Expression Games, remember the name

 

Expression Games is a development studio which hasn’t even been officially announced yet. But despite that, it has more than tripled its size, growing from 24 people on day one, to just under 70  around 10 months later. Its culture and its way of doing business is winning it friends, supporters and importantly, games-development work at a rapid pace. And it’s a name which is increasingly on the industry’s lips.

 

That’s surprising, considering its CEO Errol Ismail had his sights set on becoming either a football or tennis player. So how did this budding sports star end up building one of the games industry’s potential brightest lights?

 

“Before my daughter came along, I had two great passions in my life, sport and video games. When I was 15 or so, I thought my future would be in sport. So I went to college and studied a BTEC in Sports Science, and was determined to study that at university, and eventually find my way into teaching.

 

“But while I was studying the courses, I spotted some for video game development. Up to that point, I had no idea that kind of thing existed – actually getting into the video game industry was just a mystery. So I applied to six courses, and two of those were in video games. And for some bizarre reason, the one I decided to accept was to study computer game technology at Liverpool John Moores University.”

 

Errol admits that it was hard for him to give up his dream of sports stardom, but also points out that realistically he was never actually good enough to make that happen. However, even though he was on the path that would eventually lead to  his current position at Expression Games, it wasn’t the smoothest of paths.

 

“It was a course I should never have been on,” he smiles. “I’d decided that video games were my future, but this course was computer science, so it was all about mathematics, and my brain just doesn’t work that way. So the whole four years of my degree was a battle, and I only made it through with the help of my friends dragging me along with them.”

 

Entering the industry

 

The course did include a 12-month industrial placement at Sony in Liverpool, where Errol worked as a Tester in the Technical Requirements Checklist department, and following that, after graduating, Errol started his first industry job at Electronic Arts as a Compliance Tester.

 

Errol pauses here, before a big smile cracks across his face. “It was one of the three times I’ve joined (and then later left) EA!” He’s quick to credit EA for giving him a platform to grow quickly and develop an extremely broad base of skills and knowledge which would be crucial later in life.

 

In a short time, he moved from his role as a tester into publishing, specifically becoming a producer for a studio called Bright Light, where he worked on a games franchise that he still holds up as being one of his proudest achievements

 

“I worked on a very small games franchise called Flips. And no-one knows what that is,” he laughs, “but it was a product designed to make reading fun for children. So it was packed with mini games, animations, VFX and other things to make reading exciting. It was for the Nintendo DS, and we had great support from Nintendo. I just loved the fact that it wasn’t focused on the core gamer market, it was trying to do something different through video games. And that felt like a very positive thing to be doing.”

 

This idea of positivity, and doing things differently is something we’ll come back to time and again in this story, and certainly seems to be something that’s right at the centre of Errol’s approach. At its heart you could say.

 

To Shanghai and beyond

 

Following a move back to EA as a Development Director to work for Maxis on SimCity, Errol and his wife took the decision to move to Shanghai in 2015, and he joined a content studio for EA which was an in-house content sourcing studio for western teams. “We focused on building Triple-A content. The only thing we didn’t do as a studio was engineering. So it was 3D environment art, concept, animation, lighting, VFX, characters, vehicles, weapons. I worked on about three Battlefield titles, Madden, FIFA, Star Wars. Most of the big franchises in the two and a half years I was with EA China.”

 

With exposure to so many different studios, ways of working, leadership styles, cultures and countries (he worked for a year in Madrid too), Errol left EA (again) in 2018 with a huge amount of experience and a strong sense of not just what he wanted to do, but how we wanted to do it.

 

“EA creates a brilliant environment for people to grow, to learn, to ask questions and even to make mistakes. And I made plenty! I learned the business of making video games, and how to successfully deliver projects using scalable and sustainable development practices. But by being part of a small community of ambitious, driven, high-performing expats from all kinds of industries, like real estate, finance, the legal industry, I just soaked up lots of experience and knowledge that has helped me get to where I am today.

 

“Anything is possible in Shanghai. It moves so quickly, and it’s absolutely exhausting to be part of it! But it matured me greatly as a leader and I don’t think Expression Games would exist if I hadn’t gone to Shanghai. I came away from China knowing I wanted to be involved in the leadership of a business, growing studios and making them into long-term successes.”

 

Leading the way

 

In 2019 Errol and his wife moved back to the UK, and he joined Fabrik in early 2020. At this point Fabrik had been around since 2014, but wasn’t really operating successfully. As Errol puts it, “it had absolutely nothing” but he was still incredibly excited to be put in charge of it, and given a blank template to build what would soon become an industry-leading studio in Manchester.

 

“We grew from just a handful of people up to something like 37 while I was there. And that was done during the UK’s first lockdown, which made recruitment challenging! We had no UK profile – I’d never heard of Fabrik before I joined – and we had no money, so we had to be smart in the way we attracted talent.”

 

Errol could use his contacts across the industry to pull in some senior talent, but with no money to use recruitment consultancies, he adopted a strategy that saw the studio focus on mid-level and graduate talent, the idea being that this less-experienced talent could grow with the studio, effectively they could all level up together.

