UK games initiative no fun for Ireland

Wednesday 12 December 2012 14.24
UK's George Osborne coming around to the belief that a computer games studio is not a factory
UK's George Osborne coming around to the belief that a computer games studio is not a factory

George Osborne has a plan to create a generation of transmedia professionals, writes Niall Kitson

Previously in this column I've written about the Government's grand ambitions for growing the gaming sector. On the plus side, we have an action plan form the enterprise and science policy advisory board Forfas, ongoing commitments from multinational companies like Blizzard and Bioware and the rise of casual gaming on mobile platforms aided by publishers Big Fish.

Recent negatives, such the decision by EA to shutter PopCap’s Dublin operation and the collapse of Jolt, have thrown these plans into disarray. Now a new ‘big bad’ to thwart the nascent industry has arrived - the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne.

While the Government here has developed a 10-point tax plan to help micro and small businesses, over the water two measures have been introduced that should have game studios think twice about establishing bases focusing on the more creative aspects of game development over here.

Ireland’s success as a hub for technology companies is well-documented at this stage. The State benefits from foreign direct investment by companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, PayPal, Facebook, and in Dublin has an energetic start-up scene second only to Berlin. As a destination just like every other EU country, however, Ireland suffers from a lack of qualified designers and developers to the extent where literally thousands of jobs are going unfilled. Filling this skills void isn't just about salaries - developers are well paid wherever they go - it comes down to intangibles like quality of life, mobility and training opportunities.

Not only does the games sector suffer from a talent vacuum it is further hamstrung by an ideological problem. It's all very well for Halo’s Master Chief or Gears of War’s Marcus Fenix to blast aliens in microscopic detail to an orchestral score but it is art? According to Osborne, the answer is yes.

As part of Osborne's budget for 2013 the Games industry is to be included under the same tax regime as applies to 'high end TV production' and animation with a tax relief incentive of 25%. What's more, the audio/visual sector will have a total of £6 million invested in training schemes designed to yield some 3,300 qualified professionals - effectively creating a pre-packaged transmedia workforce.

While not quite the 30% relief requested by the games industry, bundling gaming with other forms of commercial entertainment marks a step towards respectability for the medium. The incentive isn't as generous as the Section 481 scheme that has kept film production alive in Ireland but bringing games into the a/v fold and providing a ready-made workforce of coders, designers, writers and other creatives sends the message that the UK not only 'gets it' but that it has the people to make it happen.

Ireland's hopes for the gaming sector are still reliant on casual games for iOS, middleware and customer service centres. Osborne’s plan is far more ambitious and should force the Irish Government to follow suit and start treating games as productions not products. A studio is not a factory.

Niall Kitson is editor of TechCentral.ie