Stephen Knightly: NZ punches above its weight in gaming sector

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At $31.4 million last year, exports outdid our overseas music and television sales, writes Stephen Knightly.

New Zealand has more game developers per capita than Australia or the United Kingdom. Chris Harris, managing director and owner of Kaiparasoft Ltd, is one of them. Photo / Brett Phibbs
New Zealand has more game developers per capita than Australia or the United Kingdom. Chris Harris, managing director and owner of Kaiparasoft Ltd, is one of them. Photo / Brett Phibbs

How big is the New Zealand game developer sector?
There are nearly 500 professional game developers here. Most of our games are for international audiences. We exported $31.4 million worth of digital games last year, which is greater than New Zealand's music or TV exports. Revenue grew 86 per cent last year, which shows what a difference a few hit games can make.

What are some of the industry's successes?
New Zealand-made smartphone games were downloaded more than 130 million times in the past year. That sounds like a lot, but with any digital business you need that scale. The predominant business model is "freemium", where you give a game away and then encourage "in-app" purchases.

This has proven more profitable than charging even a few dollars upfront. New Zealand developers specialise in making digitally distributed games that can be published online without needing a middleman.

Wellington-based Sidhe made many great console games but now has even greater success as smartphone publisher PikPok. Web browser and PC games are also popular.

Ninja Kiwi had a wildly successful online game portal and then extended that audience into hit smartphone games.

SmallWorlds has expanded its online world into non-English speaking markets such as South America. Path of Exile is a PC role-playing game with several million players. Downloadable games from New Zealand studios for the new XBox One and PlayStation 4 are a possibility. While many studios do contract work for the likes of Disney Interactive, Dreamworks, BBC Worldwide and local advertisers, larger profits come when you have a hit with your own ideas.

Do we punch above our weight in game development?
New Zealand has more game developers per capita than Australia or the United Kingdom. We seem to be great all-rounders who can combine the technical challenges with great design. We had a first-mover advantage. When App Store and Facebook games came along we got in early. Several studios had hit games, like Majic Jungle's Chopper, in the gold rush era and have grown their brands and loyal audiences since. The most successful New Zealand studios are already six or seven years old. New Zealand's international creative reputation extends to games. PikPok's Super Monsters Ate My Condo was nominated for a Bafta award in Britain and Michael Brough's Vesper5 was nominated for the Independent Games Festival Innovation Award this year.

How can young people get a start in game development?
Studying maths and physics, and maybe design, at school is the start. There are now specialist bachelor degrees in game development at the Media Design School in Auckland and several universities offer gaming or graphics papers. Many game-making tools are available free online, such as GameFroot, Construct 2 and Unity3D.

What are the industry's challenges?
It is now hyper-competitive and big players with large budgets have entered the market. But I believe many opportunities remain for games targeting a global niche and delivering a unique experience.

Stephen Knightly chairs the New Zealand Game Developers Association.

- NZ Herald

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