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One Foot in the Game

Thu 03 Apr 2008 7:00am GMT / 3:00am EDT / 12:00am PDT
PoliticsTIGA News

Tiga's new CEO Richard Wilson on how the videogames industry is developing, and the political climate in the UK

Earlier this year, Fred Hasson stepped down as head of UK developer body Tiga, seven years after taking the helm, and was replaced by Dr Richard Wilson - a name that might not be familiar to many, given that he hasn't worked in the games industry before.

GamesIndustry.biz spent some time with him recently to find out more about the new man and what his thoughts are on the challenges that lie ahead.

In part one he talks about his reasons for being attracted to the job, how he feels the industry is developing, his thoughts on the Byron Review, and what the government's attitude is.

Q: What attracted you to the job in the first place?

Richard Wilson: Well I have a background of representing businesses – I used to work at the Institute of Directors as head of business policy, and there I was in the role of representing 50,000 different businesses, from all different sections of the economy. And that was very interesting, I enjoyed it very much.

After that I was director of communications at the Royal Academy of Engineering. But I was drawn to Tiga because I think it's such an interesting sector. We encompass all different types of businesses, all shapes and sizes, and there's an exciting range of issues – intellectual copyright, skills, education, and as we've seen recently it's top of the agenda as far as government policy is concerned.

It's obviously a very dynamic sector, and it was really those features which drew me to it. Plus I play games myself – not very many, but those I do play, I play pretty religiously. So - an interest in the industry, and in the products.

Q: What's your view of how the videogames industry has developed over the past year-to-eighteen months?

Richard Wilson: Well, it's a very rough analogy, but at the turn of the last century only a very small minority of people had cars. It then became a mass market and everybody had cars, and then you've got the situation today where some households have two or three vehicles.

I suppose in some sense the videogames industry is a bit like that, in terms of it having been the preserve of a particular group in society, I suppose men of a certain age really, whereas now you could almost say it's been democratised – it's certainly a much wider distribution of people that play games, from many different age brackets and increasing numbers of women as well.

In that sense I think it's a very exciting time to join the industry, because it forms a large proportion of people that make up society.

Q: Atari and Midway are just two of the companies that have talked about their plans for casual gaming – do you think this is a trend that we're locked into, or is it just a bit of a blip?

Richard Wilson: I think it's fluid actually - because technology is developing so rapidly, the way in which you can play games is also changing rapidly as well. I think it's hard to say whether those developments you're referring to are part of a longer trend, or whether they're simply outriders.

What I would say with any sense of certainty is that the industry is clearly in a state of flux, and because the consumer base of people that are playing games has got so much bigger, I think it can sustain a lot of different modes of playing games, so anything is up for grabs, quite frankly.

Q: The Byron Review has put the games industry front and centre – what are your thoughts on the Byron Review?

Richard Wilson: I think in essence the Byron Review is a good thing. I know some people in the industry will ask why we've been singled out, but in some respects I think it represents a great opportunity for the industry.

It confirms that the industry is central to society, there are so many different economic sectors that would love to be in that position - it's dominated the newspapers, it's dominated a lot of the radio and television, so that's fantastic.

It's also good I think that Tanya Byron has pieced together a pretty balanced report when it comes to violence and videogames, and education on the perceived connection between the two.

I do think that some of the measures she has proposed will present some challenges for the industry, in particular the proposal on industry funding a big campaign to explain the ratings system to the public. I'm not enthusiastic about that, I think it's a measure that should be shared with the government.

I don't think it's reasonable to expect for the industry to pay for an ongoing campaign. I think at this time we don't want to impose extra costs on games developers, or the games business in general.

With regards to the ratings systems proposal she's brought forward I think my main concern there would be about the capacity of the BBFC to deliver the things that she wants them to deliver, because as I understand it, the BBFC would have to assess and rate a much larger proportion of games.

So it would have to be properly resourced, it would have to take on people with proper experience in videogames - so that's quite a challenge for the BBFC, although we'll have to see what the consultation document says about that.

But I think on balance I don't think it's a bad report for the industry, I think in some senses it represents a great opportunity. I think she's had a difficult balancing act to achieve in this area – I don't think it was easy for her to come out with a conclusion that was going to please everybody, and I think it's interesting to see in her report that almost everybody wanted to see just one ratings system, but opinion was split on which one it should be – so quite a challenge there.

Q: There was plenty of speculation before the report about the pressure the government might bring to bear – do you think the government has a healthier attitude towards the games industry now, as a result of the Byron Review, or do some sections of the government that need a bit more time?

Richard Wilson: I think there are some sections of the government, and some sections of Parliament, which are enthusiastic about games. The DCMS, BERR – they certainly are, and I think the Treasury is actually, I think it recognises that the games industry is a dynamic, up-and-coming and important contributor to the British economy.

