Ukie and the decade ahead: Dr Jo Twist OBE on 10 years as CEO

A decade is a long time to spend in any industry – but in a space that moves and evolves as fast as the games industry, it’s an era.

It’s hard not to think of that rapid evolution as I sit writing this feature  – sitting at my desk at home, with my PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and Nintendo Switch all sitting within reach, tempting me to distraction. In January of 2012 the industry was gearing up for its own new generation of consoles, with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One still a year away, while Nintendo’s ill-fated Wii U was set to release at the end of the year.

And meanwhile the poor beleaguered MCV staff writers of days gone would have huddled together in the office, free from worries about pandemics, and simply trying to remember how to make a magazine after the long Christmas break.

The ways in which the UK games industry has changed over the last decade are too numerous to mention, and that’s before you even get to life since March 2020.

Which is why I was delighted to have the opportunity to catch up with Dr Jo Twist OBE, who has just celebrated her tenth anniversary as CEO of Ukie. It would be an impressive achievement in any career, but her position at the helm of the industry’s trade body puts her in a unique position to not only look back at how far we’ve come, but provide insight as to what the next decade might look like.

And whatever 2032 looks like, it’s a safe assumption that Twist will probably be pretty busy.

“I am my harshest critic,” says Twist. “So there will never be a time where I just sit on my laurels. That’s not ever going to happen.”

LOOKING BACK

Those of us familiar with Ukie’s work can testify to that, I’m sure. But when looking back on her accomplishments, Twist instead celebrates the people around her – both those who were supporting her in 2012, and the team that has built up around her in more recent years.

“Well, I think, first and foremost, it’s really about the team that we’ve built at Ukie, because  they’re the ones who actually do the hard work.  I’m here to build that team. I’m here to set the direction, I’m here to make things happen. And I’m here to give them a sort of bold ambition. I am really proud of the team that they are, and therefore the organisation that Ukie is.

“When I started, the challenge was that we rebranded, changing from ELSPA to Ukie. We were changing what we do, we needed to reinvent this organisation. That doesn’t happen overnight, you need really good people to do that. So I’m first and foremost really proud of actually building the team that we have and have had over the last 10 years.”

Twist’s eagerness to recognise the work of her employees and peers goes back to some of her first achievements at Ukie, as she looks back on those early days.

“When I came into the job, there had already been so much tremendous work done by the industry on Video Games Tax Relief, which was secured in 2013, and we played a major part in that.

One achievement that Twist seems particularly proud of, and one that the industry at large will be reaping the benefits from for years to come, is Ukie’s efforts in education, such as the introduction of computer science to the school curriculum.

“You know, those were some of the early successes that I can’t take credit for. But that was a major campaign, the next gen skills campaign, spearheaded by Sir Ian Livingstone. That was successful, and we continued to support Creative Computing, education and teachers.

“And that commitment has grown into a really tremendously successful Digital Schoolhouse programme, which has just announced a new partnership with the Arts Council, which is a real achievement and that’s to turn eight libraries into learning hubs. So really continuing to support the teachers to teach in a creative way, because computer science and computational thinking…. They are the skills of the future. It is literacy that we need for the 21st century.”

Another element of Ukie’s work that Twist takes pride in is its focus on the data around the UK industry – getting an accurate picture of not just what the industry looks like, but about its regional impact across the country. Its this data-driven approach that underpins much of Ukie’s best work.

“I’ve always been obsessed with data and evidence ever since I was a journalist. I started off as an academic, and then was a journalist. So I would always get pitched stories that I would interrogate: ‘why are you sending me a story from a PR company that is based on a survey of 99 people? That’s not news!’ I’ve always been a huge believer in data and evidence being very important in telling your story, and making things happen.

“So, right from the Games Map that’s relaunching and refreshing this year, which is incredibly useful to tell our regional story about the games industry, to the annual consumer valuation, which takes into account not just spend on games themselves, but the whole culture of games. As well as to other really important bits of work, like the Screen Business Report that we’re a part of, and really shaking up and challenging how we’re counted as an economic powerhouse.”

