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The UK games industry is bigger than ever but it may not be sustainable

We’ve come a long way since Tetris. PodPad/Shutterstock

The digital game industry is a relative baby in comparison with other entertainment industries. The earliest known examples of digital games were created in the 1950s. Initially created on large university mainframe computers, digital games then followed the evolution of computers onto the desktop and into the mainstream. Remarkable (and often untold) creative experimentation ensued and the depth and variety of the games industry is extraordinary. Now new research from Nesta suggests that the UK games industry is growing even faster than we thought.

Video game incorporation across the UK by decade. Nesta

Putting this growth in context may help to explain it. Years ago, as the games industry evolved online and became an interactive means to engage with and connect players, robust communities began to form around some games. These groups were often highly influential in the development of future games. Even now gamers assert their gaming ownership by hosting livestreaming or YouTube channels and by crowdfunding and beta testing new games. This dynamic has generated a new form of persistent, accessible engagement between the gamer, game and the game designer.

And while they represent newer platforms for digital gaming, play on social media, the smartphone or tablet has surged in popularity among an ever expanding gaming population, leaving room for development in a myriad of directions.

The profile of the gamer is changing, too. In the past few years in the gaming population, women have overtaken male gamers under the age of 18. As the gamer demographic diversifies so too are our gaming choices. While most traditional forms of games and game platforms remain popular, casual or device-based gaming has seen significant growth. And these expanding genres, demographics and platforms of play are driving new opportunities for innovative growth in games design.

Bigger than ever

The Nesta report claims that there are about 45% more games companies (more than 1,902) in operation than has been previously reported elsewhere (1,320 companies in 2013).

These new findings are based on an experimental data collection technique where conventional industry data is merged with online search methods and “big data” driven analysis. The report also indicates that not only are there more games companies in existence, but that the types and geographical spread of the interactive entertainment industry is also expanding.

Distribution of creative industries companies by region/nation (percentage of total). ONS (IDBR 2013)

Nesta identifies a number of key geographical hubs of the games industry spread across the UK. These tend to be in the vicinity of other creative industries and specific higher education games design courses. Despite this, most of the industry (47.9%) is located in London or the south-east. The industry’s presence in some areas remains noticeably under-represented (such as Northern Ireland at only 1%, Wales at just 2% and the north-east of England at only 2.6%).

Video games hubs in the UK. Source: Nesta (2014), ONS (IDBR 2013)

Nesta stresses that “the north of England has a stronger presence in video games than in the creative industries overall”, but this also reminds us of the dearth of creative industries outside of London and the south-east. There are still significant gaps in the country where there is little to no games industry presence. The industry, like many other creative ones, needs to expand beyond its conventional hubs.

The majority of the new games companies are on a small or micro-scale, and digital games companies specialising in iOS platform games have seen the most significant growth in recent years.

Not all good news

But this dramatic rise raises questions as to whether the influx is sustainable. Another factor to keep in mind is that for small or micro-sized companies — such as those purporting to specialise in iOS games — there may be a limit to the types of games and creatively driven format that they can produce. We could be seeing an Apple bubble, which could burst if interest in Apple products begins to wane. Casual and iOS/Android games may be simpler to design (so appeal to small, inexperienced start-ups) but they may struggle with retaining a player base as compared with other types of games online which provide more interaction and community-driven game-play opportunities.

Company incorporations by platform specialisation and year (% of total, 2008–2013). Nesta (2014)

It is undeniable that the games industry is still growing and shows no sign of slowing down; according to some estimates the global market will exceed US$100 billion in 2014. And it’s great that the UK has a share of this. But there’s no reason to believe that current trends will continue. If there’s anything the history of digital games teaches us it’s that new types of games shift and evolve as fast as the technology they follow.

Much like other gold rush like activities, many may be drawn to starting up or funding a casual game for the iPad with the idea of making a quick game for a quick buck. But more so than in other industries, it is the community, rather than the games company, that can influence the trends and directions of gaming. And so perhaps it is the gamers themselves who could have a greater sway on the success or failure of the UK industry, rather than the platforms on which the games are designed or the geographical hub wherein a company resides.

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