Booming NZ game industry faces skills shortage

By Ben Chapman-Smith

A screen shot from Grinding Gear Games' popular online role playing hit Path of Exile.
A screen shot from Grinding Gear Games' popular online role playing hit Path of Exile.

New Zealand's thriving video game industry boosted its earnings by more than 85 per cent last year but future growth could be hampered by a shortage of graduates.

The New Zealand Game Developers Association's 33 member studios collectively hiked their earnings to $36.3 million in the year to March, up 86 per on the previous year.

In an independent survey of its members, the association found Kiwi-made mobile games had been downloaded about 130 million times in the year.

"Gaming is now firmly established as one of the core sectors of New Zealand's creative economy," said Stephen Knightly, chairman of the NZGDA.

"New Zealand studios are demonstrating sustainable growth and winning huge audiences globally in a highly competitive market."

Most of the industry's revenue - about $31 million - came from from exports of smartphone and online games.

There are now 448 full-time professional game developers in the country, up nearly 20 per cent on last year, but 44 per cent of the studios said their growth was being stunted by skills shortages.

"While our industry continues to demonstrate impressive growth, there is a very real risk that the brakes may be applied in future," Knightly said.

"Game development is a serious career option these days and we're attracting very bright and creative people to the industry, but we could do with more."

Chris Wilson, founder of Grinding Gear Games, said he had doubled his team to 44 people this year but hiring had been challenging at times.

"The times we have hired, it's taken a long time. Historically the industry hasn't been very strong."

The Media Design School in Auckland has two Bachelor degrees in game development and game art, and several universities now offer game development papers.

Wilson said the Media Design School degrees were helping address the problem, but there was now more competition for graduates.

"More recently, there are more people but also more companies to take them."

Another problem was that programmers were often tempted to go and work for banks, which paid far more money than gaming studios, Wilson said.

Grinding Gear Games last week officially launched its game Path of Exile, which has attracted about 500,000 new registrations since.

Just under 300,000 people are playing the game every day, clocking up more than 6.7 million hours of play during launch week.

Knightly said New Zealand had established an international reputation for its games, with 18 per cent of studios producing a game for international film or TV studios in the last year.

"Original IP means we have higher margins and grow audiences over time. Many of the hit Kiwi games aren't one-offs but are franchises with loyal fan bases that will earn money for several years to come," he said.

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