Making the industry's voice heard on Brexit

Exiting the EU is one of the biggest challenges the UK games sector has ever faced; the industry desperately needs its access to skilled staff to be protected

It is entirely unsurprising that the Westminster Games Day expert panel ended up largely focused on issues arising from Brexit; the UK's impending but as yet amorphous departure from the EU is perhaps the single largest challenge facing the country's game studios.

It is also unsurprising, though no less disappointing for it, that the people who actually needed to hear about the enormous challenges Brexit is going to create for the games industry largely didn't turn up to hear the panel's discussion; the only MP at the event was the newly returned Labour MP, Matt Western, whose constituency of Warwick and Leamington includes the cluster of games companies that grew up around Codemasters' headquarters.

The poor attendance at the event makes it clear just what an uphill struggle UKIE and the rest of the British games industry faces in having its voice heard in the current climate - even as decisions are being made which will have an enormous and potentially ruinous impact on the future of the entire sector. Regardless of your personal views on questions of sovereignty, there can be no denying that Brexit represents an enormous challenge, and that it is vitally important that the people negotiating the terms of whatever divorce and subsequent relationship is to exist between the UK and the EU should be aware of the potential impact of their choices.

"Regardless of your personal views on sovereignty, there can be no denying that Brexit represents an enormous challenge"

At present, that's not happening; every industry in the UK is of course clamouring to have their own voice heard and their own concerns represented, which makes it extremely challenging for the games business to rise above cacophony. However, the concerns of the games business are quite different from those of many other sectors; and videogames, along with other digital creative industries, are exactly the sort of sector that Brexit optimists expect to be able to thrive after the separation, which makes it absolutely essential that the conditions to permit that should be established in the negotiations.

While many other industries are focused on the issues of trade and tariffs, these are of minimal concern to the games business. They will have an impact, of course, but handling sales and contracts across international borders is a solved problem, and it's really issues like IP law (which will not see too much significant change regardless of how Brexit goes) that concern game creators more than anything related to tariffs and the physical movement of goods. Other industries, especially those related to agriculture, are worried about the impact caused by a lack of low-skilled labourers, which again is of little concern to much of the games business - although some firms will likely have to move their localisation testing operations out of the UK if they can't easily hire EU nationals for the work.

"More than almost any other sector in the UK, the games business needs access to a broad talent pool"

The pressing concern for the wider industry, however, is to do with hiring skilled staff - and on the face of it, you wouldn't imagine that Brexit should cause such a major problem there. Most countries, after all, build immigration systems specifically to allow skilled, well-educated people to move there to work; talk to any small-c conservative in the business world about what they want from immigration reform and they'll tell you that's a priority.

Yet in reality, the removal of freedom of movement and the potential undoing of EU citizens' status in the UK is likely to impose serious difficulties for companies trying to hire skilled staff from the EU, and for skilled staff trying to relocate to the UK. If that's not handled very carefully, it's an enormous, potentially disastrous problem for the games business.

More than almost any other sector in the UK, the games business needs access to a broad talent pool - far broader than the UK alone can provide. Digital post-production, which shares many of the industry's skills-related challenges, is about the only other I'm aware of that faces this issue at a similar scale. Both industries have an absolute and non-negotiable requirement for world-class talent across a range of extremely highly skilled, specific and esoteric fields, both technical and creative. The skills they require take many years to train and most of the top people in those fields are self-taught to some extent. Initiatives like teaching coding and digital creative skills in schools are enormously welcome, but will not bear fruit from a hiring perspective for around a decade or more.

"Being able to find top quality staff isn't a nice-to-have; it's the most fundamental requirement of this business"

Along with post-production, games are perhaps the most prominent success story among the UK's creative industries over the past decades. Plenty of the MPs who didn't bother turning up to hear the industry's concerns over Brexit have paid lip-service on countless occasions to the games business' status as a hugely successful export industry; a sector that punches vastly above its weight internationally and a shining example of the kind of high-skilled digital business that should be driving forward the economy of an advanced developed nation like Britain.

Yet something that's rarely spoken about is the role that the EU has played in that success - in particular, the role that freedom of movement has played. There are many cultural and structural reasons why the UK has punched above its weight in game development, but one of them has unquestionably been the access the country's studios have enjoyed to a huge pool of talent from around Europe.

Walk through the door of any game development studio in the UK (and I spent ten years walking through the door of about one a week), and you'll almost certainly find a mix of nationalities - plenty of British talent, of course, but it's vanishingly rare not to hear some continental accents. A studio is only as good as its staff, and staff from around the EU have played a role in UK game development since the 1980s; without access to that hiring pool, it's simply not clear how the UK industry can continue to succeed at the same rate as previously.

"I'm not personally convinced that there's any outcome from Brexit that will be positive for the games business in the UK"

This Brexit-related issue is already impacting on some companies; EU staff can still apply for UK jobs, of course, but many are declining to because of the uncertainty about the future relationship. In the best case Brexit scenario (short of actual freedom of movement being retained), visas for skilled staff will be fast and easy to apply for, and will be flexible for employer and employee alike - preferably with a quick path to permanent residency (without which most staff will eventually opt to leave, given the instability involved). Yet there's still no clarity regarding how the system will work, and far less positive scenarios may actually be more likely, especially given the under-staffing and poor track record of the UK's existing immigration authorities.

