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Interview - IGEA’s Ron Curry on Fostering an Industry Long Overdue for Being Taken Seriously
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 03:10pm 26/04/22 | Comments
We had a chance to speak with the IGEA's Ron Curry, a long time servent of the games industry in its many forms in Australia, about its current standing and what his hopes for its future are. Read on to see what he had to say...

If you look at gaming throughout its relatively short history here in Australia, as first a hobby and now a full-blown industry, either Ron Curry or the organisation he’s long been a key force for, the IGEA (Interactive Games & Entertainment Association), has sat as a representative body for the force of good.

Whether that’s in changing the public perception around gamer demographics, fighting the ‘games are bad for you’ slogans that have long plagued our medium, or just helping our incredibly talented local creators create, through appropriate funding and government support. Over the years Curry and the team at IGEA have worked tirelessly to educate and champion the industry’s ever growing, ever moving parts.

More recently we’ve seen massive wins in the Aussie game development world, with the introduction of the Digital Games Tax Offset, alongside a broader push to invite the global games industry to look at Australia as a place to set up shop, and where a burgeoning industry with infrastructure and government support are not only in place, but ripe for the pickings.

Recently we managed to get some time with Ron to talk about these wins, the challenges faced along the way, and what the ideal outcome for creators and the Australian games industry as a whole looks like moving forward.

Thanks for your time, Ron. Can you talk to IGEA's most recent endeavours, factoring in Indie support and funding and the role of the Federal Government to this point, as well as what the industry as a whole means?

Look, it's a full ecosystem and is really important. And that means we support the independent base, the mid-tier and also the AAAs, and they all need to exist together to have a really workable and productive ecosystem. And we see that in places like California and in places like Canada. So the government reintroducing support for independent game developers was really exciting for us and really important. And the conversations we've had with some smaller developers is [that] if this was available to them over the years, they would've accelerated greater [and] their growth much quicker because they wouldn't be trying to self-fund. So a lot of them we're seeing... you know, they're working a second job, or they're doing some work for hire or, you know, they're doing some other interactive work. [All to try and] support themselves to create their first content or their first IP. [And now] with this [it will] make a huge difference to a lot of those companies.

The Artful Escape - Beethoven & Dinosaur

And what of the uphill battle in educating that point to the government, that the games industry is more than just making games? Can you talk to the approach there, and the frustrations that have come from it all…

If we look at the current government, when they came to power about eight years ago, we had an interactive game fund. And one of the first things it did in the first budget was to cut the interactive game fund. And they cut that without having any sort of consultation with the industry. And that was gut wrenching for everybody. Because it had taken some time to get input and we know the Labor government brought that in and it seemed from then that that was the end of the dialogue, that the government just weren't interested in games.

And it's taken us pretty much that [time], the next eight years of ongoing dialogue, of educating the government about games and not just about, you know, 'games as art' -- which is really important -- but particularly [with this] government a lot of the dialogue needs to be around ‘what does it mean for the economy?’, ‘what does it mean for jobs?’, ‘what does it mean for exports?’.

"It's taken us pretty much that [time], eight years of ongoing dialogue, of educating the government about games and not just about, you know, 'games as art' -- which is really important -- but particularly around ‘what does it mean for the economy?’, ‘what does it mean for jobs?’, ‘what does it mean for exports?’.”

And so a learning for us, I guess over the last eight years or so was, for a start, changing that dialogue, because the department who owns responsibility for funding is a department of the arts and that's part of the communications department, but that's not logically where the money comes from. The money comes from treasury and finance and taxation. So what we had to do is start taking on the conversation now. And I think you'll be really aware of the work we've done over the years on the Digital Australia report. A large part of that is in normalising games and educating everybody, including politicians about how games fit into greater society. I think it's all those mechanisms such as talking to government to talking up the economic value [of games as an industry] and over the last couple of years, being able to go to them and say: ‘look at the size of this industry’.

Heavenly Bodies - 2pt Interactive

You know, look at what Canada's doing, look at what the UK is doing. Look at what some of the Scandinavian countries are doing. Look at what it means to their GDP, to their economy. Look how games have served through COVID -- which was another great message to talk to them about. You know, connecting people; educating; keeping them at home... giving them something to do. [And] I think all this came up to a perfect storm where the Prime Minister announced that he had an envoy who was looking at attracting business and talent to Australia. And we kind of bullied ourselves into that conversation because we were excluded from it to start with. And I don't think that exclusion was ... intentional. It was more ignorance of... you know, 'why didn't we invite these people in?'. I just don't think it occurred to them to invite us into that conversation.

Isn’t that a problematic position then? That the IGEA wasn’t invited into those talks, or talks like that?

Problematic or emblematic... yes, it is. But I guess once we knocked on the door and started to have those conversations, that part of the government we were talking to were really receptive. [They] really started to take time to understand the industry and not just be 'oh you're just games people'. Because, you know, we get tagged with that all the time. A few politicians have said to us, 'can't you just get rid of "games" from your name? That'd be easier'.

