Kalvin Lyle was living the good life in Vancouver, one of North America’s game development hubs. Starting work in the games industry in the mid – ’90s, he worked on his fair share of AAA titles in a number of major development studios. So when he recently packed his bags and headed off to merry old England, it raised a few eyebrows.
This kind of move isn’t a tiny one. When a person leaves their native land it means leaving friends and family; it means abandoning years worth of contacts; it means adopting a new culture and way of life; it means, in a lot of ways, starting over. When things are going your way and then some, this is not the easiest path to take.
Lyle got his start in Edmonton, Alberta, at a little place known as BioWare Inc. “When I started at BioWare I was employee number 27, I think, and when I left the company was around 100 people.” Lyle had a hand in a number of BioWare’s franchises including Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights and MDK2.
From there, his next job was at Black Box Games in Vancouver, British Columbia. He worked on SEGA Soccer Slam and NHL Hitz before EA came and bought the studio. “I knew that I wouldn’t enjoy working at a large company, so I moved on.”
After his time at Black Box, he established Next Level Games, an award-winning studio named one of the top employers in British Columbia.
But that was in 2002, and as nice as it all was, there was a bigger picture for Lyle. “One of the things that really interested me about the games industry was the potential for travel and living abroad, and while I’ve traveled a lot over the last 12 years I’d pretty much only lived in one city during that time. I knew [moving] would be an experience that would help me grow and give me a different perspective on the world.”
So in 2007, after finishing up his roles as the Art Director for the new Punch Out!! title, “I decided it was time to move on from Next Level and take some time off. I handed the art direction reigns over and spent the next eight months relaxing and decompressing.”
It wasn’t long before a new opportunity presented itself. “One of my childhood friends that I had worked with at BioWare called me up shortly after leaving Next Level saying he wanted to start up a game company in the U.K.,” Lyle says. “Endrant was founded in December 2007, but we didn’t get our first project until April 2008.” The upstart studio ended up taking on a project that every industry professional knows and respects: “We’re doing the multiplayer for Wolfenstein and working closely with Raven Software to make sure the game is as good as possible.”
Kalvin Lyle was U.K. bound. “I’d been to London three times before moving here, and after living in Alberta and Vancouver I knew I’d be used to the weather,” Lyle says. (The weather being the primary concern of any good Canadian.) “It’s really strange there have been both great improvements in my quality of life as well as changes for the worse.”
The move wasn’t without its difficulties. “I found that for the first three months I was in a pretty bad mood, trying to fit into the U.K. like you might a sweater that was too small,” Lyle says. “I wanted London to be like Vancouver, and it took me a couple months to adjust myself to the way the U.K. works.”
“Things here aren’t as immediately accessible as they are in North America; shops aren’t open as long, they are smaller and more often are family owned rather than big chains, which means they might not have what you’d expect them to have. For example, there is a hardware store around the corner from work that sells mostly kitchen pots and pans, with a small assortment of hammers and ladders. As a result, you don’t so much plan and execute a shop as you go explore a shop. I find the latter to be much more enjoyable, although you have to be more patient.”
When it came to culture shock, Lyle didn’t have to face the beast alone. “In our office of 17 there are actually three Canadians including myself, so if I’m feeling homesick I can just go talk about hockey with a fellow Canuck.” Getting used to the new environment was an adventure by itself, but Lyle admits “it hasn’t really impacted the environment or our approach as a game company.”
London presents a unique business atmosphere for a game studio like Endrant. “Britain doesn’t have the tax incentives that Canada has to encourage its high tech industries, which is a real shame in my opinion. Since Richard Wilson took over the chair for Tiga [The Independent Game Developers Association], they’ve kicked things into high gear in the last year. He’s lobbying the government and working with the media on behalf of game developers to put the U.K. on an even playing field with the rest of the world.”
Even though the U.K. is just getting its feet wet as far as government driven business support, Lyle doesn’t have to struggle with the benefits that this global location provides to an industry driven by multinational companies. “With the falling pound we’ve become less costly to publishers, so that’s a bonus.”
Then there’s the social regulation. “I’ve come to hate ‘Health & Safety’ in the U.K. They have a rule or a law for practically anything even remotely ‘fun’ or ‘creative.’ [They] seem to hate us, or at least kids with Sony controllers on sofas.”
Even the talent pool flows a little bit differently. “We noticed a great deal more art talent than in Canada, as well as a lot fewer programmers,” Lyle says. “A lot of U.K. talent went overseas in the past 10 years,”
For Lyle, even in a new and different environment, the fundamentals of a successful game studio remain the same. “You need talent, money and work. A core group of founding members who can cover all the bases of production is essential.”
“At Endrant I hired the initial art team that will become the core art staff of our company throughout its years. I chose individuals with a balance of artistic and technical talent, problem-solving skills, passion for games, leadership potential and a realistic understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. Those are the core traits I look for when hiring anyone for the games industry.” Judging from his past projects, it’s a hiring policy with a record of success.
Lyle has confidence in his new studio and team, but he does have a serious note for the U.K.’s governing institutions: “The bottom line is you need to set up shop where you have access to talent. Find somewhere people want to live/work that isn’t too expensive or hard to travel to or from. If you start a company by other companies, you will have access to an existing talent pool. Personally I would recommend Vancouver or Montreal over London. Don’t get me wrong: London is really nice and it is a great place to live, but without the support of the government and proper tax incentives you’d have a much easier time elsewhere.”
It’s a note Richard Wilson and Tiga will have to emphasize with U.K. policymakers to keep this particular nation growing at pace with the rest of the industry. It’s not a lack of talent or manpower – as Lyle puts it, “Currently there are no advantages to running a company in the U.K.” With a growing number of states and provinces wooing companies by providing tax incentives, grants and a more supportive atmosphere in general, the British parliament is going to have to step up to the plate and make the U.K. shine a little brighter for developers to ensure a steady flow of guys like Kalvin Lyle keep coming to London to set up shop.
For aspiring game developers in the U.K. who might be scared of employment opportunities, don’t sweat it. Tax incentives or not, Lyle has good news for career entrants: “There are a lot of game companies in the London area, though if it’s your first job in the industry, don’t worry so much about where the job is located. Find a studio with a positive culture and people who you would enjoy spending 40 hours a week with.”
Lyle had to make plenty of sacrifices when he moved to London. But for him, the benefits have outweighed the costs. “How could I not do it?” Lyle asked. “The process is entirely rewarding, and if it fails I have no one else to blame.”
Mark N. Barker is a game industry professional currently acting as the Executive Producer for a start-up out of Edmonton, Alberta.