Industry warns NZ's surging video game sector will soon be stifled without support

The video game sector is a $250b global juggernaut, one of the few industries not challenged, but supercharged, by the ongoing pandemic and New Zealand's own sector is no exception.  

"The industry grows about 40 percent every year and so far this year we've added about one hundred new jobs….the sky is really the limit here," NZ Game Developers Association Chair Chelsea Rapp told Newshub Nation.

"We could be a billion dollar industry by 2025."

Industry warns NZ's surging video game sector will soon be stifled without support

Looking overseas shows our potential future. Finland has a similar population and GDP to New Zealand but gaming there is worth over four billion, driven by the wild popularity of franchises like Angry Birds

Rapp says the Finns' success is the result of decades of investment by their Government, investment which has been largely lacking here in Aotearoa.  

From next year Australia will give game companies up to a 40 percent tax rebate, similar to the 20 percent New Zealand Screen Production Grant offered to Hollywood films shooting here. 

"If you're a foreign investor, if you're a game studio, being able to get 40 cents back on every dollar you spend, you'd be silly to not take advantage of that," says Rapp. 

Let's Play Live Director Duane Mutu warns without action from the Government, we could soon see an all too familiar trans-Tasman story. 

"What we're going to see is a brain drain of all our talent heading offshore, because why wouldn't you?"

"The other thing the Australians have done is they've created a task force and that's really focused on the sector to make sure that they can get the visas through. They can look at relocation of key employees and retention. It's a fantastic initiative."

Some of the talent we hope to keep is busy at work in Rocketwerkz studios in Auckland, where New Zealand's largest game - Icarus - is in production. 

Finland is a similar sized country to NZ but has a gaming industry worth $4b
Finland is a similar sized country to NZ but has a gaming industry worth $4b Photo credit: Newshub Nation.

While he applauds New Zealand's success so far, chief executive Dean Hall describes our industry as 'a fraction' of what it could be.  

"The video game industry has largely passed along with little successes here and there and I think that can become evidence that video games don't need help."

One industry getting plenty of help is film, with Amazon eligible for over $100m in taxpayer subsidies after producing one season of Lord of the Rings on our shores. 

"It's not really about giving the video game industry stuff. It's about leveling the playing field between Hollywood and the situation in Australia," says Hall. 

And while Amazon has now shifted production for Lord of the Rings from New Zealand to the UK, Hall argues the next Middle Earth could be virtual and the next Tolkien, a Kiwi. 

"This is our chance to write what that is. Studios which are really good creatively own their intellectual property and keep that in the country. And that means that it's ours and that we tax it and that it belongs to us."  

And advocates argue the benefits of growing our gaming sector are not only material, as the sector's ecological footprint is comparatively small. 

"Games are precisely the type of industry that the government wants to support. Our products don't have to be dug out of the ground; they are wholly sustainable," says Rapp.

However despite its success, Rapp acknowledges the games industry still battles stereotypes.

"A lot of people typically think of this very antiquated view of somebody who's playing games as the guy in his basement in the dark,

"That's just so antiquated. The average game player these days is around 35 years-old. Almost half of them are women."

And Kiwi games are now generating not just money, but mana. Umurangi Generation, a tikanga-infused title set in a futuristic Tauranga, recently took top prize at the Independent Games Festival- one of gaming's most prestigious artistic awards.

And other countries are taking notice, in the past half decade international companies have spent more than half a billion buying up Kiwi gaming businesses. In 2018 Grinding Gear Games in Henderson was sold for over $100m to Chinese tech-giant Tencent. And this year Sweden's MTG forked out over $200m to acquire Auckland-based Ninja Kiwi studios.

In 2018 Newshub Nation asked then Digital Economy Minister Clare Curran if more support would be incoming and she acknowledged gaming had 'fallen through the cracks' when it came to funding. 

Now her successor David Clark says work is underway to provide more support for the gaming sector as part of the Government's Digital Transformation Plan.  

"I am acutely aware of the gaming industry's value and some of the problems it is experiencing," he told Newshub Nation. 

"Government is examining a variety of offshore settings and how they look in practice, this includes the UK and Australia."

But Hall says for the industry he hopes to transform, change is already overdue.

"We've got a small window of opportunity here when we can create a tremendous economic base that will last for generations….let's break our reliance on dairy and become a creative factory."

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