 

“This helped us build what I think was a unique studio. It was different to anywhere else I’ve worked before. We had a progressive development process, values that were quite pure I think… things like freedom, responsibility and trust, things that helped to create a quite humble studio. We had quite a lot of failures early on, but we could see the team growing, learning and getting better and better with each milestone.”

 

With Fabrik’s owner focused on his other studio, Firesprite, Errol could give Fabrik the direction and dedication it deserved. It may have been a hard job, seeing Errol work seven days a week to ensure the team had the stability and security to create games without distractions, but he also describes it as the best job he’s ever had.

 

Building a culture

 

“We always tried to be different. During the lockdown, we gave back our office within six months, and switched to being fully remote. We built tools and systems around distributed development, and we trusted our talent to work in that environment of freedom and flexibility. We eradicated core hours – it didn’t make sense to stipulate hours but offer complete flexibility instead. We said ‘If you want to go to the gym, have lunch, play sports, or even if you’re not feeling creative today, don’t work! We trust you to get through your tasks when it suits you best.’”

 

This balance between work and life is something Errol passionately believes in. And for him, life always comes first. “We prioritise the health of our team above anything else. Of course at Fabrik we needed to develop successful games and make money, just the same as we do now at Expression Games, but we never prioritise that above people’s mental and physical wellbeing.”

 

The Fabrik culture powered quality games like the non-VR versions of The Persistence, and the studio seemed set for big things. Sadly though, the Fabrik story ended too soon, being acquired by Sony as part of a deal with Firesprite. It was an extreme shock to the team’s system, changing from being an independent studio to a first-party studio overnight. Seeing the Fabrik team being dispersed was too painful for Errol, who resigned shortly thereafter. But with a plan.

 

New boss, same as the old boss

 

His idea was to take what he learned through running Fabrik to build a Fabrik 2.0. To recreate that magnetic culture in his new studio, Expression Games (a name that he actually registered back in 2011). And who better to bring this vision to life than actual members of the Fabrik team? “I asked the Fabrik leadership team if they’d be interested in coming to my new studio when it opened. I told them that we had something unique, and that it should be protected, celebrated, and that it should continue to exist. And I had unconditional commitment from almost everyone.”

 

Between leaving Fabrik and officially starting Expression Games, Errol touted his new studio at developer conferences, including Develop and Gamescom. Team17 liked what it was hearing, and signed Expression to work on Hell Let Loose. “Team17 challenged us,” remembers Errol. “I said that I could build a 35-person studio overnight, and they said ‘Go on then!’, so I have to say that without Team17 we wouldn’t be here either.”

 

When Expression Games officially started on November 23rd 2022 (which just happened to be Errol’s wedding day too!), its team of co-founders was made up of Fabrik’s ex-leadership team, all of whom believed in Errol and his ability to build something not just successful, but meaningful.

 

Belief, support and Lenovo

 

Having worked with Errol at Fabrik, another team which believed in the future of Expression Games, was Escape Technology. “We’ve always had deep partnerships, and one of those has been with Escape. After we’d signed the Team17 deal, we still had no money, and I came to [Escape] and you took a chance on us. You just said ‘Yep, we’ll support you. What do you need?’ It’s quite humbling. Without you we would have rolled into day one without software licences, you know, all the things you need to build games. You allowed us to be productive from day one.”

 

Initially Team17 provided all the development hardware Expression would need, but as Errol and his team gathered momentum and grew, it came time for it to invest in its own hardware. Escape was the only port of call, and surprised Expression with its suggestion of Lenovo workstations with a cloud-based pipeline. Lenovo had been looking to get into games development studios for a while, and Expression was exactly the kind of forward-looking and vibrant studio it was hoping for.

 

“Our team loves the Lenovo machines,” says Errol. “They’re small, but extremely powerful machines. They’re space efficient, which when you’re a remote studio, is really important. So our teams can pick them up and take them when they go and visit friends and family. There’s no worry about finding space for them when you’ve got developer kits, monitors and other bits of hardware around; and they don’t pump out a lot of heat either.”

 

Again, the positive culture that Errol breeds comes into the conversation. “The team is free to customise their machines as much as they like, and to use them in their personal lives. We don’t mind if they’re used to play games, or for personal development. We don’t have any kind of software on them that lets us keep track of what they’re doing, because that breaks trust. It breaks a very fundamental value that we have.”

 

Outgrowing the past

 

Although Expression’s growth has been planned, it has had to accelerate that path to match the projects it has picked up. Errol very often puts in a request for five, or even 10 more machines for his growing team, which is now up to around 70 people. And as with Fabrik, recruitment has been done mainly through personal recommendations and social media. People want to come and be part of the environment that Errol creates.

 

“It’s strange for me though, strange and interesting,” he says. “In less than a year we’ve grown much bigger than Fabrik ever was, and it already feels very different to Fabrik. The culture has already evolved. It began as a continuation of Fabrik, but now it’s very much its own thing.”

 

Currently working on three new IP’s, maybe now would be a good time to officially announce Expression Games. Errol laughs. “We are terrible self promoters. We don’t really do much social media apart from to recruit. The most important thing for me is how our team sees us as a business, not how other people see us. I’d rather spend time on internal initiatives than posting about things we’ve done. Even when we do announce the studio, it will be more about shining the spotlight on our team here. I’m proud of them, and they’re proud of working for Expression and what they do here.”

 

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