The Australian game development industry is frustrated. Incredibly so. One of the bodies that represents local companies in the industry, iGEA, recently published an open letter to Senator Mitch Fifield, who, as Minister for Arts, is the chief member of parliament responsible for supporting the games industry. Here’s an except from that letter:
“… time and time again, we’re left out of the screen conversation.
Earlier this month, you announced an Australian content review. While we will remain positive, we doubt there will be anything about games. Just last week ACMA, in conjunction with your Department, held a conference on the Australian content conversation. You delivered the keynote. Again, there was nothing about games.
Our hopes were up on 29 April 2016, when the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications presented its report on the future of Australia’s video game development industry and followed with eight recommendations for the government to help the sector to reach its potential. We thought we’d finally received the recognition from government that we needed and deserved.
It’s been 390 days since the Senate Standing Committee handed down its report, and you are yet to respond.”
In fact, the sole interaction that the Australian government has had with the games industry was to defund a small, $20 million fund that the previous Labor government had established to assist game developers in finishing projects. That $20 million fund was enormously effective, resulting in numerous projects being completed and taken to market, and projects directly funded by that fund have continued to positively influence the industry, with recipients having been able to hire additional talent and build on their existing IP from there.
Indirectly, the government has been roundly negative for the games industry. For example, as a small industry with a significant amount of “brain drain” (with young, skilled individuals moving overseas where the opportunities are greater), being able to access foreign skills under the 457 visa was critical in being able to cover skill gaps that were otherwise impossible to cover. The changes to the 457 visa programme inhibit our ability to do this.
Essentially, game development in Australia has been allowed to languish, out of sight, by the government, and out of the interest of any minister. This is a stark contrast to markets where game development is thriving. Poland’s CD Projekt Red is one of the largest and most profitable companies in the country, and has become such a point of national pride that when US President (at the time) Barack Obama visited the country, the Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, gifted him a copy of one of CD Projekt Red’s games.
Meanwhile, in a country with close economic and social similarities to Australia, Canada, the games industry has become comparable to the two largest in the world – the US and Japan – in no small part through government support. Justin Trudeau – Canada’s Prime Minister – has toured offices of major game developers in Canada to demonstrate his interest in innovation and technology, and the country is generous with tax breaks and other incentives to game developers.
The case for video games is compelling
This is why it is so distressing that game development in Australia is left to languish. We have, in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a prime minister who claims to care about innovation and technology. And yet he won’t look sideways at the games industry.
We have a country that understands that, as the mining, resources and housing booms start to ease, it will need to be high skill and STEM-based work that picks up the slack, and Australia will need to transition to a jobs market that facilitates this kind of work. Game development – in addition to being a highly skilled, innovative field in itself – is also a STEM-based “gateway” for many into enterprise software development, and other IT roles.
And the economics of game development are themselves a major opportunity for Australia. Despite being a small and under-resourced industry, Australian game developers still generated $114.9 million in the 2015-2016 financial year, with 81 per cent of all revenue being from outside of the country. This makes it one of the healthiest export markets that we have in Australia by percentile, bringing in huge amounts of new money into the country. Coming off a small base, there is a massive potential for growth; as a point of comparison, in Canada game development generates $2.3 billion in revenue and employs 16,500 people.
It’s time the government took game development seriously. It’s not a frivolous hobby, producing frivolous toys for children. The global games industry will generate more than $100 billion this year, and Australia is far behind trend. A government that was interested in growing its economy would, at this point, realise the raw growth potential that Australia has in this area. If nothing else, as the pre-eminent form of entertainment in Australian society, games are something that voters increasingly care about, and if for no other reason than self-preservation, so too should the government.
About the author
Ross Symons is the CEO and founder of Big Ant, a Melbourne-based video game development studio with a focus on sport games for console. Symons recently spoke to Dynamic Business about the secret to his company’s longevity and the key challenges it faces including time poor customers, political ‘hostility’ and the brain drain of talented developers. See: Big Ant’s CEO on surviving through the GFC to succeed alongside global video game giants