Many people don't know this, but all of the console editions of Minecraft were developed in the small Scottish coastal city of Dundee. The company behind this best-selling game is 4J Studios, which has been developing games since 2005.
So what made Scotland the ideal location for this pioneering games developer? According to Chris, the talent pool and quality of life are two of the main reasons.
No barriers to gaming in Scotland
When Chris was 19, he had an internship at NCR in Dundee, an American computer hardware, software and electronics company. They sent him out to Silicon Valley for the first time.
“I was really struck by the number and volume of people doing things in software and other branches of technology at that time. But what also struck me was that the people in Scotland were as equally as good at technology, and as smart, and there was no difference there,” says Chris.
“The difference was in the intensity, the volume and the community that was there. Now, several years later, I think that community spirit in terms of technology industries and digital media specifically is really strong here in Scotland, and there are now no barriers really to what one can do here based in Scotland in this industry.”
A fantastic talent pool
Chris believes that Scotland’s universities - in particular the University of Abertay - have been key to the development of the Scottish gaming industry.
“Throughout the 1990s, we realised that the choke on growth for us as an industry was going to be how we found talent. That was the point at which we approached the educational institutions, specifically the University of Abertay, to try and see if we could do some game-specific degree level courses. The University of Abertay was the first university in the world to create a degree level computer games engineering course.
“That’s then created a fantastic talent pool that grows every single year. It’s encouraged more people to come to Scotland, and especially Dundee, to develop games. Also, the students, undergraduates and postgraduates that go through those courses have been encouraged to set up their own businesses as well.
“So now, some 20-years on, we’ve got a really huge, thriving community here in Scotland and Dundee.”
Well connected to partners
Since Microsoft took over the business of Minecraft two years ago from Swedish parent company Mojang, 4J Studios has been well integrated with their team, which is based near Seattle. Despite the distance, 4J Studios is able to communicate easily with its American partners.
“Digital communication is very easy and in fact, in terms of flights, we’re one stop away from Seattle either through Amsterdam, or through London, and it’s not any barrier to any part of the business that we do,” says Chris.
A great place to live and work
It takes me no more than five minutes from my location in the city centre to be out in the middle of nowhere, cycle all day and see almost no vehicles. There are very few places on the planet that you can do that and then have access to world-class talent, and great urban centres as well.
Chris van der Kuyl, chairman of 4J Studios
“Scotland is a great place to live and work, and I believe it’s getting easier every year that passes to attract talent to Scotland, because we are investing in the cultural infrastructures for people to enjoy the whole of their life, not just their working life, and we’re rich in natural resources,” says Chris.
“If Scotland is a place that attracts you, it’ll attract you because you love being outdoors - you can get out into the mountains and the golf courses. The culturally rich resources of Scotland are very, very easily and quickly accessed from places like Dundee.
“My favourite thing to do at the weekend is get on a bike and cycle. It takes me no more than five minutes from my location in the city centre to be out in the middle of nowhere, cycle all day and see almost no vehicles. There are very few places on the planet that you can do that and then have access to world-class talent, and great urban centres as well. “
Minecraft’s designers have clearly taken inspiration from the Scottish landscape – Edinburgh Castle, the waterfront at Dundee, the Forth Bridge and The Kelpies have all been built into the game.
Plans for growth
4J Studios has continued developing Minecraft, releasing the latest version, Minecraft Swift Edition, for the Nintendo Switch in 2017.
“Minecraft is an amazing phenomenon, probably the biggest games franchise in the world today, and we’re so fortunate to be able to work on it here in Scotland. We don’t see any limits to the growth of Minecraft, so that continues on a pace,” says Chris.
In addition to focusing on Minecraft, the company is also developing a new technology and digital centre and investing in other businesses.
“That success has allowed us as technology entrepreneurs to start investing in other things. We’re currently developing a new centre which will be the new 4J Studios headquarters here in Dundee, but we’ve created space for other businesses. This will encourage businesses to come and locate in Dundee, and it will create an amazing, symbiotic environment for us to grow and flourish there."
4J Studios' new headquarters is opening in April 2018, and will host 10 other companies.
“We’re now investing and taking an active part in other businesses that are growing here in Scotland. One of the major investments we’ve taken is a company called TVSquared in Edinburgh, which is completely redefining the world of analytics within television advertising. We think those kinds of businesses are going to be the future success of digital media here in the country,” says Chris.
What's happening in the Scottish games industry