But there are some MPs that take a dim view of our sector, which is – to put it mildly – a shame. But I think that on balance this had been a good process for the industry. I know Oscar Wilde said there was no such thing as bad publicity, and in one sense he proved himself wrong, but in our case I think it's good that there's been a lot of publicity about the games sector, particularly in the past few weeks.

Q: Miles Jacobson told GamesIndustry.biz last week that he would be happy to see a system where people would need to provide ID to buy age-restricted games, in the same way that other adult material is sold – do you think that would be a good idea?

Richard Wilson: I think you do want a system where retailers are shown ID to prove that people are of a certain age, and then they can buy a particular videogame, and at Tiga my impression has been that the sector is keen to give more information to consumers, so that they can make informed choices about the games that they buy.

But it works the other way – they can't be put in an unfair position. They have to be in a position where they can sell games to people with confidence. So I'm not against a certificate 18-rated game, but you've got to make sure you're only selling it to adults – and I think it's right that retailers would be right to ask for ID in order to prove they can sell it to somebody.

If you're in a bar or a pub, people will ask you for ID – and they have the right to turn you away.

Q: But from a social point of view it's normal and accepted to be asked for ID in a bar or pub, and the emphasis is on the customer to provide that ID – there needs to be a bit of a mindshift for the same thing to be considered normal in a videogames store?

Richard Wilson: Definitely, yes – we were just talking about how the games industry has changed dramatically in the past few years – and one of the changes that must take place is people must realise that not all games are for children.

A lot of parents, a lot of adults, still think of videogames as being rather juvenile in nature – often that's not the case at all. The mean age of gamers now is in the twenties – and if we're talking about 25 million people playing games on a regular basis, that obviously includes a lot of adults.

So there does need to be a change in the mindset of society, you're right, and obviously it's something we're going to have to go through.

Q: Moving onto the general industry landscape in the UK – there are a lot of issues facing developers at the moment, but probably the biggest is rising costs. It's beginning to hurt the industry because the international playing field isn't level – how significant is the challenge for the UK industry, and how urgent is it?

Richard Wilson: I think it is pretty urgent, something does need to done, and it needs to be addressed. We've got the situation where in Canada, in Quebec, I think there are something like 15 or 16 different schemes to subsidise games developers, and the scale of subsidy is in some cases substantial – and that does represent a major challenge.

When you have businesses relocating to Canada from the UK that brings into sharp relief the challenge that we face. I think that if we want to remain the fourth largest videogame developer by revenue – and we were the third largest a couple of years ago – but if we want to remain a major player, then the government has to do something about this issue, and indeed the opposition parties need to understand that this is an important issue.

Political parties don't particularly like offering tailor-made tax breaks or subsidies to particular industries, it's obviously become something of a no-no because of what happened in the 1970's I suppose, when the government supported the car industry or tried to pick winners.

But we're in a very different environment now, and if we want the UK to continue to be a success story, then the government has got to bring forward measures that are specifically helpful to that particular sector.

I think one of the interesting things the Creative Economy strategy that the government released at the end of February contains a lot of interesting things, but because it's trying to address so many different industries, there's only a certain amount of commonality between those, and a lot that's quite different.

So I think the government will, against its instincts, have to do things for a particular sector, such as the games industry, if we want to continue to be a world-leading industry.

Q: Do you think the government is interested in keeping it as a world-leading industry? Is it crucial for them?

Richard Wilson: Ultimately ministers and MPs are most interested in winning the next election, and holding onto their seats – that's the most important motivating factor, and that's true of course across the House of Commons.

But those MPs that work in particular departments do have a wider perspective, and I think do appreciate the games industry – I think BERR and DCMS do appreciate it – but the thing is of course that there are a lot of other sectors lobbying at the same time.

Meanwhile the Treasury is reeling from the fallout of what is a major economic catastrophe, which started in the United States. So of course, our ability to lobby, our ability to make sure the games industry and its needs are articulated, is challenging, because there are a lot of other pressures on ministers.

But I do think that ministers, and key civil servants in BERR and the DCMS do appreciate the industry, and think it's important.

Q: We recently had the Budget, and you expressed some dissatisfaction at a missed opportunity, but do you think that without the pressing economic conditions the industry would have had a better chance of benefitting?

Richard Wilson: Yes, I think it would have done, actually. I think one of the reasons why I was disappointed was because when the government released the Creative Strategies paper, Secretary of State Andy Burnham made some very positive noises publicly - tax breaks, tax advantages for the games development sector.

I suppose it was a bit of a dog whistle really, and my ears pricked up when I heard it - and I think other people's did as well, so it was disappointing in that sense. But I don't think the issue has gone away, I think we need to redouble our efforts, I think we need to continue to hammer home the message that tax breaks are important for games development - particularly when we quite clearly haven't got a level, competitive playing field.

Dr Richard Wilson is the CEO of Tiga. Part two will follow next week. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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