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‘Don’t call us the Chesney Hawkes of gaming’: How two friends helped Manchester becoming a gaming hotspot

Manchester is known for its music scene and football teams, but two childhood friends are leading the way in making the region a hotspot for the gaming industry

Rocketship taking off on a mobile device

There is a plaque on Manchester’s Midland Hotel to commemorate the first meeting in 1904 of Charles Rolls and Henry Royce, the start of a partnership that led to the creation of the renowned Rolls-Royce.

Years from now the little village of Wrightington, near Wigan, might have a similar plaque to celebrate the first meeting of 10-year-old Alex Rigby and eight-year-old Paul Gouge. It was the beginning of a 40-year union that has resulted in some of the world’s biggest mobile games, including the Bafta-winning Golf Clash, and created in Playdemic a tech unicorn – a private start-up valued at $1bn-plus.

Fast forward to 2024 and Rigby and Gouge, now 50 and 47 respectively, have decided to go again with the launch of their fourth business – ForthStar. The studio doesn’t expect to release its first game until 2025 but has secured $10m from venture fund Griffin Gaming Partners.

The lifelong friends won’t be rushed and say that only the games that survive their own “conveyor belt of doom” test will be released. “Our ideas are on this conveyor belt moving towards this rock crusher and unless they’re good enough they’re going to get crushed and we’ll work on the next one,” explains Rigby.

At our meeting in ForthStar’s offices in Altrincham, near Manchester, it’s obvious that Rigby and Gouge are very close. Recalling their first meeting, Gouge says: “We had just moved into the road in Wrightington and Alex’s mum knocked on our door and invited us for dinner.” The boys discovered a shared interest in football and computer games.

Paul Gouge and Alex Rigby from ForthStar Games
Paul Gouge and Alex Rigby from ForthStar Games

“One of the reasons the North has a strong gaming industry is because we have horrible winters,” explains Rigby. “It’s soggy, dark and you can’t really do much. Video gaming was something we became really good at because we couldn’t go out in the long dark winters.”

As children, the pair vowed to go into business after the success of one of their early money-making schemes to produce interactive prospectuses on CD-ROM for local colleges. They launched their first mobile games studio in 1999 with BattleMail, which attracted 1 million users in under a year before being sold to (M)Forma.

“We were trying to come up with an idea for a game that would allow us to be distributed virally and played via email,” says Gouge. “People looked down their noses at what we were doing. It had virality built into the core of it. It was mass market by nature. It was free-to-play. Now it’s become the business model for the biggest games out there.”

Their next business was Manchester-based Rockpool Games, which was sold to Eidos Interactive in 2007 for $15m. In 2010 the pair launched their third studio and future unicorn, Playdemic, which hit the jackpot with the launch of Golf Clash.

The studio started developing the prototype for Golf Clash in 2015 but it didn’t go live until 17 January 2017. The date is significant: by then, they had already sold Playdemic for an undisclosed sum to industry giant Warner Bros.

“Part of the journey of Playdemic was from a Facebook games company to a mobile games company,” explains Gouge. “We were really focused on trying to make a free-to-play mobile hit. At the time there was a lot of talk that it was a bit late to do that. The big hits like Candy Crush and the Clash of Clans, which were making more than $1bn revenue a year, had already happened.

“There was a sense that the market had already matured and the winners had already been declared. One of the reasons Golf Clash was a success was we identified a particular audience we felt was under-served.”

To date, Playdemic has been downloaded more than 150 million times, generating more than $1.2bn in revenue and hundreds of millions of dollars in profit. They sold to Warner Bros because it seemed like “the right home” for it.

“We were at this point with Playdemic when we had produced hit games like Village Life and Gourmet Ranch and were making good profits but we didn’t feel like we were growing and evolving like we wanted to,” says Gouge.

“We started to get approaches from companies wanting to buy us and started to think that was the right home for a company like Playdemic. Maybe we did need the muscle and capital of a much bigger player behind us. Those thoughts were fundamentally wrong.

“Hindsight is a wonderful thing and the one thing we couldn’t have predicted was quite how successful Golf Clash was going to become,. We’ve got a very good relationship with Warner Bros, it also recognised the incredible value in Playdemic and Golf Clash and ensured that we materially shared in the upside even beyond terms of our sale.”

In 2021 Electronic Arts (EA) acquired Playdemic for $1.4bn. Rigby and Gouge are as affable a pair as it’s possible to meet – but just don’t compare them to one-hit-wonder Chesney Hawkes.

“Was Golf Clash your equivalent of Chesney Hawkes’ The One and Only?” I ask tongue-in-cheek, referencing the 1990s hit song. “Please never call us the Chesney Hawkes of gaming,” jokes Gouge.

Gouge and Rigby have had three massive free-to-play hits: Golf Clash, Village Life and Gourmet Ranch. Gouge adds: “The metrics that make me really excited are the number of players and the game play-time, and both Village Life and Gourmet Ranch had more than 1 million players a day. Village Life had more than 60 million installs.”

The duo left Playdemic in February 2021, soon after the sale to EA, which is still the most expensive buyout of a UK-only developer, but began plotting their return a year later.

“We secretly knew we’d be going again,” says Gouge. “Because of our relationship, we spoke pretty much every day. Relatively quickly we realised that the one thing we love to do is build our own games companies.”

Rigby says: “Achieving unicorn status is an exciting thing to do. It’s not just about money. It’s about the journey. When you have a product played by millions of people around the world who are loving it, it’s a cool place to be.”

The pair launched ForthStar in 2024. “We wrote down all the things we’ve done well in building these companies or the mistakes that we’ve made and effectively created a manifesto of how we make a new company,” said Rigby.

“We’ve become more harsh about our decision-making. We learnt the lessons of slavishly working on products and bringing them to the market when probably we should have killed them at an earlier stage. Since we started ForthStar we’ve already killed ideas. We’ve started working on a prototype, we’ve talked about it and agreed the best thing to take is to celebrate the lessons we’ve learnt.”

For Gouge the goal is clear. “What we are trying to do at ForthStar is to make products that will resonate with the mass market,” he says. “To make games that millions of people love to play every day for years to come.”

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