rage expo 2015 floor crowd

Interactive Entertainment South Africa (IESA), announced in January over at Make Games SA, is a new industry body aimed at supporting “interactive entertainment” companies and affiliate organisations through research grants, bursary programmes, trade missions and lobbying of government for better legislation and support around video games. Its website recently launched with its prospectus and fee structure, and I thought it would be a good chance to dig into the details: what it’s really all about, what are the current plans going forward, what it hopes to achieve given its proposed budget and why the need for a second organisation that, at first glance, seems to overlap with many of Make Games SA’s stated objectives.

To that end, I spoke with IESA CEO Nicholas Hall – formerly of Make Games SA and an associate of Michalsons law firm – to find out more.

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Nicholas Hall, CEO of Interactive Entertainment South Africa 

NAG: So. Interactive Entertainment South Africa (IESA) – could you give me an idea of what you feel falls under the banner of interactive entertainment? In a similar vein, is IESA aiming to represent those who promote and cover games (Let’s Players, YouTubers, blogs, press, etc.) in addition to developers, publishers, retailers and creators?

Nicholas Hall (NH): The core sectors in the industry that would be covered by “interactive entertainment” are: Games for Entertainment (across all platforms), Serious Games, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Simulators. Companies directly involved in the development, distribution and publishing of these types of media would be our target “members”. For now IESA will be an umbrella organisation for all these sectors, but in time as numbers grow we will look at the feasibility of opening different chapters or committees to deal with these different focus areas.

I’ve been approached by a number of YouTubers and Let’s Players who have expressed an interest in joining IESA and I don’t see why they shouldn’t be able to join in some capacity. I’m not sure that full membership as described in our prospectus would be appropriate, but I will definitely investigate the possibility of a specific tier for these sorts of content creators if there is sufficient demand.

NAG: While the body is clearly focused on South Africa, is there any interest from international parties? Sony, Microsoft, international publishers?

NH: I haven’t engaged directly with most of the international parties yet. I’ve had conversations with the likes of Microsoft and Nintendo of America who all support IESA as a body but haven’t committed to joining (nor have I asked them to). There is definitely a place for these types of organisations in IESA and I will be engaging with them in the future to see if they will join us in some capacity.

NAG: What do you see as IESA’s immediate challenges and goals going forward?

NH: The most immediate challenge will be to get sufficient businesses to join IESA to make it viable and to give us the necessary budget to take on the projects that I think are necessary. The key to this will be persuading local businesses that IESA provides sufficient value to them to warrant the membership fee. In this regard (at the time of writing), we only need two more businesses to join as full members to meet our minimal target to be sustainable.

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NAG: You stated on the Make Games SA forums that there’s a two-fold need for IESA: because of the need to charge membership fees and to woo back professional developers that have disassociated themselves from Make Games SA. So, firstly, what will the fees be used for, aside from salaries? And why have some developers become wary of Make Games SA?

NH: Salaries form the majority of the budget. But we will be looking at also funding local exhibitions, trade missions, bursaries and research projects. I want IESA to be totally open and transparent, so in this regard I’ve attached my “ideal” budget/business plan. [Note: Nick sent us a budget for review, which you can review here. You can also review the budget on the IESA site] I will be working to get sufficient memberships to make this budget a reality. Salaries are the priority line item, with local events and research the next most important things.

I think “woo back” may be the wrong term. The main problem that Make Games SA is facing at the moment is that while many professional developers still visit the forums, they no longer engage or participate as much as they used to. I think part of this problem is that Make Games is no longer providing value to them. IESA, hopefully, gives these businesses a means of helping to develop the local industry without necessarily having to participate on the forum, though I think steps need to be taken to bring them back into the fold, and IESA can hopefully help with that.

NAG: Reviewing the budget/business plan, I’d like to elaborate on the fees. Given the membership fees and amounts required to be sustainable, what are the benefits that can be expected by companies at the full membership level? While having a body representing the interests of the industry as a whole with the financial clout to do so has its advantages, how does it benefit them in the short- and medium-term?