The USA's current problem with issuing skilled worker visas is a worrying precedent; nobody seems entirely sure whether the system's issues are the product of deliberate policy or simple incompetence (a mixture of both seems likely), but the technology sector has started to run into serious problems with hiring even very senior, experienced, high-skilled staff from overseas. If Brexit leads to a repeat of that kind of issue for the UK games industry - which already faces a struggle in finding skilled staff for many positions - it could be a death knell for some studios, and potentially an impetus to look at overseas locations for other, more footloose companies.

Being able to find and hire top quality staff isn't a nice-to-have; it's the most fundamental requirement of this business. Being understaffed or forced to hire staff who don't have all the required skills is the difference between hitting or missing a milestone, or being able to successfully pitch in the first place.

Every UK politician who ever spoke of the games industry's undeniable track record of success needs to be aware of these issues, and aware of their gravity - and sooner rather than later, since the Brexit negotiations, if they are to conclude at all, are going to have to accelerate in the near future. I'm not personally convinced that there's any outcome from Brexit that will be positive for the games business in the UK, but even if you remain optimistic we can almost certainly agree that that outcome needs to be tuned in such a manner as to avoid damaging the UK industry's access to skilled staff.

If Westminster MPs won't turn up to hear the industry tell them that, then other ways of lobbying them must be found; this is a message too important to fall on deaf ears.

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Latest comments (7)

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing A year ago
GI Job posting est. 2020:

UK based developer looking for senior visual artist. EU applicants must be willing to be married off to local for fast and easy visa. Preferred gender in marital arrangement not guaranteed.
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Ian Baverstock Co-founder, Tenshi VenturesA year ago
The games industry in the UK has almost no issue with Brexit except for access to and retention of talent. Every major political group in the UK says they want to create an immigration system that meets the needs of industries like ours post-Brexit - in short, politicians aren't arguing.

It is only when the details of any new system are known (which includes potential transition arrangements with the EU and immigration terms in other future FTAs with third parties) that there can practically be a debate; it is all about these details as no one is arguing with the principles. There is even the possibility that the UK games industry will find it much easier to hire skilled staff from beyond the EU which could be a big win as Asia plays an ever greater role in the global industry.

The really important immediate issue to address is the situation of our existing EU colleagues and potential recruits. Agreeing EU citizens rights quickly would be very helpful ... but that needs pressure on Brussels to act on this issue independently from discussions about the rest of the exit process.
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James Coote Independent Game Developer A year ago
@Ian Baverstock: This all fits into a positive, internationalist view of Brexit, but it's just politicians telling businesses what they want to hear.

The meek calls by the CBI, IoD etc to stay in the single market after the brexit vote were all steamrolled by a tabloid trumpeded hard brexit agenda.

Given immigration is such a toxic issue, I struggle to imagine that same not happening again.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by James Coote on 22nd October 2017 9:28pm

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing A year ago
Within the next 12 months, every business in the UK will realize, that the key demographic for populists is not businesses. Looking at the various populist heads of states today is a quick reminder that none of them ever yielded to pressure from businesses. Even better, not resolving anything with the EU makes for an easy scapegoat, which in turn is required to stay in power. "We remained as strong as we promised and it is their fault for not yielding to our will and therefore for the situation at hand" is practically the narrative used by everybody who was ever confronted with the EU's ideological approach to making deals and did not like it.

May will not be any different. The harder she will brexit, the more she will be able to bank on apologists and people with Stockholm syndrome inventing excuses for her. May probably also knows that she will be politically backstabbed the moment she signs a deal with the EU. There is no incentive to put a signature under a transition deal. All it will trigger is another re-election. The EU can lean back and say: do not mistake our generosity for generosity.
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Ian Baverstock Co-founder, Tenshi VenturesA year ago
@James Coote The UK is very unlikely to be in the Single Market post Brexit (+ transition) so the UK will need a new immigration regime in the next few years. Every politician knows this so I don't agree they are just telling business what they want to hear ... they will have to create a new system and will want the most effective new system possible.

Of course, their definitions of 'effective' will vary from politician to politician and party to party. It is incumbent on industries like ours (creative, mostly young, talent driven, hit driven) to make the case for an immigration system that works for us. I'd like to see industry bodies looking beyond the sterile debate about EU Freedom-of-Movement (which is a lost cause IMO) and start to actively research other developed world immigration solutions to see what will and won't work for our industry. Then we can advocate a system that evidence says will be right for us. Evidence also helps with your toxicity point which I agree with.
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Tom Keresztes Programmer A year ago
Different perspective, as I am one of those pesky EU citizens. If there is competition for talent, why would someone choose the UK over 15 other countries that precedes on the current quality of life ranking list ? I could have listed many reasons in the past, but now the primary issue is definitely uncertainty. Not economic, but a different sort. I got perm residence a while ago, but after May's last statement on the "settled status" i don't know if that is actually a right to stay. Would you take out a mortgage when your right to residence could be revoked on a whim?
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@Tom Keresztes: "Would you take out a mortgage when your right to residence could be revoked on a whim?"

Well, I just did... let's see how that pans out...

I agree with you though - if I wasn't quite firmly settled here with job, husband and aforementioned mortgage, I'd certainly be looking at my options elsewhere. Maybe this will be the boost the Irish games industry needs to really take off ;D
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