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How The Pixel Mill is accelerating growth for Northern Ireland’s game developers


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We speak to interactive manager Rory Clifford about Northern Ireland Screen’s initiatives to level up startup game studios.

If you travelled back to the middle of the previous century, you’d discover that more than half of British homes didn’t have a bathroom. Many communities instead relied on public baths such as Belfast’s Ormeau Baths built in the Victorian period.

Even if bathing is something most of us are now fortunate to do in private, it’s fitting that the iconic building of the Ormeau Baths remains a vital space in the community. Since 2017, with the support of various partners – including Barclays’ Eagle Labs – it has been transformed into a coworking space for tech startups based in Northern Ireland.

One of its key platforms is The Pixel Mill, started by Northern Ireland Screen, which provides free office space and funding for startup game developers. More than that, it also provides facilities and resources many budding developers might otherwise not have access to, such as mentors or workshops that get them to think about other aspects of the games business, including publishing and marketing.

“The whole point of the Pixel Mill is to provide a space where it takes one less hurdle or one less barrier for video game startups in terms of not having to worry about rent or overheads,” says The Pixel Mill’s interactive manager Rory Clifford. “They know they have a desk and good internet and it's there for them to access.”

While COVID-19 has meant there are restrictions on the number of teams that can use the space, there are nonetheless currently six companies working out of The Pixel Mill, with around 12 working in the space within the past two years – including Level 91, which recently released arcade racer Inertial Drift.

Three of these studios are also part of Platform, The Pixel Mill’s accelerator program. Besides having use of the space and facilities, which includes a boardroom for video conferencing and a Dolby Atmos suite, each company on this program has up to £60,000 in development funding to help them self-publish an original game within 12 months – going from prototyping and making a vertical slice to full production. Pre-pandemic, they would also have opportunities to make  industry contacts like publishers at events like Gamescom or EGX.

“Usually small indie developers can be scrimping and saving, trying to move from one thing to the next, but when they know they have 12 months, it gives them the headspace to work on a project without having to worry about keeping the lights on or feeding themselves,” Clifford explains. “That's really what we're trying to do – give people a bit of a runway.”

The Pixel Mill also helps fund projects, mostly through recoupable loans but also seed funding to help other games get off the ground. This may then lead to a publishing deal before coming back for more funding. If a local developer was able to attract funding from other sources – for example, through Kickstarter – The Pixel Mill may also match that fund, essentially doubling their budget.

As funding comes from Northern Ireland’s Department for the Economy, it also means The Pixel Mill has to consider the commercial viability of a project it funds, which can have different criteria rather than just being asked to produce a new hit IP.

“We'd rather see teams of two and three because we feel that it's difficult to get something off the ground as a solo developer,” Clifford adds. “We also try to encourage folks to look at the market and see if they're the right fit and why they think this game is going to be successful. But we really are there to just encourage new companies and new IPs, and ones who are able to find success to try to help them grow as well.”

As interactive manager, Clifford has a broader remit than just video games. He also covers VR, AR, digital media and everything else in between. For example, one of the startups he supports is a VR and AR company called Incisiv, which is creating sports content for tracking the concussion protocol in sports.

The Pixel Mill isn’t exclusively for developers either, as it can also accommodate freelancers in other fields such as audio design or people who provide an ancillary service, such as accountants or lawyers – areas that are important when making a game but which startups may not necessarily be thinking about. For Clifford, it’s important that they have an ecosystem that’s not purely video games, as it helps broaden and build the community with different connections.

With funding from Northern Ireland Screen, The Pixel Mill is also able to employ and continue recruiting trainees who are there to fill the gaps within the industry, moving around to different projects where needed.

“We have a QA trainee who will carry out games testing for projects, so studios have the option to have their games tested quite regularly,” offers Clifford as an example. “We also have a community management trainee, so they help out with organising social media but can also look at how you build a community. All of these startups are small indies. They may be artists and programmers but they don't have the headspace for business and marketing, so can we provide them with a resource that can at least get them thinking about it.”

Since the support staff are trainees themselves, they’re also developing skills even as they support projects, demonstrating how collaboration and support between people at The Pixel Mill is two-fold. Which is ultimately the point of this kind of environment.

“The benefit of a co-working space is that developers have a chance to meet their peers and work closely with their peers,” says Clifford. “There is a lot of sharing of knowledge and resources, and we encourage that as much as we can. It's also about building relationships as well. People want to be in the games industry for a long time so it's an opportunity for them to build those kinds of peer relationships within The Pixel Mill which may last for decades.

Northern Ireland Screen’s relationship with video games has evolved in the past decade. While it has been supporting the medium throughout, it has only been making a concerted effort in recent years to make video games a key pillar in its strategy. It clearly sees video games as an important industry to support and grow into a success like it has done with film, TV and animation.

“15 years ago, the animation industry was basically like the games industry now – a bunch of small established studios trying to grow,” says Clifford. “The animation industry is now quite substantial. It employs a few hundred people locally and it makes content throughout the world.”

It’s fair to say that The Pixel Mill’s journey to put Northern Ireland’s games industry on the map is just getting started.

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