Coding on the Cobbles: How Manchester is chasing down London to be the UK’s games development capital

It may be the middle of May, but there’s one thing you can count on in Manchester: rain. As 200 developers gather in the kind of bright, colourful and unashamedly swish venue that seems better suited to housing Big Brother contestants than a coach load of coders, it’s tipping it down outside. Somewhat optimistically, the organisers of Jamchester – the new game jam on the block claiming to be the biggest in all the UK – have arranged a barbecue for the second day of the three day event. It’s news that, when announced, generates a heap of laughter.

Coding on the Cobbles: How Manchester is chasing down London to be the UK’s games development capital

Mancunians don’t live in Manchester for the weather, and it’s not the slim prospect of sunny days that has transformed the city from the gun capital of the UK in the 1990s to the fastest growing city in Britain today outside of London. To use a ‘Madchester’ turn of phrase, the city is buzzing; investment is flowing in at a pace, and you’d be hard pressed to find a corner of the skyline in the centre of Manchester or Salford that doesn’t have a crane looming over it.

Much of this new prosperity is a result of the creative industries; the arrival of the BBC at Media City back in 2011 has served as the poster boy for Manchester’s role in shaping film, TV, and wider popular culture within the UK. Music is big here, animation is big here, and, as Alan Turing would attest, technology and science have always been big here. Oh, and games are pretty big, too.

As Jamchester’s co-founder Simon Smith points out, though, this is nothing new. “Manchester has been a key part of the UK games industry since it began,” Smith told us, in the midst of Jamchester madness. “In the 1980s and 1990s Manchester-based Ocean Software was one of the biggest games publishers in the world, selling film licensed games such as Robocop, Batman, Jurassic Park, whilst mixing in innovative classics like Wizball, Head Over Heels, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. It even managed to licence Nintendo games like Super Mario Bros. for home computers.”


(Above: Media City in Salford)

Ocean Software is long gone and there has been many dark days for the city’s game scene since, but according to Smith, Manchester has been bolstered by a fresh breed of talent making its mark. “At the moment, we have more than 50 companies and 700 people employed in the games industry in Manchester and the surrounding area, including studios like Traveller’s Tales making the LEGO games and Foundry 42, which is part of the Star Citizen team – the game that has the honour of being the world’s largest crowdfunded project, with more than $100 million raised. We’re doing big and bold things here.”

None of this is happening automatically, however. Jamchester is the perfect example of the will of a few people driving a movement forward. Revolutions are forged not on the backs of millions of individuals – they follow later. Rather, it takes the efforts of just a few people dissatisfied with the status quo to take those first steps to make a difference. The view of many developers you speak to in Manchester – and, indeed, across the whole of North of England in general – is that the default reaction of anyone looking to invest in the games and tech scene is to plough their money in London. It takes considerable effort on the part of other creative hubs around the UK – Manchester, Bristol, Liverpool and others – to break that model.


(Above: Jamchester)

“I don’t think London, or anywhere else really, has the same friendly feel that Manchester has,” offers Ashley Ross, a Bolton-based coder who recently started working in Manchester city centre, at the start of Jamchester. “There’s just so much going on here, and the other advantage is everything is so contained. I can walk anywhere and see anyone within the middle of Manchester within a 20 minute walk. It really helps when everyone is so close together.” To Ross, Manchester is big enough to attract the talent any game hub needs to thrive, while not being too big as to lose any sense of community. Rain pun intended, Manchester is slowly building up to be the perfect storm.

Northern powerhouse

Indeed, while developers have come from all over the UK to take part in Jamchester, the opening half an hour of registration as akin to a first day back at school; most of the people here know most of the other people here, even if they’re not actually based in the city. It’s easy to see why Jamchester has attracted high profile sponsors, too. Microsoft has a presence in Manchester, and rival Sony – in the form of PlayStation First – has a long held association with Liverpool down the road and recently based its new VR studio at Media City in Salford. Unreal might be a Jamchester sponsor, but fellow engine Unity is active in Manchester, too, hosting regular workshops for developers. Oh, and there’s the little matter of Chillingo – EA’s mobile powerhouse that was responsible for publishing the first Angry Birds – which is just outside Manchester’s borders in nearby Macclesfield. The natural association people have between Manchester and culture is undoubtedly helping to fuel the city’s comeback.

It’s a comeback that’s born a fair few successes already, too. One of Jamchester’s judges, Alex Rose, is a game jam veteran himself – a Ludum Dare winner, no less – and is the man behind Super Rude Bear Resurrection, part funded by Creative England and bound for PS4, Xbox One and PC later this year. Taking part in the jam itself is another award winning studio, this time in the form of Dare to be Digital champions Torque Studios, having recently released manic multiplayer release Glitchrunners on PC.


(Above: Glitchrunners)

“Manchester really is a melting pot of people and culture that strives to improve itself in every way possible, and that reflects itself in the things it creates – be it art, music, food, or tech,” offered an especially tired Niall Taylor, artist and designer at Torque, at the end of the hack. “This city provides us with an incredible and constantly evolving source of inspiration and support in every aspect of our designs. Also, as a business, we’re supported by a huge number of initiatives and networks. We’ve got a great local development community, made up of developers big and small, and some great initiatives like Tech North that help develop our business.”

For Taylor, Media City being just tram line away – an area he claims the BBC and others are “fast transforming into the centre of the entertainment industry in the UK” – is the piece of the puzzle that had, until this decade, been missing from Manchester’s make-up: “We love living and working in Manchester. It’s fair to say both our business and our individual careers would not be where they are now without the support the city provides.”

Those thriving within Manchester’s games scene are nevertheless realistic – London may not have the heritage the likes of Manchester or Liverpool do, but as with most industries, its world city status means money and talent will automatically flow there. If the rest of the UK is to stand on its own two feet, however, it’ll need cities like Manchester to make their own mark. The likes of Ocean Software may suggest this city’s best days are behind it, but if the creativity and enthusiasm shown throughout Jamchester can be bottled, world beating games development will once again be as common in Manchester as the rain.

Images: Charlotte Graham, Aero Pixels

READ NEXT: Battlefield 1 and the problems of making a game out of World War I

Disclaimer: Some pages on this site may include an affiliate link. This does not effect our editorial in any way.

Todays Highlights
How to See Google Search History
how to download photos from google photos