Spot On: Fixing UK game development

The Digital Britain report contained dire warnings about the state of the British game industry--but also laid out plans for how to get things back on track.


Earlier this week, the British government published its long-awaited plans for keeping the UK at the forefront of the global digital economy, Digital Britain. While the main thrust of the report dealt with updating the country's broadband networks, reforming the BBC, and cracking down on piracy, it also addressed the thorny issue of game ratings, as well as discussing game development in some detail.

Digital Britain lays out the government's plans for attempting to keep the UK at the forefront of the digital revolution.
Digital Britain lays out the government's plans for attempting to keep the UK at the forefront of the digital revolution.

In 2008, UK-made games accounted for more sales than those of any country except for the US or Japan, in no small part thanks to the massive success of Rockstar's epic Grand Theft Auto IV. By the end of this year, the report projects the country will be overtaken by Canada once again and--for the first time--South Korea. By 2010, China is expected to overtake the UK, relegating it to the sixth largest producer of games.

Three main problems for UK game development were outlined in the report. Firstly, the cost of development in the UK is too high, thanks to the high cost of labour and the lack of tax breaks and other financial incentives. Secondly, problems in education have led to a burgeoning shortage of people with the skills UK game developers need to keep their studios stocked with fresh talent. Finally, there is a lack of UK ownership of British intellectual property in the gaming sector--while British firms are recognised for their ability to create original properties, they often end up being owned by non-UK publishers due to lack of adequate local support.

Of these issues, it is the lack of tax breaks that has seemed closest to the hearts of the British development community of late, given the explosive growth of development in Canada, as well as recent advances in France. Quebec's development boom, for instance, began in earnest after $4 million in grant money was doled out to Ubisoft in 2005. Since then, the province has attracted significant new investments from the likes of EA and Eidos thanks to a very generous array of tax breaks, subsidies, and other financial incentives far in excess of what the European Union would allow or the UK government can realistically afford.

"We heard you have a bit of a development problem..."

While the report stopped short of promising tax breaks, the government did affirm that because games have the same potential as film "to engage us and reflect our cultural particularism," developers should be considered for the same sort of incentives that are currently in place to encourage UK filmmaking. The aims of such relief would be to nurture the UK's development talent pool, help it create and retain new IP--rather than seeing British-developed ideas being published by companies based abroad--and "encourage the production of culturally significant video games that may otherwise not be made in the UK."

The problems outlined in the report reflect concerns that the UK games industry has been attempting to make to government for some time. Speaking last year, ELSPA's director-general said, "The Canadians have driven a tank over the French Citroen and have now parked on our lawn. It is becoming very challenging to keep core development studios here."

Speaking to GameSpot earlier this week, both Dr Richard Wilson, CEO of Tiga, the UK's trade body for game developers, and Jon Kingsbury, the director of the creative economy programme at NESTA, reaffirmed that the issue of taxation and government assistance was the most serious issue facing UK game development today. While Wilson conceded there is no way that the UK will ever get financial incentives to the degree that has triggered Montreal's exponential growth, due to European Union regulations and the different political climate in the UK, he did express the hope that we could see tax breaks at a similar level to those found in France.

Bill Olner MP addresses the gathered developers and studio heads.
Bill Olner MP addresses the gathered developers and studio heads.

Both Wilson and Kingsbury indicated that there is cross-party support for such an initiative, a sentiment since backed up by statements from Labour MP--and chairman of the new all-party parliamentary group on gaming--Bill Olner. The MP hosted a gathering of developers in parliament on Monday, where he promised lobbying for such tax breaks would continue even though it was "not the most auspicious time" to be attempting to persuade the treasury to part with funds. He also indicated that MPs on the whole were becoming much more accepting of the games industry, making it clear he thought claims that playing games had negative psychological impacts on players were "quite plainly nonsense," while later stressing the importance of the industry to the economy.

There was further support for these ideas from the other side of the House, with Conservative MP John Whittingdale--currently the chairman of the Commons Select Committee for Culture, Media, and Sport--making it clear he too supported tax breaks for game developers. Talking to GameSpot on Monday, Whittingdale accepted that while he found some games "profoundly disturbing" and supported the BBFC's decision to attempt to block the sale of Manhunt 2, he had seen no evidence whatsoever that they caused harm to anyone. He also said he felt that many comments from fellow parliamentarians on the subject were "completely ridiculous" and that many anti-games claims made by politicians were "quite plainly out there," made by those who had not taken the time to actually investigate the facts of the matter.

