Many of you will know about award-winning Tiny Rebel Brewing established out of Newport by Bradley Cummings - but did you know they make games too? The Tiny Rebel name started in the US with gaming entrepreneurs Susan and Lee Cummings, who make up the games developer sister company and moved to Wales a few years ago with Tiny Rebel Games

Having worked for major gaming companies in the US the duo decided that between them they could start their own company. Working from their home in Newport they created their second award-winning Doctor Who game that garnered widespread success internationally. They now work a few days a week from Arcade Vaults and have most recently won a multi-million R&D grant for the Moving Image category in the prestigious Audience of the Future demonstrator programme. They have plans to create an incredibly ambitious, immersive storytelling experience in late 2020. 

Can you tell us a little bit about founding Tiny Rebel Games? 

Lee: Well, the Welsh Tiny Rebel Games started when we moved here three years ago, but we’d founded other Tiny Rebel companies in America before then. When our son was born we wanted a company that comprised of just the two of us, something we could do from home with a baby around. We’ve been making video games our whole professional lives. At the beginning we made huge console games…

Susan: Lee was one of the producers in GTA and I was at 2K Games and 2K Sports. We spent five years working for Take-Two Interactive then started another company with the founder of Take-Two. When our son was born we decided to take some time off to think about what we wanted to do next, and what we wanted to do next was our own thing. We went from working for companies where Lee was really focused on creative and design and I was focused on business and production and we said, you know what - between the two of us there isn’t a lot that we can’t do. So, established a consulting company, focused on fixing and solving problems, working with companies like Atari and Majesco, and then we moved to LA to work for Paramount.   

Lee: It was in LA that we made the first Doctor Who Game - our first attempt at publishing our own game. We had over 2.5 million people play it and we’ve only just shut it down officially, to a lot of angst from Doctor Who fans. 

Susan: In the UK a lot of people know Tiny Rebel Brewery that was set up seven years ago, they stole the name from us and Brad has done way more with the Tiny Rebel name and branding than we could’ve ever imagined. It’s actually named after our son. We were sitting at home wondering what to do, getting bored four months into parenting. We had a very colicky tiny preemie baby who wouldn’t stop screaming at us and we really loved the name Bad Robot, so we were looking for something that had a similar vibe, adjective then noun, and we looked at our son and thought – Tiny Rebel. He gets a kick out of that when he walks into the brewery. 

Why have you chosen to work in Cardiff? 

Lee: I’m from Cardiff, from Llanrymni, Brad [founder of Tiny Rebel Brewery] is my younger brother and we have extended family around Cardiff so we moved here to be nearer to them. 

Susan: Well we moved here initially to be closer to family. We’ve always lived in areas that are hotbeds of technology in the US, but here it’s much easier to get focus and attention on what you’re doing and what you need. You don’t really see that in San Francisco or LA. We get a lot more support here than we’ve had before- there’s a community feel here and it’s easier to get to know people.

What inspires you about being here?

Susan: There’s a genuine excitement when you’re trying to do something fresh, as opposed to LA where there’s so much noise, so many things going on and six other companies dealing with the same kind of problems. Here, it feels people are more interested in rallying around and trying to get things done. 

Lee: Cardiff’s at a tipping point, with a lot of money coming into the creative industries at the moment that will give it a nice boost, it feels exciting. 

Susan: I think Cardiff could become a cluster, there are cities all over the UK, like Newcastle and Leeds, that have become hotbeds for the game industry for example, and there’s no reason Cardiff can’t do the same. Probably the shortcoming for Cardiff is that there’s never been a huge game company that blew up and splintered off into other little companies. So that’s what we’re fighting against, the fact that we don’t have that as a feeding ground for building companies. We’re starting from scratch.  

Lee: On the other hand we can feed off Bristol, especially with bridge tolls and faster trains – Cardiff, Bristol, Newport can be a much easier commute. We’ve already seen it starting to happen. 

What challenges have you found in working in Cardiff? 

Lee: There’s a real close-knit community as it's a smaller city but the other side of the coin is that it can be hard to find staff for very specific positions. 

Susan: I did a panel about this and I was talking about when it was just the two of us working on Doctor Who Infinity from our home in Newport, and there was a team of 25 creatives dotted around Wales and Bristol. It allowed us to look beyond Cardiff and find the expertise we needed, I would encourage the Welsh Government to stop thinking about growth in terms of job creation but more around skill creation. It doesn’t have to all be here, you can collaborate with other people remotely and sometimes that is the only way. 

Lee: We have the tools now to not have to be sat in the same office. Especially with video games tech that tends to be on the cutting edge of technology, you have to look elsewhere for some of that knowledge and skill. The skills and tools needed for videogaming, like Unity Development, there’s not many sectors that use Unity outside video games so it’s hard to find that talent in a place that doesn’t have a long videogaming history. 

How successful do you think Cardiff has been in making itself a creative capital, particularly in your area of work? 

Susan: It feels to me like a lot of effort is being put into making this happen, with people like Sara from Creative Cardiff and Pauline from Ffilm Cymru Wales, who are trying to get people working together, and interning. A lot of focus is still on film, understandably, that’s where most of the success has been, with Bad Wolf for example. I think there’s less of an understanding of the video game business. 

Lee: Interestingly, it’s close enough to the film business, that you tend to see storyboard artists who float between the gaming and film industries. We work with somebody who storyboards for major TV.

