Fast fibre is giving Kiwi developers a place in the multi-billion dollar global games industry. It's also a green export. Scott Bartley reports
Game development in New Zealand stands on the edge of a billion-dollar precipice – a good one. That’s the potential size of the country’s games and interactive media business by 2024 if current rates of high growth are maintained for the next few years.
This is the finding of the Interactive Aotearoa Report 2019 – a brand-new industry report put together by the
New Zealand Game Developers Association (NZGDA), government agencies, NZ Tech and WeCreate, the creative industries alliance. In a world where climate change and sustainable thinking impacts on many aspects of government policy-making, the lure of creating another billion-dollar export industry that relies on nothing more than an internet connection to export its entire output is enticing.
As it stands, game development in
New Zealand is rollicking along. Broadband fibre internet connections have made it possible for our far-flung game developers to connect to the world from almost anywhere in the country. Of the many things that easy access to fast internet makes possible for a game developer, digital distribution is perhaps the most important – it’s what makes it possible for small New Zealand-based game developers to tap into large international markets from the proverbial Kiwi garage.
FROM $143 MILLION TO $1 BILLION
Last year the local games industry brought in $143 million in revenue, 93 percent of which came in the form of pure digital exports – not a container ship in sight. However, $143 million, while not insignificant, barely scratches the surface of a global market worth $258 billion. Globally, the games market has financially out-punched the film, television and music industries combined for a while now. Understandably, Kiwi game developers would like a bigger slice of the action.
The sector has seen 39 percent annual growth for the last six years, making the billion-dollar goal achievable, says Cassandra Gray, chairperson of the NZGDA.
“Our aspirational yet achievable goal is to see New Zealand become a billion-dollar exporter of interactive media, sitting alongside our successful film and software sectors. We’ve made a strong start, but our sector is still young and growing.”
LOCAL SECTOR IS TOP HEAVY
With some 550 jobs in the industry today, there are success stories spread across the sector in New Zealand. However, there’s a top-heavy concentration – the 10 largest studios soak up 94 percent of the revenue and 83 percent of the jobs, according to NZGDA.
“New Zealand has just a few large game development companies, then a few smaller studios about our size, and then a lot of one or two person teams,” says John O’Reilly, co-founder of Mount Maunganui-based Flightless. His 10-strong team of developers is presently creating a new game called Doomsday Vault.
“Ultimately, it would be very healthy for the industry if we could increase the size and number of these middle-tier companies.”
GAME DEVELOPMENT IN THE REGIONS
Besides connecting New Zealand to the world, fast internet connects smaller New Zealand centres to the rest of the local industry, meaning the local game development sector is no longer limited to Auckland and Wellington.
Game studios are sprouting across the country – in Tauranga, Rotorua, Hamilton, Napier, Nelson and the West Coast. With no expensive, bulky physical product to ship, export markets are just a click away.
Looking beyond the opportunities afforded by fibre broadband connections, NZGDA says that to fully realise the local games industry’s potential, New Zealand must look to shoring up the creative pipeline. A common complaint from
New Zealand game developers is that even though the internet opens a world of opportunity, finding skilled workers is the limiting factor when it comes to success. Fixing this calls for a significant increase in government support for the sector, says NZGDA.
GOVERNMENT SUPPORT NEEDED
NZGDA says opening up of existing government funding channels for creative arts and media to include the games industry, which has been specifically excluded in some cases, is vital. As is the creation of new, dedicated support programmes that cater to the special challenges of the hybrid technical/creative field of game development. NZGDA says doing this will help the industry grow the creative tech talent pool and provide all-important early stage funding to get new games off the ground.
Cassandra Gray says: “Our interactive and games industry has reached the stage where it has the capability, skills and international opportunity to contribute and create significant jobs, exports and social benefits.
“While New Zealand has a tight knit and supportive industry, to compete on the global stage it needs to match the commitment shown by industry and government in Canada, Finland, the United Kingdom, France and, more recently, Germany, which have all developed specific industry development policies.”
FINLAND’S GAMES SECTOR: 25 TIMES MORE PROFITABLE THAN OURS
Finland has a similar-sized population to ours in New Zealand, but it has, through an extensive programme of government grants and loans, grown its games industry revenue from €0.35 billion in 2012 to €2.1 billion in 2017.
Flightless’ John O’Reilly echoes this line of thinking, saying that growing more local talent is necessary. He has some ideas on how this might be done.
“Game development is a fast-moving industry and it feels like it’s incredibly hard for tertiary institutions to keep up and offer courses that are aligned with this speed of growth. An approach where tertiary programmes offer a good grounding in the fundamentals and the skill sets needed, coupled with some kind of incentivised internship/apprenticeship programme with game development studios, could work better,” he says.
