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UKIE CEO Jo Twist Interview: Why The Games Industry Needs Artists, Not Just Coders

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UKIE CEO Dr Jo Twist | UKIE

For all the tax breaks, foreign investment and innovative business models the UK games industry needs to survive, and grow, it also needs another vital commodity that sometimes gets ignored: artists.

And those aren't always going to be developers who 'used to draw in school'.

Dr Jo Twist, CEO of the UK Interactive Entertainment (UKIE) trade body, says that the games industry has to do more to attract professional and student artists, musicians, filmmakers and storytellers, as well as coders, into the industry -- or else put its renaissance at risk.

"We don't have the diversity of talent that we need at the moment," she told the Huffington Post UK.

"And it is precisely those kids right now we need. Those who are sitting listening to grime music, for instance, or making their own music, who think about the music industry as a career and who love playing games but don't think about games as a career."

UKIE used to represent mainly games publishers, but is now expanding to stand for the wider UK games industry, alongside other bodies. It supports businesses with experts, technology and advice, and seeks to inspire development talent. It now has just under 140 member companies, having expanded more than 200% in two years, according to MCV.

jo twist ceo ukieRecently UKIE launched a big research project to look at new and successful business models in the UK. New tax breaks, coming into force in April, will also help. TIGA, another UK games industry body, estimates these could safeguard 4,500 jobs.

But unless more is done to convince both students and professionals in other fields that they can contribute to games, the industry will lack key ingredients to develop both the best AAA games in the world and the most innovative small-scale gaming start-ups, UKIE believes.

As an organisation it will be celebrating the "art of videogames" at an exhibition in London's City Hall, as part of this year’s London Games Festival as part of that push - but there is still more to do.

"In all parts of creative industries there is not often as much crossover as you'd like to see," Twist said.

"I think particularly with the new companies that are emerging as well as the big established publishers there are lots of opportunities now that technology is allowing us new ways to enjoy games, whether it be on your mobile, or through the cloud on your TV. We're finally at that point where technology has caught up, so we need to look at pushing the boundaries in terms of how we collaborate, particularly in the arts sector."

"I sit in these high-level meetings at ministerial levels with representatives from other creative industries and they're so interested, and there is such a lack of knowledge about the games industry but they're interested in how we're evolving."

"There are a lot of industries that aren't really crossing over as much as they can - so I hope they can try and help find developers, and others in advertising or broadcasting, and in the arts sector, and work with them."

That won't be easy. As David Braben, founder of Frontier Games and creator of retro gaming classic Elite, says, many in government and other industries don't even know what games look like - let alone how they are made.

"There are a great many gamers that left gaming in the 1980s as they grew up," he told HuffPost.

"And with many (especially those without kids) their impression is it is the same now as it was then. I see that a great deal with politicians – their expectation is 2D platform games with annoying, repetitious music."

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Kan Muftic, senior concept artist at Rocksteady Studios

UKIE is trying change that through a mix of networking events and competitions run in conjunction with, for example, the Arts Council. But Twist believes there also has to be work done in schools to turn the perception and practice of computing programming from a pure science and into an art form of its own. Recent reforms to computer programming courses, which focus more on creativity (read "building stuff out of stuff") than the use of word processors, for instance, all help, but there is more still to do.

"Coding is still absolutely critical," Twist admits. "We know that we have a shortage of programmers. In London, in the tech corridor which stretches from Soho to King's Cross to Tech City there were 15 people that took computing programming A-level last year. That's supposed to be our most exciting digital hub in the country.

"But the games industry for us isn't just about coding - it is about creative technologists.

"It's such an interesting area, unfortunately I think a lot of people just see it as 'oh gosh I've got to teach coding, how dull'. We've got a job to do to help teachers get kids code-literate in different ways."

Twist is set to give a keynote speech at the ExPlay Festival in Bath at the start of November, where the industry will gather to celebrate its achievements - and look for new ways to train the next generation.

"We run the Video Games Ambassadors scheme, and we're relaunching that as well as a whole program of work about the industry getting into schools, getting into colleges and universities and cracking open the interactive entertainment industry," Twist said.

UKIE points to the rebirth of mobile and indie games development as something which can inspire new games makers. Where throughout the mid-1990s to mid-2000s the most popular games were almost all the work of big publishers with massive budgets, hits like Angry Birds and Minecraft are starting to allow kids to see how games are actually put together - and think about making their own.

"It's shocking how many kids just do not know that there is this amazing games industry in this country. Batman: Arkham City, GTA - they don't realise these games are made on their doorstep."

That's starting to change - and just as many of today's top games makers were bedroom coders in the 1980s, it's very possible that the same is true today. Yes, there are problems for the UK games industry to confront - and for many studios it's already too late. But Twist argues there is every chance we could be on the edge of a golden age - as long as there enough skills of all kinds to go around.

"Technologies that are levelling the playing field are making it more accessible," she said. "Like Unity for instance. They make it so that kids actually can start to see their creations look like really fantastic high production value games. Equally there are audio games being produced now that don't require graphics.

"It's about trying to open up peoples' imaginations."