Creative England: “The biggest challenge for indies today is not money, it's noise”

Head of Games Rob Crossley on helping indies and growing diversity as organisation launches 1m development fund for Leeds

Here's the great thing about the games industry today: anyone can make a game. Here's the problem: anyone can make a game.

With the ongoing democratisation of development tools, there's a glut of new and aspiring games creators out there, hoping they have the next global best-seller on their hands. But few will have the moxy, the knowledge or the resources to avoid being drowned out by their fellow indies, not to mention the triple-A titles that arguably still command the majority of consumers' attention.

"Breaking through that noise requires innovation," Creative England's Head of Games Rob Crossley tells "The reason why No Man's Sky was such a success - and I mean in terms of building a presence, getting noticed, signing with PlayStation - is because it was innovative. It was different.

"The biggest challenge for indies today is not money, it's noise. It's making sure people know about your game. I die a little bit inside when I see an amazing game but the developer has no marketing plan.

"There are thousands of games being released on Steam, thousands on the App Store. In order to stand out, they need to be innovative. They need to be interesting. Because that's half the battle won, in terms of marketing. If it's different, if it's not just another match-3 game, then you're going to stand out."

That's why Creative England is searching for innovative new games with the latest expansion of its GamesLab programme. Launching today, GamesLab Leeds is a £1m development fund designed to get new games off the ground. The initiative is open to developers of any age, providing their studio is registered in the Leeds City Region, and is expected to run until 2019.

There are £300,000 worth of grants up for grabs, a combination of funding from Creative England and the government's regional growth and regional development funds. The grants, which will be awarded in batches of £10,000, £20,000 or £30,000, are intended for innovative new projects.

"That might sound scary, but it's not like we're looking for the next Rez, Her Story or Minecraft," says Crossley. "We're just looking for something new in spaces that can still be explored. For example, emerging technologies augmented reality, virtual reality, HoloLens, Nintendo Switch - I'd love for people to come to us with cool ideas for these things.

"Take New Star Soccer as another example. That's a football management game and a pretty tired genre, but we would have still invested in that because it's an old genre built for mobile. We can find the innovation in these products, but if it tries nothing new at all then we probably can't invest. Fortunately, most games are, in some ways, different."


Creative England's Head of Games Rob Crossley

The project doesn't even have to be a standalone game, with Creative England willing to consider investing in new technology or development tools such as game engines, or even new ways for players to interact with video games. The remit is notably open.

Crossley believes the fund will be "invaluable" for developers in the Leeds City Region which, he reminds us, extends beyond the city itself. And, he stresses, there's no tricky hoops to leap through in order to qualify for the grant.

"We ask for nothing in return," he says. "We're offering this out because it's public money. And we're not asking for match funding. We'll put in ten, twenty or thirty grand but devs don't need the money themselves to match it. If they do have the money, that can be more convincing for us. If a studio is already on its way to making a game and already has some money in the bank, we can look upon that favourably."

As Crossley says, money isn't the biggest problem an indie faces in today's games market, which is why the programme offers more than just funding. Creative England is also investing in support for the studios that apply, primarily in the form of one-on-one mentoring. Successful applicants will be given the choice of who they wish their eight hours of mentoring with, whether it's a marketing expert, a publisher, investors that can offer advice on pitching, or journalists that can suggest how to gain greater exposure for the studio's project.

Workshops will also be held thanks to the help of local initiative FutureLabs, offering talks on access to finance, publishing, marketing and other topics that new developers need to be trained up on if they hope to survive in the market.

Perhaps most of interest to developers will be the possibility of heading to GDC. Creative England has pledged to take four new developers out to San Francisco in both 2017 and 2018, covering the studios' travel, accommodation, passes and more. This will give the most promising grant recipients the chance to find new opportunities for their project and hopefully start the next chapter of their business.

While Crossley is hoping to find new and younger developers that will bring fresh ideas to the industry, he reiterates that the programme is open to any games maker of any experience. The mentoring and workshop support may be particularly appealing to established devs.

"If the applicant is super-experienced, they still might have blind spots," he says. "There's always blind spots in your skillset. If anyone has holes in their knowledge, or needs a refresher, these workshops can be really handy."

