Often, these projects sit on a foundation of an individual’s particular passion for their chosen creative field but end up providing more benefit to the broader community than was ever expected.
This time, we’re chatting with Malath Abbas, one of the co-founders of Biome Collective; a creative studio, community, and previously also a co-working space for people to collaborate and explore new frontiers in games, digital arts, and technology. We talked about the inspiration behind starting a collective for games, the need for affordable space in Dundee, and the importance of collaboration beyond just your own industry.
Creative Dundee: Tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind starting Biome Collective.
Malath Abbas: I grew up and did all my studies in Liverpool but it was actually an unrelated graduate job that I had that brought me to Dundee for the first time. I hadn’t really realised that there was a bit of a games sector here until I moved here. So I came back in 2012, got various entry-level games jobs, and then a bunch of friends started a games development studio and invited me to be part of it, which was exciting. We ran that studio for about four years and through it I’d gotten to do some travelling on behalf of the company, to San Francisco and Toronto and other places where they were doing cutting-edge stuff. Seeing what these other places were up to, it made me realise that the talent in Dundee is just as good but we don’t necessarily have the same opportunities or funding mechanisms. With the start-up, eventually—as a result of being under a lot of pressure, starting a business, employing people—we all ended up having quite a lot of mental health challenges and we packed up our studio after those four years and went our separate ways for a bit. But being part of that taught me a lot, and I knew I wanted to be part of something not based on employing people or growing a business, but based on being creative and experimental and inclusive, rather than just “let’s make loads of money”. At the time, there was Fleet Collective on the go too, which was a big inspiration, so I was very much interested in starting a collective.
CD: So how did that idea become something more tangible?
MA: Myself and co-founder Tom DeMajo were in the start-up together and we were both doing freelance work at the time, so we decided to start doing that work together under an umbrella of the two of us as a collective. A few of the projects were slightly more high profile—we did a game about drone warfare [Killbox] which got a BAFTA nomination—which connected us to more people, and people outside games in the arts and culture sectors too. And over time, more and more people wanted to be part of what we were doing. A big part of that getting started for us was that we had really affordable space at the Vision Building. At the time, we shared the building with NEoN Digital Arts, Creative Dundee, and a whole spectrum of other people who were outside the games bubble. We really benefited from that crossover; it helped us all to challenge ourselves and thrive. As creative people, we need different inputs to inspire us.
CD: That focus on collaboration and making connections is a real focus for Biome Collective, isn’t it? It’s a real point of difference from that first games studio set-up.
MA: Yeah, I was very aware of the silo mentality; in games specifically, but any specialist sector tends to have that kind of thinking. Making games, it’s very hard to pull off, let alone getting it to sell and be successful. You need skilled people in very particular disciplines, so what tends to happen is you hire very particular people, who have come from very particular courses or avenues that aren’t as inclusive as they could be, and so it gets very same-y. Working in a studio set-up, you’re just head-down all the time, and everything takes a lot of time to make, so five years later you lift your head and the world’s changed. I was very aware of that and it was something I wanted to fight against as much as possible. Biome Collective was set-up to be quite fluid and quite porous, particularly to address that.
CD: What do you think starting Biome Collective in Dundee had to do with that?
MA: Practically speaking, it was very evident to me that, when I walked away from the start-up, that I wanted to try something new, and I realised that if I wanted to experiment, I would do it in Dundee. It’s affordable and you’ve got students coming out of not just Abertay, but DJCAD too, so you’ve got this kind of flow of creativity and I wanted to tap into that. And because Dundee’s a small city, what happens is you get invited to a thing, you bump into someone. Whilst there might have been more cool companies in other cities, maintaining and establishing those connections would’ve been harder. Here, there’s enough of an ecosystem to allow what we’ve done to grow organically and, with organic growth, you tend to make smaller mistakes and you learn from them, and adapt, and change.
CD: So what has that organic growth looked like for you?
