“It’s incredibly valuable” – Cardboard Sword’s Olly Bennett on the importance of bespoke support

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Words and Interview by Simon Bland 

Game development is one of the most resilient areas of UK creativity. Not even a year plagued by lockdowns could stop it from growing – with its overall worth clocking in at £5.3billion in 2020, up from £4.8billion during a non-pandemic-ridden 2019. Meanwhile, its workforce is growing by the day, with around 20,000 people employed up and down the country and many companies based in the regions, outside of London. Cardboard Sword is one such company that’s currently looking to expand during the wave of success generated by this booming sector. It was founded in 2013 by current CEO Olly Bennett and Production Director  Aidan Howe and started its life by doing consultancy work for other larger publishers. However as their success grew (alongside the size of their team), company thoughts quickly turned to creating their own IP and carving out their own industry niche.

“In the first few years, it was just the two of us doing consultancy work for design, production and quality assurance,” recalls Bennett, who has recently enrolled as part of Creative England’s Creative Enterprise Evolve cohort, a scheme designed to help screen-sector businesses level-up and become investor-ready. “We grew the team and started early development of our first title, The Siege and the Sandfox, while also doing some contract work on the side.” In addition to hosting regular game development networking nights across the North East, Bennett and the team at Cardboard Sword – like many other regional devs – have their sights firmly set on generating original IP titles. However, that goal can often be easier said than done – which is why their paths crossed with Creative England.

“We’ve always wanted to create our own IP and it was always the ambition of the team at Cardboard Sword,” reveals Bennett, who’s juggling his time on Evolve with the development of the company’s stealthy debut title The Siege and the Sandfox. “We’re largely a collection of Triple-A [a term used to describe large scale games with healthy budgets] experienced developers who, throughout our careers, have had to work for other people on their games. From a creative or an arts perspective, they’ve often had to ride along with decisions that weren’t necessarily their own, so making our own IP enables us to have that freedom,” he explains. “It’s your game so there’s a real sense of ‘I made this’.”

The key to achieving this IP goal is funding, and while Cardboard Sword has received financial support through the likes of UK-grants backed by the ERDF, the video games tax relief and direct funding from publishers to develop projects, their aspirations  require even further support. “The reason we’ve applied to Evolve is that we have quite ambitious growth plans and we realised that relying on a hit-driven model for this may delay those plans and is not guaranteed” reasons Bennett. “By raising investment and looking to investors, we can act on our strategies much sooner.”

As Bennett points out, Evolve’s ability to partner companies with experienced board members and industry mentors who are leaders in their respective fields provides our cohort with easy access to invaluable advice. Despite having almost finished one IP project already, the team at Cardboard Sword is already hard at work on their second and access to any mentor ‘cheat sheet’ advice is sure to receive a warm welcome. “One of the things a lot of indie studios go through is that they are founded by creatives who have always wanted to make their own work in games, but the truth is that games like any other product, require a business to sell,” admits Bennett. “Many indie studios don’t have that direct business training – myself included. I’ve had to work it out along the way.”

However with help from their Evolve mentor – mixed-media expert Travis Baxter – all that is set to change. “What’s great about someone like Travis is that he clearly knows these things and has done them for so much longer than myself. He has that direct understanding of how it works and so having that reassurance and instruction is invaluable,” says Bennett. What’s more, the guidance offered by Cardboard Sword’s industry mentorship extends far beyond Bennett’s time on the scheme. “Any decisions I make that [Creative England] back up, makes me feel safer about making the decisions in the first place,” he smiles, reflecting on the long-term practicalities of this type of support. “Any advice they give me which I haven’t considered myself is incredibly valuable because it means I don’t have to find it out through failed experimentation.”

However perhaps one of the most refreshing elements of the Evolve programme is that those behind the scenes speak the same language as those on its receiving end, as Bennett attests: “I’ve been on a couple of other programmes that provide advice and information towards raising investment and growing a business – but one of the things that the Evolve programme and Creative England has is a good amount of focus aimed towards the gaming sector. Broader investment programmes tend to be quite generic,” he says. “What’s great about Creative England is they focus on screen, digital and creative businesses – and that way, I know there’s going to be a lot more direct help.”

It’s help that can often be hard to come by when going it alone, too. “If you said to me ‘Go find yourself an investment mentor’ I wouldn’t know where to start,” Bennett adds. “The great thing about what Creative England is doing is that they know who to ask. It’s incredibly valuable.” While Cardboard Sword are only part-way through their time on the scheme, they’re already enthusiastic about the ways in which it’ll help their team cultivate their investment strategy. “So far, it has been great. The sense that the other parties are going through the same things is very supportive,” smiles Bennett, referencing the pack-mentality of the cohort. “The one-to-one sessions have felt like I’m really going to get something valuable out of them too.”

As the Cardboard Sword team continue to work on their second IP release – the 80s-set driving sim Transmission – Bennett has high hopes for how their Creative England collaboration might equip them with the skills needed to succeed long into the future. “I would love for our first game [The Siege and the Sandfox] to be well received when it comes out. We’re proud of where it’s going and we’ve been even more ambitious with our second game [Transmission].” As for where Bennett would like to see his company in five years’ time? “Having our games be a success would be phenomenal,” he smiles. “Having our growth strategy being realised and with two to three further games in development too would be awesome.”