Susan: There are a lot of comic book creatives in Wales, artists and writers, storytellers – that’s the reason we were able to do Doctor Infinity, because there was so much of that talent here. Something that’s been really great is the university. We’re visiting fellows at USW so we work with them on the gaming programme. Lee’s designed a second-year project in the last few years where the students spend 10 weeks working on practical aspects of gaming – that’s been a lot of fun. And, USW is a our research partner on our latest project. 

Lee: Also, Cardiff's just won two huge grants, I mean that’s proof that something is happening, the infrastructure is in place – like USW supporting our programme, and us contributing to the gaming course at USW, then hiring people from that programme. That’s a healthy ecosystem. 

In your opinion, which three things need to happen to make Cardiff a more creative city? 

Susan: My answer, and I’ve said this a lot recently, is ambition. I think, as an outsider coming to Wales, the thing that has struck me is that there’s a weird sense of 'it’s not going to happen'. There’s something that stops people from going for things. We saw it with the grant that we got from the Welsh Government – The Media Investment Budget – people that we knew in the industry were saying that we shouldn’t spin our wheels, that there was no point. But, we put ourselves out there and we did it. The Innovate grant that we just won was the same thing, but both times it worked. You’ve got to try. 

Lee: Another one is talent – a higher skilled work base to pull from - and it will come over time. 

Susan: Also, knowing who’s out there – a way to get to the freelancers and find the talent you need. It’s hard on the flipside, it’s discouraging for freelancers looking for work. Recruiters aren’t really looking for freelancers, they’re looking for full time employees so it’s difficult as a contractor to find the expertise and freelancers you need. 

Lee: There aren’t many capital options in Cardiff. Development Bank doesn’t invest in games and media and there’s huge chunks of sectors and projects they won’t invest in. There’s nothing here that’s purely for media investment and we need it. 

Susan: That’s a real frustration that a lot of the government grants require match funding. Having more options would really help, it’s limited at the moment. We need to go elsewhere to find investors so more financial support would make a real difference. And lastly, I would encourage universities to work together more – each of the universities have particular core disciplines – you combine these disciplines and it could lead to new territory. I feel like with gaming it takes a particular group of people to create something - pulling artists and animators etc. together with different disciplines from different universities could lead to new companies.  

What do you think Creative Cardiff should try and achieve? 

Susan: Help companies and freelancers find each other. A place where people can list themselves and put themselves out there would be good, saying this is what I do, this is who I am, this is my portfolio…

Lee: There’s loads of great spaces in Cardiff, the cost of living is not too expensive, that as well as adding core skills to the mix and ways to find new funding would be a really great offer for creatives in Cardiff. There are lots of really talented people in Cardiff that are desperately trying to find start-up capital and it’s incredibly hard. 

Susan: Yes, the early money is hard so seed money is important. So, I think educate companies and start-ups about seed money possibilities - to create a prototype and help someone to create something tangible as a starting point. It would also be great to attend events that deliver advice and information about funding channels and where to seek investment – where to apply and so on. 

What’s next for you? What projects are on the horizon? What new ideas are you working on?

Susan: It was announced today - fresh off the press - that Tiny Rebel Games as part of a consortium with Sugar Creative and, a company called Potato (spun out of Google 10 years ago) and USW won the Moving Image category of the Audience of Future Programme, in which 51 consortiums bid for four grants. The RSC won the performing arts category, visitor experience category was won by Factory 42, the Science Museum and the History Museum and the sports grant was won by ESL UK with a project called Weaver. We were up against really big names – SMEs are meant to win these grants but what usually happens is these companies have huge R&D budgets. Big companies go for these grants and they know what they’re supposed to say. 

Lee: We had no idea what it should look like, we had to go and find external help, we also had dozens of people putting the hours in to help, dropping everything. It was a real team effort.  

Susan: Our partner is Aardman Animations– we’re licensing the Wallace and Gromit IP from them…  

Lee: A whole new adventure for Wallace and Gromit. 

Susan: They’re our licensing partner but also our development partner so they’re mucking in with us – with animation and storytelling. They’re an amazing company to work with, they’re so creative and so excited about the learnings. They’re not so concerned about the commercial side – especially since it’s R&D programme, it’s more about what can we learn from this about the future of storytelling. We’re not saying too much about it yet… 

Lee: Usually with storytelling, you’re introduced to world through a particular lens or character. With this it’s more like here’s all these happenings, how would you like to create your story within it – you guide it. The story is the same, but the paths we take might be different… it’s not being told in the normal way like on a screen, as a linear narrative. It’s an adventure that will run over a period of time over all kinds of different media formats, and anchored by augmented reality experiences. We’re trying to pick these really cool and interesting ways of telling different parts of the story, through using modern technology. 

Susan:…and old tech too - not tech for the sake of tech. Sometimes a comic book is the best way of telling a story. People are excited about interactivity right now.People want to be a part of the story, we look at things like Punch Drunk and Secret Cinema – that are all about coming together and dressing up - getting involved! Suddenly Cosplay is becoming cool. People want to be a part of the world – the 2D relationship isn’t enough anymore, you want something that jumps out of the screen, that you become a part of.  

Lee: That’s what we’re building, and it runs for two years. We started a joint venture with Sugar Creative and Potato to commercialize off the back of it after the R&D comes to an end to see where this could lead. 

Susan: It’s great working on a project where it’s just research without thinking - we need to make money next week. It’s a wonderfully collaborative process and it’s not just three different companies working in silo. We meet up three times a week, and learn from each other. It’s been eye-opening for us in terms of learnings from these companies. 

Have a look at their website to read more about their latest projects and follow @TinyRebelGames on Twitter. 

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