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How the UK grew into a global games making powerhouse

How the UK grew into a global games making powerhouse

When Spacewar! emerged from US academic labs in the early 1960s, it quickly became the first video game to run on more than just a single computer, thanks to its spread across a community of researchers with access to the right technology.

Spacewar! was no isolated incident either. The US played host to much of the early history of true video games, before spawning the fledgling video arcade sector. Japan joined the race to dominate arcade gaming soon after, before emerging as a giant of the home market.

To date, many still consider the US and Japan as the leading cultural forces in the game industry, and they are far from wrong. In more recent years, though, we’ve seen games boom globally, with vast industries springing up in the likes of China, India and across much of the Middle East. Canada and Germany, meanwhile, have thrived for somewhat longer as key destinations for game making.

But the UK has stood as a defining force in games since at least the late-1970s, arguably rivaling the legacy of Japan and the US. Today the UK is home to a wildly proactive game development community, and for decades has debuted titles that have left a profoundly influential global impact. The juggernaut that is Grand Theft Auto was born here, for example. That series alone hasn’t just generated millions of pounds in revenue it thrust the openworld concept into the mainstream inspiring a great many other successful releases, shaped the careers of the thousands that have contributed to it, pushed and evolved technology adopted across the industry, and has become a touchpoint of global popular culture. Not all of that happened in the UK, but it was certainly born here. The serie’s studio Rockstar, meanwhile, has blossomed into a multinational giant.

Tomb Raider by Core Design

Core Design’s Lara Croft is another global gaming export that came to life in the UK, in her case thanks to the efforts of the famed Derby studio Core Design. Croft ultimately transcended not just the Tomb Raider series, but games itself, existing very much as a defining celebrity of the 90s; right down to doing fashion shoots (albeit digitally), spawning movies and starring on glossy magazine covers.

Glance across a list of UK studios active and ancient, and you’ll find a wealth of teams that have made games  that are beloved and influential globally. Team 17, Rare, Codemasters, Media Molecule, Bullfrog, Lionhead, Traveller’s Tales, Sports Interactive, Ubisoft Reflections, Criterion Games, Sumo Digital, Bizarre Creations, Ocean, Rocksteady and Psygnosis, to pick but a few, have all made significant contributions to what games have become as a whole.

But the story of why the UK excels in games really starts long before any of those teams came to be. At a fundamental level, London’s long standing status as a global financial centre certainly helps many UK industries punch up. But the countries that make up this island nation also share a rich heritage in computer science and technology more generally – something that provided a study foundation for the UK game industry’s future success.

Ferranti Mark 1 (Image: Computer History Museum)

There have been countless globally significant computing innovations that came to be in the UK. Take, for example, the Lyon’s Tea Company’s LEO, the world’s first business computer, marketed from 1954. And there’s the fact that the creator of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, hails from London few inventions have changed the world as much. Elsewhere the Manchester Baby hailed from its namesake town’s university, and in 1948 fired up the first electronically stored program. Long before that, Ferranti was founded in 1885 in Manchester. The firm would go on to invent the electronic gate array, as well as debuting the Ferranti 1, the world's first commercially available general-purpose digital computer (itself a descendent of the Manchester Baby, in part created by Berners-Lee’s parents).

Ferranti’s staff also worked on a prototype chess computer game in 1951, long before they became provider of uncommitted logic arrays for iconic British computers including the Sinclair ZX81, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Acorn Electron and BBC Micro.

Image: Planet Sinclair

Ultimately, that long heritage led to the creation of those wonderful machines and many like them all of which made coding and programming relatively accessible and everyday. The ZX81 and ZX Spectrum in particular made games making more available to more people than ever before. The machines were relatively affordable, offered what was at the time impressive creative and technological flexibility, and effectively had self-teaching of code and computing concepts built into the core of their user experience. As such, the Sinclair computers and their rivals from the time provided a breeding ground for a generation of early UK game developers; another essential foundation of the nation’s rise as a game industry powerhouse. You can get an evocative sense of the impact the ZX Spectrum made in our own book, Sinclair ZX Spectrum: a visual compendium.

At the same time as those computers arrived, and perhaps critically, the UK education system was increasingly embracing computer science, with BBC Micros seeing heavy use in classrooms in every county. If you didn’t stumble upon games and their creation at home, you may well have done in an ordinary school classroom. All these factors together made the early 1980s in particular something of a perfect storm for breeding what would become a globally defining local video game sector.

Around that time young and aspiring technologists such as the Oliver twins, David Braben, Charles Cecil, David Darling, Jeff Minter, Peter Molyneux, and Julian Gollop started working on those very creative computers, often self publishing games made in their bedrooms while still at school. The Olivers created Dizzy the egg and went on to found Blitz Games Studios together. Braben co-created space sim Elite and formed Frontier Developments, before becoming a co-creator of the Raspberry Pi affordable computer. Darling co-founded Codemasters, while Cecil started out on text adventures, eventually establishing Revolution Software and the Broken Sword series. The famously productive Minter would craft eccentric titles including Attack of the Mutant Camels and the sublime Gridrunner, while Molyneux would eventually lead Fable outfit Lionhead, and Gollop would become the creator of X-COM.

