Uncategorized, video games

£300m at the end of the rainbow: Myths about public service gaming

October 2007

One topic that provoked vigorous discussion at the 2006 Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival was the PSP. Not that PSP. It’s an Ofcom initiative called the Public Service Publisher (let’s call it the Other PSP). The Other PSP would distribute public money for cross-media content including games.

It looks shiny at first glance – £300m/year to create interactive applications benefiting the public good. Independent developers might use it to fund innovative games, perhaps concepts struggling to find a commercial market. It could be a lifeline for independents pressured by an unforgiving market and a commercial model that allows only a tiny minority to break the royalty barrier. So far, so good.

At closer viewing it’s a woolly thing today, with loose time lines and no funds yet guaranteed. Its name hints that it has little to do with the games industry and everything to do with traditional media. The Other PSP could be funded from changes in the broadcasting world. ITV and Channel 4 get subsidised rates for broadcasting spectrum in return for providing a quantity of programming that fulfils their public service remit. As they lobby to reduce their requisite hours of educational and factual programming, some funds could be released. But funds might also derive from the license fee. Naturally, the BBC would then protest loudly.

Funding criteria will be controversial. Finding an acceptable definition of what public service broadcasting is (beyond being informative, entertaining and educational) is nigh-impossible, particularly in interactive media. The BBC fights weekly battles with its commercial rivals at the boundaries of such definitions that do exist. Edinburgh panellists suggested kids or educational games, or perhaps “non-commercial” games? In an industry in which the definition of a “game” can change radically and rapidly, such bounds would frequently be overstepped. Funding criteria will inevitably lag behind the market.

The impact on the UK’s publishing market could be problematic, just as in broadcasting where commercial broadcasters continually bash the BBC for ignoring its remit. Public service games publishing will not immediately strangle traditional games publishing, because, initially, big-brand console titles will not be funded. But eventually it could pose a threat to UK publishers, only one of whom has reached global scale. It’s inevitable that such a body would eventually produce a games equivalent to Fame Academy, which many angry commercial broadcasters argued had scant public service impact. The impact on our few remaining publishers could be significant, and they may join some of the BBC’s most vociferous critics to lobby against public service publishing in interactive media.

Could the BBC do games instead? The BBC has dipped into the games market, with mixed results. Teletubbies sold well but Fightbox, a gladiatorial game/show, was canned after audiences fell below 7,000. Some argue that the BBC lacks the temperament to make games, and that an alternative body should pick up the baton. In simple fact, the BBC has yet to consider games seriously or strategically – a mistake in my view.

There’s no doubt our independents, particularly start-ups, need assistance. New independent games IP struggles to reach the mass market. The Other PSP could act as an incubator for prototypes too small or radical for the market to notice or fund. But the main growth driver for independent media has historically been its ability to exploit IP rights to generate super-normal profits. The Other PSP may allow rights to be sold internationally, but profits sit uncomfortably alongside public services.

£300m won’t be cascading into the games industry any time soon – discussions are just getting underway and look unlikely to yield quick results. The political bun-fight will be intense and lengthy. Games are just one sector that may benefit. If games are finally hoving into government view, it’s debatable whether this is the best way to help a struggling sector.  While it’s an interesting proposal that might – one day – give the independent sector a shot in the arm, don’t hold your breath.

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