Thursday 8th March saw the official launch of TIGA, The Independent Games Developers Assocation for the UK. Set up by an impressive list of top British games companies (including Lionhead, Elixir, Rebellion, Blitz and Kuju) and attracting attention from the likes of the Bitmap Brothers and Lost Toys, the organisation met for the first time at the Department of Trade & Industry in central London.
Bigger Than Hollywood
It's become something of a cliché through sheer repetition, but the fact of the matter is that the gaming industry is now bigger than Hollywood. Closer to home, last year more than £1bn worth of computer games were sold in the UK, which is more money than our cinemas and video rental chains made in the same period.
And although very few British publishers have managed to survive the last decade intact, the other side of the gaming industry is still going strong here. Over £300m has been invested in game development within the last year, and UK developed games make up a quarter of all European sales and an eighth of the games sold in the USA. Not bad for a country of 60 million people. We are now apparently the third biggest market for computer games in the world, behind only the USA and Japan, and add over £200m to the UK's trade balance by exporting more games than we import.
But despite these impressive numbers, so far we have done a very poor job of representing ourselves, both to our own countrymen and the rest of the world. TIGA is intending to change that by presenting a united front for the 250 independent game development companies based in the UK. A non-profit trade association, its aim is to represent the games industry to both government and the media, as well as providing advice, services and events for British developers.
The government's "e-Minister" Patricia Hewitt kicked off the event and, having got some terrible tiger puns out of the way, admitted that "until I became the e-Minister, I really hadn't appreciated the extraordinary success of the British computer games development sector".
"It's a real indication of just how fast our economy is changing that until now it really hasn't been appreciated that we are indeed one of the world leaders in what is not a small teenage niche market, but an incredibly fast growing part of the world's entertainment and electronics market. What I've come to realise is the extent to which British developers are renowned right across the world for the extraordinary abilities that you have in leading edge games creation, and in the ability to respond to the opportunities that this very fast growing global market has created."
Of course, recognising the importance of the computer games industry in this country is all well and good, but the big question is what can the government do to support it? "For quite some time we've been working on the issue of piracy, and I know what an issue it is for all of you", the e-Minister told us. "When I was in Singapore shortly after I took up this role, I met there with Eidos who took me to the huge computer software market in the middle of Singapore. I was slightly embarrassed actually when they took me there, because the previous day I had been there with my children! But I was relieved to find we had been on the legitimate floors. Eidos took me up to the top floor where, as many of you will know, you can buy games for a tiny tiny fraction of their real value."
Having recognised the problems caused by piracy, the government is now apparently about to act. "My colleague the Consumer Affairs Minister welcomed the publishing of the new piracy and counterfeiting bill, which is a bill which we have drafted. And if we can get that through there is no doubt at all it will strengthen criminal law on the area of intellectual property crime."
There was less good news on the issue of tax breaks though. One of the reasons why the British movie industry is so strong at the moment is that there are tax breaks for people investing in it, and one of the first things which TIGA is going to be talking to the government about is trying to get this system extended to cover computer game development as well as television and film production.
Sandy Duncan of Microsoft explained the importance of this in his own speech, in which he also confirmed that Microsoft is going to become TIGA's first affiliate member. "I'm personally an investor in the film industry. I actually don't care too much about the films I'm investing in, I do it for the tax breaks - I'm honest enough to say that. But the government creates an environment [where] I invest in the film industry because it works for me, and that in turn works for the film industry. You'll never see a film called Grizzly Falls, but I invested in it! I do believe that Microsoft being part of TIGA can help to exert pressure on government authorities who can make these same kind of schemes available [for the gaming industry]."
So can we expect the government to act on this? Not yet apparently. "I know you have very strong views on the case for incentives to encourage investment in your industry, and I think this is something you and indeed ELSPA [the European Leisure Software Publishers Association] have discussed with my colleagues at the Department of Culture", Patricia Hewitt told us. "We will have a look at them very carefully, as will the Treasury, but I know you will understand when I say that we also have to look at competitiveness across every sector of the economy."
One of the other issues which the e-Minister brought up in her speech was "the extraordinary dearth of women in this business", which is very much geared towards men at the moment, both in terms of products and the companies which develop them.
