Archive for February, 2009

Dundee vs Edinburgh

Posted in Random Stuff on February 10th, 2009 by MrCranky

Here’s a little spiel I wrote up in response to a student doing research who was asking why we set up in Edinburgh rather than Dundee, and what I thought of Dundee as a creative hub. It’s got a bit of history of us in there, so I thought it would make a good blog post.

For us, really, it was a convenience thing. I studied in Edinburgh, and my first job (VIS Entertainment) was based in Dunfermline, so I commuted there for a while before they moved their office to Edinburgh. For 6 months or so I was seconded to the Dundee studio for a project, and the 2 hour commute each way took a real toll on my quality of life. Compared to that having an office in Edinburgh was a breeze, certainly much more social.

I’ve always loved Edinburgh as a city, it is an amazing city, with the warmth and personality of a smaller town, combined with the incredible history and range of night-life and culture that I think comes from it being a capital. So the best of both worlds I always thought. Glasgow is larger, but for me lacks charm and friendliness; Dundee has that charm and friendliness but lacks the same range of things to do that Edinburgh or Glasgow offer.

So all business motivation aside, I’ve always much preferred Edinburgh to the other options. When VIS went out of business in 2005, I had just moved flats and was committed to at least another 5 months of the lease. With that in mind, it was either Rockstar North, commuting to Dundee for a position with one of the various teams there, or trying to start my own studio as I had been thinking about for a while. With my own quality of life firmly in mind, I chose the latter, and started the studio, running it out of our spare room. The first 9 months or so was a struggle to find work, but I realised that there was a niche here in Edinburgh, for those developers who didn’t want to disappear into the behemoth that is R* North, but who (for personal reasons like me) couldn’t face shifting to Dundee, either relocating or commuting.

So rather than follow the herd and shift up to Dundee, I was determined to take advantage of both the personal enjoyment of living and working in Edinburgh and this talent pool. I figured that I would have a better chance recruiting people if I was running in Edinburgh, both experienced developers who wanted out of R* or Outerlight for whatever reason, and other people who would like to come and live in Edinburgh but who might not want to live in Dundee.

Of course, most of our business involves dealing with other games developers, and we do have a good working relationship with several studios up in Dundee. I do find that I spend a non-trivial portion of my time on the train up to Dundee to meet with those people, and that would be much easier if we were based up there with the other small studios. But many of our clients are down south as well, and so Edinburgh is well placed as a travel hub to get to all of those destinations.

Aside from the potential of easier collaboration with the many studios who are Dundee based, the other important consideration is premises rent. I gather that many of the studios who are tempted to the Seabraes developments are given massive discounts on the rent there, due to the council/Scottish Enterprise’s efforts to create a digital media hub. That’s a great thing, and certainly must weigh heavily on any manager who has to find space for their team. But for us, especially since we started out working remotely from home, this was never a pressing issue. When we reached a sufficient size where a shared team space was a good idea, we shifted out into our Palmerston Place office. By that point, with two developers, the proportion of our monthly outgoings which were rent was very small; with four developers it is even smaller. Salary has always dominated our cash-flow, and so rent price is less important than quality of life for the team.

We’ve been especially lucky in that both of our offices have come in at around 100 UKP per person per month, which even for Edinburgh is very cheap. Largely that is down to good fortune and timing, but it’s also because we’ve been prepared to look at non-traditional office spaces. Our first place was a room in a Georgian town-house in the West End of Edinburgh. The décor was fairly shabby, the services provided were minimal, but the place was nice; it had real character, and it was in a central location so that everyone on the team could get to it easily. There are plenty of pubs and shops and bus stops nearby, which makes it much nicer to work because you can get life stuff done. The new premises are set to be much nicer, the space is larger and it has a nice comfortable feel to it. The place is still being done up (hence the bargain rent), so it has many rough edges, but it feels like a good creative space. And again they are central so that quality of life is high.

