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Giselle Stewart: Game on

Giselle Stewart tells Colin Young why the endeavour represents her dream job, and provides an insight into the ideas and ideology she’s looking to deliver.

Giselle Stewart looks out from the top floor of the Catalyst building on Newcastle’s Helix science park, observing the rows of office and residential rooftops that disappear into the distance. She also sees a new window of opportunity, one in which she is primed to play a key role. Giselle is back in the North East with a plan to further strengthen the region’s reputation in the gaming industry.  Heading Creative Assembly North’s recently unveiled Newcastle development studio, which will create around 100 jobs, the former NHS manager is working on plans set to quicken the area’s digital’s pulse. And the venture hasn’t gone unnoticed, with industry influencers and commentators wasting little time in celebrating its potential. Here, Giselle tells Colin Young why the endeavour represents her dream job, and provides an insight into the ideas and ideology she’s looking to deliver.

Giselle Stewart wasn’t a huge gamer growing up.

And despite being awarded an OBE for services to gaming, she’s not always very good at it.

“I quite like simple games, or even Pac-Man,” she says.

“I play things I’m rubbish at, like the squid game Octodad; I’ve been known to tweet my friends and ask, ‘how do I get out of being stuck on the stairs!?’

“I’ve got a 15-year-old daughter, Alea, and Toby, who’s 13, and they both love games, especially Toby.

“Alea plays The Sims, and I quite like watching that, and my son’s a real Minecraft fan, and you do get drawn in.

“I think they quite like their mum working in gaming.”

Giselle’s career in gaming dates back to an arcade above a baked potato shop in Newcastle, frequented with her mates from Eastcliffe Grammar School on their Saturday sorties from Gosforth.

“I played Pong – didn’t we all?”, she says.

“I played Pac-Man too and occasionally went to a place called The Spud, in Ridley Palace.

“We played on arcade machines in there, but I didn’t go into gaming because I was a gamer.

“It was the challenge of growing a company; I love recruiting and meeting people.

“I think my superpower is recruiting and building a team.”

Giselle has just been hired by Creative Assembly, part of SEGA Europe, to use those very superpowers and expand one of the oldest and largest UK game development studios to Newcastle.

Creative Assembly, the maker of titles such as Total War and Hyenas, is expanding its Sussex and Sofia operations, with Giselle in the North East assembling a new continuous improvement team, and developers working with the wider studio on an “unannounced project”.


Currently “squatting in Opencast Software’s offices” (a very kind gesture from a champion of North East tech Charlie Hoult, says Giselle), she has already started recruiting staff and, over the coming years, the hope is to build a talented team across a range of roles, which will firmly stamp the North East’s footprint on the gaming world.

She is also looking for a permanent home and, as she looks out towards the Tyne Bridge and beyond, from the top of Newcastle’s Catalyst building, on the city’s Helix science park, she admits she is spoilt for choice.

She says: “We plan to be in the city centre, though where that will be, I’m not sure.

“There are a lot of exciting new developments going on; Newcastle is having a bit of a moment.

“There are a lot of tech companies landing, in artificial intelligence, defence, data – all things we’re really interested in.

“We’re sitting (for this interview) in the National Innovation Centre for Data, and are exploring a project with them.

“It is a very attractive site. We’ve got the university’s school of computing next door, and I’d love to be next to the students and academics there.

“But there are other interesting offices popping up, places like Pilgrim Street and Portland House.

“I can’t get over the amount of quality offices available right now.

“When I looked in previous years, there wasn’t a lot. Now, though, the scene is incredible.”

Before gaming, Giselle spent nine years in the NHS, starting her career in the mid-1980s at Shotley Bridge Hospital on a management trainee scheme, during which she was entrenched a week-at-a-time within every hospital department.

After a spell at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital, she became an assistant general manager at Hexham General Hospital before returning to Tyneside to work at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in medical specialties, combining her employment with MBA studies at Durham University.

And it was during the latter that Giselle’s life changed forever, when she was offered an opportunity by friend Martin Edmondson.

His company Reflections was about to launch the stock car-based Destruction Derby game, and he needed a general manager to oversee and nurture a business he knew was about to take off.

“It might have been about glass ceilings and wanting to go further and do more,” says Giselle, “but I felt I needed something else to give me a wider perspective.

“When Martin asked me to become involved with the company, he had goals in mind.

“It was about what he wanted to achieve with a big workforce, and how he would exit the business and sell it.

“I suppose he just wanted somebody who could do everything the people and company required, who wasn’t on the creative side, and that’s where I came in.”

Giselle adds: “There were about 14 games companies around us I knew of, working on various titles and platforms.

“They were all small, but there was an energy in the region, and it is something the North East was known for.

“Reflections actually put out one of the first launch titles for the PlayStation.

“It launched with four, and our game was one of them – the only external developer to do so.

“I remember going to the Sony shop, in Eldon Gardens, walking through and seeing this very new machine.

“They were demonstrating Destruction Derby, and there was quite a sense of pride to see the box, the logo and people playing it.

“Nobody really knew where it was going.

“It was the first time a big company like Sony had stepped into the market; a big entertainment name and a very exciting time.

“We developed a sequel and a new game called Driver, which came before things like Grand Theft Auto.

