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20 Years of ELSPA

Director generals Roger Bennett, Paul Jackson and Michael Rawlinson, discuss the highs and lows from inception to the present day

When the trade organisation ELSPA formed in 1989 to become the first of its type in Europe, the games industry was a very different place. Independent publishers took the place of multi-national conglomerates, development costs ran into thousands instead of millions, and game development was led across Europe by the UK.

So with the changes that have taken place since - the industry's expansion into territories as vast as Asia and South Korea and its subsequent economic growth; the introduction of the internet - you might think that the role ELSPA conducts today, and the issues it faces on behalf of its members, would be entirely different.

But as the trade organisation marks its 20th anniversary this Sunday, September 6, it's clear that while technology and business models have advanced in leaps and bounds since the Mega Drive days, ELSPA is still fighting the same battles and providing the same services it always has, albeit in ways that are evolving as fast as the industry it represents.

What are the key issues facing the games industry today? The same as they've always been: piracy, age-based regulations and education.

Of course, the way they present themselves today would be near unrecognisable to the 1989 console user. The piracy problem for instance: "It was floppy discs on benches stacked miles high," says Michael Rawlinson, ELSPA's current director general, looking back on those early days.

"There was no ability to protect content through copy protection, so if you didn't go and tackle it at the market or the car boot sale, you were dead.

"Nowadays we do more and more of our work online - tracing criminals operating forums, selling via web auction sites or cracking code and making it available on peer-to-peer file sharing servers. There's a whole new landscape."

The online world has opened up whole new business models and changed the way consumers play games, says Rawlinson. "Playing has been transformed with the introduction first of internet through dial-up and now on-all-the-time broadband. What we can do today was just not even possible 20 years ago. Huge changes."

Back in 1992 the games industry was valued at just GBP 80 million, points out Roger Bennett, director general of the organisation from its inception up until 2006.

"It was a pretty cavalier industry in those early days, with little sense of identity and responsibility when ELSPA formed. On the other hand, it was very exciting, vibrant, enthusiastic and hugely talented and creative. It was a great industry to be part of then. The people in it were outstanding, open minded, very helpful and friendly with each other," he says.

This is a memory Paul Jackson, ELSPA director general from July 2006 until March 2009 shares, comparing the first ten years of ELSPA's formation as a growing up process within a relatively small industry, while the most recent ten years have about making it clear to the world how important that industry now is.

"We began as an interesting and relatively small cottage industry, for the second half of those 20 years we became an industrial powerhouse industry, although it's taken a while for people to see," he comments.

Reminiscing on the early days of the organisation, Bennett recalls an ELSPA board meeting held at the Gallup offices where a vote was taken to introduce the first age rating system.

"It was a split vote and it was only by the then-chairman, Mark Strachan's vote that it was agreed that it should go ahead. Hard to believe now."

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