked his ideas at games conventions.
Meanwhile, Mr Hawkins was using his software engineering skills in the automotive industry, having moved to Witney to work for Lucas. He joined the computer games industry as it was moving out of people’s back bedrooms, and project management skills began to be in demand.
The pair met at a convention in London, where Mr Hawkins was looking for ideas for his employer, Atari. “Charles had developed a football game for the Sony Playstation, and I said we would take it if he could adapt it into Gameboy colour.
“In the end, we took so long to decide that he signed with another company, but I was impressed by the speed he worked at. I wanted to be a developer, as opposed to working in publishing, so we got together and set up a game development studio.”
They started the company in 2001 with half a dozen people above a dentist in Beaumont Street. Their big breakthrough came a few years ago when their games were accepted by Electronic Arts, one of the giants of the industry. As well as the Fifa Soccer series, they also produce a Tiger Woods golf game, racing car games such as Need for Speed Under Cover, and — amazingly — Madden, an American football game.
Mr Chapman said: “To sell an American football computer game, made in the UK, to a US company, is quite an achievement. When we came to this office, about the time of the World Cup, we were 22 people, and at one point we have been as high as 55. It varies according to what contracts we have.”
The office is a gamer’s paradise, scattered with joysticks, consoles, steering wheels, war game figures and even a guitar, to be used for a game called Rock Band.
One of their missions is to overturn popular conceptions about the industry, and about the kind of people who work in it.
“We tend to employ either people with five to ten years’ experience, or we take people straight from university with good maths or science degrees, not necessarily software or computing degrees,” said Mr Chapman.
“There is a lot of creative input and games are more family oriented and sociable now. There is a lot more physical movement.”
Mr Hawkins added: “What we are always looking for, really, is gifted people. Computer games are perceived as being something they are not. So much of them is about being transported to another world that you might not otherwise experience — flight simulators, fantasy football, where you control your own team.”
Mr Chapman is scathing about some of the vocational computer games courses run by former polytechnics. “People are hoping to get into the industry without the required skills. If you have a D grade at GCSE maths and haven’t even done the subject at A-level, you are not going to be able to do it. From a technical point of view, you need to be very bright. None of the UK’s top universities offer a games development course, and we are not asking for one.”
Exient has joined the Games Up campaign, aiming to persuade the Government pf the importance of the industry, which is seeking tax breaks similar to those which have boosted the British film industry.
Mr Hawkins said: “Britain is one of the most expensive places to develop games and we are competing with countries which encourage the industry. We compare badly to what other countries, like Canada, have.”
Oxford once had half a dozen companies. That has reduced, but the ones that are left have grown in size. One of the largest is animation specialist Oxford University spin-off Natural Motion, but there is also Rebellion, based in Osney Mead. Exient’s founders estimate that the industry employs 3-400 people in the area, partly because it is an attractive place for young people to live.
The recession holds no fears for them, since it is cheaper for people stay at home, playing computer games, than to go out to the pub or cinema. As a 100 per cent export company, they will also benefit from the cheaper pound.
Exient aims to expand its games into new applications such as the iPhone, and the next big breakthrough would be to develop its own game, and own the intellectual property.
“The iPhone is making it easier for developers, and the Internet is providing new marketing opportunities. The real big bucks come from your own ideas,” said Mr Hawkins.