Meet the 100 rising stars of the UK games industry
Check out our interviews with the winners of this year's GamesIndustry.biz 100
Like so many making a start in the games industry, Sally Blake's career started in QA - briefly at Team17, and then at Ubisoft Reflections. Her ascent to the role of associate producer was rapid, and she has now worked on AAA titles like Just Dance 4, Watch Dogs and The Division.
What makes Sally stand apart are the responsibilities she has taken on outside of her core job, particularly those related to diversity in the industry. She has previously run a diversity course at Reflections, for example, and cites being accepted as a mentor with The Girl's Network as one of her proudest professional achievements to date.
“The idea that I could inspire the next generation of women is really motivational,” she says. “I really hope I can continue to make a difference there.”
Sally describes herself as “a huge advocate for diversity”, and she believes that the games industry still has a long way to travel before everyone truly feels like they can belong. “Diversity improves the quality of games,” she says, “by allowing fresh ideas and innovations that can help to reach new audiences.” One day, she hopes to pursue that idea in a studio of her very own.
“It would be amazing to release my own game or start my own studio one day,” she says. “It's pretty ambitious, but I love working in teams and I've met so many talented people over the years. To create something amazing with a team like that would be fantastic.”
Despite having left school at 16 without a single GCSE, Sam Bateman now holds a position as creative lead for Xbox, where he is responsible for conducting marketing campaign ideas.
Bateman, who got an original Xbox at the age of 11, was responsible for the #CountdownToX campaign around the Xbox One X UK launch, something he says he couldn't be prouder of.
He was also heavily involved in the Xbox launch of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, which picked up a creative industry award for its PUBG Diner concept.
“It's also nice that when you're being so ambitious with your work, you've got a boss that's got a great eye for a good idea and empowers you with that autonomy to just go and do it,” says Bateman.
Such creativity is something Bateman says he would like to see more of in the industry.
“You sort of get the feeling that everyone spends a lot of time looking over their shoulder or analysing what a competitor is doing with a magnifying glass to make sure they stay ahead of the game,” he says.
“I don't agree with that. You've got to create your own path and then go for it. If you fail, then you get up and go again. If you succeed, well it's special and the rewards are much greater.”
Sam's route into the industry would give any aspiring youngster hope. With no formal higher education or experience under his belt, he got on the phone to Roll7 and simply persuaded them to give him a job.
Having initially started with QA on OlliOlli in 2014, he's now described as an “integral and super dependable part of the team” who is “involved in everything in the project cycle on all games”, with a wealth of experience to his name including systems design, production and management.
Currently he's on the design team for Laser League.
“As with most people, I've always loved playing games. I remember playing through some amazing titles that completely immersed me in their worlds, providing powerful and enjoyable experiences that will stay with me forever, and even changed my outlook on certain subjects,” he says.
“I wanted to be a part of an industry where I knew my work would endure and be experienced for years to come, and to hopefully help provide new, life-changing experiences for others similar to those that I had growing up.”
BAFTA games award officer, Sam D'Elia has been described as “a beacon of goodness” and “incredible supporter” of women in the industry.
Coming from a background in book publishing, D'Elia joined BAFTA in 2016 with “the agenda of using its tremendous brand power to change the way people think about games culturally.”
While he admits this is a lofty goal, D'Elia remains proud of the organisation's achievements that he's been a part of: securing record amounts of sponsorship to support BAFTA's charitable endeavours, developing the new Beyond Entertainment category, launching in-studio masterclasses in the US, and “generally being in a position to celebrate unsung heroes.”
D'Elia hopes that in the next few years we will see the mainstream perception of games in solely commercial or pejorative terms come to an end, and that he would like to play a role in that shift, whether from the side of cultural advocacy or from within a studio.
Accessibility of the industry should be the prime concern in years to come, says D'Elia.
“There's still a clear skills gap in schools,” he says. “That wider issue requires the attention of government and other sectors, but the industry can play its part in the immediate term by getting involved with initiatives like BAFTA's Young Game Designers and Digital Schoolhouse.”
Not many people have made the jump from the theatre to video games, but Samantha is among them. “It was by chance that I was invited to an interview at a games company,” she says. “I fell in love with the passion and drive that I found in my visit and wanted to be a part of it.”
And thank goodness she did, as Samantha's success has already been substantial. As the co-founder and client director of Virtual Umbrella, she has played a key role in the marketing of several developers and growing companies within the VR sector. She was also the winner of the New Business Award at the Southampton Venus Awards in 2016.
On top of this, Samantha was named in the BIMA 100, was on the 2017 Progress 1000 list and was nominated for the Unsung Hero category at the 2016 MCV Awards. One colleague says that she has “unlimited passion and determination”.
Like so many promising stars of the games industry, Samantha recognises the importance of making sure the sector's doors are open to everybody.
“Everyone who is new to this industry should feel welcome and included,” she says. “Sometimes I feel that this can be missed. I have heard stories of people feeling not welcomed, so I make sure that whatever I am doing, I am open and accepting of everyone, either by offering advice, going for a cup of tea and being someone to talk to or helping people along their journey in this space.
“I think this is an area that we can all work on together.”
Seb has contributed to some of the biggest games in the market, although not perhaps in the way you might expect.
Having studied games user research at university he developed a fascination not only for the psychology of games, but also how that is measured and recorded. Seb has made a career out of examining the disparity between design intent and player experience. He has to date worked on some huge titles including FIFA, Arena of Valour and Little Nightmares, not to mention brands such as LEGO, Warhammer and Harry Potter.
His current partners include Google and his company, Player Research, is pushing into the Canadian market this year.