MA: I guess we’ve never really advertised for people to join the collective, but we’ve been lucky in that it’s had really good people in it. There are around 25 of us at the moment, but we’ve had probably over 50 come through as members since 2015. Lots of people have come through, contributed and left, or contributed and stayed—all sorts of people: researchers, people with their own micro-studios, a cohort like me who are full time freelancers, doing more interactive games stuff or arts stuff. It works because it’s a shared thing and, over time, more people have kind of arisen and taken on responsibilities. When you’re doing something collectively, it can be hard getting things done, right? It still is sometimes, to be honest, and that’s the thing; whenever you try to do any kind of creative business, the business takes over your time. But we’re trying to minimise the business by doing the admin collectively, so we can all still be creative people.
CD: How did the pandemic affect what you were doing?
MA: At first, we struggled. We obviously couldn’t use the physical space so after a while we lost it, but what‘s happened since then is we’ve actually grown as a digital community. We do stuff on Slack or Discord and we share what we’ve been up to every week, and that’s attracted more people to be members. So that’s been really good for us. In the last year, we have surveyed our collective and people do want a physical co-working space back, so at the moment we’re exploring potential options, but it’s very early stages. I think a bunch of us value the fact that working from home means it’s a bit more affordable but we all definitely miss the face-to-face interactions and the collaborative opportunities that can be made possible when people are in the same room.
CD: Space in the city for creative projects seems to be at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds right now.
MA: I think the space thing is important, and it needs to be addressed from a city-wide point of view. You walk through the city and there are empty spaces everywhere and you just think to yourself, “Well, why can’t you put some people making stuff in there?” There are people being productive, literally trying to make stuff and contribute to society that could make use of it. But space is primarily a financial transaction: there is no consideration for society, culture, social good. It’s a very challenging scenario, and the thing that frustrates me is that it’s very hard to overcome. It’s so embedded that this is how things are, in terms of buildings and landlords and ownership and rates, but it does need to be addressed. Because it’s not just about me and Biome Collective, it’s about the future me and the future Biome Collective, and how they are able to be creative people and do cool stuff.
CD: It always comes back to that money side of things. How have you made the financial side of Biome Collective work?
MA: In terms of when we had the co-working space, every individual at Biome Collective was renting directly from NEoN, so we weren’t involved in the rent side of things. It was a very affordable rate, and they made provisions for people who were not able to keep up payments and things like that. For us as a collective, there are two ways for us to raise money: our memberships, which at the moment is £15 a month, and that’s only if you can afford it. Additionally, whenever we do projects as Biome Collective, after everyone is paid, all the profits go into the collective. So we’re not raising huge amounts of money, but it’s done things like covering our accounts every year, paying for the internet when we had the space, our website fees, sometimes specific equipment for certain projects, too. So it’s actually very minimal costs in terms of the overheads, and we’ve always done that intentionally because we want to keep those costs down so we can be flexible. But also by raising money internally, it’s allowed us over the past two years to do the Biome Grant.
CD: Tell us a bit about that!
MA: So as a community, we felt there was a gap in terms of funding for people who were struggling because of the pandemic, especially marginalised people. So we take the money we’ve raised as a collective and give it away, no strings attached, to whoever needs it. There is a selection process—because there has to be, unfortunately—but whoever gets the money can use it for anything. We give out three grants of £500 each time, so we’re not talking about massive sums of money, but it’s what we’ve been able to give, and I guess it’s part of how we’re trying to make games a bit more accessible and open. It’s certainly a challenge we face as a collective; most of our membership has been dudes and whilst it’s gotten better over time, it’s been something we’ve been trying to actively address where we can.
CD: We’d love to know a little more about how you work with clients as Biome. How do you find communicating the value of what you do to people who aren’t familiar with games, who are maybe in more traditional arts or culture or management roles?
MA: I think the cool thing about games is that younger people get them. So what you get is organisations who tend to be run by people of my age or older, who don’t identify themselves as gamers, even though play is universal. But because there’s a growing audience of young people who are more like “of course I’m a gamer, why would I question that?” older people are panicking and saying “oh my god we have to make something interactive or playful or game-y” to engage them. So there’s a desire amongst different sectors to make things or collaborate within games, which is great for us. But a lot of my job tends to be telling people that they don’t want a game at all. Games cost a lot of money, upfront and in legacy costs too, so explaining that and drilling down into why they want a game in the first place is important. We’ve actually realised that a really good way to get to the bottom of that is using a workshop setting to meet a partner or a client. We do a lot of them, both for kids and adults, because they’re fun for us and it’s paid work but it also lets you do consultations where you get to understand each other in what is hopefully a really fun environment. We use a lot of paper prototyping, and arts and craft kinds of processes, and you get to use that to learn a language for collaboration, because when I say “artist” or “production designer” or any other games jargon, it doesn’t always translate over into other sectors. It’s been a really good way to find that middle ground and also realise like, “well this has been fun but we should never work with each other”. Which is fine!