I think the government had a bit of an ‘aha’ moment with the introduction of the DGTO, or at least the announcement of the DGTO and then following on from that, just recently, the announcement regarding support for the independent game developers. And that’s really starting to give us a great ecosystem.

With the DGTO, was that the larger case of education? In a sense to deal with government bureaucracy and to elevate games out from just being considered an ‘arts thing’ which, in uneducated eyes, could be seen as expendable given the perception might be that it doesn’t really do a lot for the economy, but rather appeases so-called “creatives”?

Yeah. Look, I think it fell into that "arts" bucket, and we know historically there's been a number of ministers responsible for the arts who would not see videogames as art. Previous ministers... [they] liked theatre and ballet. And not to be too unkind, but they [also] liked to stand side by side with somebody and have their photo taken. You know, I guess Nicole Kidman is much nicer than Master Chief or Sonic the Hedgehog, if you want your picture in the paper. And we've had those conversations with politicians and have said, 'can you just get someone to stand with us? We can take a great photo, too'. And that's generational. We've had to work through that. And I guess the other thing over the last eight years is we now have a bunch of advisors, and these are the people who you really need to talk to before you get to the minister level, and [those] advisors we're talking to, they're all gamers.

They’re the exact same age as the average gamer. So now we’re talking to our people.

Is the next logical step then to delineate games from the arts, and to align it more with the technology sector? And further, while you’re an advisory body independent to the government, does representation of the sector need to be moved in-house in a standalone capacity, not aligned with any other sectors?

Yeah. Look, there's some really good illustrations. If we look at the Victorian Government, for example, they have a Creative Industries minister. So it's not “arts” it's “Creative Industries”, right? Which easily adapts to videogames. It could be architecture… it could be a whole number of things, but it's not ruled out because it's not high-art or art or film.

"We're starting to talk about ourselves as "create tech". You know, because we have "med tech", we have "space tech", we have "deep tech", [so] there's no reason we can't have "create tech" as well. And just emphasise the things that come out of video games."

So we're, we're seeing those subtle differences. And we've had conversations with the government around, you know, 'is this a good portfolio?'. We're starting to talk about ourselves as "create tech". You know, because we have "med tech", we have "space tech", we have "deep tech", [so] there's no reason we can't have "create tech" as well. And just emphasise the things that come out of video games. Now, look at VR, look at AR, look at... you know, our advances in deep tech and AI and know a lot of that is [born] from videogames, and it’s been adapted by other industries.

Unpacking - Witch Beam

For the smaller or mid-size Indie studios creating a game... taking into account the Digital Tax Offset and this new endeavour, what does that mean at the ground level for them? And what does that mean for Australia's representation on the global scene? What do you expect to see over the next 12 months as they reap the benefits from these initiatives?

Right. With the DGTO being introduced, what we saw is the States and Territories start to increase their support of game development as well. And we know some states were already doing it very well. Other States are now doing it much better. So there's now not just the Federal grants and support, there's [also] State level. And there's lots of nuances in each of the States. So for small or midsize or upstart videogame companies, there's lots of opportunities for them now to reach out for various levels of support from two different governments or across different governments, depending, you know, how their business is set up. And that really helps as an accelerator for those businesses.

It allows them to get a leg up into the industry and the quicker they get up, the quicker they create content. [So] the quicker they have their own IP, the quicker they start on their second product, and they start hiring staff and [so] everything that kind of falls out of that window is good for the economy. It's good for the industry. If you consider the other end where, you know, the governments supporting larger businesses to come in, like AAAs for example, it provides a great training ground for graduates to come in, learn their craft, jump out and [then] create their own businesses that we know are gonna be supported by government. So this is this self-looping self-feeding kind of environment that we would like to see happening over the next 12 months.

That is certainly our vision for Australia. That we become recognised as a powerhouse for creativity.

Is it important then to let games and innovations in games sidle up alongside other industries for those “breakthrough” kind of moments? We’ve seen, particularly in Australia, the innovations that have come from, say, the CSIRO for example. Could games do something similar with other industries? Or is it important right now that games sit on its own so that creativity and innovation can be fostered at this burgeoning grassroots level through things like the DGTO?

I think both can happen at the same time. I think it's important that we foster that growth, but, you know, wouldn't it be great if we had a situation like, [for example] where we have a studio in Vancouver and where we have a studio in one of the states in Australia that has two or 3000 employees in there and what that means for the infrastructure that sits around that business... But also we know now that the transferable skills in our industry are really important. They're highly educated, well-paid high tech jobs.

"I think it's important that we foster that growth, but, you know, wouldn't it be great if we had a situation like, [for example] where we have a studio in Vancouver and where we have a studio in one of the states in Australia that has two or 3000 employees in there and what that means for the infrastructure that sits around that business..."

