At home with Wales Interactive, the Bridgend studio helping local graduates get started in games
Meet the team from Bridgend that established a development scene for local graduates
Wales Interactive has come a long way since 2012. In just a few years, the team from Pencoed, Bridgend, has expanded its focus from mobile games to PS4, Wii U and Xbox One; put out several interactive kids’ books; and been recognised with some 12 awards, including a Cymru BAFTA. The 13-strong outfit has also become a regular sight at gaming expos worldwide, having most recently put in an appearance at the Xbox Lobby Bar at the 2015 Games Developers Conference in San Francisco.
Before Wales Interactive, development studios by the banks of the River Severn weren’t exactly thriving. But the global attention the studio has engendered has built more than just its own reputation, leading the Welsh government to allocate more funding to developers and creating opportunities for studios across the country. That’s not bad going for what began as a two-man firm, neither experienced in running a company.
Co-founders and co-owners David ‘Dai’ Banner and Richard Pring first met in 2011 at an educational initiative, and quickly came to share views on the potential of the Welsh videogame industry. According to Pring, at that time it was the case that if you graduated in Wales with a computer animation or game design degree, you then left the country to get a job. “I liked living in Wales, so I wanted to stay here,” he explains. “That’s where Wales Interactive came about.”
With a combined total of 30 years of industry experience, Pring and Banner had the nous to bring about a shared vision. By taking advantage of the largely untapped pool of homegrown graduates, they could help develop talent for the future and raise the industry’s profile at home.
Dan Pearce, the team’s lead development scripter, was one of the company’s first recruits. “I had two or three months where I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do post-university, and there was hardly any opportunity in Wales at all,” he says. “I was looking at all kinds of companies within the UK and abroad, and then I met Dai in a pub in Cardiff about a month before I graduated. I then messaged [him] as much as possible with my work and what I was doing. I told him I’d bring my own desk, my own chair, my house if I needed to – I was so desperate to get involved with someone in Wales, but there was obviously not much going on. I’ve been here ever since.”
Pearce’s story is one of many similar tales within Wales Interactive. The team’s back catalogue boasts many mobile titles, which helped Pring and Banner, with the help of Wales Interactive’s more experienced staff, teach the graduate lineup the realities of professional development. Apple’s open approach to selfpublishing on the App Store – coupled with the draw of making games within a six-month window, with easily controlled narratives, environments and mechanics – meant that most of the studio’s early projects, such as Jack Vs Ninjas, Stride Files: The Square Murder and DJ Space, were designed for iPhone. Aside from offering valuable on-the-job training, these games also allowed the team to test the market.
Master Reboot for PS3 would arrive in late 2013 and mark a departure in focus for the studio, but characteristically this psychological horror game about self, memory and state-control was born from a student project. “The idea came from a mixture of ideas between Dai and one of the team members, Sarah [Crossman],” Pring explains. “Students had to come up with pitches for their Masters, and it was also something Dai had in his head for a very long time. It was a very simple game – you would never recognise what it was then compared to what Master
Reboot is now – but we ended up going up to Sony within the first couple of months of setting up the company. We said, ‘Look, here’s a glut of games we’ve got. Any of these take your interest?’ And Master Reboot was the one they liked.”
Having begun life on PS3, Master Reboot has since been ported to Wii U and PC. Soul Axiom, Wales Interactive’s in-progress sci-fi thriller, is aiming for similar crossplatform access, yet designing games for specific devices has never been considered a priority at the studio, the team instead attempting to create mechanics that stand up on any platform where there’s an audience for them. Senior lead artist and designer Chris
Phillips points to how 2013’s physics-based puzzler game Gravity Badgers was initially developed for mobiles and tablets, yet found its home and a fanbase on Wii U.
“The nice thing about Gravity Badgers was that was a controlled game,” says Pring. “We’ve had quite a lot of students come through that we’ve trained up – it was a good one to put them onto. But compared to Master Reboot and Soul Axiom, it’s just a completely different kettle of fish. Even just getting the narrative elements alone in these games is like comparing a feature-length movie with making a short film.”
And in its short lifespan, Wales Interactive has witnessed the advent of a new console generation, having to evolve along with the rest of the industry to new hardware. “In the time we’ve been working on Soul Axiom, we’ve gone from 360 being arguably the top console to a whole new generation, and that’s just within the space of over a year,” Phillips says.
Given how affable the staff are, it seems fitting that Wales Interactive’s recent works have centred on themes of self, identity and mental exploration. The progression from mobile training games to its more craft-heavy titles has marked a clear shift towards narrative-led adventures. When trapped inside another person, Pearce believes, the player isn’t necessarily afforded a sense of who they are, which means they lose themselves more easily in other characters. Yet the concept of self is so ambiguous that it’s also
“I TOLD HIM I’D BRING MY OWN DESK, MY OWN CHAIR, MY HOUSE – I WAS SO DESPERATE TO GET INVOLVED”
afforded the team creative freedom to explore each game however it sees fit.
