Saturday 8 April 2023

Silicon Spa

Silicon Spa - Video Games in Leamington, 

at the Leamington Art Gallery.

Video games are an increasingly important part of our culture. More people than ever play games, whether casually or as an immersive social experience. The exhibition at the Art Gallery shows the importance of this industry to the town of Leamington Spa.

Leamington is the centre of one of the largest clusters of video games companies in the UK, making a significant impact on the global stage. The sector became established in the town in the late 1980s and today a wide range  of developers are based here, from multinationals to small independent studios and freelancers. Household names from Dizzy to Sonic the Hedgehog have roots in the town.

Making games is a collaborative process which draws on a variety of creative skills. About 2,500 people locally are employed in the video games industry. They work in all kinds of roles, from concept art to coding, and sound design to community engagement.

The map above shows 50 of the many games development studios and other creative digital companies in the town and surrounding area. What I found amazing is that most of them are clustered in the city centre and yet, most inhabitants are not aware of their existence.

The first video games were developed by scientists in the 1950s  to explore artificial intelligence and demonstrate the capabilities of computers. Early programmers in  universities experimented with technical and artistic ideas by making and sharing games. By the 1970s deelopments in processing power and display technology enabled the production of commercial games.

Early video games found a natural home in arcades, which had a long history as places to play on mechanical and electro-mechanical machines. The simple tennis simulator Pong was the first successful computer arcade game, released in 1972 by Atari. The golden age of arcade games began with the laungh of Space Invaders by the Japanese company Taito in 1978. 

The first home video games system was the Magnavox Odyssey, which used a television set as its display. It was launched in 1972 but was very complex to use. Early home consoles had a fixed humber of built-in games, until the development of cartridges in the late 1970s and early 1980s let users build up a library of games of play.

The first mass-produced computers for home use, such as the Apple II, ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64, transformed the market from the late 1970s. They led to the development of adventure, role playing and simulation games. These home devides also enabled lobbyist coders to develop their own games, which were often sold and shared informally.

A new generation of consoles developed from the mid-1980s, offering more complex gameplay using more sophisticated controllers. Nintendo launched the NES and the first bit hit on this console was the whimsical multi-level game Super Mario Bros. Sega followed with the release of the Mega System and then the Mega Drive.

Sony launched the Playstation in 1994 and led the console industry in the 2000s. Meanwhile hand held devices gew in popularity following the release of the Nintendo Gameboy in 1989.

With the growth of broadband, online role-playing games like Runescape, World of Warcraft and Minecraft have become very popular. Marketplaces such as Steam now distribute games online, allowing smaller independent developers to flourish.

The advent of smartphones provided another huge platform for video games. Smartphones encouraged the growth of casual games, which tend to be simple, short and replayable. 

The development of the games industry in Leamington and the surrounding area can be traced to two sets of brothers - Richard and David Darling and Philip and Andrew Oliver. All four boys taught themselves programming and began designing games while still at school. The Darling brothers set up games publishing company Codemasters in 1986 in Banbury, moving to Southam soon after. Their first game was BMX Simulator. Later that year the 19-year old Oliver twins approached the Darlings to publish Super Robin Hood, a game they had developed.

Within a year Codemasters were the best-selling games published in the UK. The Olivers continued to develop games for Codemasters, including the hugely successful Dizzy series of adventure games.

In 1990 the Olivers set up their own studio, Dizzy Enterprises, later renamed Interactive Studios. They were the first games company to be based in Leamington. The sector grew through the 1990s with Codemasters and Interactive Studios at its core. 

Dizzy and Daisy models, 1980s (Andrew Oliver made these models of the iconic Dizzy and Daisy characters)

In 2008 Activision became the first multinational developer to set up in the town. Other multinationals including SEGA, Sony, Mictosoft, Ubisoft, Epic and Meta now have a presence in the area. They have tapped into the local skills base to make commercially successful games that need hundreds of people to produce.

The video games cluster in Leamington is now the second largest in the country. There are more than 50 comopanies active locally, half of which were established in the last decade.

Finally, Crayta is a tool which allows people to create, play and share games. In a corner of the gallery Crayta was set up, allowing people to create their own games. 

We played Escape, created by Beth who had visited the gallery the week before.

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