As he grew up in Dundee, Chris van der Kuyl saw no reason to put limits on his ambition — because the world’s most famous game designers were living in his city.
Dave Jones had founded DMA Design, which later became part of Rockstar North, in Dundee in 1987. Then he created Lemmings and the first two incarnations of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, which has since produced the fastest-selling video game.
“There was this bunch of guys a bit older than me, and it was amazing and inspiring that they were some of the most famous games designers in the world,” says Mr Van der Kuyl, who launched 4J Studios, developers of the Minecraft console version, in Dundee. “It was a real motivator. If they could do it, I could do it.”
He attributes the gaming revolution in Dundee in part to Sir Clive Sinclair. “Postwar investment in Timex and NCR were the roots of the new technology age in Dundee and the early Sinclair computers, the ZX81 and the Spectrum, were manufactured at Timex in the 1980s.
“The old joke was that back then, a Spectrum cost £149 anywhere else, but in Dundee you could get one for £5 and a packet of Embassy Regal. The imperfect ones were going out of the back of the factory and if you knew the basics, like how to use a soldering iron, you could get it up and running. I had six Spectrums at one point.
“Everyone in Dundee could get access to technology — there were a couple of cracking schools way ahead in offering formal qualifications, including mine [St Saviour’s High School] and Dundee Tech, which became Abertay University.”
Mr Van der Kuyl describes the universities [Dundee and Abertay] and Duncan of Jordanstone art college as “academic and creative powerhouses”.
“They have shaped the nature of the place,” he says. “I’ve always thought Dundee has a fairly unique sense of creativity and innovation. It has always embraced the latest technological innovation, from engineering to visual arts to game design.”
A turning point was the digital entertainment community working with Abertay in the 1990s to make it “the gaming university,” says Mr Van der Kuyl, who is also the founding chairman of Entrepreneurial Scotland.
“We said that our companies would take all their graduates. To begin with, they were attracting better students than they could teach, but although it took five to ten years to build up, Abertay is now the best university in the world in that field. It has first-class teaching [Mr Van der Kuyl is a visiting professor of digital entertainment] and amazing graduates.”
For all the challenges — the city’s unemployment rate is substantially higher than the Scottish average — he says there is an equal number of opportunities.
Gillian Easson, the director of Creative Dundee, shares this positivity, but says the city needs to target education and business support more specifically at young people and their needs — whether they are coming from school, college or university.
“We are still low in terms of business start-up rates and need to figure out better ways to support that,” she says. “Young people are coming out of education very digitally savvy and we are a bit behind the curve in how we talk about setting up a business. I think we need a fundamental change in education and business advice to give young people the skills and confidence to do their own thing.”
Despite his general optimism, Mr Van der Kuyl sees a Brexit-shaped cloud on the horizon. “There are more digital entertainment companies appearing now than I can personally keep track of, and an insatiable appetite for talent,” he says. “Unfortunately, the perfect storm of Brexit is kicking us in the proverbials. Great European talent is worried about coming to the UK and we are facing an existential crisis. We can always create more homegrown talent, but losing the European pipeline would be a massive problem.”
Sir Pete Downes, principal of the University of Dundee, agrees that there is a problem, but believes it can be overcome: “Access to talent is a concern. We will still have mechanisms to bring in people who will have a net positive contribution, but we have created a perception that we are not open to accept unquestionably talented people from elsewhere — a perception that there are a finite number of jobs and that these jobs are for British people, which is bananas and counter to any economic theory.
“So we might have a smaller pool of talent than we have had in the past, but will this stop us progressing? No.”
Prof Downes has a constant eye on progress after setting out a transformation agenda for the university. It says: “Our vision is this. We will become Scotland’s leading university — celebrated internationally for the quality of our graduates and the impact of our research.”
Professor Downes admits that some other universities were scornful of this ambition. “A colleague from a larger, more wealthy university farther south than Dundee came up to me and said, ‘Scotland’s leading university?’ with a smirk on his face. That’s a motivation for me and for the city. Like Dundee, I’m bloody-minded.”
He has set the bar high. For example, the transformation agenda says: “It’s better to shoot for something big than make timid and incremental changes.”
Unfortunately, the perfect storm of Brexit is kicking us in the proverbials
This has been deliberate, he says. “Alongside St Andrews, we are Scotland’s leading university for the student experience and quality of the environment.
“In terms of research, we are top in the UK for life sciences. We have 1,000 people working in labs here, mainly funded by a range of external sources, creating new drugs and clinical activity.
“If you are top for student experience, your teaching is excellent, you are innovating at a global level and you are top for several disciplines in research — that’s a pretty good starting point for an assault on the summit. When you look at that, it’s not so outlandish to think we could become the leading university in Scotland.”
Professor Downes is keen that other areas of the university try to match the success of life sciences. The university’s strength and its links with the NHS and private companies mean the sector makes up about one sixth of the city region economy, with the life sciences building a towering presence on the university campus, and the Drug Discovery Unit near by.
The University of Dundee is the second largest employer in the city after the NHS, with a turnover of more than £250 million and an economic impact of £740 million. “When you look at cities around the world that have gone through a post-industrial malaise, but have recovered, the university is always at the very heart of that and has to forge positive relationships with the local authority and business community,” Prof Downes says. “That triple helix is very significant in delivering economic regeneration.”
