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The Political Problem

Fred Hasson discusses the impact of the EU fund, and what the UK government should do to help.

Last week the EU announced funding would be available for games developers via its Media Plus scheme, with possible awards of up to EUR 100,000 per project, and a total pot for this year of EUR 1.5 million.

However, while that announcement was welcome, it doesn't address the issue of the uneven playing field that some countries, with the help of government support, are enjoying.

GamesIndustry.biz spoke to Tiga chairman and CEO Fred Hasson to find out how useful the EU fund will actually be, and what the UK government needs to do to help out the UK industry.

GamesIndustry.biz: How significant is EUR 1.5 million?

The most significant point about that is that they've finally recognised games as a special category. It was technically possible to apply for interactive media in the previous media programme, but what's happened now is that games have been very emphatically added as a category, rather than just coming under the broad banner of interactive entertainment.

What we've got is a ceiling of EUR 60,000 per project, however for any console-based games - which includes PSP and DS - is now EUR 100,000. So what's happened is that for the first time there's been a recognition that producing prototypes for consoles is a lot more costly.

That EUR 100,000 ceiling for consoles projects is only for games - no other media within the scheme can get as big a chunk as that, so I think that's the most important thing.

Because when you look at EUR 1.5 million - it is only per year by the way - it's not very much, but it's a beginning. And if you understand how these things work, and I think it would be a fair generalisation to make not just about Europe, but about government departments generally, they will do things very quietly at first, and do things incrementally, rather than a big splash and give everybody what they want straight away - even if they believe they should have it.

The problem with computer games, in the seven years since I've been doing Tiga, is that we've seen government being very positive about videogames, and then suddenly something's happened like Manhunt, or some bad publicity, or the Daily Mail's run a story, and then they scuttle back for cover.

I think we can only expect, as far as games go, that we're going to be making incremental gains, and it's a question really of how fast those gains will be made. A lot of that will depend on how the industry presents itself and the sort of flak that the industry gets from people who don't understand it or who take pot shots at it.

Do you think the industry would be a lot further along this path without the likes of Manhunt then?

First of all I think that a lot of the early criticisms for videogames came out of ignorance on the part of the policy-makers and opinion-formers in the country. I think the original Manhunt, as an issue which the MP Keith Vaz took up - those sorts of things have been bubbling under for some time.

I think what's happening in the UK at the moment is that it's not just videogames that are in the firing line. Pop videos are there, and rappers, and that sort of thing, and there's a broader debate going on.

You only have to take an opinion-former to a studio like Blitz, to see all the things that a company like that is doing. Ok, they're making what could be described as a fairly violent videogame, but at the same time they're doing stuff for kids, stuff with advertising agencies, at the same time they're doing some serious games.

And then suddenly you see someone realise how actually they've gone for the easy thing, the only bit they've heard of, which is the bad bit about games. Until they've seen all the good things there are about games, they don't realise it.

There's an education process that needs to be done, but I don't think the industry's done it particularly well, and part of that has been down to the marketing strategies that the publishers have had.

They need to be far more sensitive now, and I don't think it's only videogames that are going to be under scrutiny. I think other things that play to more violent, misogynous topics are going to be under review - with this new government, and the opposition who will play that kind of political game.

But the answer to your question is yes, for sure. If we hadn't had that bad publicity around videogames I think the government would appreciate the industry a lot more than it does.

Does it also come down to a lack of understanding in the mainstream media do you think?

Absolutely. Completely. Because people have children, children play those videogames, and they suddenly think "Bloody hell, what's happening there?" And because we haven't informed parents well enough about videogames, they have less authority over their children - because they don't play games, and they don't understand it.

If you gave them a controller they wouldn't know how to use it. That generally means ignorance, and out of ignorance comes lack of authority. As an industry we haven't been good at bridging that gap, but at the same time I don't think it can be an overnight thing - there's no simple solution.

We have to keep beavering away, and finding new angles with which to impress upon people about what the power of that medium we operate it is all about now.

On the EU funding, you said in the Tiga statement that it was a step in the right direction. What's the next step?

Well, it's going to be interesting to see what happens, because around the end of 2006 the French government made an application to the European Commission to be able to be able to treat games in the same way as films in France.

In other words, games as an entertainment medium, a visual medium, would qualify under the cultural definition that is explicit in the European treaties that make up the rules of the European Union.

Does this mean that the powers that be in the EU will look favourably on France's application to treat videogames in the same way as film, as well as the Media programme?

We don't know. We believe the decision will be made before the end of the year - it was supposed to have been earlier in the summer, but it was delayed.

If what we're saying about the Media programme is that it's a step in the right direction, and it is some recognition, one could actually say possibly that there's going to be something within the decision of the Commission that could be generally good for the games industry - but we don't really have an idea of which way that's going to go.

How have the other members of the EGDF responded to the decision?

They've generally welcomed the recognition. A pot of EUR 1.5 million isn't much if you consider that the maximum a project can get is EUR 100,000. From what I can gather from the UK Media desk, they've already had a lot of interest from people wanting to apply for the money - we've put out information to our members telling them it's available, so maybe that's the reason.

One of my colleagues in Germany just told me he's had over 20 enquiries from his members - well, it doesn't take a lot to work out that if everybody is hoping for the maximum amount, there are already going to be people disappointed in Germany, let alone if you add the other 26 countries of the EUâ¦

I think the point is that the European Commission I think is going to be incremental about this. I think they're going to be inundated with far more enquiries than they thought they would get, and hopefully that means that when they announce the next round of finances in a year's time, it's going to be substantially more than the EUR 1.5 million they announced this time. Maybe EUR 15 million? Who knows.

The governments in Singapore and Canada are serious about the games industry, why isn't the UK government serious about it?

The UK government has had quite a hard line on state aids. As a concept, the idea that state aids shouldn't play a part in a free market economy is absolutely spot-on. I can't speak for the government, but the way I interpret it is that it has taken a political decision that for economies to flourish, you shouldn't put in state aids.

The government looks at how the rest of the UK compares with Europe and it sees that in general the economy is in better shape, and far more advance in terms of meeting global challenges, than any other. And it's been done without state aid, therefore why should that change?

I think that is a position that you could very easily defend a few years ago, and if you took it in a very generalist way across all sectors. But if you drill down and start looking at some specific sectors, then it wouldn't just be games in which you'd be coming unstuck.

On the specific issue of games, and some other industries, I think that the 'one size fits all' policies and strategies threaten to come unstuck. They don't realise that for different sectors there are different historical evolutionary patterns, there are different timescales involved, and you cannot say that one strategy for all of these sectors can work.

So the government's got a history of being ahead of the game in terms of competing in a global economy, I think it still thinks it can do that, and that's why it's been against all these state aids.

But we believe that we can show the government some real evidence of how the market is being skewed by state aids in Singapore and Canada in particular - and other places - and we will be making that case very strongly to ministers in October when we have a summit to talk about the contents of a report which will have been published by then.

We have a three-part plan (skills, IP creation and technology) which we believe if implemented will give the UK a continued competitive edge in a market that is otherwise becoming difficult.

Because work for hire, and the types of contracts that are available, and of course the exchange rate (as most commissions come in USD) companies are beginning to struggle to compete internationally.

Fred Hasson is the chairman and CEO of Tiga. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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