Can the British gaming industry be great again?
15th Jul 2013 | 07:00
Earning back a seat at the top table is still possible
"Britain ruled the gaming world and the real sad thing is we let that go," says David Braben - one of the men behind one of the most iconic games of all time.
From Braben and Ian Bell's Elite to Speedball, Jet Set Willy to Worms, from Lemmings to Sensible Soccer, from Tomb Raider to Grand Theft Auto, nobody can deny Britain's fundamental impact on gaming.
And yet, as the industry sits proudly at the top of entertainment, outselling Hollywood, outselling television and publishing, Britain has found itself increasingly on the periphery.
With the US typically dominant, Canada luring the development world to its shores, Japan battling hard for relevance despite giant brands like Sony and Nintendo, and China's inexorable rise to dominance across the technology world, the top-table of gaming is getting crowded and Britain is at risk of becoming a has-been, looking back at its glorious heritage and talking up the good old days.
Rise and fall
Just as in tech, you would think that trying to pinpoint just why Britain has slid away from relevance is tough.
But themes like tax, the lure of dull but lucrative financial institutions, and the British psyche itself are all regularly held up as the major issues.
"It's much deeper that just tax," explained Braben, who used Kickstarter to fund his big next project - a long awaited new entry to the Elite series, "it's partly due to our culture."
"One of the most damaging things is the people who try hard to do things are sneered at. In America, success, and even just the desire to succeed, is celebrated but in Britain it's often criticised and that is a real problem."
The British attitude is raised time and time again as a barrier, and not just in gaming. It seems that the peculiar mix of not liking to shout about successes whilst being quick to knock those who try from their pedestal is toxic to the chance of success.
Potential and heritage
But that's not the entire story, of course; Britain is still widely regarded as a hotbed of creativity. Rightly or wrongly the education system is still admired globally and some of the most creative minds in gaming hail from these shores.
"There are big success stories like Moshi Monsters," says veteran games writer John Houlihan.
"There's also a great development scene in Leeds and Scotland where of course we make the most successful game in the world in Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto.
"So there is a degree of saying that we are already doing some amazing stuff but we just don't give it enough recognition."
Braben is just one of a multitude of massive figures in the gaming world who are battling hard to keep the UK relevant. Along with the likes of Peter Molyneux and Eidos' Ian Livingstone, the sentiment is that it's worth fighting for.
Attracting and, just as vitally, keeping the top talent in Britain is crucial, and that's where the furore over tax breaks being granted by the UK government but then held up in the EU stems from.
"It's still possible to save UK gaming," explains Braben. "[Chancellor] George Osborne's tax breaks will be hugely positive if we can get through Europe. It's unforgivable the French get a tax-break through painlessly and ours gets held up.
"It's like the EU doesn't want us to be a part of it and I think that's tragic and stupid. But yes I think it is rescuable; it's a matter of degree as well getting the top slot is unlikely because of the size of the US and China, but we can certainly have one of the top slots."
The growth of the Canadian games industry is often held up as an example of what happens when a government actively engages in attracting talent with financial benefits.
"I think the long promised tax break, if and when that might appear, will be significant," added Houlihan. "You look at Canada who made a real effort to reach out and make it a positive place for games developers with plenty of tax breaks and relocation stuff and that's what it will take.
"It's an international industry and the best people will go where the work is."
Banks of fun
Another factor could be the need to convince the most talented British developers to avoid the big cash benefits of the finance world for the lower paid but potentially more exciting world of games.
"At my company, Frontier, our primary competition for developers has been from the banks. It comes down to money versus pleasure," explained Braben.
"We've had stands opposite Goldman Sachs who, it's fair to say, pay better than we do. But a lot of the people who choose money start to think in five years or so 'what did I do?'.
"By then people are in a position where it's very difficult to go back to what you would have loved. I'm proud of what I do and it's still exciting to me. It's fun and interesting and there are not many careers where you can do everything from voice acting to graphics!"
Braben clearly remains positive about the gaming industry; peppering his discussion with Brit gaming icons, companies and games.
But it's clear that action needs to be taken soon to stop the decline and put Britain back on the top table of an industry that is growing faster than anything else in entertainment.
"We need people to step up," concludes Houlihan. "We need designers and developers and other visionaries to become rockstars again. Perhaps we do need a change in attitude so people are feted for that kind of thing."