Weta head Sir Peter Jackson, left, and Rocketwerkz gaming studio CEO Dean Hall
Weta head Sir Peter Jackson, left, and Rocketwerkz gaming studio CEO Dean Hall

Pop CultureFebruary 11, 2020

While Weta gets $41m a year, the game industry gets nothing but empty words

Weta head Sir Peter Jackson, left, and Rocketwerkz gaming studio CEO Dean Hall
Weta head Sir Peter Jackson, left, and Rocketwerkz gaming studio CEO Dean Hall

The minister of economic development is trumpeting news that gaming is on track to be a billion dollar industry in New Zealand. Meanwhile Dean Hall, CEO of Dunedin-based gaming developer Rocketwerkz, is waiting for the government to do more than issue glowing press releases.

When the NZ Herald spoke to me about the lack of support for the local gaming industry last week, to be frank I held back a bit because I don’t like being “that guy”. But having seen news of the $41m annual subsidy that Weta receives, I’m prepared to be much more candid.

It’s been great to see the government be vocally supportive of the gaming industry. The previous government’s attitude, publicly and privately, was that our industry was doing just fine and didn’t need any government support. And while I disagreed, I have respect for those whose public positions match their actions. The National government said they weren’t going to do anything substantive and they did not. So technically, they kept their promise.

The current government, however, is keen to talk up gaming while at the same time subsidising other industries that we compete with for staff. This can’t go on. The way I see it, the government has two choices: Either they give us access to the same pool of money and let their words match their actions, or they stop using our industry for good press releases.

Economic development minister Phil Twyford’s press release specifically highlights the fact that skill shortages are a major problem for our industry. What he didn’t mention was the damage the government’s massive subsidies for other industries cause by skewing access to this tight talent pool. To highlight the skills shortage problem while being a major cause of that problem isn’t just disingenuous – it really feels like a slap in the face given what we know now about the subsidies going to Weta.

Making a game is much more similar to making a film than it is to making a website or an app. Poorly made games can make incredible sums of money simply because the concept is amazing. It’s not about the technology, it’s about the creativity and matching to the market. The creativity that is essential to gaming means that a significant portion of our workforce have worked in film, video games, and animation. A significant number of our staff are ex-Weta, for example.

The team at Rocketwerkz Studios, circa 2016.

At Rocketwerkz, we are developing the largest game ever undertaken in New Zealand, while taking on one of the biggest genres in our industry. We have gone from zero to 40 staff in Auckland in less than six months. Forty full-time, salaried staff – not staff on fixed term or “Hobbit” contracts. And how much support have we had from the government?

I was going to write “nothing” but I realised it’s actually worse than nothing – they’re directly funding and subsidising entire industries that we compete with for staff. Even animation is able to access the NZSPG (New Zealand Production Screen Grant). Video games are specifically excluded, with no explanation as to why – but I can guess. It’s because they knew that we have better work hours, better pay, and we hire people full-time and not on a temporary basis.

As Phil Twyford noted, gaming is the ultimate green industry. People play games at home, they don’t drive anywhere to do it. We don’t need anything manufactured or shipped anywhere for our games. Our staff just need power, computers, and a place to do their work. We don’t have client meetings so we don’t need to be on the roads at peak hours. The film (and television) industries are on their way out, gaming is well on its way in, and the rest of the world has acknowledged this.

I’m not saying this government is doing nothing at all. In October it announced CODE, the Dunedin-based Centre of Digital Excellence, a national hub to promote and develop our video game industry. I support it, but its funding is $10 million over ten years. How does that compare to the $41 million per year that Weta alone has received in subsidies? Not only has my company received zero subsidies or tax breaks, we’re specifically excluded from access to competitive funds. It’s a travesty. And it wouldn’t bother me as much if the government wasn’t out there using our industry for good press releases.

Making a video game is not something you just learn at university – it is really an apprenticeship, one where you need to have one senior developer for every two juniors. That’s expensive, and many seniors just want to make games and not be teachers. So I see all these amazing young people and I can’t give them jobs – because we can’t pair them with anyone – and instead I’m off headhunting for seniors overseas. Given that juniors are a net financial loss during their first few years, the fact that Weta gets a 20% subsidy is a major problem.

Simply put, very few people are hiring juniors. They are hiring seniors and intermediates and complaining about skills shortages there. Nobody is addressing the lack of jobs for young people in our industry even though it is the only long term solution to the problem. Nobody is addressing it because it is a hard problem to solve and requires commitment and partnership from government and industry. It requires action. But actions are accountable and cost money. Committees are not accountable and cost little.

So what do I have to lose? It’s not like the government is giving us anything anyway. Whatever success there is in the game industry right now comes from the hard work of the individuals within it, not from any government. And it looks like that’s set to continue.

Sir Peter Jackson had his moment. He’s had his hand in the public trough for long enough. What is he scared of? That he can’t compete with us on a level playing field? Why is the government publicly supporting our industry, acknowledging the severity of the skills shortage, but funding other industries who can use that money for preferential access to this small pool? Can the government explain why video games are specifically excluded from the NZSPG?

I hope the government announces some action. And just to be clear: action isn’t announcing yet another committee. It’s doing something, not sitting around eating pastries and patting yourself on the back.

Dean Hall is the CEO of Rocketwerkz, the Dunedin-based studio that created the games Stationeer and Out of Ammo. The studio is currently working on an as-yet-unannounced AAA title.
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