Wheels of change

Video games guru Brian Jobling, of global firm Eutechnyx, on the tiny device with the huge potential for industry-wide transformation.

Brian Jobling EMBEDBrian Jobling can’t wait for his Raspberry Pi to arrive in the post. That’s the 25 dollar computer, not some misspelt summery pud.

“I’ve got it on order and even now, with a five week delivery date, I can actually feel the excitement of getting this little device,” he says.

Having built one of the UK’s largest independent video games firms from bedroom foundations he epitomises everything the product stands for.

The credit card-sized device is designed to encourage kids to learn to code and hopefully create a new generation of super-computer literate entrepreneurs and staff.

The tiny and cheap bit of kit was designed as an antidote to the colonisation of the ICT curriculum which had placed Word and Excel tasks above the core coding skills the UK games industry craves.

There were no such pocket gadgets in Jobling’s day. What his geek generation could get their hands on, however, was a range of primitive machines including BBC Micros and Spectrums and Amigas on which developing coding skills was all part of the fun.

“The thing about the Raspberry Pi is that the actual self motivation to teach yourself more skills is very, very strong,” he says.

“Obviously I started off by programming myself and then decided that I wanted to make games and be more creative and it’s almost gone full circle.”

And the cyclical nature of the games industry cannot just be seen in the re-emergence of coding as a youthful hobby, but also in terms of the end products on the market.

The early rewards of the hours Jobling spent in front of a computer screen in his Gateshead bedroom, was a range of sub-£2.99 games on the shelves of Boots and John Menzies in the 1990s.

The rewards have grown considerably higher since, with a multimillion pound, global firm under the name of him and his brother Darren now. But, just as Eutechnyx’s early days were marked by soaring demand for low budget, high volume titles, the current climate brings similar opportunities.

“The only difference now is we’re selling apps for 79p or £1.99 through the app store. So really for creative industries, people have never had so much choice. From Facebook to web design, iPhone, Android, PC and Playstations, there are fantastic opportunities for anyone who’s digitally creative as well as those with the conventional skills that appear to be making a comeback.”

Whether the Raspberry Pi, which is tipped among tech experts to become hugely popular among British schools this year, has genuine impact on the UK’s skills base remains to be seen.

Deeper rooted problems exist beyond the ICT curriculum. TIGA, the trade association representing the UK games industry, this week called on the Government to encourage and incentivise the study of specific STEM subjects, such as mathematics.

It spoke out in reaction to the publication of a new report by the House of Lords science and technology committee which found that too few people are studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

The committee warned that unless the supply of STEM graduates increased, the Government risks failing to meet its objectives to drive economic growth through education and hi-tech industries as identified in its plan for growth.

Growth hungry firms like Eutechnyx have no time to wait for systematic changes to the education system, though, as they continue to fight it out for the best and brightest graduates here and overseas.

“We do have jobs for local people that we can’t fill,” says Jobling of the skills challenges facing the firm’s UK HQ in Gateshead.

“We’ve just bought in a very senior guy from Cambridge and he’s a German national. Graduate retention has always been a problem in the North East and we have to show them that this is a fantastic place to continue your career.

“There’s still a lot of work to do there and it’ll be interesting to see how we continue without [regional development agency] One North East.”

Jobling, a working professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, admits the UK has perhaps not been as focused on creating video games entrepreneurs and start-ups as some Asian economies.

“I was right at the centre of things in Hong Kong and have seen how they managed to grow their entrepreneurial side and take their students from not just straight education but what they are going to do post education.”

“The UK recession and what’s happening in the EuroZone has to result in more entrepreneurial graduates here,” he says.

With Jobling’s 15-year-old son eagerly awaiting the Raspberry Pi’s arrival, as he too seeks a future in coding, Tyneside may yet have another Eutechnyx on its hands in the not too distant future.