The future of Game Up

The future of Game Up

By Develop

February 1st 2009 at 12:01AM

After six months of press, lobbying and reports, Games Up? has almost run its intended course.

Always planned as a short-term campaign, it highlighted two major issues at the heart of studios’ agendas, and is handing over to Tiga and ELSPA. But what has it achieved? As one of the campaign’s organisers, I will look back at its goals, achievements and the remaining challenges.

The contributors
The campaign risked being been stillborn without a strong and broad coalition of studios who supported the campaign. After a strong push from Phil Harrison, some of the UK’s biggest studios – SCEE WWS, Microsoft, Activision, Frontier, Eidos, Codemasters, NCSoft, Real Time Worlds, Ubisoft, Blitz, Sports Interactive, Sega, Exient, Relentless, Jagex, Qantm, Media Molecule and Splash Damage – stepped up to support the campaign. Tiga and ELSPA lent their vital support, joining a steering committee with SCEE, Frontier, Eidos and myself to manage this intensive campaign.

The issues
The campaign chose two major issues central to studios’ strategic thinking: tax and skills. These were formulated into firm policies by the trade bodies, representing a unified call for games production tax credits (like those available for film) and a greater flow of higher quality graduates from UK universities. We had to walk a fine line, highlighting the difficulties the industry faces around global competition, costs, and recruitment, while also emphasising why the industry is so important to the UK, in economic, cultural and social terms.

Importantly, studios wanted to make clear what the industry can give back in return for greater governmental support. Games Investor Consulting’s background information and latest data, including a rapid census of UK studios, painted a similarly nuanced picture of an industry facing decline from high costs, non-existent government support, and skills shortages – and yet also at the top of its game, creating enormous value, outstripping film in revenues per head and probably heading back to third in the global rankings (thanks in great part to the efforts of Rockstar North).

The methodology
Few would have signed up to a campaign promising to deliver solutions to these issues in six months. The more realistic, if necessarily woollier, goals were to change the nature of the debate around support for games developers.

Any Minister persuaded by the industry’s overture would have to face three main obstacles: back-bench MPs largely ignorant about games studios; mainstream media misinformed and pedalling gory headlines about games; and, holder of the purse-strings, Her Majesty’s Treasury. With those three targets in mind, the campaign appointed a mainstream, non-games PR agency to address mainstream media, a well-connected lobbying company to co-opt policy-makers inside and outside Government, and, eventually, an economics team to address the Treasury.

The media
Launching in an organ better known for slating games, the Mail on Sunday, the press campaign generated positive coverage in a wide range of major UK media such The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, FT and The Economist, BBC One Breakfast, One O’Clock News and News 24, three times on Radio 4’s Today programme, plus other national and local media. Online and in the trade press, the coverage was also wide. The PR agency, 3 Monkeys, generated coverage worth £350,000+ (excluding the BBC) – nearly nine times its cost.

The downside was that more positive angles of our story were sometimes downplayed by journalists seeking sharper headlines. We deliberately chose some provocative headlines, and while this approach won column inches, it did trigger anger from the education sector. We felt it honestly reflected the sponsors’ opinions, and it has brought a previously private debate around the industry’s educational requirements into the open, which could produce positive change.

The lobbying
The lobbyists, Precise Public Affairs, ran a twin-track campaign. On one track, it recruited studios to invite their constituency MPs to visit. Nearly 20 developers joined in, and probably the  most high profile was the Shadow Chancellor George Osborne, who visited Travellers’ Tales, and, like many, was surprised and impressed that such work occurred in his constituency. On the other track, Precise organised nearly 20 meetings between policy makers and campaign representatives, including a lunch in the Commons with high profile MPs and civil servants. Olswang, who helped draft the film tax credit, have kindly added their expertise.

Overall, there was surprise at how much traction the campaign has generated with MPs. While a tax break is still not imminent, we’ve generated much more political capital for future governmental assistance, as well as a good handful of parliamentarians ready to speak up in the House on our behalf.

The Treasury
A response from the Treasury came as a surprise, because all the civil servants we spoke to initially said we were knocking on a closed door. The combination of the campaign’s launch, its media impact, Lord Digby Jones and a few other ministers all provoked an unprecedented call for evidence for tax support from the Treasury. They specified what evidence they wanted in their preferred format, and we left no stone unturned to produce comprehensive reports.

Specialists Oxford Economics worked with GIC and other industry contacts to create two reports. NESTA funded one independent report on market failure, which will conclude that market failure is present in the industry, thus justifying intervention. The campaign funded another, which established that the development industry directly and indirectly contributes over £1bn to GDP and £420m in tax revenues. Finally, NESTA and GIC are independently reporting on the UK’s competitiveness to answer the Treasury’s remaining questions. A meeting with the Treasury is imminent.

The future
This concerted push has raised the profile of the industry in the media, in Parliament and at the Treasury, all of whom rarely considered games as a serious and world-leading British industry worthy of their support. It has also generated new but hopefully lasting political relationships as well as media interest for ELSPA and Tiga to build upon.

There is a very real sense of momentum around the campaign’s agenda, not least because tax breaks are being proposed by all sides of the house as the way to help British business in time of recession. It is now up to the industry to maintain the pressure on policy-makers around production tax breaks, and interact more closely with universities to ensure their graduates are ready for real-world jobs.

Many companies have given significant amounts of time, energy and financial support to back the campaign and drive its agenda forward. In every case, that support stems from a deep-seated belief in the importance, quality and impact of UK studios which must be sustained by the right level of Government support. Many, many thanks for your generosity.