NH: By enabling me to draw a salary, I now have more freedom to dedicate time to IESA issues. In the past I would have to coordinate trips to meet officials with actual work functions, or I would have to let opportunities go because I would be unable to attend meetings or give sufficient time to fully realize the opportunity. For example, I will be attending a stakeholders meeting hosted by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) for comments on the Copyright Amendment Bill; in the past either I’d have had to hope that I’d be in Pretoria around those dates to justify my travel along with covering the expenses (or, as happened more frequently, I would end up covering those costs myself).

With IESA I know I can go on the dates required and spend time preparing for the meeting, without also having to worry how I’m going to get paid at the end of the month or the loss in fees I would experience. So the one short- to medium-term benefit is that I am readily available to deal with issues and dedicate more time to them. The other is I’ve got more flexibility now to really pursue projects and initiatives that previously I couldn’t.

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Gamescom 2012. It’s a pretty big deal.

One of my immediate goals for this year is to get a fully-funded national pavilion at Gamescom this year. If we pull it off we’ll be able to send 15 companies to Gamescom and have South Africa represented at the show, marking the first time an African country will be represented at this massive event. Apart from the Gamescom trip I’m also looking at getting a trade mission to the Paris Games Week funded. These are all things that companies could do individually, but by IESA being funded we’d be able to assume responsibility of these hassles. Workshops and training initiatives are other benefits that members can expect to receive in the short-term.

NAG: Currently, we have yourself as CEO. Is anyone else on the managing board, and if so, in what capacity?

NH: The founding board members (in addition to myself) are Luke Lamothe of 24 Bit Games and Evan Greenwood of Free Lives. We will constitute a new board based on our actual membership at the end of March.

NAG: In the prospectus, IESA states one of the benefits of membership is “access to IESA research and reports”. What does IESA see as the primary areas to focus on here? Do you feel that there are serious knowledge gaps that need to be immediately addressed?

NH: First and foremost I’d like to build on the industry surveys that I’ve being doing through Make Games and I will be running the same survey through IESA this year. I would also like to get a much better idea of what our local consumer market looks like. There has been the report by PWC but I don’t think it’s granular enough. I want to know how many digital downloads across the different platforms there are, I want to know how many corporates are spending money on Serious Games, how “big” VR is in both the consumer and corporate spaces. There is so much that we don’t know about the consumer market in South Africa which makes it very difficult to talk to international organisations and government.

NAG: You mention “lobbying and policy support”. In my mind, lobbying typically involves engaging with government on legislative and regulatory issues. While this may be premature, what issues are IESA hoping to tackle in this arena first?

NH: I’ll be picking up where I left off with Make Games’ lobbying efforts. The Film and Publications Board online policy, the Film and Publications Amendment Bill, changes to the Copyright Act, the new Cybercrimes and Cybersecurity Bill, as well as lobbying for changes to the exchange control regulations and getting “game development” listed as a critical skill for work visas are all things I’d like to start tackling.

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NAG: Similar bodies in other countries have gone on to form supporting organisations. For example, the Entertainment Software Association formed the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), which became the primary ratings body and de-facto standard for video games in the US. There are also several working groups for topics like intellectual property. Is IESA looking to do the same, or rather educate and assist existing bodies?

NH: Where we can partner with existing organisations we will try to do so, there is no point in IESA trying to reinvent the wheel or tackling issues where it doesn’t have the core competency or budget to deal with these sorts of issues. If there is a gap, and we have the budget and manpower for it, we will look at trying to fill that gap.

NAG: Does IESA also see itself acting as intermediary for international interactive entertainment companies that perhaps feel hesitant or don’t know how to operate in SA? A recent example: Black Desert Online has an extensive list of serviced countries but excludes SA and I can’t help but think it’s partly because there’s no obvious starting point for them to even consider operating locally.

NH: Definitely, for example I’ve already started conversations with Nintendo of America to get local games onto their systems, but also to open South Africa as market. I’ve had similar talks with IESA’s equivalent in France (SNJV) with the goal of building relationships with French companies and developers. I intend to reach out to similar organisations in the UK, Canada, the US and across Europe with similar goals.

NAG: While IESA’s focus does seem to lean towards industry, it will have an impact on local gamers. If they were interested in getting involved and/or supporting IESA, what can they do to help or participate?

NH: Supporting local studios by buying their products or making use of their services is the best way. If they would like to be more direct they can always make a donation to IESA. We have a temporary website up at the moment at www.iesa.org.za.

NAG: Thanks for your time!