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.