God Save the Queen

God Save the Queen
Leveling the Playing Field

Jason Della Rocca | 14 Apr 2009 12:32
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Back at the 2008 Develop Conference in Brighton, a lovely beachside city just an hour south of London with a thriving game development community, I got into a bit of a shouting match with Chris Deering, a long-time Sony alum and key participant of the Games Up? initiative. He was on a panel discussing the plans and progress of Games Up?, a short-term, industry-led effort to lobby the British government for tax breaks to the game development industry, as well as address the skill and staff shortages in the country.

Deering essentially admitted that the chances of succeeding were nil. Still, he said, it was the right fight to fight, and they trudged forward, mostly on principle. I accused them of wasting resources and being myopic to the areas and initiatives over which they had control. I also called them lazy and argued that they were using the tax break fight as an excuse, an obfuscation to avoid real work on other initiatives. Let's just say I didn't make any new friends on that panel.

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Aside from the reality that getting a tax break approved is so unlikely, what's particularly frustrating is that the lobbying paints the industry's challenges, a massively complex ecosystem of issues, into a single silver-bullet solution. There is no certainty that changing one variable in the system will have the effect we hope for, or even produce an effect similar to tax breaks implemented in other regions. So many different levers can effect change; pulling on just one or two of them is unlikely to result in much success. And industry lobbyists and politicians apply some very dubious logic from time to time when determining which of those levers to throw: Some countries, for example, earnestly believe that if they could get EA to set up a studio in their region, they would be able to build a booming game industry. It's not uncommon for governments to pile countless resources into these efforts, the equivalent of employing a fishing rod to land a whale - and usually with similar levels of success.

Look more closely at the U.K.'s Games Up? initiative and you find an effort largely born from a sense of inequity: that developers in other countries have an unfair advantage, and that Games Up? would work to level the playing field for U.K. studios. There was even a failed attempt to challenge the legality of tax breaks in Canada, the current poster-child for such incentives, via the World Trade Organization.

To get a better sense of the vibe on the ground, I polled 20 thought leaders and studio heads from across the U.K. Their responses were mixed to say the least. Barely half felt that the tax breaks were needed and would have a positive impact. About a quarter were outright opposed to the idea of chasing the government for a tax break, and felt that it was simply not needed. The remaining quarter were all over the map.

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