TENDING THE GARDEN

As mentioned before, Twist has had a unique vantage point over the changes the industry has seen over the last decade. In fact, her role at the head of Ukie has allowed her a front row seat to witnessing small UK indie studios growing to become household names.

“All throughout my career, I think timing has been everything for me,” notes Twist. “I joined just as you started to see the mobile ecosystem and the App Store ecosystem grow. We started to get the golden age of indies, the VGTR and other things like the Games Fund, which was then the Prototype fund.

“All of that sort of came into play to really create this incredible ecosystem. Which, 10 years later, we’ve seen the journey and the lifespan of some of those companies that are now major successes, and have been acquired by the likes of Epic. Mediatonic, for example. I actually knew the guys at Mediatonic when I was at Channel Four (as commissioning editor for education from 2010-2012.) Ukie has been with them on that journey from startup, to scale up, to major global success story.

“That is the most fulfilling part of this job, because we’re all about that mission statement, which is to make the UK the best place in the world to make, sell and play games. And when you see businesses succeeding, that means we’re doing a good job. When you see the ecosystem flourishing, that means we’re playing some part in doing that.

“It’s been so incredible, and a testament to the health of the ecosystem, that there has been a record amount of investment into UK based companies. There’s also been an enormous amount of foreign direct investment that companies setting up in the UK.

“So we’re still at that competitive stage, but our job at Ukie is to look one step down the track. To make sure that, just like with a good garden, you need to fertilise the soil, you need to change things up a bit. We’re keeping that ecosystem healthy. The last few years has enabled us to really focus on those accelerator programmes, making businesses investor-ready, making businesses publisher-ready if they want to. How do we support those businesses at a national level so that they can do international trade? So that they can reach international marketplaces, so that they can grow?

“It has been so incredible to see that ecosystem really flourish. But the next 10 years is what I’m now kind of focused on, to make sure that the ecosystem continues to be healthy.”

LOOKING AHEAD

It’s easy to become complacent with the industry’s successes, particularly over the last few years. But as life since 2020 has shown us, there’s always an unexpected curveball coming your way eventually – like Twist, we’d be wise not to rest on our laurels and instead look toward making the next decade even more productive than the last.

“We have seen our contribution to the economy almost double in the last couple of years. We’re now supporting over 70,000 jobs. We’ve got eight key clusters up and down the country contributing more than £100 million to GVA. We’ve got a great story to tell.

“But we’re also leading in innovation, in terms of how that innovation bleeds into other sectors. Two years ago, nobody was talking about virtual production in the UK. Now, even outside the games industry, everyone’s talking about virtual production using Unreal Engine and Unity. And that means that we’re facing a real talent shortage. We’re facing increased competition from not just the tech sector. We’re also competing with the film industry, the advertising industry and other creative industries for our creative technological talent.

“I think that’s added to the increased cost of production and development in games, it’s added to the increased cost to bring in people from international waters. I think it is a challenge for us.

“Also, the more that people are talking about things like the metaverse and lots of really interesting bleeding edge innovations, and the bigger that we grow in terms of who plays games, the more scrutiny we are going to get. And the more that legislation is going to be running to catch up in order to protect consumers. Consumer protection is a huge priority, as well as protecting minors. But again, we’ve got a really fantastic story to tell, and that’s not going to ever go away.”

THE M WORD

The utterance of the dreaded ‘M’ word has sometimes been a frustrating one for anyone who regularly follows industry news. As with anything deemed to be the ‘next big thing,’ terms such as the metaverse invite as much cynicism as they do devotees. And while that cynicism is often justified, that doesn’t mean we should dismiss these ‘buzzwords’ entirely.

“Buzzwords are often very useful to hang ideas on and to get people interested in areas or ways of being. The reality is the internet is only fledgling, right? And the games industry has really been creating the building blocks for a lot of these social virtual worlds for the last 30 years. And, I say 30 years because I think it’s all about that interconnected human element, so multiplayer or worlds in which you’re sharing social virtual worlds.

