Pitbull Studio: Tax breaks could come back to bite us
Studio MD Robert Troughton explains how the new incentives must be used to safeguard UK development
Robert Troughton founded Pitbull Studio in 2009, and as the head of a small, independent UK development studio he's asking the government, and the industry, to make sure the new tax breaks help the UK rather than damage it.
"My worry is that if the funds provided by the government, by the taxpayer aren't put to good use then, some time down the line, this will come back to bite us," he told GamesIndustry International.
He explained that while the government support was a good thing, the tax breaks would have to be applied carefully and fairly to ensure they were really supporting UK companies.
"I'd like to see UK-owned companies with UK offices and UK employees benefit more than foreign-owned studios," he proposed.
"It's a no-brainer for me… we really need to drive growth in the UK economy with this. Of course it would be fantastic if one of the big publishers opened a 4000-person mega studio in the UK in terms of generating jobs - but what happens when the government wants to stop the tax break and start getting more of a return on their investment?"
I'd like to see UK-owned companies with UK offices and UK employees benefit more than foreign-owned studios.
He said this support of the UK industry could also extend to the genre and content of the game being developed, so larger investments for games with British elements, promoting tourism and British culture by supporting titles that feature British cars, or British locations. He admitted he's had enough of LA and New York.
"I'd like to see them benefit not just the large or mega studios but the smaller, independent developers too," he said, and argued smaller developers just aren't properly represented in the UK.
"I know that some of the big trade bodies have made moves to cover the indies - but the worry there is that their chairmanship and their interests don't really lie with those developers… if they cared, why are their board members all CEOs of large studios?"
He also made an interesting suggestion, that as well as tying tax breaks to the content of the game, there should be extra incentives tied to the welfare of the people making it. Troughton suggested a Quality Of Life charter to address unnecessary crunch periods and general lack of care, which he believes also contributes to developers moving abroad.
Asked if the move was enough to stop the talent drain that sees much of the UK workforce heading to Canada, the land of the tax, Troughton was unsure.
"The tax breaks will definitely help. But let's not fool ourselves - the money on the table here is a small fraction of what is being invested in Canada."
But he added that thanks to the UK's wealth of agile and talented developers, the UK wasn't so reliant on investment, because that workforce was something lacking from the mega studios abroad. Troughton is clearly a man with a lot of love for his UK peers.
"I also don't see the long term benefits of what the Canadian government are doing - what is their plan when they start to reduce these breaks? What happens if, pulling a name out of the hat here, Bulgaria times a tax break for when the Canadian tax breaks start to end? Won't we just see another exodus with the people that Canada are banking on moving abroad?"
He was also keen to see more freelancers within the UK industry, something that seems to be a growing trend. And why wouldn't it be? It offers more flexibility for the freelancers, gives them more control, and has benefits for the publishers too.
"It's a safer business model for the publishers - no expensive studio pre-production and post-production, no need to scale up and down the workforce through a project's development," he pointed out.
"You just hire people for the time that you need them. You also get the exact people that you need - you don't need to shift somebody from working on AI to working on a foliage system, for example."
But he said that doesn't mean just chucking the job to the cheapest bidder overseas. He used his own studio as an example, which specialises in complex technologies such as Unreal Engine, and says that it's not just about patriotism, but calculated investment.
"We quoted to a UK-based studio for some character work a year ago… our quote included full delivery milestones, set in stone, ones which we had delivered upon time after time," he said, before revealing that the client had chosen to give the work to a Chinese studio that quoted a price that was 20 per cent lower. But the cost cutting didn't pay off in the end.
We're not talking about just supporting our country, we're talking about supporting ourselves, our own studios, through more calculated investment.
"The models were created, paid for, but they hadn't been rigged correctly, there were small unseen mistakes in the modelling.. so they had an artist in their studio spend weeks fixing the models up," he revealed.
"The studio had now invested more in these characters than we'd quoted them for… and the shipping deadline was upon them. The game suffered as a result, the Metacritic score was low, the reviews drew attention to the art quality, and the game of course didn't sell well."
Troughton clearly doesn't take any pleasure in telling the story, but it's an issue that needs to be addressed when you're talking about freelancing.
"Cost cutting in this way will bite those studios in the end. We're not talking about just supporting our country, we're talking about supporting ourselves, our own studios, through more calculated investment."
And what about the future? What else can we, as an industry, be doing to ensure the growth and health of the UK development scene? Troughton's answer is simple. Fight back
"When I see tables reserved at game development awards events in the UK by Canadian governments, it worries me… why aren't we out there fighting back? Why isn't my region, the North East, represented at GDC or E3? Why isn't my country even represented there..? Why aren't we shouting from the rooftops about our excellent talent pool, the games and technologies that have been developed here?"
"I'd like to see the UK fight back, make our way back up the global games development chart. We can do it - but we'll need to work together."