“From two employees in 2012 we steadily grew and we're now part of the Keywords family, with incredible teams in Montreal and Brighton, contributing to hundreds of titles every year including some of the biggest games in the world, impacting billions of players,” he says.
“Although the use of player data in development has made huge advances, most studios still lag way behind the market leaders in not building an insight and UX [player experience] during the design and pre-production stages. We spend a huge amount of our time educating developers on the tried-and-tested approaches for better game usability and learnability, and it is working.
“UX as a discipline is garnering more attention today than ever before, and I hope this current trend toward player-centric development continues.”
If you're a parent of young children there's a good chance you've seen Sinead's work in action – she has been the sole modeller on Cbeebies show Number Blocks since the fifth episode. She also helped produce the characters, props and vehicles for fellow show Go Jetters.
Her experience also includes architectural visualisation modelling, and she recently featured in 3D Artist magazine. Having previously worked for Glowmade, Sinead is currently at mobile developer Hutch Games.
“I have a love for 3D experimental short films,” she says. “I would love to see more styles of 3D art come into games and more funding for small teams to create projects that break the expectations we have for art in games.
“After starting at Glowmade I realised that working in mobile games gave me the freedom to really get involved with the full pipeline from concept to final art asset. The fast pace, the opportunity to get stuck in with a small team and having input over a lot of the art choices, really drew me to work in mobile games.
“I'm looking forward to being involved in a project from concept to release, learning the full pipeline for a 3D artist and getting to experience the excitement of shipping a title at Hutch Games.”
Dream Reality Interactive
“I was deciding what to study at university and then it clicked - someone must be making these games that I'm spending so much time playing,” recalls Shefta. “So I decided that I wanted to go and learn about something I was really passionate about and ended up studying BSc Games Computing at university, which then in turn led to my career in the industry. I wanted to contribute to making these games that I loved playing so much.”
And contribute she did, starting as a graduate producer at EA working on the Need for Speed franchise. Since then, Shefta has helped build a myriad of popular titles, including LittleBigPlanet 3, Sonic Dash 2, Snake Pass and various elements of the Disney Infinity franchise. She most recently joined Dream Reality Interactive, where she's experimenting with VR and AR games.
Outside her daily duties, Shefta is a major proponent of diversifying the industry's workforce, working with various BAFTA initiatives and running game jams at local schools, colleges and universities.
“As someone who went through education without knowing that working in games was a possibility, and not having any role models who I could relate to in the industry, I find it so important to look out for the next generation of developers who have this ambition,” she says. “I realise that I am in an incredibly fortunate position and get to do what I love, so on the side of my work I do a lot of volunteering, where I mentor people who want to join the industry and are looking for guidance.
“It's really fulfilling seeing former students I've worked with getting their foot in the door and landing their first job in games.”
Shefta one day hopes to run her own business as a studio head.
Sophia, who was previously a physics student, is a self-taught coder. The hard hours she put in acquiring the skills she needed to become such a success are something she now shares with others, both through her mentoring at Coder Dojo and her contribution to Girl Game Maker Days.
"Sophia dedicates both her work time and free time to mentor kids and adults and empowers them with skills to succeed in this industry,” one colleague says. “She has done plenty of talks at various meet-ups on how to learn how to use Unity and also her very popular talk: ‘How I taught myself to code'."
Sophia currently works at Unity as a software development engineer, and also makes small games that she sells on Itch.io.
“I've always loved games, but I really wanted to get into the industry when I realised that I can make games that I want to make, not just whatever is being made by the big studios,” she says.
“I'm very proud of the fact that I got an engineering job after teaching myself to code. I've achieved a lot of cool things since, but they wouldn't have happened without learning to code.”
Known to many in the UK games industry, Sophie Densham joined the business just four years ago as the first ever intern at gaming charity SpecialEffect.
Praised for her “amazing commitment and passion” in the work she did, including organising the UK's largest charity gaming marathon weekend GameBlast, she is also commended for her maturity when dealing with the disabled young people that the organisation helps.
Perhaps better known for her subsequent role as community and communications officer at trade body UKIE, she quickly became one of the team's key players and was instrumental in delivering its countless initiatives and events.
More recently she helped launch the GamesForum event and joined the Xbox PR team at Assembly, but still proudly advocates the work her first employer does.
“I'm proud to have been a small part of the amazing work that SpecialEffect do and I continue to be an immensely proud ambassador of theirs,” she says. “Beyond that, I love meeting people who got jobs in the sector as a result of advice given to them at UKIE Careers Bars or events. Knowing that what we did there directly influenced people and helped them start careers they love feels great.”
She continues: “I was lucky enough to be introduced to so many amazingly passionate, talented, creative, and insanely fun people from all backgrounds early on in my career that I knew games was the industry I wanted to be in, and these were the teams I wanted to be a part of.”
So where does Densham see herself in five years' time?
“I have honestly no idea what I want to do when I grow up,” she jokes. “But my Dad says the same thing and he's 61, so I think I'm okay for a while.”
Steph currently works in QA at Team17, but her impact on the industry already spans far beyond that. As well as being an ambassador for Women in Games, Steph also contributes to US outfit Girls Make Games, which helps to encourage young women to work in the games industry.
During her studies Steph also established a Games Development Society and hosted a game jam.
“I actually hadn't considered that the games industry was a thing until I attended a talk on games design during my foundation year at university,” she says. “As soon as the slides for that talk began to show, I knew that games was the place I was meant to call home. The idea of helping to create worlds that people spend so much time within and gather so much comfort from just sounded like a dream job, and if anything that dream has grown over time.
“I would love to help work towards bringing a UK equivalent of Girls Make Games to fruition. Be it through a series of workshops, easily accessible resources or school visits - any way to show kids that games are a very valid and very real career path.”