GOVERNMENT – FINALLY LISTENING
There is good news on this front as many of the recommendations made in the Interactive Aotearoa Report are already being implemented. Economic Development Minister Phil Twyford said in August: “The opportunities in interactive media are significant and our Government wants to see the sector continue to strengthen and grow.
“Whether it’s through game development, digital story-telling, augmented reality, education technology or health applications, interactive media is one of the fastest growing parts of the digital economy both here and around the world.
“It also fits the profile of the kind of industries we need to foster to achieve a productive, sustainable and inclusive economy – it is low emission, export driven and scalable. It also offers a range of social and cultural benefits in fields like health and education.”
With all the right boxes ticked, and fibre internet providing the pathway, game development could well be New Zealand’s next billion-dollar export earner.
John O’Reilly is the creative director and co-founder of Mount Maunganui-based Flightless. The company uses a Vodafone-supplied Unlimited Fibre Max plan to connect its 10 staff across three locations – five in the company’s headquarters in Mount Maunganui, two in Auckland and three in Wellington.
On any given day, they use fibre for cloud-based documentation, working files, video conferencing, source control, project management, file transfers and distribution.
O’Reilly says relocating to The Mount was purely a lifestyle decision.
“What we are working on now does not require us to be in a major city or have a steady stream of clients for service-based work. It does have some drawbacks around recruiting talent – there just isn't the talent pool of people hanging around here to hire. However, this is a nationwide issue, not just a symptom of being in a smaller centre.”
He says the main obstacles affecting New Zealand game developers are access to funding, finding talent and the need for more developers to enter the market.
“Getting a game project going and actually shipping a successful game is incredibly hard work and can be costly. We self-funded our own game development for years, through service-based work in other areas like interactive installations for museums such as Te Papa and Auckland’s War Memorial Museum.
“This was very fulfilling, quality work and some of the tools and methodologies we used are complementary. However, it did mean that our game development projects took a back seat and suffered from protracted development times and thus missed opportunities. Having access to funding to be able to develop game projects and get them to a quality state to pitch to publishers would be productive.”
Three of New Zealand’s largest game developers, Grinding Gear Games, Ninja Kiwi and PikPok, have all found international success in different ways.
Grinding Gear Games created the hugely successful PC game ‘Path of Exile’. With millions of players around the world, the core game is free to
play and instead makes money from selling in-game items (the most exclusive of which can go for several hundred dollars). In 2018, the Auckland-based studio was sold to Chinese company Tencent, the world’s largest games publisher, for in excess of
Also based in Auckland is Ninja Kiwi. It has hit the big time in the Apple and Android mobile games marketplaces. Since starting life in 2006, it has produced over 60 titles, including the App Store hit ‘Bloons TD 6’.
Wellington’s PikPok, formerly known as Sidhe, is the country’s oldest game studio at 22 years of age. It started
out as a contractor for hire to large overseas game publishers. It mainly made console games. Since 2008, PikPok has successfully shifted from contractor to publishing its own IP (Intellectual Property). This change means more profits stay within the company (and in New Zealand) and PikPok can choose its own projects rather than be at the mercy of large games publishers.
Cameron Swainson and his team at the Jean Swainson Foundation are making a world-building game with an educational angle teachers will be able to use as a teaching resource. The first two chapters cover topics such as financial literacy and te reo Māori (Māori language) for beginners. It does so via an enjoyable game. This is their core product, but they are working on cutting edge browser-based augmented reality apps as well. They have also produced a range of educational resources and courses designed to help whānau and teachers with both coding and te reo.
Swainson is based in Auckland and works from home but has a team of freelancers who hail from all over the world – from places as disparate as Egypt and Indonesia, as well as Wairoa, in Hawkes Bay.
“I’ve got a machine learning and AI (Artificial Intelligence) specialist from Egypt and an illustrator from Indonesia making game characters. But most of our developers are in New Zealand. I work from home using freelancers, communicating over video chat and screen shares.”
In addition to his Auckland developers, Swainson has a team of three in Wairoa. From his home office in Auckland, he works directly with these three young developers each day between 11am and 3pm.
He uses a screen-sharing app that lets him see what they are working on, along with Google Meet, the video-conferencing app, layered on top, so they can talk to each other.
“Because they’re young [the Wairoa team] and new to game development, I’m with them for that whole time each day. It wouldn’t be possible without fast internet.”
Everyone on the Wairoa team is connected using 200Mbps fibre.
“I need to control their computers and to move around their game software. This means I can’t have lag or any kind of buffering. It needs to be real-time and good enough resolution for me to see the quality of the artwork and what else they’re doing.”
Swainson says 25-30Mbps would be sufficient speed for their ordinary daily internet use, but the 200Mbps speed comes into its own when buying large ready-made game assets or doing full game updates, which can easily tip the scales at 30GB.