John Whittingdale MP.
John Whittingdale MP.

Whittingdale echoed Olner's earlier comments about changing attitudes in Westminster, indicating that the battle for support of games was "being won," and that many did now realise the industry was "of real importance." The problems of the past, he said, were in no small measure due to the fact that the vast majority of MPs had never played a computer game. While Whittingdale admitted his own knowledge of games was less than thorough, he has logged time with both the Civilization and Age of Empires series. In addition, he said his experience dealing with his younger daughter's fresh obsession with The Sims 3 has added a certain amount of perspective.

While many seem cautiously optimistic about progress on tax incentives, assessments of the UK game industry's educational woes were direr. In fact, Wilson and Kingsbury were both nothing short of damning when it came to the state of UK higher education and its failure to supply staff qualified to enter the games industry.

Jon Kingsbury, of NESTA.
Jon Kingsbury, of NESTA.

"Loads of games courses are just not fit for purpose," Kingsbury told GameSpot. Of the 80 or so games courses currently on offer at UK universities, he said only five are officially certified. The problem, he said, was that the ways that universities were now funded led to courses of "ever-increasing specialization," which were of limited utility to the industry. He also lamented the lack of real incentive for universities to become certified, thanks to the surfeit of prospective students and the fact that all programmes are funded equally irrespective of certification.

The Digital Britain report did acknowledge that the skills shortage was an issue, stating that, "Instability and lack of adequate skills provision threatens to undermine the growth of the UK games industry," and that this would be dealt with fully in the upcoming Higher Education Framework. While the full details of the Framework are still under wraps, the report states universities will see a "shift in incentives from purely demand-led emphasis in courses toward meeting recognised skill gaps." Universities will then be encouraged to "combine 'hard' excellence in science, technology, and mathematical skills with the 'softer' excellence in business and creative skill."

Finally, the report promised a thorough examination of proposals for a new "Usability Centre for Video Games." Potentially located in Salford's MediaCity complex, it would "address issues around skills development offering graduates the work-related training necessary to enable them to secure their first job in the industry."

Dr Richard Wilson, TIGA CEO.
Dr Richard Wilson, TIGA CEO.

While encouraged by the acknowledgment that the system needs repair, Wilson said more detail was needed about these proposals. He also suggested that games courses should be managed in such a way that programmes that were formally accredited or had strong industry links receive "preferential funding," and that tuition fees for mathematics and computer science degrees should be cut. He also suggested that financial incentives be provided to encourage more students to study the sciences and mathematics in school, which would in turn naturally lead to increased take-up of those subjects at university.

However, not everyone was upbeat about the proposals. The lack of detail and action promised in the report also raised concerns from the Conservative party. Jeremy Hunt, the shadow secretary of state for Culture, Media and Sport, poured scorn on the report in Parliament, branding it a "colossal disappointment," and as further evidence that the Labour party was simply providing "government of the management consultants, for the management consultants, by the management consultants."

Vincent Scheurer, a video game law expert from Sarassin LLP, also sounded several notes of caution: "Anyone encouraged by the tax breaks will move to another country if they can get better breaks elsewhere--compare [them] the benefits of long-term investment in education," he said. The concept of cultural significance being attached to the tax breaks was also given short shrift by Scheurer, as such requirements often come with wider restrictions, such as age ratings or limits on the level of violence in a game.

"A mature creative industry should not face content requirements of that kind," Scheurer said.

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Avatar image for brendanhunt1

cant you just make my broadband faster

Avatar image for Iceparadox

@flyingteddy, Yer, I forgot to mention I'm actually starting a joint honours comp sci and maths degree not just straight comp sci ^_^

Avatar image for wahyudil

the other problem is the censorship ....

Avatar image for brendanhunt1

@Tyras12 first on was called GTA

Avatar image for flyingteddy

@Iceparadox, I have a computing science masters but i still dont think i was good enough to get into games industry, i suggest anyone wanting too, should focus on mathematics with computing, that should help you more than straight computing

Avatar image for deactivated-57fce817a4cf5

The education system and the government needs to put a lot more into supporting our developers. They throw over 120 billion pounds to the banks but our developers, who actually WORK, get nothing.

Avatar image for deactivated-57fce817a4cf5

If they want to crack down on piracy then they need to sort out eBay which seems to accommodate an a large population of Chinese sellers who sell nothing but the dodgy stuff.