“Destruction Derby and Driver really put us on the map.”

Giselle spent nearly 20 years in a senior role at Ubisoft’s Reflections studio before being named director of UK corporate affairs, which was a very different, outward-facing role and part of Ubisoft’s international team.

She has also sat on the board of industry bodies Ukie and TIGA, and is a visiting professor of practice at Newcastle University.

For the last seven years at Ubisoft, she worked with the Government on many of the challenges facing the gaming industry.

Her list included the implications of Brexit and the new immigration system on the workforce, age appropriate design codes to ensure products are not tracking children’s data, and dealing with the huge implications and challenges of online safety.

She says: “I worked on a very interesting project with Northumbria Police about how we make that world as safe as possible, so we are tracking concerning behaviour within live games and have an alert system in place with the police.

“For example, if you have somebody in another country doing something they shouldn’t be, how would we alert police to that and get them involved and take it seriously?

“Northumbria Police’s response was great; they provided expert advice on it and put in all sorts of training to spot those things.

“It’s not just identifying the problems, though, it is also about how we address them and how we encourage our peers in the industry to work with us.”

Ready for a new challenge – and perhaps a fresher perspective – Giselle was approached last year by colleague Gareth Edmondson, studio director at Creative Assembly, to head its new studio, with the lure of making it all happen in her beloved Newcastle.

She says: “I was really excited when I got that call.

“To start from scratch and build something from the ground upwards is more interesting than a start-up, because you’ve got the security and support of a big company infrastructure.

“They’ve got a very strong product line-up; they know where they’re going.

“So you know exactly what your strategy is, what you’re hiring for, what it is you’re trying to achieve.

“We’re already like a new little family, and it has been such a lovely kind of reawakening.

“They’re quite adventurous and have bold visions, but my confidence in going to work with Gareth was largely about how we worked together and the decisions I knew he made about his people.

“There aren’t a lot of women who forge a career in the industry and, when I had my children, Gareth very much worked with me to see what I needed so I could be a new mum and stay with the business.

”The second time around, I had quite a difficult pregnancy with a very premature baby.

“I was still working, finalising the salaries sitting in my hospital bed, with my PA sitting next to me – as you do! – and my son was born a couple of months early.

“I took as much time as I practically could, and they eased me back to work slowly and gradually, with as much support as possible.

“It was phenomenal and forward-thinking at the time.

“It’s this kind of people-centred approach now running through Creative Assembly that made this move an easy one for me.”

Giselle reveals there are many boxes to tick on her new blank sheet of paper, which, she admits, go far deeper than keeping the gaming community happy with tweaks and developments, as well as new titles.

She adds: “There’s a big issue about women in the games industry – why are there not more of them? Why is it perceived as a difficult place to pursue a career?

“I don’t think it has to be. It’s more about how leaders choose to manage and look on their workforce as a resource, no matter what shape and size.

“We’re a very modern industry, very forward thinking.

“We know as many girls play games as boys, and we need to make sure that continues by ensuring those women who come into the industry have a really positive experience.

“Across tech generally, we can’t replicate what doesn’t come out of university.

“If young people aren’t inspired to do it, and there’s ten per cent of women on a computer science course, that’s going to be replicated in the workplace, isn’t it?

“If they’re not encouraged to do computer science at A level, they’re not going to university to study it, and if they’re not doing it at GCSE maths and computer science level, then we’re not going to see it at A level or university.

“We need to inspire young people, at 13 and 14, that these are really exciting careers to come into, and it’s a diverse and welcoming place to be, and I think we’re changing those perceptions.

“But it’s been a bit of a long burn.”

Building on the North East’s foundations and existing talent, luring new players here – not least the exiles – is at the core of Giselle’s plans.

Within days of Creative Assembly’s announcement, it was inundated with inquiries – Newcastle should not be a hard sell.

The city’s welcoming arms and charms are all very well, but Giselle wants to welcome the North East’s future talent to the industry too.

And the return to her roots gives her the opportunity to plant her own gaming seeds.

She says: “Universities have responded over time and put in courses to support the industry.

“We’ve got Newcastle University footsteps away, with one of the best master’s degrees in games engineering, which puts out an awful lot of highly talented postgrads every year; Creative Assembly has scooped a number of them up over the years.

“Northumbria University is putting in a games computing course in September.

‘It used to have one of the best undergraduate courses a few years ago, and it is now bringing a new one back because it has realised the industry is continuing to grow.

“Teesside University is a big centre for programming, art, games, design and animation.

“The region is strongly supported by our universities.

“It has been a passion of mine over many years to make sure education was fit for purpose.

“I saw so many courses that weren’t, but I also saw universities that really wanted to connect with industry and find out what they should be teaching.”

“Developing apprenticeships is something we are starting to grapple with.

“It’s still embryonic in our industry, but there are definitely green shoots coming through, with a number of attractive areas to focus on, such as data science.”

Giselle adds: “I wouldn’t be surprised if another big name comes in.

“The community of gamers, developers and the universities have received Creative Assembly North really well, and are very keen to be involved with us and extend what they do.

“And there will be time to do that.

“We’re not planning to move quickly and be enormous very quickly.

“We’ll do it slowly and carefully.”



May 12, 2023

  • Technology

Created by North East Times