In under two weeks time, the people of Scotland will decide whether their country will become independent from the rest of the United Kingdom. Two weeks today, we’ll either be preparing for a massive change as the country attempts to stand on its own two feet, or things will remain similar how they are now, with the country staying part of the union but being granted more individual powers. Right now, it could go either way, and there are good and bad points for every angle, and in every sector.
Scotland’s games industry is worth over £30 million annually to the Scottish economy, and is extremely important, with several universities offering courses in game development and animation, and the country being heavily invested in games with studios big and small all over the land. The most notable is Grand Theft Auto developer Rockstar North, situated in Edinburgh. While their profits aren’t all coming back into the Scottish economy, with parent company Rockstar Games and their publisher Take-Two Interactive being based in New York, it does create a lot of stable jobs in the capital.
It is quite incredible to think that the biggest game property in the world comes out of such a small country, and this naturally instils hope in the Yes voters: if we can do something this big, we can do anything, right? Despite the apparent size of the sector, well researched information on the extent of the Scottish games industry is shaky, with one poorly researched report stating that the industry only employed 200 people and added a gross value of £0 into the Scottish creative economy in 2010. ScottishGames.net has a good breakdown of this, stating how farcical the report is and that we need to get the word out about how big the industry is.
And here lies the problem – with this official report almost entirely overlooking the importance of the Scottish games industry, might not an independent government think the same? It’s clear that there would be a lot to sort out in the eighteen month period between a vote for independence and Scotland becoming an independent country, with currency, oil, nuclear power, and of course entry to the European Union all being at the forefront. Where does the games industry fit in here, and how exactly do we get the word out? Granted, it’s not the most pressing issue, but there are some things which should not be overlooked.
It doesn’t help that Rockstar North, the biggest company in the games sector in Scotland – and one of the biggest developers in the world – is extremely secretive about, well, pretty much everything they do. You won’t see their CEO Leslie Benzies – who we at least know is voting Yes – describing the benefits of independence for the games sector, or trying to make the government take notice. How many GTA players do you think – the players that just play the games – know that it was made in Edinburgh?
It’s the same for Minecraft, too. You could probably say that this is one of the biggest games in the world alongside Grand Theft Auto, and while it was originally conceived in Sweden and created by Mojang, development for the console versions – arguably more popular than the PC version, with the PS4 version releasing just yesterday and Xbox One version today – is handled by 4J Studios, based in Scotland. But how many Minecraft players know that?
The Scottish games industry might be big, and it might be important, but unless Scotland as an independent country is aware of it, where’s the real point, and how can it move forward?
It all comes down to money; no matter how much any given developer wants to make a game – and even if they’re comfortable making it in their home nation – if taxes get in the way, then they may not have the means to do so. The United Kingdom has confirmed tax breaks for UK-developed games which are “culturally British”, and it’s a bit of an odd system which involves specifications within your game reflecting Britain as a whole. But nevertheless, it’s tax breaks, and that’s sometimes what smaller developers need: confirmation that they’re benefit by staying here.
According to the Scottish government, these tax breaks would be kept if Scotland were to become an independent country, and that’s not all. The government would also cut corporation tax, aiming to make game developers better off than if they remained part of the UK. This is the SNP talking, and of course it is their mission to make sure an independent Scotland seems fair and good for everyone. In reality, these tax breaks would need to be altered to apply to Scotland, and then applied for again through the European Commission, after being granted access to the EU, of course.
“The cultural test in order to receive tax breaks would still have to stand to get through the European Commission. So what would it mean to be a culturally Scottish game?” said one Scottish games executive, according to MCV. There’s no denying that Scotland has a rich culture, but time would have to be spent to develop a new list of culturally-correct terms before tax breaks would be confirmed. And naturally, this isn’t at the forefront of the government’s proposals.
Saying that, it could all go very smoothly, and in a matter of years we could be in a situation similar to Canada, albeit on a smaller scale. Canada is currently a haven for game developers, offering numerous incentives for developers through tax credits, where high percentages of labour – and even distributing or marketing in some cases – will be covered by the government and more. There’s no saying that Scotland could go this route any more than the UK could as a whole, but there seems to be a good basis, with a Scottish government controlling these taxes to allow them to excel in this area, if they choose.
Currency itself seems to be an issue of note at the moment, with the highly debated topic of how an independent Scotland could use the pound without a currency union coming into discussion at every opportunity. If the currency were to change, it would no doubt affect things such as the PlayStation Store and Xbox Live Marketplace, where Scotland is currently part of the UK using the pound. It’s likely that people in an independent Scotland would have to change their accounts to reflect this, and then potentially face further charges for their content. It’s hard to pin down the exact details when so much is uncertain, but essentially Scotland would have to be treated as either another European region or its own state.
If you look at the Republic of Ireland, PlayStation Mobile only made its way to there over a year after games were available in the UK. Now, not being able to get these smaller, cheap games on your Vita isn’t a huge disadvantage, but this is only one example of where being treated as a different region means that you lose out in the games industry.
Like every part of this debate, Scotland becoming an independent country would have its pros and cons when it comes to the games industry. Yes, we might become a tax haven for developers, but with so much to work through, there’s no guarantee that we’ll get there any time soon. If there is a Yes vote, then Rockstar, 4J Studios, and their hundred other counterparts in Scotland must do their part to make sure the country can be seen as an important area for games development and distribution, so this industry can move forward. And if there’s a No vote, things will stay somewhat the same – we’ll get tax breaks much sooner, and won’t have to worry about region issues.
Ultimately, it’s up to the population of Scotland to decide where the country (and with it, the games industry) goes on September 18th, and no matter what happens then, we should endeavour to show just how important this sector of the Scottish economy is, and how much better it could be in the future.