United We Stand?
Calls to merge UKIE and TIGA ignore the fact that the industry is becoming more diverse
The frustration felt by some people within the industry - and, I suspect, some of those tasked with dealing with the industry in Whitehall - at the continuing separation between the UK's publisher and developer trade bodies is entirely understandable. We all know that the games business in Britain is a large and vigorous one, albeit one which faces serious challenges at present - but is it really so huge and sprawling that it needs two major trade bodies to represent its interests?
Once upon a time, the reasons for separation were extremely clear. The industry had three tiers - the companies which made games, the companies which published games and the companies which sold games. There was overlap, of course, but the value chain was for the most part neatly divided into three distinct sectors, each with their own - often conflicting - aims and interests.
As the market has diversified, with everything from the audience itself through to distribution systems and even game budgets now spanning vastly more ground than before, those clear divisions have come tumbling down, to some extent. Developers publish. Publishers develop. Both of them retail - and everyone is touched, to a lesser or greater degree, by key issues such as the UK's unfavourable tax regime, which gives industries such as TV and film advantages the games business does not enjoy, or the looming skills shortage resulting from problems within the education system.
As such, it's easy to see the motivation for suggestions from industry luminaries such as Ian Livingstone that the two bodies should put their differences aside and merge, allowing them to better represent the industry as a whole. Livingstone's call has been echoed by a number of other industry figures, leading to a sense that the two bodies now face some pressure to follow this path of action.
Is this really the right course, though? It makes sense on the surface, but looking at the broader picture makes it hard to agree with the idea of a single, unified games industry body for the UK. It may make life easier in the industry's dealings with government - but even in the brave new world of the modern games business, it's a vast oversimplification to pretend that publisher and developer distinctions are no longer important, or that these distinctions do not create significant areas in which the interests of the various parties are in outright conflict.
In fact, the argument that the functions of publishers and developers have been growing closer to one another in recent years is only one way of looking at a much more complex situation. Certainly, many developers now sell games directly to their audiences, and as such have been forced to learn more about financing, marketing, PR, distribution and other such "publishing" skillsets than ever before. This aspect of convergence is undeniable.
Rotate the viewpoint a little, however, and the picture changes radically. The diversification of the industry has not actually pushed all of its constituent businesses towards the centre ground, even if the overlap in skillsets is now more notable than previously. In fact, the industry now encompasses businesses both much smaller and much larger than previously, and rather than a single monolithic value chain culminating in the sale of a product to a consumer, we now see many different value chains, revenue models and business plans - all running at a tangent to one another and resulting in an industry that's actually more fragmented than ever before in its interests and objectives.
Consider, for example, the question of piracy - one issue which has always been seen as something affecting the entire industry, a blight on the entire value chain and a campaign that everyone from the smallest developer to the largest publisher can unite to stamp out.
Yet if you're operating a browser-based MMO or a freemium game on a social network, what concern of yours is piracy? Certainly, you probably feel some solidarity with your peers in other corners of the industry whose businesses are damaged by piracy - but on a day to day basis, it doesn't matter a damn to you. It's simply not your concern, because your business model neatly sidesteps the question of consumers illicitly accessing your wares. On the other hand, you may well be very worried about ideas like net neutrality or strict bandwidth capping, which stand to impact your profits or your ability to reach consumers - but these are questions which other businesses in the industry haven't given the slightest thought to.
Similarly, are we really to believe that a collective of three or four bedroom coders and artists turning out indie titles on Steam or the App Store really share a great number of concerns with a multinational publisher creating monolithic, £50 boxed games for the Xbox 360 - especially at a time when those publishers more and more frequently find themselves concerned that bite-sized gaming experiences are eating into the gaming budgets (both financial and temporal) of their consumers?
Is it credible to claim that a publisher with a clearly defined business strategy of outsourcing development work to low-cost markets in Asia or Eastern Europe shares common cause with UK firms providing artistic talent to game developers? Does a company that's spent a decade cultivating its physical distribution business stand comfortably on the same platform as one whose entire business model revolves around giving away games for free on the Internet? Can a platform holder which insists on acting as a gatekeeper for content on its devices claim solidarity with the small companies to whom it denies access?
Of course there will always be areas in which the interests of such disparate firms overlap. Nobody wants to see videogames being used as a punching bag by politicians or tabloid journalists, for example, and everyone would like to see more development talent being cultivated by the UK's education system. Yet even on a seemingly consensus issue such as the tax regime, there are splits within the industry - most notably between local developers and certain (not all) multinational publishers.
In light of this fragmented landscape, it's almost miraculous that this wide range of interests can be effectively represented by two major trade bodies - let alone by one. The traditional definition of "publisher" and "developer" may be blurring, but not because of a blending within the industry - rather, because more and more fault lines are breaking up the clear divides of the past.
So while it's perfectly sensible and rational to suggest that TIGA and UKIE should find common cause, it's a step too far to suggest that the bodies should merge. The overlap between their members will continue to grow, in numbers if not actually in terms of proportion - but there will, for the foreseeable future, be a large number of companies for whom a single unified trade body could not effectively represent their views. It's hard to see a situation in which the creation of a merged trade body would not result, within a few years, in the formation of a new alliance to represent those companies left out in the cold by the merger - which would begin the whole dance again. If TIGA did not exist, in other words, we would be forced to invent it.
Is this a problem for negotiations with government? Arguably, yes - but not an insurmountable one. Good relations between the trade bodies and a unified front in the face of common-cause issues are achievable and have, indeed, been achieved on a number of occasions in the recent past. A single body would be a neat solution, but it would also be a dishonest one - our industry is an increasingly complex one, and that complexity can't just be swept under the carpet for the sake of political or operational expediency.