The great thing about working in the games industry is that (sssh, don’t tell anyone) it often feels like it’s just too much fun to be a proper job.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s serious, it’s professional, and it’s often darned hard work too. In my experience though, every now and then something comes your way that reminds you why you love it so much and why, actually, there’s no better job in the world.
I had one of those moments on February 28th 2013. A LinkedIn message from a previously unknown connection led to a Starbucks meeting a couple of weeks later that would prove to be the start of something pretty special.
Enter stage left Craig Spivey, infectiously frothy Executive Creative Director of marketing agency Vital. He’d been pointed in my direction by some former Blitz Games colleagues and was working with a local heritage organisation to support the Leamington Looks Back history festival. He’d had the brainwave of ‘Backspace’, an exhibition as part of the festival that would celebrate Leamington Spa’s impressive history of video game development (something that’s been LONG overdue) and was trying to corral a team of supporters to help him make it happen. And that’s where I came in.
The main thrust of the original idea was for a two-week pop-up exhibition and a trail of vintage arcade cabinets across the town. The County Council were stumping up a small amount of money to fund some of the physical costs but the rest was up to volunteers to pull together. During the course of 90 minutes and a couple of litres of vanilla lattes, Craig shared his vision and together we plotted a massive festival of events to rival The Great Exhibition. Well, we had nine weeks… how hard could it be?
I think I was originally just supposed to be a co-curator of the exhibition itself, to join the esteemed academic curator already on board – the calm and focussed Dr Michael Pigott from Warwick University – and add my industry perspective to proceedings. I may have got a little carried away.
While a large part of the ‘Silicon Spa’ journey was the ‘origin story’ that began with Codemasters and the Oliver Twins, to my mind what defines the town now is the huge variety of creativity and innovation at all levels, and the thriving indie scene that sits alongside the massive international studios. From the outset, I felt that Backspace should represent the past, present AND future of games development in Leamington, and thankfully Craig agreed. So the vintage arcade units became custom-built cabs that would showcase half a dozen locally developed titles via the ‘Leamington Spa-Cade’ games trail, the exhibition would contain recent releases too and we’d make sure that even the smallest, newest studios were included in the thirty year timeline we’d write, design and display.
Apart from our ‘flagship event’, we’d also stage a day of RaspberryPi programming workshops, a Careers Evening at Warwickshire College, a showcase of technology for disabled gamers, an evening ‘in conversation’ with two of the the industry’s local founding fathers (hosted by a games/tech journalist from The Observer), several art and design activities for the kids and a games character costume parade. The over-riding vision was always to bring the games community together in a way that would reveal their hidden talents (not to mention global influence) to a previously unknowing local community, and to expose as broad a cross-section of that community to games as possible, hopefully making them proud of the creations their town has spawned over three decades.
Oh, and we kicked off two DJ and club nights, and a couple of raffles, that between them raised over £1000 for disabled gamers charity SpecialEffect and locally based Myton Hospice, so we made sure we were putting something back too.
The reception has been nothing short of overwhelming, not to mention more than a little humbling. Enthusiastic TV and radio coverage of our launch night gave way to sold out events across the board, a visitors’ book and Twitter feed bulging with positive and excited comments, and an inbox full of compliments and gratitude from the development companies we sought to celebrate.
The last three months have been tough. They’ve been a logistical juggling act worthy of a circus, and a LOT of long days and late nights, for all of us. And I’ve eaten far too much cold pizza at 1am. But despite all that, they’ve been a heck of a lot of fun and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
One of the things that makes working in games so irresistible is not the technology, not the games, not the constant evolution or the endless challenge (although all of those things DO help to get you out of bed most mornings). What really sets it apart is the people – and that’s where the fun comes in. A disproportionately large percentage of these people are passionate, enthusiastic, generous, collaborative, creative, inspired and inspiring. Backspace began in the mind of someone who embodies all those qualities 24/7, and it came to life because of the amazing game development community across Leamington Spa who continued to display those same traits, coming together to support something they believed in and wearing their hearts and their passion firmly on their sleeves throughout.
On a professional level, I’m incredibly proud of what the Backspace team achieved in such a short amount of time and on a shoestring budget. On a personal level I’m even more proud to be working in games, to be working in Leamington and to have shone a light on the creative talent that’s based here, from the biggest AAA hit to the smallest indie gem. If that’s not a proper job then I don’t know what is.
And the moral of the story? Always click ‘accept’ on a new LinkedIn invite… you never know where it might take you.