Moving to the next level

January 5, 2021

When Tom Beardsmore and Paul Crabb met as 12-year-olds at secondary school, little did they know a fantasy universe they created in the classroom, with their teacher its fictional leader, would one day turn into a real-life business adventure. Now, more than 20 years on, the duo are guiding their computer games studio Coatsink to new levels. And, having been the subject of a multi-million- pound acquisition late last year by Sweden’s Thunderful Group, the company is planning to scale even greater heights. Steven Hugill speaks to Tom to learn more.

To quote Oscar Wilde, life imitates art far more than art imitates life.

Though written in the late 19th century and based on a conversation between two people in a Nottinghamshire country house, Wilde’s hypothesis nevertheless retains all of its meaning in modern-day society’s vastly different surrounds.

Take Tom Beardsmore, for example.

As a Teesside University student, his time away from the lecture theatres and libraries was filled with trips to the cinema and hours at home playing video games and watching DVDs of films past and present.

One of the movies in his collection was the late 1990s slapstick comedy BASEketball, which centres on childhood friends Joe Cooper and Doug Remer and the transformation of their lives after founding a new sport.

Its script essentially reads: two mates, one idea, incredible success. Hold a mirror to Tom and the similarities are striking.

Working alongside schoolfriend Paul Crabb, as chief executive and co- founder of computer game development studio Coatsink, the storyline is just the same: two mates, one idea, incredible success.

BASEketball invented a fictional new sporting world; Coatsink is creating new fantastical landscapes and adventures for enthusiasts to conquer.

And it is doing so with great momentum.

Late last year, Sunderland-based Coatsink, whose portfolio includes work on games carrying the Jurassic World and Transformers banners, was bought by Swedish-headquartered Thunderful Group in a deal that could be worth as much as £65.5 million.

The agreement, says Tom, will allow Coatsink to move to another level, with Thunderful’s experience in Sweden’s strong gaming sector a major selling point.

Furthermore, Tom says the partnership will allow Coatsink, which previously worked with Sir Patrick Stewart on vocals for the virtual reality Shadow Point puzzle game, to further bolster its 110-strong team.

“Thunderful want us to grow; they are basically the same as us but bigger and have a much larger financial base,” he says.

“They really understood us from the outset; we’d had a couple of offers previously that we hadn’t acted on, but Thunderful was different.

“Five years ago, we had ten people and I thought, ‘wow, this is a big thing’.

“We’ve now got more than 100 staff and with Thunderful’s backing, we’re aiming to continue our expansion.

“The deal and everything around it was pretty wild,” continues Tom.

“The agreement was completed at about 2am in Mincoffs Solicitors’ Newcastle office right at the start of October.

“We all had our face masks on, so things were a little muted, but we did manage to order in some burgers as way of celebration.

“The following Saturday, however, all of the leadership team got drunk on Zoom – everyone was very happy,” adds Tom.

“None of us have ever taken a big salary from the business, in order to help it grow, so this deal represents a big de-risking moment from that perspective.”

The magnitude of the agreement and the Scandinavian firm’s impact on Coatsink’s trajectory is a stark contrast to the business’ origins, which began in a classroom in the late 1990s.

As friends at Laurence Jackson School, based in Guisborough, east Cleveland, Tom and Paul – who is co-founder and chief development officer – formed an immediate bond over computer games.

They also amused themselves with fictional adventures of their short- tempered form tutor Mr Coates, which would eventually be the kernel for Coatsink’s establishment.

“Paul and I met when he moved up to the North East with his family from Sheffield, and we got on straightaway,” says Tom.

“I had mates, who were into rugby and football, but it was different with Paul.

“He was a proper nerd – and I’m a fully confessed mega nerd – so naturally we hit it off immediately,” he laughs.

“I’d always been interested in games, and I think being friends with someone like him really helped focus my mind on it.

“Mr Coates was a hell of a guy,” continues Tom of Coatsink’s foundation.

“He could be very grumpy and every time someone found themselves in trouble, he would always deliver a wonderful one-liner.

“But it wasn’t just in school, either. If he saw you as he drove past in his car, he’d wind his window down, poke his head out and give you some of his advice.

“We found him hilarious, and with our minds being like they were at the time, we created this galactic superpower called Coates.

“He was invincible and secretly ran the planet through his Coats Incorporated organisation – which is where Coatsink came from.”

The company’s formation wasn’t immediate, however.

With Tom and Paul heading to study at Teesside University, their fictitious creation remained just that until Christmas Eve 2009, when the duo, having both previously found work in the computer games industry, decided to pool their talent and launch Coatsink as a limited partnership.

“Paul had lost his job earlier that year and I’d gotten tired of my job too,” explains Tom, who studied an English Studies with Media Studies degree before completing a Masters in Creative Writing.