Avatar image for deactivated-57fce817a4cf5

@gnrlstuart They are hardly the same thing but I see where you are coming from. Bunch of hypocrites.

Avatar image for gnrlstuart

but pornography is fine, manhunt 2 is not?

Avatar image for Pete5506

I hope they can get things fixed over there

Avatar image for gandalf_storm

i think one age rating system is a good idea, however i dont like the idea of banning games, adults should be given the choice, you could always sell adult only games in a liscenced shop, just like the r18 blue movies. Whatever age rating system we have, parents are still going to buy little johnny 18`s, a) to keep them quiet and b) have an easy life. It wouldnt surprise me if games like dead rising 2 and gears 3 get banned now because of this, i hope not but only time will tell.

Avatar image for Iceparadox

Anyone wanting to get a good start in the games industry should do a good computer science degree or something similar, it's what most of the top developers ask for. I'm starting at Bristol in the Autumn hopefully ^^

Avatar image for Tyras12

@Druggernaut Yes, Peter Molyneux does take it "Too the extreme" when he first starts looking at what he can make, but he's learnt to control that. And you say Fable 2 "Failed" in sales? Have you done your research, you can do it on here at GameSpot, yes! They sold 1.2 Million Copies in the States by December. Sure, it's not high, but that's just the States. It disappointed GAMEPLAY wise, yes, not sales, don't mix GAMEPLAY value with SALES value. @Brendanhunt1: A case of a 15 year old boy, killing his bestfriend in a Manhunt style. Has been the only one. And the cases over in the states are always college shootings, they need to just realise guns shouldn't be legalised in such a manner. In other news: We look at the British Government right now and think, "Wow, what have they been doing lately?" It's a crap-hole, yeah. But atleast they are looking to the future of what is a very old group of people if I must say, it would seem many of them would call the internet a scary and hostile place... Which it is in some cases! Look at some of the comments people leave. But I'm glad they're finally taking a shining to try and boost the UKs Gaming Development, it means I might be able to get into a University after College to work on Game Designing, maybe not in graphics wise, but story or stuff wise, just to boost my chances. And yeah, GTA is made by a British Developer - GTA London was the first in the series if I am correct, you can correct me on that, I'm not sure.

Avatar image for brendanhunt1

there have been no serious cases with people killing others because of video game addiction in the uk. theres been staping in lines for video games but not because a video game teached them. all of the serious cases were in the usa. its the guns

Avatar image for OmenIWF

I'm 37, and been a gamer since I was maybe 19 or 20 (my first console was Atari 2600). Over the years I've become increasingly alarmed at the state of British Gaming. I used to live near where Psygnosis had their Liverpool office, and saw what happened to them, despite how critically acclaimed at the time their games were (thinking here now of Lemmings and Shadow Of The Beast). Quite honestly it is alarming how little consecutive governments have invested in the games industry here in the UK, and with all this rubbish recently about censorship of games and controversy about content, it seems like people are more concerned with censorship of the industry rather than actually becoming involved and putting money into it. There are currently (according to a recent news item) over 2 million people unemployed in the UK, if the government started looking into financing new technologies, not just gaming but telecommunications too, then maybe, just maybe, we would not be the poor relation when it comes to things like this.

Avatar image for hannify

@kansaspwnage Not seem american - are american in every essence and culture. Thats why i didnt click with GTA4 - had no relevance to me. American dream? What the hell is that? A shotgun in my bed?

Avatar image for JimmeyBurrows

Anyone complaining about the lack of courses being offered for Games need to just do a little research... it's true theres less than in other things for example "hair and bueaty" rofl, suprisingly everywhere you look they have that... but if you look into a few colleges/uni's you'll find some courses... and if you want to go into a certian area (which I will say is best) you can just take other courses, go on an art course or programming... theres pleanty of them about... As for the government... well... I think we all agree a bunch of retarded monkeys would do a better job and steal less of our money

Avatar image for kansaspwnage

@hannify I know there are some hard core games that seem "American" where as they made in a forgein country... Resident Evil 5, Grand Theft Auto IV, Metal Gear Solid 4... and more

Avatar image for hannify

So who are the MP's against Games and trying to lobby them so i can grief the hell out of them

Avatar image for hannify

I'm not suprised many people think GTA is an american made game. It is soooo american based because americans seem to need to be familiar with surroundings to go for the game

Avatar image for thenephariouson

Psygnosis, Bug Byte, Ultimate (now Rare), Imagine, System 3, all fantastic British game developers, and the home of real innovation, how times have changed. It is a true testiment to these developers that their games are still being emulated even to this day *cough Mario cough*. The government should stimulate and encourage the return of great development companies, rather than scaring them away with the monster that is Tax.