Again, this seems appropriate given the comparable timing of Wales Interactive’s rise to fame and the indie renaissance of the past few years. The ‘golden era’, as Pring puts it, has come at a time when such creativity is encouraged more than ever, with Microsoft and Sony committed to supporting indie studios. Wales Interactive has nothing but praise for the feedback, encouragement and support from the top platforms. The team is still adjusting to the attention it receives at shows, but its name and brand is now one known internationally.
Award bodies have also recognised the team’s work. Alongside its Cymru BAFTA, it has garnered recognition in the Microsoft Beautiful Game competition in 2014, and picked up the Best Indie Game Developer Appster Award 2014. Prince Charles even paid the studio a visit, although apparently his understanding of what was going on was limited. Pring says it’s been an emotionally tumultuous few years, and admits that he couldn’t have foreseen Wales Interactive’s growth in such a short space of time. “Hopefully, it doesn’t stop any time soon,” he says. Is he worried that he and his team might burn out, though, given just how prolific they’ve been in their opening years?
“One of the things we are quite good at is that we’ve remained humble,” he explains. “We’ve kept our heads on and appreciate what we’ve achieved. There’s a lot more we can do and, as I say, Soul Axiom is a far bigger game than anything we’ve done before, and we’re going to try to make the best it can be. We’re building slowly.
“There have been times in the past where we could’ve upped the team – doubled and tripled the team, in fact – but it’s something we want to sustain, this company. We don’t want to just go
massive and burn out. We’re trying to create an environment where the guys feel safe with us, not where they might worry about being made redundant because we haven’t made any plans after this next project.”
This sense of community binds together the whole team, from the newest members fresh out of university to the co-owners themselves. And even then, although busy dealing with the “boring business stuff”, both Dai and Richard are still hands-on with development processes. Wales Interactive operates in such a way that there’s essentially no middle-management infrastructure, which in turn creates an easygoing but focused working environment. Megan
Huggins, a University Of South Wales graduate and animator, appreciates the opportunities presented by the company. After leaving university, she embarked on an internship that led to a full-time role in January. Although the Welsh arm of the game industry is far better developed now than it was before, the number of university graduates far outweighs local job opportunities.
“I definitely caught a break coming straight out of uni into the game industry – that’s exactly where I wanted to be,” Huggins says. “I think indie companies are definitely more open to training graduates rather than bigger companies, who all want experience. Being able to talk to people with different experience and different areas of expertise is really great, because if I’d went into a bigger company, I’d be surrounded by people who do the same stuff, so I wouldn’t necessarily learn different areas.”
Part of Wales Interactive’s whole reason for being was to bring up new talent, and graduates are tripping over themselves to get involved, but the alumni-to-jobs disparity in Wales means the studio can’t possibly manage the influx of applications. Unfortunately for those leaving university today, even junior role applications can demand as many as three years’ experience, but Wales Interactive still does what it can for those in search of work.
“We still try to keep a few spaces free. We’ve got a few computers actually just for interns when they come in, and we train them up,” Pring says. “We don’t want to lose our connection with everything, but there’s so many people coming off so many courses. If it turns out we can’t have them here, what we’ll do is point them in the right direction. We’ll advise them to go to free stuff in and around Wales, such as games meetups, in order to find work at other companies.
“One thing we did pave the way for in Wales is the fact the Welsh Government, and people in Wales generally, now realise that games are a profitable institute. I know that sounds stupid, but in Wales it just wasn’t seen as something that could make money before.”
Wales Interactive has definitely proven this is not the case. And if Soul Axiom only matches up to the same trajectory as its forerunner, it’s unlikely the team from Bridgend will struggle on that front any time soon.
“THE WELSH GOVERNMENT, AND PEOPLE IN WALES GENERALLY, NOW REALISE GAMES ARE A PROFITABLE INSTITUTE”
Wales Interactive’s combination of university graduates and mature talent contributes to a vibrant working environment
Founded 2012 Employees 13 Key staff Richard Pring (technical director), David Banner (managing director)
Selected softography Infinity Runner, Master Reboot, Gravity Badgers, Stride Files: The Square Murder, DJ Space, Jibs Arcade
Current projects Soul Axiom
Wales Interactive has grown from a two-man bedroom operation to a team of 13, now housed in its Bridgend office (above). As the studio has grown, so too has the scope of its ideas, and it has big plans regarding VR implementation as the medium develops