“I was based in Cork, Ireland, working for Blizzard Entertainment, which is responsible for World of Warcraft, StarCraft and other major game franchises, and was a big company to work for.

“But I was a small cog in a huge machine, and I wanted more creative freedom.

“I worked there for about 18 months between 2008 and 2009, which was when Paul and I decided to start Coatsink,” he continues.

As with all progressive start-ups, such an arrangement provided a steady base from which to grow.

However, Coatsink’s evolution was catalysed when Tom and Paul were offered financial and practical support by Teesside University, Tees Valley Combined Authority and the European Union to progress their vision.

“We’d began by working from our parents’ homes – Paul in his bedroom and me from my mum and dad’s dining table in their home at Saltburn, east Cleveland,” says Tom.

“The first thing that really helped us get off the ground was a Digital City Fellowship grant.

“Paul and I each got £4000, which was spread over six months and paid for rent and living expenses, and we were also able to move into European Regional Development Fund-subsidised offices a year later.

“A big turning point was when we moved into Teesside University’s Victoria Building; we received tonnes of support, in terms of things like mentoring, and benefited from subsidised rent and utilities too.

“We stayed there until 2012 before moving to Middlesbrough’s Boho One and were there until late 2013 when we were offered the chance to take a large office in Sunderland Software Centre.”

As poster boys for the impact start-up support can provide to burgeoning businesses across the local digital and technology sector, Tom and Paul have worked hard to complete the circle, with the vast majority of their workforce having emanated from North East universities.

And, with the firm keen to expand further, Tom says it is inevitable more talented, local, graduates with find roles with Coatsink.

“Our success is testament to the support mechanisms in this region,” he says.

“Not every company will make it, but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t continue investing in these creative, digital, innovative companies and what they have to offer.

“For us, the value of the local network came to the fore in 2013.

“Both Paul and I are very creative types, but we needed a programmer to lead and to talk to people.

“We’d had some people join us from Teesside, Sunderland and Newcastle universities, and then we saw an opportunity with the Pixelbrawl studio.

“That had also come through the Digital City Fellowship route and we’d previously published them on a game called Chip.

“The three lads – Simon Launder, Jimmy Whitemore and Matthew Daroczy – were doing an incredible job and we asked them to join us.

“They instantly added expertise and took charge of our weaker parts.

“From the moment they joined, we really accelerated our growth.”

With its team bolstered, Coatsink was now able to strengthen its market presence – and it found fertile ground with virtual reality headset maker Oculus in 2014.

It is a partnership that remains fruitful to the present day, with their relationship having moved from developing the first- person puzzle game Esper, to survival adventure Jurassic World Aftermath – which recently saw Tom record Hollywood actor Jeff Goldblum’s vocals for the game over a Zoom call.

“When we aligned ourselves to Oculus, we also had, at the same time, a small game running on PlayStation called Shu,” says Tom.

“It meant we had two trains running – a virtual reality one and a non-virtual reality one – and they both very quickly gained momentum.

“Oculus was bought by Facebook not long after we began working with them, and as soon as that deal had concluded, they went back to the studios they had worked with previously to create more games, which for us meant Esper 2.”

Alongside Oculus, Coatsink worked with studios such as Redcar’s Boneloaf, maker of the hit game Gang Beasts, and received offers to work on titles including Transformers.

And, with such endeavours increasing its reputation, it wasn’t long before the company was handed the opportunity to work on a much larger title – the virtual reality game Jurassic World Aftermath.

After pitching for the contract to representatives at Universal Studios – an experience Tom admits caused a fairly sleepless night beforehand – Coatsink was handed the development contract alongside publisher Oculus.

“This one is huge for us; Jurassic World is in the top three IPs in the world,” says Tom, “and working on it has been a little surreal.

“Normally, we’d have actors in a studio to record their vocals for the game, but with COVID-19 that was impossible.

“So we had to call Jeff Goldblum and BD Wong up on Zoom and have them record their lines that way.

“They were filming the ‘Jurassic World: Dominion’ movie and we spoke to them in their hotel rooms; they had a mini booth they stuck their heads into, through which they performed their lines.

“It was a little bizarre, but Jeff is an unbelievably professional actor, and it was really warming from a personal perspective to see a Hollywood star of his stature be so grounded and friendly.”

And with such high calibre titles in its portfolio – and now Thunderful’s support to help the business grow further – Tom says the future is very promising.

“People are seeing us more and more, and we have titles in the pipeline right through until the end of 2022,” he adds.

“We have a few gaps but have a pretty full schedule for further developments and in-house titles.

“It is a very exciting time.”

Tom Beardsmore
Chief executive and co-founder of Coatsink

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