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Playhubs: "You'll be able to walk in here and see the future"

A non-profit accelerator backed by the UK industry's biggest names is aiming to become the focal point for entrepreneurial talent

What is the key to success in the modern games business? As a journalist for a site such as this, the question has loitered rudely at the fringes of almost every interview for the last several years. The digital world is one in which the task of making, selling and promoting games has never been more accessible, and yet the road to success has, if anything, become even more difficult to define.

When David Helgason took the stage at the Playhubs launch event last night, the first subject raised was just that. How did Unity Technologies, the company Helgason co-founded in 2004, become such a huge and influential force in the games business? As Helgason struggled to concoct the magic formula the question seemed to demand, his interrogator, former EA executive David Lau-Kee, offered a suggestion. "The timing," he said, "was unbelievable with these guys."

"I spent a long time trying to control and contain the industry to make it all work for EA. That's kind of how I was programmed"

David Gardner, founder, Playhubs

"But it's always the timing," Helgason responded, though that in itself clearly wasn't sufficient. "It's about building a really great team and being really relentless, and then you might be ready when the timing is right. But that's the best you can do. Because if you see it coming - I mean, if you really see it coming - then a lot of other people will be able to see it coming too."

This response says more about the difficulties of achieving success in the year 2015 than a first glance would suggest. Yes, you can build relationships with good people and work as hard as possible, but even then something as vague and intangible as 'timing' can be the real key to it all. And the very fact that you believe you have it in your grasp can actually be proof of the opposite. You've only grasped what a great many others have grasped, too - and there are more 'others' in the games business now than at any time in history.

Just like Helgason, Playhubs doesn't pretend to hold the secret to success. Indeed, this non-profit organisation based in the grand surroundings of London's Somerset House seems to exist precisely because of that nebulous quality. Established by a five-strong team featuring some of the most recognisable names in the UK industry - David Lau-Kee, David Gardner, Chris Lee, Paul Heydon, Nisha Valand - Playhubs has a stated goal of becoming the fulcrum for the region's entrepreneurs, providing native talent with the support and contacts that might help them become world-class companies like Unity. The founders don't take any equity from Playhubs' 40 (for now) residents, and the entire endeavour will be paid for by both the founders and the eminently reasonable £500-a-month charge for use of a desk.

"I spent a long time trying to control and contain the industry to make it all work for EA, and make money for EA's shareholders. That's kind of how I was programmed," said Gardner of the 25 years he spent working for one of the biggest companies in the industry. "What I realise now is that the industry has changed dramatically. There's been a democratisation, and it requires a different approach. We're all now in a different world."

When Gardner addressed the crowd gathered to celebrate the launch of this new endeavour, he pointed to the creative culture in Finland as its inspiration. While travelling in their capacity as investors for London Venture Partners, Gardner, Heydon and Lau-Kee were continually surprised by the lack of competition among Finnish developers, and the incredible results that atmosphere seemed to foster. In Gardner's words, Finnish companies, "seem to care for each other. To take care of each other, and share, and discuss what works and what doesn't." The games industry in the UK hasn't traditionally been so open, he said, but now that small, dynamic teams are the best hope for its future, the time is right to make those values the bedrock for its growth.

"Playhubs is not for profit. We don't want it to be politicised or contaminated by the profit motive. That's a key tenet for us"

David Gardner, founder, Playhubs

"We want to build an ecosystem," Gardner continued. "And if we can build one that's healthy and works well, we will all benefit. Playhubs is not for profit. We didn't want it to be politicised or contaminated by the profit motive. That's a key tenet for us. We believe in collaboration, and we believe that will have a massive impact on productivity and product quality, and it will drive us in the right direction for the consumer."

While Playhubs' residents will be carefully selected from the UK's pool of proven entrepreneurial talent, the space will be open to those who can provide advice and assistance. There will be a programme of masterclasses, discussions, and interviews with experts from every part of the games business, while representatives from the major platform holders and the VC community will be a common feature in its offices. As residents of Playhubs launch their products and find that elusive success, Gardner hopes that they will return and become a part of the process, sharing their experiences and acting as mentors to the next generation.

"London is the right place to start," Gardner said. "It has a fantastic gaming history, it has a lot of access to capital, it's a cultural centre, and nearly all of the platform holders have their European homes here..

"But the downside is that it's a big place. In our experience, it has never been able to provide a centre for games in the UK. That's our opportunity with Playhubs. We want to bring the community together to solve that. You'll be able to walk in here and see the future."

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Matthew Handrahan avatar
Matthew Handrahan: Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.
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