The key thing I think for us is that the common feeling about Edinburgh (that property prices and rent are high) doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. We had quite a few options for office space, all within easily affordable price range, all central Edinburgh, all spaces in old buildings. The impression I get is that the myriad of old buildings in central Edinburgh have many quirky, odd spaces, which don’t allow the big, open-plan offices that companies seem to like these days. As a result, once your business expands beyond a certain size (10 or so people), it is very difficult to find a single space to suit, and so businesses have to go out of town, to spaces like South Gyle and Leith, before they find modern office-space that fits their specifications. And so the prices out of town rise, and there is a glut of small-sized offices slap bang in the centre of Edinburgh which keeps their prices reasonable.

As a small, creative business, we can make pretty much any office space work. We don’t have to have an open plan space, we would have been quite happy taking two mid-sized rooms in a town-house next to each other, and just wandering between them. So by being more flexible about the types of space we rent, we can fit into any of the odd shaped offices which central Edinburgh offers.

I realise of course that your questions are all relating to Dundee, and I’ve only talked about Edinburgh, but the answer to me is clear. We are based in Edinburgh, and unlikely to move, because:

  1. Edinburgh’s great
  2. Edinburgh’s cheap (enough for us)
  3. Edinburgh has a talent pool we can take advantage of that a Dundee company can’t
  4. Shifting to Dundee would make it easier to work with other Dundee businesses, but harder to work with everyone else

There are many good people and businesses that work in Dundee, and they probably disagree with me on the personal preference for Edinburgh as a city (in fact I can think of several off-hand who do, and tell me so on a regular basis); they would be better people to ask about why Dundee has been such a success. As an outsider, I certainly feel that incentives have played a part, but I think that probably a bigger factor is that the studios in Dundee are often started by Dundonians. And there are some very talented Dundonians, and the very fact that there are a lot of talented teams there already encourage more teams to set up alongside. So Dundee has a critical mass of talent, which itself helps to keep other talent nearby (its nice to know that if you’re relocating to somewhere like Dundee, that even if your new job goes belly-up, there’s plenty of other jobs nearby so you don’t have to relocate again).

The telling fact is I think that when one of those studios dies (e.g. Visual Science), the people involved with that will start up new businesses. The fact that those founders choose to start up again in Dundee and not relocate somewhere else does suggest that Dundee is a good place to run a creative team. Whether the incentives are forming an unnatural situation (i.e. those businesses would have moved elsewhere had incentives not been offered) or not is an interesting question, but one better answered by someone who’s started a business and chosen Dundee.


Posted in Coding, Tales from the grind-stone on February 4th, 2009 by MrCranky

Amongst various things I had to sort out today, I was asked to write out a blurb for a potential client about improving build processes and automating/scripting things in the development pipe-line. It’s a subject I get quite passionate about, because unlike so many things in games development, it’s a nice task to do. There are clear, quantifiable goals (“make creating a build a one click process”, “speed up turn-around times for artists by 50%”), and usually plenty of options about how to get there. It is also a nice, self-contained task that you can just wade into and make progress on, unlike for example gameplay coding, where you can often get blocked on feedback from the creative team, having to rework things and so on.

I think that’s possibly why I like to spend time on improving our pipe-line at the weekends or in my off-time; even though I could spend more time on the big pile of client work that needs done, I find myself tackling little bits of our own pipe-line because I know it’s a task I can get done without any other input.

On that note, with some more collaboration with the developers on some little niggles, we finally switched our creaky old makefile based system over to using JamPlus properly. Both build processes still run side-by-side, but the JamPlus version has a fraction of the number of lines in the makefile, runs much faster doing dependency checking etc., and in general is much cleaner and will be more maintainable going forward. I’ll have to walk the guys through what’s there so they can maintain it too, but after that I should be able to scrap the makefiles altogether.

Next step is the art/audio asset to platform binary conversion process, and this is why I really wanted to switch over to JamPlus. Our previous art pipeline would always rebuild platform assets, even if the source assets hadn’t changed. That was fine early on, when all of our tools ran lightning fast and we had few source assets, but very quickly it grinds when you introduce slow tools (such as our font encoding tool that does smart packing of glyphs and colour conversion), or many assets. Also the build scripts which make those assets are all Lua based, and so we have different technology for building code than for building art and audio. I’m pretty hopeful that we can make JamPlus fulfill both functions, and in the process get fast dependency checking for our art assets so that only the assets that have changed get rebuilt. But for that I’ll need a free day, and those are few and far between right now.

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