"The biggest challenge for indies today is not money, it's noise. It's making sure people know about your game. I die a little bit inside when I see an amazing game but the developer has no marketing plan."

Rob Crossley, Creative England

That said, he acknowledges that to an established or medium-to-large studio, the grant money on offer "isn't huge", adding: "£30,000 won't take an established studio very far in terms of developing a game - some programmers earn £45,000 - but it will take younger developers a bit further.

"I'm not just looking for younger developers, but I think the programme is naturally more applicable to those with new ideas that don't have the experience and levels of cash in the bank that larger studios have."

He also hopes that GamesLab Leeds will help improve the diversity of the area's developers, although notes that this is not a specific goal for this particular programme.

"Diversity is something I think about a lot in games," he says. "I think people, including myself, are guilty of treating it a little bit like climate change: 'oh, it's important, it's huge, it's a massive issue, but we'll get to it later'. And that's not because of not wanting to try, it's because it's a very tricky subject. How do you push for diversity without positively discriminating? How do you do it in a way that attracts business or, frankly, isn't patronising? That's something we're working on. Creative England has had programmes in the past to encourage diversity, such as Queen of Code. We are currently in talks about new ones, but they're very hard to get off the ground.

"We have to conform to the stipulations of the organisations that give us this public money. There are no stipulations on diversity, so we would have to enforce that again, but I don't think it's the right time to do that for this programme. But I'm very interested in a bespoke diversity programme."

Four applicants will be taken to GDC, but Crossley is keen to encourage more year-round networking with their local developer communities

Four applicants will be taken to GDC, but Crossley is keen to encourage more year-round networking with their local developer communities

Crossley notes that, while it's no excuse, the industry's lack of diversity is very much a "generational problem", and that even for "pure, cold business reasons" it's good to push for as varied a workforce as possible.

"Many voices, many ideas and many cultures will allow a studio, purely from a business perspective, to appeal to more people," he says.

"It's no surprise that many of the games we get every year are angry, space marine dudes who appeal to a whole section of society living vicariously through that character. But growing beyond that is a catch-22 situation. What comes first: the game that directly appeals to that wider audience, or do the more diverse developers come in and create a game for those wider audiences? I personally think we have to get more talent in first, from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities and so on."

GamesLab Leeds is the latest iteration of a long-running Creative England initiative, so why focus on Leeds this time around? The Head of Games explains that his team is constantly exploring opportunities to access public money, funds that may have originally been intended for other things, and using it to invest in games. In this case, such an opportunity emerged in the Yorkshire city.

"There were a few places we could have done this," he says. "We chose Leeds because there's a great cluster of talent there, Leeds has a great history of development: Infogrames, Psygnosis, Rockstar, Activision tried it for a while, Blast Furnace. It has a proud history of games development."

"What comes first: the game that directly appeals to that wider audience, or do the more diverse developers come in and create a game for those wider audiences?"

A regular complaint among developers whenever Creative England announces another fund or programme is that it excludes the many smaller or indie developers that have gravitated towards London. Crossley explains that since initiatives such as GamesLab Leeds centre around public funds, his team's hands are tied to the conditions connected to those funds.

"The government looks at the UK and realise there's lots of business in London but outside it's a bit of a mismatch," he says. "There's disparity, so they create regional growth funds, which is money to support industries, businesses and job creation outside of London.

"London isn't off the cards. There is stuff we can do on a case-by-case basis. We can find ways of investing in London, should the opportunity arise."

The nature of the public money Creative England can access often means that GamesLab and the organisation's other initiatives are all geared towards establishing and strengthening communities of local developers - in this case, the Leeds City Region. Crossley concludes that simply giving developers the help they need to get started isn't enough; you also have to connect them with the peers that will help keep them going.

"When you work around talented people, you learn from them, you befriend them, and you might even find new opportunities through them," he says. "You can only grow so far when you're on your own. I personally believe you can't grow that fast when you work on your own, unless you're exceptionally talented.

"That's why we like the idea of clusters. We like supporting networked areas because developers need local help, to network and partner with each other. They need to share information and knowledge. Doing so at GDC or EGX is amazing, but developers need that all year round. Even the sympathy from other developers who are also going through tough times can help."

You can find out more about Creative England's GamesLab Leeds fund and how to apply here.

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