Elite by David Braben and Ian Bell

In the same era computing magazines took off, many of which offered affordable advertising for homemade games looking to meet an audience. A bounty of those publications also gave significant page counts to ‘type-in’ code pages, which shared software in a form that seems wonderful straightforward if a little ungainly by contemporary standards. Such pages required readers to manually copy lines of code into their home computer to realise a working game or other piece of software on screen. Errors or computing failures could often mean starting from scratch. It could be a painfully laborious process, but in demanding meticulous attention, type-ins readily expanded the skillset of the youthful bedroom coders that were about to reinvent the conventions of game design.

The works of the Olivers, Braben, Cecil and all certainly owed a great debt to the arcade releases that came before, but let loose on home computers with grand memory limitations, they were forced to innovate, conjuring up genres, coding tricks and technological approaches that have evolved into a major part of today’s game medium and industry.

Rare offers yet another example of a game making titan forged in the early-1980s home computing era. The highly regarded software house was founded in 1985 by brothers Tim and Chris Stamper, who briefly worked on converting arcade games, before honing their craft on the ZX Spectrum. Buoyed by their experience with home computing they went on to open their studio Ultimate Play The Game in 1982, designing games such as Jet Pac and the then-technically-sensational Knight Lore.

After establishing Rare, the Stampers and their team quickly impressed Nintendo enough that they were set to work on all manner of key titles for the Japanese gaming powerhouse, standing as first-party developers. In that era Rare debuted the likes of Donkey Kong Country, Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark and the deeply adored GoldenEye 007. Subsequently, in 2002, Microsoft acquired Rare, leading to founding work on Kinect, and many other projects for the tech giant’s consoles. The legacy Rare continues to drive makes it one of the UK game industry’s most dazzling gems.

Donkey Kong Country by Rare

1982 also saw the founding in the UK of Argonaut Games, who similarly wowed Nintendo. In their case it led not just to their creation of the mighty Star Fox, but also the famed Super FX chip. The chip that gave Star Fox its 3D chops went on to be used in a great many Super Nintendo Entertainment System games, including Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island and Stunt Race FX.

The output of many of the early-1980s UK software house also inspired a new generation of UK coders; the likes of Jon Hare, who would co-found Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder outfit Sensible Software, and Martin Hollis, who initially had games published as code pages as a teenager before eventually leading development of GoldenEye 007. And then there are today’s studio heads who also began their professional journey on those great British home computers. Take Mark Healey, who started out working on Codemasters 1989 ZX-Spectrum 48K/128K release KGB Superspy, before working with Molyneux at both Bullfrog and Lionhead, and then being a founder of LittleBigPlanet and Dreams outfit Media Molecule.

Sensible Soccer by Sensible Software

The fact that much of the UK games industry and the globe-spanning legacy that followed came from that time of affordable, accessible home computing and a boom in related magazines had another important impact. As long as you could afford or access a computer, it almost didn’t matter where you were in the UK. Equally, because this was such a new industry, there was no established geographical base. That meant that game development could flourish across the entire country, with hubs emerging in towns like Leamington Spa, Guildford, Dundee, Liverpool, Brighton and Sheffield all of which still make tremendous contributions to the forward journey of the wider games medium. The latter, Sheffield, is noteworthy as home to one of the UK’s most important game companies, Gremlin Interactive. Gremlin’s story is a truly remarkable one, told in Bitmap’s own title A Gremlin in the Works, now available as a subtly reworked reprint.

A Gremlin in the Works by Mark Hardisty

A mention of Gremlin also draws attention to another related trend. In the UK through the 1970s and into the 1980s computing stores boomed, thanks to the popularity of the Spectrum models and their ilk. Many of those stores became developers or publishers, while others hired staff that became industry icons. Gremlin spun out of the Just Micro store, and itself ultimately led to the founding of the now globally spread Sumo Digital. UK game industry icon Debbie Bestwick, meanwhile, endeavoured to pivot a career at a local game store into the creation and leadership of the perennially influential Team 17.

Ultimately, it wasn’t just that the UK provided a fertile breeding ground for a new generation of game making talent. It all happened in a formative era for the home gaming market. Convention was yet to be set, so UK developers seized the opportunity and set in motion events that continue to define the evolution of games as a global phenomenon. Today the UK plays home to tantalising indies, thoroughbred long-standing studios, and a bounty of game tech and service companies that have contributed to numerous titles globally. Bristol’s SN Systems is of particular note there, having provided development tools and internal systems for the every PlayStation console and handheld yet released, as well as similar technology for the Atari ST, Amiga family, Saturn, Mega Drive, SNES, Nintendo 64, GameCube, Game Boy Advance, and Nintendo DS. Games made all over the planet for those systems will likely have done so using tools forged in the South West of the UK.

Equally, attracted by industry happenings in the UK, increasing numbers of gaming giants from elsewhere have significantly expanded into the island nation, or set up headquarters here to serve the rest of Europe.

Games are a global medium enjoyed by a global audience. We are now spoiled for choice by brilliant games made everywhere from Ghana to rural Vietnam via Brazil. To dismiss anything but UK-made games would be to severely limit your enjoyment of this wonderful medium.

But wherever the next title you play hails from, you can bet there at least a little of the DNA of the early UK game development scene is in there somewhere.

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