I was at an event hosted by NESTA in which Ian Livingstone and Alex Hope presented a top-line summary for a report talking about the problems of education in the UK. Specifically what they talked about was how to train young people with better sets of skills to equip them for digital industries like games or visual effects.
The thing I noticed more than anything else, however, was that (at 37 years old) I was one of the youngest people there. In a room of luminaries from the digital industries in the UK, all I could see was a mass of bald heads and grey hair. Where were the young companies and the new generation?
Nowhere that I could see. I think that might be a problem.
Steady Hands or Wild Eyes?
There are both good and bad aspects to having an aging leadership. Among the good are better longer term perception, celebrity, wisdom and authority. Among the bad are hesitation, intransigence, a tendency toward old-boy networks and a lack of energy. The question is whether a vibrant industry like games needs steady hands more than wild-eyed invention.
Many of today’s middle aged leading figures are the same people who, twenty five years ago, changed the world. Games like Elite, Ultima, Populous and Doom were made by bright young teens and tweens who had no idea what they were doing, and so no sense of why they should hold back. Contrast those examples with Kinectimals, Tabula Rasa, Fable 3 and Doom 3, and there is a strong case to be made that as game developers get older, they become less daring.
Or perhaps that is an illusion. The big contrast between the industry today versus in decades past is that it operates at a different scale. The development rate of founderworks has tailed off, to be replaced by sophistication and genre preferences. So the counter-argument is that it’s not the developers that are less crazy, but the money that finances them.
If so, is the new industry really better suited to careerism? According to NESTA, the UK needs more focus on hard skills like maths and computer programming to provide a basis for effective industry-centric training. Their primary concern is that there isn’t enough good qualified labour coming through in the domestic market to satisfy demand. So in essence it’s about existing helping digital factories fill vacancies.
There are two assumptions behind that logic: That the game production industry will still be here in 10 years time, and that it will increasingly be careers-driven rather than entrepreneurial.
Every younger (below 40) worker in the games industry knows that it is a place of crunch, retrenchment and closure. If you visit industry forums like The Chaos Engine, the talk is overwhelmingly that of job security, frustration and tension. Statistics suggest that the majority of people who work in games do not stay beyond five years, and now console game sales are in decline in the face of outsider companies like Zynga.
The prospects of fewer console games, declining opportunities, and of the need to diversify into other markets are all that anyone paying attention to trends (like me) talks about. And yet at the same time, NESTA-style reports focus on ways to keep the companies of David Braben or Charles Cecil in business, when the model that those companies are built on is arguably dying. It’s not about David or Charles personally (they are both heroes of mine), but rather whether the old guard economy that they represent is really worth saving.
The real question that should be being asked is what the next decade industry is going to look like. I think that it will look very different, so much so that the conflation of its concerns with those of the VFX industry seem out of place. NESTA (and the old guard in general) do not seem aligned to the future to me. We need less steady hands and more lunacy.
Life At Court
The games industry has a kind of life-at-court character. It feels sewn up, reputation- and relationship-reliant, and increasingly out of touch. A lot of that comes from its closed-format publishing structure, and is pretty typical of what happens when industries become oligopolies. A divergence is growing between newcomers with no reputation but disruptive ideas versus Industry Legends™.
It’s like the disconnect between courtiers and peasants in pre-Revolutionary France, in that it’s not just a difference of moneyed versus hungry, but of ideas. Outsiders increasingly don’t relate to courtier issues, while the courtiers increasingly seem to be trying to hold on to their position.
Outsiders want to change things via entrepreneurship, but for those at court the only viable answer seems to be rely on the patronage of governments. Some sections of the UK games industry want tax breaks, like the film industry, even though that would largely render the industry into a dependent but stable adjunct of UK PLC. They reason they want them is for stability, to shore up their existing interests.
Investing in Youth
NESTA have also put together a self-publishing coalition of independent developers. They are asking for investment of £20,000 per developer, but their definition of ‘independent’ is a company that has fewer than 250 staff.
Contrast this with the tiny companies attending events like World of Love, where small bands of hopefuls gather talk talk about making games, finding their way in the world and wondering why the games industry is so difficult to comprehend. Those are the actual independents who are in need of publishing help, but they don’t have £20,000 to throw into a pot. They don’t even have £2,000.
The courtier generation is disinclined to invest in young game makers. Instead it wants to give them careers. How exactly did that flip happen? How does Ian Livingstone, an entrepreneur, go from setting up thriving games businesses to fronting a report which pretty much says ‘we don’t want disruption, we want workers’?
A number of game legends have managed to make fortunes (enough to even get to space in one case) through entrepreneurship but there is very little sign of them reinvesting in the young. Phil Harrison is trying to put together an investment fund, and Ian Baverstock is in charge of a seed fund named Tenshi Ventures, but there is not enough of this sort of thing going on. Where is Peter Molyneux’s seed fund? Where’s Jez San’s VC? Where are Richard Garriot’s angel investments? Where are the Stampers’ debt-convertible loans?
I don’t mean to name names, just to highlight some examples. One of the reasons that Silicon Valley works so well is that many of its successful entrepreneurs become investors. They understand that there is money to be made in new ventures, but also that ventures live or die on their ability to find funds and mentorship from investors who understand their business.
Industry legends are ideally placed to become next-decade investors that could spur many new game startups, but they are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they need a leader, as Paul Graham is in the Silicon Valley seed funding community. Or perhaps what they need is incentive (tax write-offs etc) to make the prospect of investment more attractive.
Actually what I think they need more than anything is faith. The problem with life at court is that it tends to make a courtier’s view of the world myopic, and the games industry’s court of console platforms has had a very closed-doors attitude for a long time. I think many of the luminaries in the industry feel for the young entrepreneurs, but simply don’t believe that the App Store or Facebook are arenas that will ultimately amount to anything beyond an additive for their existing interests. I think they want new companies to do well, but their experience tells them that the door is shut to all but the lucky, and so the best kind of patronage that they can offer is simply jobs.
Perhaps they’re right, but I need to believe in a future for the games industry that isn’t reliant on octogenerian dukes vying for the attention of the King.
The Kids are All Right
I doubt the NESTA report will yield many tangible results, nor their self publishing unit, because there is too much intransigence and too little funding available to make a difference. Production houses will inevitably move to China and India because the grunt work of production is simply much cheaper there, so the challenge for the kids of the future is not to become members of an industry which is closing up shop.
It is to invent the future. The bedroom coders did that, and their future took many of them in directions that they could not foresee. They became legends. The kids of tomorrow can invent their own future provided that the powers that be allow them enough room to do so. This is where legends can make a difference, by investing and mentoring.
The challenge for all of us is to remember that the future does not have to look like the past. Just because the older generation went down the road of large production houses reliant on life at court to find their way does not mean that the kids have to pay homage.
Viva la Revolution!