Avatar image for Stabby

@ dRuGGeRnaUt Your point of view is entirely your opinion and regardless theres no doubt that Fable 2 was critical and commercially successful. And thats just one developer...

Avatar image for Noah-Phoenix

@Darkreaper_1 My point exactly. That's what they said to me. It put me right off. Now i'm stuck in a cack job bored senseless for little wages...and they're screaming out for people now.

Avatar image for Noah-Phoenix

The British Government are a bunch of ignorant dinosaurs with no real interest in anything the general public has to say. It's about time someone showed them what was happening in the outside world of the 21st century. Anyone that slags off British devs is an unpatriotic dunce, and should be hanged.....or shot....or something. If I knew 10 years ago that they would be crying out for workers for dev companies, I'd have trained up. But back then they told us there was no way in a million years anyone could get a job in the industry without 20 odd years of hard work and study (O.K, maybe that's slightly exaggerated, but you get the point!). Which to a 17 year old is more than off putting. I agree that now might not be the tie to ask for hand-outs, but it's worth a try. I like the idea of paying an extra £6 a year on my phone bill or whatever to get things up to speed. My local exchange is in desperate need of upgrading, I can only get 2mb tops, it's on BT's list, but as I'm out in the sticks of Cornwall, its way down the bottom of that list. I'd like to see more British devs, but like everything else here, we demand too much in wages to make it possible. But then we all get tax credits and stuff to make up low wages, so I'd be willing to take a low-ish wage to work in the industry so long as the Government top it up as they do now.

Avatar image for shaz14

@ anik786: totally agree with kamikaze_pigmy, im off to do computer games programming at stafford uni this year and there were plenty of other places i could have gone..

Avatar image for deactivated-5c37d3adcd094

@ anik786: There's a huge amount of courses for game design :?

Avatar image for AriotUK

Very good report; bravo.

Avatar image for alexLmx6

theres many other ways to get an education other then going to school, and while technical expertise is important, creativity is what is really needed and thats something that can't be taught, i hope studios figure this out before they all go under

Avatar image for CharlieFubar

@druggernaut Um... Streetfighter 4, Re5, Persona 4, FinalFantasy Online, im sure theres more but your comment was pretty ignorant, dude.

Avatar image for brendanhunt1

turn britian in japan, except the food

Avatar image for lightwarrior179

I think the analysis is pretty accurate. Although we can remember quite a many big games that have come from the UK in recent years,most of those games have been made by studios owned by non-UK companies. And since their contribution isn't being added,that's a minus point for the UK developers. Also,tax restrictions are higher in UK which makes it hard for any technology related company leave alone game developer a little more costly to establish in UK compared to other countries. But I don't think people are right by blaming this upon Britain's recent problems related to corruption.

Avatar image for ultralesus

Personally I think its only a matter of time... Thanks to Nintendo's Games are for Everyone philosphy, the old stuffy suits in London are noticing we're not all rocket launcher wielding psyco's. As the ignorance is dissolved the goverment will support the industry better, which will lead to better education and hopefully those tax breaks we've all been praying for over the last year. England is home to some of the best dev houses in the world. We have Rare, Bizzare, Lionhead plus others and if they're to keep in business in this cut-throat industry they're going to need a hand. The goverment needs to realise this. The Tory's could also see this as an oppertunity to turn aload of non-voters into voters and secure a pretty much foreseeable win.

Avatar image for dRuGGeRnaUt

another factor is, look at what is usually MOST popular in the UK, seriously, people just have WAY different gaming tastes over there, seriously some of the biggest games over there i have never heard of or are rated so low by everything else that no one cares. And someone pointed out, alot are 3rd person "desert strike" clones.. so they may do well in the uk, but in the states it's FPS and in Japan its... "weird cartoon characters that have bad voice acting and low production values, and TEPID A.I".. .. thats one thing that the UK has done a huge push, has been in the A.I department, somehting alot of other countries spend little to NO time on. people that disagree with me, show me one popular japanese game that included outstanding A.I, and not just rule bending/cheating computer players