CD: You also do a lot of projects that’ve been funded by arts funding bodies. How do you find the contrast between those two ways of working?
MA: They both come with their own issues, right? I’m someone who’s applied to Creative Scotland both successfully and unsuccessfully a number of times and I’ve been in situations where I’ve put an application in and the initial feedback I get is “this is great, wonderful, we love it!”. Then it goes to the external panel and they reject it because that week they had forty applications all with the thumbs up from Creative Scotland, but they can only fund ten. When we do get the funding, the work is a lot more manageable, it’s a lot more creative, we get to collaborate with people and do cool stuff. Creatively speaking, you really push yourself. But to land the work is really hard, and you might do a cool project and see the potential to take it forward but then there’s no work afterwards. I think that’s also because we’re tapping into arts funding, which is already quite low, and then we’re saying to arts funding bodies, “hey, I know a theatre person is going to cost this much, but unfortunately I cost double that because I need this fancy computer or this software or…”. It’s just inherently more expensive and sometimes it’s hard to justify why we would get the gig over someone else who costs a lot less. It’s definitely not always the case, and what we’ve found is whenever we do work, people love it – the public love it and it really pushes the envelope in terms of engagement, so the result is always worth it but sometimes we have to undercut ourselves to get there.
CD: You’re having to fight a bit of an uphill battle of explaining to people what it is you do as well as persuading them to give you money for something that you do doesn’t fit so neatly into the traditional mediums, aren’t you?
MA: Yeah, but I do feel like that communication isn’t just a problem for games. Broadly speaking, arts and design needs massive investment because we’re constantly chasing our tails or walking away. And I think that comes down to society just not valuing the arts as much as I think they should. I don’t blame society at large, it’s on us as creatives and artists to articulate the value, right? Going back to that silo idea, we as artists and creatives are in our own little silo, but art and design has a massive impact on everyone’s day to day life. It’s not just an exhibition or an art show or a performance, it’s literally everything. Everything we do and everything we engage with in the world, art and design has something to say at every point. We, as creative people, need to find more opportunities to collaborate with other sectors to prove that point. And we need a lot more funding, quite frankly.
CD: How do you think we can change that?
MA: I think having artists and designers embedded in the decision making processes around money would make a massive difference. I’ve always said, why is it that there’s all these people in the council who (rightfully so) work on things like economic development and admin and marketing, but artists and designers don’t have a place? Why are they not embedded within the council? Because if they’re not embedded, what happens is the decision about where the pie is split is made without us, and then they come to us and say “here’s your bit” and we’re like “well actually, this isn’t enough…”. Currently, there’s no space for us to have that conversation.
CD: You’ve just had your seven-year anniversary. How do you feel about it when you reflect on it all?
MA: I’m just glad that we’ve been able to be creative, express ourselves. I think we’ve been successful in the sense that we exist. We’ve had people come through that membership or collective which has been great, but also we continue to have challenges, right? My ambition for Biome Collective is for us to be in a position one day where we are able to fund our own creative practice. I would love to be able to turn to our membership and be like, “right, everyone gets a ten grand commission to do a creative piece of work this year. Go make something without strings attached”, you know? That’s where I’d like us to get to.
CD: We’ve touched on space and funding, but is there anything else you’d love to see in Dundee’s future?
I just feel like what we should aim for in a future society is a lot more collaborative, a lot more open to people mixing with each other. I feel like surely we’re mature enough now to realise that we need to look after everyone, and the voice of the marginalised person can have a really positive and profound impact on everyone else. Society—or in this example Dundee as a city—needs to cater for that group in society, needs to find provisions for them, whether it’s space to collaborate or operate, whether it’s initiatives like what Creative Dundee do as a cultural programme. I think these things are really paramount and I wish there was more of that.
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