Mike Galloway, the director of city development at Dundee city council, sees the role of the local authority as ensuring that conditions are right for creative people to spark off one another. “It’s exciting when different sectors like digital media and life sciences collide,” he says.
Yet the city still faces a significant degree of “post-industrial malaise” after the decline in turn of jute, shipbuilding and manufacturing. Dundee city council leader John Alexander recognises the challenge.
“In the past we had large-scale industries, which then fell by the wayside,” he says. “We are very much trying to diversify the economy. The biggest challenge we face is poverty and deprivation. We have higher than the Scottish average unemployment and more people than average on benefits.”
Statistics for the year to the end of June 2017 showed unemployment in Dundee was 6 per cent, against a Scottish average of 4.5 per cent. By a different measure, Dundee had the second lowest percentage of the population in work of any council area in Scotland (66 per cent), although this is skewed by the large proportion of students in the city — more than 20,000 out of a total population of just under 150,000.
“We are trying to address these challenges and we set up the Fairness Commission to really delve into people’s experience and turn it into a tangible action plan through the Dundee Partnership,” Mr Alexander says.
“We have got to ensure that the regeneration of the waterfront creates real jobs for the people of this city. we have built social gain into the regeneration contracts we have signed — living wage, no zero contracts and local employment.”
The Tay Cities Deal, which covers the council areas of Perth and Kinross, Angus and Fife, as well as Dundee, presents a fresh opportunity to increase employment levels. The ambitious £1.83 billion package of proposals — with almost half of the funding planned to come from the UK and Scottish governments — “can be absolutely huge for Dundee, bigger than the waterfront,” according to Mr Galloway.
The Tay Cities Deal includes a private/public partnership aimed at creating a significant centre in Scotland for oil and gas decommissioning, centred on Dundee. In some ways this seems out of step with a modern economy based on digital entertainment, life sciences, creative industries and tourism. Yet Mr Alexander says that is the wrong way to think about it.
“It’s about the diversification of the local economy,” he says. “Dundee used to be known for manufacturing and this is part of making the city economy fit for purpose for the next 50-100 years, to ride the inevitable peaks and troughs.”
The potential cost of North Sea oil and gas decommissioning has been put at close to £60 billion, so there is plenty of work to be had. Forth Ports, which, despite its name, also runs Dundee’s port area, is spending £10m extending a quay to handle large loads. In August it signed a deal with the large Norwegian contractor AF Offshore Decom UK, and a joint venture called AF Dundee will be formed to seek decommissioning work and jobs.
Mr Galloway says: “We see this as a major industry. It’s not just a dirty process of cutting up rigs and sending them to the smelter. It needs to be done to the highest standards and we are looking to recycle and re-use components and build a supply chain — and to export the knowledge and technology abroad when other oil and gas centres reach the end of their lives.”
Transport connections to Dundee, especially its airport, are still a challenge for the city. Despite its highly convenient location only five minutes from the city centre, Dundee Airport’s sole scheduled flight is a twice-daily service to Stansted.
Mr Van der Kuyl recognises the problem. “More European short-haul connectivity from Dundee would be transformational,” he says. “It’s a tough time for the aviation industry — the direct flight from Dundee to Amsterdam was full, but the route was killed off. Dundee can be a viable route and we have to make it happen. We do need to look at how we improve the airport.”
He suggests a radical solution: “Could we do something with RAF Leuchars? It’s just across the river and in an age of austerity, could you commercialise that asset? It operates 24/7, 365 days a year, but does very little other than military transport.
“The solutions to the big challenges are there if you look creatively.”
Dundee’s digital success story
Two of the most successful video games of modern times — Grand Theft Auto and Minecraft — have strong roots in Dundee.
Grand Theft Auto was originally developed by Dave Jones and Mike Dailly at DMA Designs in the city. Its fifth version, released in 2013, became the fastest-selling entertainment product of all time.
Minecraft has sold more than 120 million copies across all platforms, with the console version having been developed in Dundee by Chris van der Kuyl’s team at 4J Studios.
There are nearly 40 games studios listed on Digital Dundee’s website, although insiders say there are actually far more digital businesses in the city, all looking to create the next big thing.
The gaming industry in Scotland employs about 1,300 creative staff and supports an additional 2,400 indirect jobs, according to research by trade body Tiga — with about a third of Scotland’s gaming companies based in Dundee.
Growth in Dundee’s digital technologies sector is outpacing all other UK-based clusters, with revenues now close to £100 million annually. The Tech Nation 2017 report found that Dundee generated the highest turnover growth of any large cluster — including London — in the period between 2011 and 2015. Dundee had 171 per cent digital turnover growth in the period, with economic output increasing to £97m.
One important contributor to the success has been Dundee’s Abertay University, home to the UK’s first Centre for Excellence in Computer Games Education. Twenty years ago, it became the first university in the world to offer a degree in games; today its School of Arts, Media and Computer Games works closely with the world’s leading game developers, such as Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, Microsoft and Ubisoft.
Dundee is determined to support the continued development of its gaming industry by providing space for new businesses, as well as more established studios. Seabraes, a former railway goods yard on the Dundee waterfront, is undergoing a massive transformation to turn it into the city’s digital media and creative industries hub, creating about 1,300 jobs.