7 Nov 2021

'Games should be engines of happiness' - The rise of NZ's video game industry

From Standing Room Only, 5:16 pm on 7 November 2021

The global video industry is worth $135b but where does Aotearoa fit in the gaming world? Standing Room Only talks to some of the top players in the local industry about NZ's shot at a high score.

Teenage gamer boy playing video games on smartphone and computer in dark room wearing headphones and using backlit colorful keyboard

Photo: 123RF

The world-wide video game industry is big. It's really big.

Ten years ago it generated more than $US25 billion of income a year in the US alone, but last year it took in $135 billion dollars. Globally, it's been estimated that gaming is worth over $300 billion - that's more than the film and music industries combined.

But it's also one of the most challenging and creative industries to work in. The production of a top-end game can rival most movie blockbusters - there's narrative, story arcs, even characters.

But the range is extraordinary - from cellphone word games and brain teasers to empire-building, shoot-'em-ups and My Little Pony.

What many of us don't realise is how many Kiwi companies are doing games - and doing very well with them. Today, we take a look at one of this country's biggest audience generators.

What counts as a video game in 2021? Who's playing them, what's the range, how many people does it take to make them and where does Aotearoa New Zealand fit in the gaming world?

Standing Room Only's Yadana Saw talks to Chelsea Rapp - Chairperson of the NZ Game Developers Association,  Patrick Wagner - head of interactive Weta Workshop, and Zoe Hobson - CEO of Runaway Play in Dunedin. 

Chelsea Rapp, Chairperson NZGDA; Patrick Wagner, Head of Interactive - Weta Workshop; Zoe Hobson, CEO Runaway Play

Chelsea Rapp, Chairperson NZGDA; Patrick Wagner, Head of Interactive - Weta Workshop; Zoe Hobson, CEO Runaway Play Photo: Supplied

Rapp said the size of the industry is staggering.

"Worldwide it grosses around $250 billion every year, and it grows more every year."

The industry is much broader than just teenage boys and young men playing Call Of Duty, she said.

"I love to tell people if you play Candy Crush very casually you are a gamer."

"Gamification" of other digital tools can be seen in places like fitness or diet apps.

"The principles of games have really expanded into so many other industries that we've really moved beyond just the idea of the first-person shooter on the Xbox," Rapp said.

New Zealand's gaming industry is a minnow on the global scale, but still has a solid return.

"Last year alone the industry generated about $276 million in revenue and we have about 970 full-time jobs," a number which has risen sharply from the previous year, Rapp said.

There are about 60 professional game studios working full-time in New Zealand, with the oldest nearly 30 years old.

Covid-19 and people being in lockdown has proved a boon to the industry.

"I think all areas of game development have grown especially during the pandemic. You know more people are playing games now than ever before," Rapp said.

A photo of a boy teaching his father or grandfather how to game using a gaming controllers.

Photo: 123rf

Zoe Hobson's Runaway Play focuses on mobile games like Old Friends Dog Game, Furistas Cat Cafe and Splash: Ocean Sanctuary.

"At Runaway we make mobile games inspired by the natural world which means we have a lot of creatures and natural environments in our games, but we also make games that bring happiness to our players' lives," she said.

"We believe that games should be engines of happiness."

Gaming is increasingly popular with women, who follow a lot of Runaway's games.

"We've established a really strong player base," Hobson said.

"The vast majority of that player base are women aged broadly 18 to 45 with a very large proportion of that demographic in the US."

Wētā Workshop started out as physical effects company for film and TV and have diversified to include gaming.

It was focused on exploring new frontiers, said Wagner.

"We have been focused on delivering new experiences on new mediums," with a new PC life simulation game soon to be announced, he said.

A gamer uses a PS4 controller as he plays at the new Ubisoft video game "Watch Dogs Legion"

Photo: AFP or licensors

The industry draws creative types as well as technical geniuses. Staff include artists, programmers, back-end developers and other specialists.

Runaway's nature-themed games, for example, call for a dedicated nature researcher, Hobson said.

"Part of his role is to make sure that the creatures in our games accurately reflect the real world," right up to checking that butterfly wing patterns in their game Flutter are spot-on.

"I think that's the thing that draws a lot of us to games, is being able to create a world," Hobson said.

For Weta Workshop, video games may occupy some of the same territory as movies, but it's a very different creative experience, Patrick said.

"In a video game we don't know what the decision of the player is going to be. ... Nothing is written in advance.

"So the experience you will have playing a game will be different than the experience I will have playing the exact same game.

"This is something we have to keep in mind when we're building, all the work that goes into video games, everything has to be dynamic, reacting to player's inputs."

And the stereotypical image of games being all about shooting is constantly changing.

At the major global video game conference E3, this year saw a "huge leap in the number of games that are non-violent," Rapp said.

"The biggest expansion of gaming is not in the areas that you typically think of when you think about video games. It's not going to be in those first-person shooters and things like that."