“I think it’s healthy for us to be sceptical. But as a trade body, what we need to do is to really unpick the implications of certain innovations and technologies like blockchain, for instance. And we’ve had a track record and doing that in the past, it’s what our job is. In 2012 we commissioned a white paper looking at crowdfunding and equity based crowdfunding, and made some recommendations as to how equity based crowdfunding as opposed to just donations could be enabled in UK legislation. And also regulated in a way that didn’t put unnecessary barriers to innovation and startups, but also protected consumers.

“So we need to think about the implications of these things. Because these concepts: cryptocurrency, blockchain,  these things are not going away. Whether they become the way that we do things, I don’t know. I am fascinated by NFTs, I am fascinated by how it fits into our world. I am more fascinated by the play to learn mechanic. And from a personal perspective. I get excited when I look at the potential of the games industry and what we’re creating, to reach people’s lives in different kinds of ways.

‘When we talk about a global industry, we’re not really a global industry yet. You know, we’ve got the entire continent of India, the entire continent of Africa and African nations. You think about how technology has enabled participation in economic systems in emerging economies where typically people might be locked out of participating. I think that’s a really interesting idea.

“Who is it for us to sort of say if play to earn is right or wrong? You know, when  we want to protect games as entertainment – games as entertainment is a real privilege to have. What about where games go in terms of providing people a living? So all of those challenge the industry in lots of really unique ways. We don’t have the answers, but I think what we can do is to try and provide a space for those conversations to happen, and for us to be looking down the road to help support or to guide businesses who want to go into that kind of territory.”

Of course, some of these territories are more fraught than others. The rising popularity of NFTs has been particularly controversial, given their often enormous environmental impact. It’s important to remember that, whatever direction the industry moves in, it doesn’t forget its responsibilities or the harm it could cause.

“We have made a commitment as a trade body, but also as an industry, to the climate agenda. Playing for the Planet is a really important alliance. And we have a really important role to play as an industry, in that we must balance these kinds of technological advances and these kinds of technologies with how we’re considering our practises and the impact on not just the environment, but on society as a whole.

“I’m also very keen that the games industry at the very least really leads on making sure that any efforts to build the metaverse, however you want to consider that, is built in a way that has inclusivity at its heart and accessibility at its heart, and that is designed in a way that is protecting people. We’ve already engaged a lot with the ICO in terms of the Children’s Code, which really is about thinking about privacy by design, and protections that we, as an industry, take really seriously.

“Retrofitting considerations of accessibility or inclusion or safety controls, and that kind of thing is much more difficult than actually designing these things with those principles at its heart. So I think we have, as an industry, a role to play in continuing to be responsible and showing people how to be responsible, whether it be in terms of our climate impact, or in terms of our social impacts, and in terms of accessibility and inclusion.”

CONCERNING CONSOLIDATION

Now for context, my chat with Twist took place just a few days before Microsoft’s eye-watering $68.7bn acquisition of Activision Blizzard. And while that bomb had yet to hit, the surge of acquistions in recent years was still hard to ignore. After all, the previously mentioned Mediatonic has gone from a small British studio to being owned by Epic Games. Is Twist concerned about the industry’s trend toward consolidation?

“I think it’s something that we need to look at. Again, our job is to keep the UK competitive and to continue to make sure that the ecosystem is healthy. Which is why we are working with Creative England on the Creative Scale Up programme, why we continue to lobby for further support and expansion of the UK Games Fund for those early stage companies and prototypes – which was announced in the budget, which was fantastic to see. And it’s why we’re asking the government for an uplift in the video games tax credit that companies receive, because all of those measures are important.

“But as well as that, it’s about the skills and talent development. It is not just early stage businesses who need that support in order to understand how they build a business plan, how they actually reach scale. They need the talent, and to be able to hire people to help them grow, they need the incentives to be able to take those risks. So for us, it is something that we’re very aware of, that consolidation could be a concern.

“But I think with more capital in those companies, and more security for studios, we’re in a completely different place than where we were in the 90s and 2000s. I think that is very, very positive for the industry. But at the same time, it needs to be balanced out with, ‘right, where’s the next generation coming from? How are we going to continue to create this ecosystem to make sure that we’re getting these companies that are up and coming and diversifying our ecosystem?’”

