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Miles Jacobson: Part Two

The Sports Interactive boss on education, tax breaks and whether fewer independents is a good or bad thing

In part one of the interview with Miles Jacobson, head of Sega's Sports Interactive studio, he talked about his thoughts on the Byron Review, among other things.

Here he explains his feelings on the state of education within the games industry as well as looking at the development landscape in the UK. There's been some lively debate on the role of education within the games industry recently - what is your view on the value of games degree courses?
Miles Jacobson

I think the main problem we have at the moment is that the games industry is moving forwards so quickly, that by the time somebody starts one of these courses, it's likely to be out of date by the end of that course.

So unless there's a lot more engagement and a lot more flexibility on the actual courses themselves, then I think we will continue to have the problems.

We don't have any game designers at Sports Interactive at all - there's nobody with that job title. Everybody here gets on with the job and we're all involved with designing the games.

And one of the other issues that exists - every studio is run differently. Whereas some people won't be happy with the level of person they're getting off a games course, others will be - because some people want more rounded games individuals, whereas other people want a pure maths or physics genius.

Different people want different things. Certain people in the industry feel it's formulaic, the way games are made, and my personal belief is that they are completely and utterly wrong - there's no one way to make a videogame in the same way that there's no one way to make a film, or record.

Everyone is always going to be looking for different kinds of people. For us the most important thing is how somebody gets on with the programming test. When we're doing the first interviews with people here, they get a test and you look at how they do - whether they have a 2:1 degree or a double first, it doesn't really matter - it's how they're going to be able to adapt to the problems we believe they'll face in their time working with us as part of the team here.

Some companies will not look at people unless they have a double first, but that's not really our way of dealing with it. A lot of the guys who work here as coders were testers who were doing various university courses, worked here during the summer, decided to take the programming test and ending up joining us, being a great part of the team.

But others do it differently - but the statistic that gets quoted is that about 30 per cent of games courses graduates get jobs. Well, we've got a bunch of jobs open at the moment in certain areas, such as user interface and art, and we haven't had the amount of applicants that we'd be expecting.

So where are those 70 per cent of people actually looking for work? Do they only want to work for certain studios? Do they only want to work in certain environments? Are they prepared to move to another part of the country to get a job?

The games industry isn't based in one place, there aren't thousands of studios all over the place, so a lot of people will actually go and accept jobs working in IT departments or doing coding for local businesses, and business applications, because they don't want to live in certain parts of the country. What's your view of the way that the landscape picture has changed - has the UK development picture changed as a result of the tax incentives offered elsewhere?
Miles Jacobson

Well, I know loads of people that have moved to Canada, China and Australia over the past five years from the UK industry, so we're definitely losing talent to other parts of the world.

But there's other talent that's still coming through - the tax breaks thing…when I was independent I obviously cared about tax breaks a lot, and we used to use the R&D tax credit system, and we still do, now that we're part of Sega.

Would tax breaks bring more talent and create more jobs in the UK? Of course it would. Is it necessarily fair that there are other places that are doing it? No, it's not, but there are parts of the UK which are effectively doing the same thing.

When we were independent we were offered the chance to move the company to various parts of the country, and to Australia, and Canada - and all of those opportunities were offering benefits, whether it be free rent for a couple of years…or just the option of the weather in the case of Australia, which was pretty tempting…

But we're a London-case company and everyone either lives locally or they work remotely. So we made the decision to stay here.

If we're going to be attracting more investment in the future, and stopping the drain of talent that some studios have seen, then yes - we do need to do something.

Certainly in the UK there aren't too many independents left any more, far fewer than there were five years ago or ten years ago, and that's part of the bigger picture of what's going on in the industry away from the tax breaks side of things.

Some of those studios have been very successful, becoming part of larger organisations and retaining their identity, their autonomy, whereas others haven't - and it's the ones that haven't that, from the outside looking in, seem to have the people moving around to other studios. Do you think less independents is necessarily a bad thing?
Miles Jacobson

No, but I think it depends a lot on the viewpoint of the people working for the studios. I think during the phases of the bedroom programming era - and there are still some studios like that, I'd like to think we were still like that, Media Molecule come across as having that kind of attitude as well - during those phases people tended to be a lot more loyal to the studio that they were working for, whereas now people tend to move around a lot more.

Now I don't know whether that's because of ownership, but I don't think that lack of independent studios is a bad thing at all, as long as the studios are able to keep their autonomy.

I'm not a fan of studios being purchased and then amalgamated into one big studio - I don't think that works, because the creative drive that was there, and the pride that was there, can fall away when you're part of a much larger organisation.

Thankfully with Sega the studios all have their own identities, we all have autonomy. We all talk to each other, we share knowledge and technology where possible - even in our case with some of the Japanese studios - so from that point of view it's brilliant being part of a larger organisation, because we've been allowed to keep our identity.

But I know there are other studios that haven't been as lucky with that process. That seems to be a big selling point for EA with regards to the offer for Take-Two. But with Activision Blizzard and EA/Take-Two, do we seem to be edging towards the Hollywood model of four big studios, people seem to be pointing to that?
Miles Jacobson

And they look at the music industry, it's exactly the same, and they look at the book industry and it's exactly the same. Do you agree then?
Miles Jacobson

Yeah, that will end up happening, it's not a case of if, it's a case of when. What sort of timescale would you put on it?
Miles Jacobson

How long is that piece of string that you have there? Well, with Activision Blizzard and EA/Take-Two are we beginning to see that?
Miles Jacobson

I think we're seeing the first stages of it. If you have a look back historically through something like the Universal Music Group, it went through various stages of purchasing labels, the old Polygram and Philips record company, and it did it slowly over a period of time until it had a larger market share…and then it got bought by someone else and it started buying other labels…so nowadays when Universal buys a label it hardly makes the news.

What I think we'll end up starting to see is more people using the model that Electronic Arts currently has, and using divisions that are split so that the marketing teams that are working on a particular title will be the right kind of team for that particular game.

For me, still, the major disappointment in this industry is developer billing, whereby a game is "on a label" or is "by a publisher" and the developer is often the afterthought, whereas in the other creative industries - possibly less so with film nowadays actually because it's more actor-based than director-based - with the music model, the developer comes first.

I doubt most people could name their five favourite acts on a particular record label, for example. So that side of things - it could go either way, it could become more developer-led.

But I think the other thing that the industry has now, that it maybe hasn't had in the past, is the independent scene - and again, this has been a big thing for Hollywood, and for the music industry as well - being hugely influential.

Having systems like Steamworks, and the various other digital download systems - and also the casual gaming circuit - that actually gives a lot more people to thrive, and come up with bigger and better things over time. And that's a very positive thing for the industry.

Miles Jacobson is the studio head at Sports Interactive. Part one is available here. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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