"It was nice to meet some of the minority of women game developers on various company visits that I've done, but there's no doubt at all this is a business which has a very male image", Patricia Hewitt observed. "It was good to hear from at least one company here today that 20% of their developers are women, but it just goes to show how male dominated this sector is. There's a huge market out there which clearly doesn't have the same level of attractive products being made available to it, and there's a huge talent pool out there."
In fact this topic came up again later in the event, both during the question and answer session and the closed meeting for developers only. There was much talk of reaching out to new markets with more female-friendly games, although ironically one of the co-founders of TIGA has just completed a game called Daily Sport Football Strip, which involves answering a series of questions about soccer to get models from the eponymous tabloid newspaper to take their clothes off. Sports and strippers - we couldn't think of a more male-oriented game if we tried.
Generally though developers are looking to broaden their market to take in more female gamers. This doesn't necessarily mean making two entirely different sets of games though, because many women want to play the same games as men. At the moment there's a fairly clear divide between games which are considered as being for men (first person shooters, real-time strategy games etc) and those which are developed specifically for women (mostly involving horses and/or Barbie). This is obviously not the way forward, as there are a large number of women out there who enjoy playing mainstream games, but are perhaps put off to some extent by the very male focused nature of the business.
What's In It For Me?
The main subject to come up during the closed session though was "what's in it for me", as smaller developers struggled to justify the £2500 a year membership fee for small developers with an income of under £1m per year and less than twenty employees.
There is an associate membership scheme for new development companies, which comes in at £500 per year, but this gives you less say in the way the organisation is run and is still a hefty chunk of cash for a small start-up with little or no initial funding. The TIGA founders explained that this was done to prevent the committee from being flooded by less experienced developers when elections take place later this year. But this clearly didn't placate some of the smaller developers who were there, although ironically they are perhaps the people who stand to gain the most from joining. As well as campaigning for tax breaks (something which would benefit not only TIGA members but all UK developers), the association is also offering free advice, information, conferences and services which would be particularly useful for start-ups.
One of the other issues to come up was one of ownership. TIGA is being founded for independent developers, but exactly what constitutes an independent developer was open to debate. The current TIGA rules say that you can only become a full member if less than 20% of your company is owned by another company with different aims (such as a publisher). Championship Manager developers Sports Interactive insisted that they are fiercely independent, but as 25% of their company is now owned by their publisher Eidos they aren't eligible to join TIGA. This is one which is likely to run and run, because TIGA wants to be an organisation of developers for developers, and if they start accepting full members who are partly owned by publishers that independence could be jeopardised.
Rome Wasn't Built In A Day
In fact, reaching critical mass is probably TIGA's biggest challenge at the moment - it needs to convince enough developers to join it to meet its first year funding requirements, and to make it an effective and representative association for the industry.
"I think the most important thing is that together you are going to be much stronger", Patricia Hewitt had told us earlier in the day. "I see a lot of different trade associations in my work. Some of them are hugely successful - they've got the support of their members, they're driving forward their sector, and they're working with us to ensure that they have got backing and the right policy framework. But there are others that are frankly very weak - they're too small, they're divided, they're in a fragmented industry."
Unfortunately reaction from some of the smaller developers at the event, as well as a few of the bigger names who didn't even turn up, was rather mixed. Some were put off by the relatively high membership fees, some ironically saw TIGA as a threat to their independence, while others couldn't see any direct benefits from becoming a member, preferring to wait until it was more established. But of course if everyone takes this attitude towards TIGA then it isn't going to be as effective as it could be. So at the end of the day, whether or not TIGA succeeds is largely going to depend on the attitudes of the development companies and whether they want it to succeed.
TIGA certainly faces something of an uphill battle in this bureaucracy ridden and cynical country, but the potential rewards if it can succeed are massive for British developers. Tax breaks for investors could help turn the UK into a haven for game development, while better representation and co-operation between developers could lead to more effective lobbying of government and the gaming industry alike. For example, one of the co-founders mentioned recent rumours that Sony have been threatening to take PlayStation 2 development kits away from companies that are supporting the Xbox. The individual companies involved can't do much about this, but by presenting a more united front TIGA could tell Sony that this is clearly not acceptable behaviour and hopefully force them to back down.
But this TIGA will only have claws [You're fired - Pun Editor] if it gets a significant percentage of the British games development community behind it. Hopefully we should know within the next few months whether or not this is going to happen... Thanks to Ciaran and the folks at Bastion for the invites and photographs