Take a walk through the centre of Dundee and you couldn’t help but notice an eight-foot high bronze statue of Desperate Dan. The enigmatic Dandy character is one of most famous creations of Dundee institution DC Thomson, which also gave rise to the city’s fame for traditional creative skills of journalism, storytelling and illustration.
Despite his western garb Dan looks strangely at home in Dundee, yet rather than propagating the area’s once couthie image the purposeful stride of the Dandy favourite towards the city’s new cultural quarter reflects far wider trends than you might realise.
Where manufacturing – and shipping before it – once reigned supreme, more recent years have seen Dundee experience a creative and cultural renaissance that has helped ignite explosive growth in the city’s digital media sector.
Dundee’s ability to make the most of an opportunity can likely be traced right back to the whaling days when the docksides were a hive of activity. While those days are long gone the spirit continues and having survived a crisis of identity with the decline of so many traditional industries, Dundee, and the Tayside area as a whole, is now recognised as home to a thriving digital media and creative industries hotbed. Reinforcing this is the recognition that Dundee is the home of the Scottish Games development community. Of Scotland’s 11 games developers, six are in Dundee, including Denki, Real Time Worlds, Simian Industries, VIS entertainment and Visual Science – with the recent addition of Caveman Arts, a start-up company that has just signed its first major publishing deal for mobile games.
Clive Palmer, director of business growth for Scottish Enterprise Tayside, said: “Since 1998 SE Tayside has been taking the lead in actively supporting the sector where very real opportunities exist built around the existing high level skill base.
“We try to act as a catalyst for future developments and recognise we can’t be a panacea for challenges facing the industry. That’s why we have established key partnerships and we have been fortunate in Dundee to work with organisations in private, public and academic sectors that understand the sector and are flourishing in their own right. In recent years it has been like a Tsunami that has been growing and creating its own energy.
“Take Abertay University, they have been doing some cutting edge work and are preparing young people for careers in games development. We have worked successfully with them through Dare to be Digital which is a perfect example of an initiative that is just growing and growing.”
Launched in 2000, Dare to be Digital is a competition to encourage the next generation of games developers. All the student teams taking part are asked to submit a concept for new and original computer games or educational entertainment product, including a finished digital prototype and business sales document which can be pitched to investors. The competition now attracts entries from all across Scotland and Ireland – with discussions on-going to extend it to England – and is supported by industry heavy weights Microsoft, Electronic Arts and the BBC.
And the economic rewards already speak for themselves. In 2000 Tayside had 200 digital media companies, which have now grown to over 300, providing employment to 2,300 people and boasting a combined turnover in excess of £100m.
Dundee’s journey through its creative and cultural renaissance has seen it punch above its weight and this seems likely to continue with SE Tayside predicting annual growth of between 10 – 20 per cent within the digital media sector.
The strength of the sector, and the reputation of Dundee, is also attracting some heavy weight names including David Bergantino who is head of Concept Development at Visual Science. He is a veteran of the interactive industry, having previously worked as a producer, designer and writer on numerous websites and video games. Delve into his CV and you can’t help but be impressed. Recent game credits include Spy Hunter 2 and Destruction Derby Arenas; he’s consulted on the development of film and television projects for The Jim Henson Company; he is also the author of ten novels, from an adaptation of the film, Wes Craven's New Nightmare; and he was consulted by Universal Studios on an upcoming theme park ride based on The Mummy franchise.
Bergantino says: “Dundee’s creative industries are uniquely able to attract talent from around the world. Not only does Dundee benefit from an influx and wealth of mindshare, but also individuals find a fertile atmosphere for the development of their own talent. This makes Dundee all the more attractive to the immense and increasing benefit of everyone.”
The employment boost to the sector is being assisted by a change in attitude among graduates that has been about erosion rather than overnight transformation. Where once highly skilled creatives would start planning their route out of Dundee mid-way through their third year, the city’s cutting-edge companies have helped retention rates increase dramatically. In 2003 Dundee company Jack’s Hoose Music helped produce the music for the Matrix films.
Retaining and attracting talent are both seen as key factors in SE Tayside’s vision to have Dundee recognised internationally as a hub of excellence in digital media.
A significant milestone for this vision will be reached before the end of the year with work starting on site for the new Dundee Digital Media Park. Two years in the planning, the park will provide 400,000 sq. ft. of purpose designed and built facilities for digital media businesses. The Park will incorporate Seabrae Mill, a private sector led development, supported by SE Tayside, which will provide 100,000 sq ft of similar accommodation available for digital media companies by the end of the year.
Interactive Tayside was set up to nurture the Digital and creative Media sector in the region. Nine areas fall under the banner of Interactive Tayside – games and electronic entertainment, software development, communications technology, Film & TV, animation, graphic design, publishing, music and new media.
SE Tayside’s digital media manager Gary Grant says: “Interactive Tayside was born out of a decision to react to the issues being raised by the companies and, through investment, we could have a significant impact.
“This is not a government agenda saying ‘wouldn’t this be great to do?’ It’s the local businesses and academic houses saying digital media is hugely important to the economy, the growth opportunities and development opportunities are significant and if you can combine and work together there is a great future.”