Avatar image for dRuGGeRnaUt

@stabby: the fact that you put Peter Molyneux(lionead) on your list DESTROYS the whole thing. seriously that man has single handedly destroyed his once AMAZING name.. seriously, he promises the world EVERY TIME and then... oh wait, we had to cut everything out.. seriously. Althought I like some of the other developers on your list, almost NONE of them sold anything close to what would be called success.. Perfect Dark Zero?? GARBAGE.. unfortunately, sales are the only means in which people measure success in the gaming industry.. so sadly i have to say its not looking good, Rockstar can't keep the whole industry alive in the UK, and after Fable2s disapointments i don't think lionhead can either.. .. guess we can just be "positive" and hope for the best, because more countrys making games = broader range of IP(intellectual properties) peace

Avatar image for ArdcoreCasualty

jwsoul, your comments are ridiculous. You criticize everything nonsensically. You make the sweeping generalisation that all degrees are worthless. The sciences are very useful but a lot of art based degrees don't improve employability, yes. Then you contradict yourself, saying people need to spend more time in education to get better jobs. You don't start at 30k, you work your way up, and the right degree can help with that a lot. Also, unless you are 6 when you start University, a degree does not take half your life.

Avatar image for YellowJello

Funny, I always thought Britain was fighting to get rid of games since they so adamantly protest them all the time.

Avatar image for o0_L0st_B0y_0o

Darkreaper, i think you have to look in the right places, i remember applying to uni they told you what you needed via UCAS, a fair few of my friends work in the game industry now and thats how they found out; they looked at what the university wanted and went from there. I think finding out is the easier part, encouraging it is a different story, also having the skill (whether it be the creativity or the artistic talent) is essential and lets face it is a blunt truth, you need the skill to begin with. This is an idea Uk government fails to see under there "you can do what ever you dream of" ideology, The fact is not everybody can.

Avatar image for jwsoul

Yeah the qualifications in this country are a joke! As far as people are concerned if you do not have a degree your worthless and uneducated, unsuitable for even the simplest jobs. Thing is people with Degrees end up doing Admin and Sales jobs most the time lol. It seems being able to regurgitate information is the new intelligence, even if you do not understand the subject.

Avatar image for anik786

I want to get a job in game design, but i hate the fact there is almost no uk degree courses good enough. I really hope they start to make some in the next 4 years or i'm pretty much screwed.

Avatar image for akeel47

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Avatar image for jwsoul

To little to late as per the norm in this joke of a country. Its ran by the biggest bunch of fools known to man, how can such a once well established country become so distraught and battered! recovery from what i can see as a UK citizen is nigh on impossible and sadly i believe we will continue to lose jobs and crime will increase for the foreseeable future. Everything is to expensive, we do not earn enough, jobs are VERY hard to come by and general living costs are astronomical, but yet we continue to go to war on a constant basis. To much focus on qualifications and the old and not enough opportunities for the young and upcoming. Game development in the UK will cease to exist in 5 years, because no one can be bothered to spend half there life getting educated for a rubbish wage!

Avatar image for Darkreaper_1

Anything to help the game industry is a good thing. In regards to there being no educational development for game developers i totally agree. I mentioned i wanted to get into the games industry when i was looking at colleges but no careers advice companies/people/colleges would help me at all. I was made to feel childish as games "were for kids". I'd be surprised if much had changed since then.

Avatar image for coruscant

It sounds very good going forward in the UK games industry - lets hope words match actions!

Avatar image for oneofthefall

the uk always likes to do its own cheap ways of doing things and that is where it fails in The gaming industry! im a UK Citizen and think that the US and other countrys do a hell of a better job in giving the customer what they want! Gaming Genres from the UK are normally cheap 3rd person throw outs (which i hate) or cheesy racing Arcades with 1 view no cockpits or customizations (which i hate) and i dont think the UK Gaming industry will ever change, but we will see....

Avatar image for gormo4

British politics is so messed up.. honestly.. -.- I wish I was born anywhere but here.. >.

Avatar image for ZombieKingX

Does anyone know if or how much the video game industry is investing in higher education? Or even in the particular classes needed to join a development team? I ask because I really am unsure.

Avatar image for swamplord666

@Stabby Add Rockstar Studios (PURE and Other ATV games) and Relentless software (Buzz games) in Brighton alone.

Avatar image for darklight4

ZedX-14Pilot i agree with you UK is a small country compared to the likes of china but i still think more should be done to build up our digital media. it would also help if the video games industry did not have such high entry requirements in terms of qualifications needed to have a career as a developer for the shortage of new talent i would rather have a creative mind working on games than someone who has a university degree

Avatar image for stubuz323

Green Party are good on video games, infact they are good on most things

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