That focus on the next generation is seen in Ukie’s continued work in the education sector, as the trade body works to help to not only ensure the industry has the talent it needs going forward, but that a more diverse set of people have access to well-paying jobs.

“It’s why we really value the relationship within Into Games that we have. They’re doing some amazing work. Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen so many more organisations set up to specifically help with careers,  whether that be the National Videogame Museum and the education outreach and work that they do, to a lot of the mentoring networks that are really trying to support people who need to grow in their careers and reach those positions of leadership from a diverse range of talent pools.

“I think that’s a really healthy thing, and that is something that the industry can do itself. The industry has come together for the #RaiseTheGame pledge. And the census work that we first launched two years ago, and we’ll be reporting the second census this year. That’s incredibly important so that we can benchmark where these initiatives are making a difference to diversity inclusion.

“But I think there’s also still a role for the government. There is still a role for thinking collectively across our sectors, like the creative industry sector, about our national skills agenda. What is the agenda for national skills? You know, we’re talking about skills that change very, very quickly. Job titles that change, or are created that didn’t exist two years ago. These require different kinds of skill sets.

“We can’t do it on our own, we need to make sure that there is a more of a joined up strategy. And that’s not just about the formal education route either. We all know, working in games, that there tends to not be a typical route. But how do we at least articulate those pathways into careers?

“I think the work that people like Gina Jackson are doing on workshops and boot camps for women, doing more programmes that support people returning after work after a period of absence, or coming in from different sectors and getting people up to speed… All of those things are also going to help in terms of the future skills requirements that we need.”

GOVERNMENT SUPPORT

But what about that role for the government? While the government is sure to be delighted about the money the industry is contributing to the economy, is it aware of the kind of support we’ll need in order to continue to grow and improve?

“At Ukie we’re just about to embark on a consultation with members in the sector at large as to… what the next 10 years really look like in terms of what they need? What does success look like, so that we can work with the government and inform them and make sure that they understand where targeted interventions are going to help us grow and fulfil their levelling up agenda or contribution to the jobs market, etc.

“And they do recognise that we are a powerhouse, we are, again, supporting 70,000 jobs up and down the country, we’re delivering 5.3 billion in GVA to the economy, we are levelling up already across key places across the country. The majority of games companies are exporters, the government strategy is about innovation-led recovery and export. So we have a great story to tell, but certain interventions are still required. Support for SMEs to be accessing international markets, trade accelerator programmes… you know, where is our huge B2B trade show in the UK? Those kinds of interventions will help us maintain our competitive edge.

“But again, outside of DIT’s remit is the skills agenda, the talent shortage that we’re looking at, we know the numbers. And this is actually something that is perhaps related to the pandemic. I saw some figures this week, looking at international comparisons, and across different sectors, not just the games sector, there are a lot of open roles. Yet there are a lot of people looking for opportunities, and there seems to be a mismatch there.”

The industry certainly has a lot to celebrate, but we’re hardly the first to point out the problems ahead – from cultural concerns such as toxic and abusive work environments to practical concerns such as the growing skills shortage. So we’re glad to have Twist here to provide not only perspective on how far we’ve come, but also to look to the future – to ensure that the next decade is better than the one behind us.

“Given the two years that we’ve been through, given the amount of consolidation that we’ve seen as an industry, given a lot of the scrutiny that we’ve had – both internally as an industry and externally, I think now is a really good time to just reflect on the next 10 years. And to really set our ambitions high as a UK industry. So that’s what we’re going to be doing as a trade body.”

And true to style, Twist celebrates those who have made her work possible over the past decade.

“One of the things I would say I am proud of is the diversity and the support that we get from our board. The board when I started was absolutely fantastic, amazing people. But the board now is much more diverse in terms of who they represent, what companies they represent, but also who they are. They are such an amazing board, and all our past board members have been absolutely critical. So I just want to pay tribute to them and say thank you.”

About Chris Wallace

Chris is a freelancer writer and was MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer from November 2019 until May 2022. He joined the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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