That is one of the other things that appeals to the government, and there's [also] appeal to the wider economy. So we can sit videogames into this wider "influence" that sits just outside of games [where it's] touching, not only every industry that sits around it (and we know how important serious games are to contributing to that), but also those skills that we're going to lend other industries, or that we're gonna take from other industries, which is really important as well. So I think there's a lot of cross pollination and influence that the industry's gonna have, but we also need to be focused on ourselves. So I guess I agree with both of your points there.

The Forgotten City - Modern Storyteller

So where we could end up with world class motion capture or people developing VR tech, and that's because there's this huge games industry. It’s almost like a Silicon Valley thing where if you've got all these technologies gaming and industries that go hand in hand…

Yeah. And it's just, you know, it’s just that games works as a magnet bringing those industries closer to it.

So what’s your role around the DGTO and the Federal Government beyond the education stuff we’ve touched on, which is obviously very important? Like, do you take on a broader responsibility for independent studios on how this new system's gonna work and how to get things up and running? And if so, is that a heavy weight, knowing that you’re an important bridge, and that getting people across it is paramount to its success?

Yeah. Look, that's our job as a trade association. So if we take the DGTO, for example, and we lobby government to get their agreement in principle, the next trick is [to ask] 'what does it look like?'. What does the framework look like? So we've spent many hours with the government helping them understand what we think the framework should look like, but also our members have spent many hours [on this].They've probably had... I can't even remember the number... 20 or 30 individual meetings with videogame developers -- local and global -- to understand what they're looking for in something like the DGTO.

So once that framework comes together, and we saw it when the government released the first draft, we'll then take that back to all of our members again and give them our opinion. This is our reading on it. This is how we think it's gonna work. Tell us what you think, how's this gonna suit your business? And we take that back to them again. And finally, you know, after some time we'll get the final legislation and then it'll be our responsibility to go back to industry and say, this is it. This is how it works.

Broken Roads - Drop Bear Bytes

Now we're not advisors. We're not tax advisors. We're not lawyers. But we will give them the framework and we'll give them some guidance on how they should move forward. Similarly, if we look at the games "Expansion Pack" program that Screen Australia just put out, we work with Screen Australia, again, on what does the framework look like? They came to us and said 'we wanna do it'. We helped them build a framework. And the week after the framework came out, we organised a webinar. And I think we had nearly 200 people in the webinar about how do we execute this? How do you talk to government? What's in, what's out? And we hosted it, but Screen Australia sat and did a Q&A for an hour or an hour and a half. And we educated the industry. So that's part of our role. That's what we need. And that's what we need to do.

Can you talk about the types of opposition you, that is the IGEA, has come across in your time and in the build up to this?

There's lots of things that come up. You know, games are just for kids. Why are we supporting this? Games are bad. They're full of violence. Every game is full of violence. It's making people crazy. The WHO comes out with game issues from addiction. Loot boxes jumping in and getting in the way for a little bit… conversations around simply that ‘oh, if your industry's doing so well, why do you need our help?’.

"There's lots of things that come up. You know, games are just for kids. Why are we supporting this? Games are bad. They're full of violence. Every game is full of violence. It's making people crazy...."

And the flip side of that, and it's really interesting, we appear in lots and lots of senate inquiries and in different government inquiries. And invariably, after we've presented, whoever sits on the panel looks at us and is, like, ‘wow we just didn't know. We didn't understand how big you were. We didn't understand the industry at all’.

So I think a lot of it is, or was, just a case of people not getting it like we do. And you know, you've been in the industry a long time, I've been in a long time, [and] we get it, we're intimate. We don't understand why people don't get it. But there's lots of people who don't. And, you know, even when we do our research and we say to someone, ‘do you play games?’ [and they answer] ‘no, I don't play games’. It’s, like, ‘oh, do you have Words With Friends?’. ‘Yeah I do that every morning’, you know? And you interrogate what they're doing and all of a sudden they go, ‘oh, actually yeah, I do play. Oh yeah I do play games. Yeah. I didn't realise it’.

Wayward Strand - Ghost Pattern

It’s such a weird old-school stigma, and like you said there’s a new generation there now…

And I think we also went through a period of time [where the] "I'm a gamer" label was one of pride or one of I'm not gonna go down this rabbit hole. Okay. But, you know, there was a certain thing about, "I'm a gamer". And we got to the point now where it's so popular… I mean no one walks around with a big sticker that says, "I'm a Netflixer", or "I'm a TVer", or "I'm a book readerer". You know what I mean? It's, like, it's part of my diet. It's part of... I'm a book reader, you know, I watch Netflix, yeah, and it would make a great t-shirt, absolutely. But we're not a special subset, and some people won’t be happy that I’ve said that, but we’re not. It's just part of the economy, it’s part of the creative industry, it’s part of our media diet, you know, we (games) are mainstream.

And I like to tell people who don’t play games that I’m really sad that they’re not mainstream.

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