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State cash for gaming? I’ll stick to Kickstarter, thanks

Government funding can be poorly targeted. PlayStation Europe

The UK government’s Technology Strategy Board has announced (and not for the first time) that it’s putting its weight behind the creative media sector, this time by way of a competition designed to encourage digital innovation in the games sector.

The competition promises “investment” of up to £25,000 (excluding VAT) for five businesses that can demonstrate “innovative commercial prototypes” meeting a number of “broad objectives”, defined by TSB in conjunction with industry partners. The competition requires entrants to develop these prototypes to support a range of applications, from “open street maps” to “games and cinema”.

No doubt some of the 113 games studios that have set up shop in the UK over the past year or so will be attracted to such an initiative. Attracted not so much for the “rich” financial rewards, but for the potential kudos of being able to trial their solutions with some of the big names underpinning the competition – organisations including Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, Crytek UK, ODEON Cinemas and Pinewood Studios.

Competitions are all well and good, and certainly help to attract new blood into the industry, including talented developers previously confined to bedrooms and garages (which is, after all, where the leaders of many of the “big” names in UK games originated). But is fostering talent enough to establish and sustain a business, let alone a countrywide sector? And is it really possible to develop a credible “prototype service or application” for £25,000, excluding VAT?

Don’t get me wrong, I passionately believe in what the future holds for the computer gaming industry. In my 27 years in this field, I have lived through a good number of government attempts to stimulate innovation. I have also witnessed the ploughing of substantial amounts of taxpayers’ money into so-called centres of excellence in the digital technology and gaming domains, but have, as yet, seen very little real-world impact and no real evidence of this situation changing in the near future. So I’m passionate, but also very sceptical.

There have been numerous examples in the recent past of representatives from well-known UK games companies appearing on TV or in the press claiming that the sector is essential for the future prosperity of the UK. They also claim that the government needs to be much more proactive, supporting the industry with sizeable grants and tax breaks. My initial reaction to these claims is confusion.

If, as we are regularly led to believe by the online gaming press, the UK is home to world-leading, successful games companies and unrivalled creative talent, then why are these industry representatives touting for government subsidies? Surely the home of such memorable and successful titles as Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider, Lego Star Wars, Elite, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Operation Flashpoint and others is capable of developing and sustaining a lucrative worldwide presence without help from the state?

Another recent and probably unnecessary initiative seeks to raise awareness about the creative companies operating in the UK by getting them to display a “made in creative UK” logo on their website, even though industry experts agree that consumers are far more likely to be influence by content than provenance when choosing a product.

Follow the crowd

Those who want a cash injection for their gaming business are often better off turning to crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter. When it comes to funding innovation and creativity, these sites have their critics but are undeniably an excellent form of online natural selection. Here, the early success or failure of fledgling hardware and software technologies is dictated not as a result of government initiatives, but by pledges of often incredibly small amounts of money from potential customers.

Since its launch in 2009, more than 4.7m people have pledged more than US$700m, funding 47,000 creative projects. Kickstarter has been and continues to be home to a variety of exciting developments for gamers and games developers alike, from new interactive technologies to full-blown games. In February 2012, the US Company Double Fine Productions announced a new computer game, Broken Age, on the Kickstarter website. Just 24 hours later, pledges had reached the amazing total of US$1m and went on to close at an even more surprising US$3m. Despite the company’s recent funding and delivery issues, many observers agree that this, and other, more recent successes, are excellent examples of the power of product over provenance.

Of course, other games proposals have experienced devastating blows when trying to raise money on Kickstarter, often after failing to portray their games as inspiring. The potential funders that are attracted to crowdfunding sites are proving to be well-informed and critical judges of what technology they want to see in their businesses and homes.

Get serious

But there is another opportunity for the UK gaming sector - diversifying to make more non-mainstream games for training and education in areas including aerospace, healthcare and many more. This is not a new idea but there are many who believe the UK gaming sector can do much, much more to support the broader needs of the digital economy of the UK than is currently the case. It is an idea that has yet to be explored, coordinated and funded sensibly, with much tighter control over how research projects, particularly those undertaken by academic institutions, translate into real-world impact, and how academic collaboration with games companies can be strengthened.

There is also evidence that the attitudes of some of the larger UK games companies are now changing. Three to four years ago, many companies looked upon what has been called the “serious games” community with great scepticism, believing that the potential income to be generated by projects in this discipline would fall significantly short of that of their normal mainstream products. It is certainly the case on this side of the Atlantic that “serious games” will not, just like their Virtual Reality predecessors of the 1990s and early 2000s, sustain dedicated businesses.

Within the UK today there is evidence of impressive projects reaching pre-market maturity much sooner than was the case three to four years ago, but then failing to be exploited due to weak or non-existent routes to market. These routes could be opened by the country’s gaming companies. I should stress here that I am not advocating that gaming companies should set up their own in-house capability, diverting staff into dedicated “serious games” units, especially at times when mainstream games income may be at a low ebb. This has already been shown to be a risky, fragile and unsustainable business model. I do believe, however, that there is a need for a much, much closer relationship between academics active in the digital and gaming arena and the commercial gaming sector.

History shows us time and time again that short-term government initiatives are often unsuccessful in stimulating long-term sustainable market sectors, particular in the high-technology arena. So, £25,000 excluding VAT? I wish the competitors well but, for the foreseeable future, I think I’ll keep on browsing Kickstarter for inspiration and innovation and hope, just hope, that, one day, I might see a little more success, with the masses pledging realistic funds for a revolutionary and innovative British gaming product.

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