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The UK industry stares down a Brexit disaster

2018 in Review: There are no silver linings to Brexit for the UK industry, as uncertainty and the threat of No Deal create a difficult business climate

There's one overwhelming emotion associated with any conversation about Brexit at the tail end of 2018, and that's exhaustion.

Fear, concern and regret are mixed in there too, in proportion to the individual circumstances of the person you're talking to, but after two years of endless, tedious and infuriating coverage of the process, exhaustion with the whole topic is definitely the major emotion for most. That exhaustion begets a sense of resignation; no matter how ludicrous or stupid the antics of Westminster get -- and on that front new peaks have been scaled over the past week -- it's become genuinely hard for many people to see this ongoing charade as anything other than political melodrama divorced from the actual consequences it will bring.

Yet entirely separate from whatever daily nonsense springs from the UK's desperately unqualified and ill-equipped political set, those consequences continue to come relentlessly down the pike. On March 29 next year, a little over three months from now, the UK will leave the European Union through the automatic process of law. Nothing further needs to be done for the UK to crash out of the EU without a deal, which is a problem, because "nothing further" is about the extent of what the nation's government seems to be capable at the moment.

"For the UK's games industry, the consequences of a No Deal Bexit would be pretty serious"

Only a small minority of hardliners (whose surface doesn't generally have to be scratched very hard to discover an economic self-interest in immiserating large swathes of the UK) actually support exiting without a deal. Unfortunately, there is no majority in Parliament (or seemingly in the nation) for any other solution, and "No Deal" is the only scenario for which no majority is actually required.

For the UK's games industry, the consequences of No Deal would be pretty serious; materially impacting the ability of studios to attract and retain skilled developers, introducing problematic tariffs and trade barriers that could impact not just the selling of games overseas but also work-for-hire arrangements and outsourcing, and creating administrative problems in everything from the handling of customer data to the ability to access products and services upon which the industry relies. There are potential solutions to some of these issues, but they all incur significant resource costs and would combine to make the UK a more expensive, uncompetitive and unattractive place for the games industry to do business.

Of course, No Deal isn't the only option on the table. The Government still hopes to somehow scrape up the votes to pass its negotiated deal, which would in itself create a less favourable environment for developers than they already have (hiring, in particular, would be significantly impacted, though perhaps less so than under a No Deal scenario), but would largely see the UK buying enough time to try to negotiate a trade agreement.

"Instead of delivering longed-for certainty, 2018 has done little but pile uncertainty upon uncertainty"

Notions of a second referendum (predicated on the idea that the public should be allowed to give a second opinion now that the parameters of what is possible in an exit agreement are known) or even a straight-up cancellation of Brexit by Parliament have been floated, but remain deeply unlikely outcomes at this point. Deal or No Deal is the game we're playing here; neither option is attractive.

A further complication arises from the fact that we still don't know which of those options is going to become a reality next spring -- or whether the so-called "People's Vote" or another option will become more realistic in the interim. That uncertainty is hugely damaging in itself. Speaking to people in the UK games industry back in 2017 about Brexit -- a conversation topic that was entirely inevitable but already wearing people down -- a recurring theme was the expectation that 2018 would bring some clarity and certainty to the process.

Businesses need to know what to plan for. They crave certainty more than almost anything else. Studios need to know if they should be staffing up; publishers need to know if they can rely on a consistent legal and trade environment before committing to a partnership or project; everyone needs to know if there are new procedures they'll need to follow, new problems they'll need to solve, and new challenges they'll need to overcome. If it's to be a No Deal Brexit, that's pretty awful across the board, but it would be far better to know that now than in three months' time, and would have been better again to know it six months ago.

"The damage already done to the industry already is real, but tough to estimate... The damage that's to come grows worse with each passing moment of uncertainty"

Instead of delivering longed-for certainty, 2018 has done little but pile uncertainty upon uncertainty. With the timer running out, games industry leaders still don't have any insight into the legal and regulatory environment they'll be in within a few short months. Staff from the EU still don't know what their status will be. Some, sick of waiting for their fate to be decided by a Westminster paralysed by indecision and self-interest, have already started to leave the UK. Employers don't know if they can reasonably advertise positions to skilled EU nationals (who in turn don't know if it's worthwhile to apply for such positions) and may not be able to accurately forecast their future staffing needs anyway. Nobody knows exactly what they need to be planning for in terms of regulations and laws.

The one silver lining ought to be that all this uncertainty has driven down the value of the British Pound, making work-for-hire studios more attractive to overseas publishers. But that's a very tarnished kind of silver, since the degree of instability in the currency is more worrying for many potential business partners than its low valuation is attractive.

At the close of 2018, then, the British games industry finds itself in a position that has moved on from the close of 2017 only in that the looming deadline is now terribly, terribly close. The damage that's been done to the industry already is real, but tough to estimate; damage done in staff lost (or potential hires dissuaded), business expansions delayed, project bids rejected. The damage that's yet to come grows worse with each passing moment of uncertainty.

It's hard to take much solace from the notion that, hey, at least the cliff edge is very close, but that's where we are right now. March 29 will at least bring certainty of some form, and businesses can start to make the plans they really need for trading after Brexit -- or, as more than a few UK industry figures have hinted in private, finally make an informed decision about whether their company's future will be brighter outside the UK entirely. That's a worst case scenario, but then again, so is No Deal.

Footloose and low on inertia, many games companies could find relocation appealing, making the UK's thriving, enormously successful games industry into one of the first major casualties of the political failures of the Brexit process. Hardly a cheerful way to face into the new year, I know. Is it any wonder this discussion leaves us all feeling so exhausted?

Author
Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.
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