Can you tell us a bit about Exient and explain what type of games you produce?
Exient has been around since the year 2000 and throughout the years we have produced games for the biggest brands within the industry, including Fifa, Need for Speed, The SIMS, Angry Birds and many more. Many game developers have one big title in their portfolio; we have around 20. For the first 12 years we worked predominantly as a hired studio, so we developed games according to other people’s requirements and IP. We still do that, but in more recent times we are also taking out licences ourselves. From 2012/2013 onwards, we also started moving more into free-to-play games, while initially we were focused on developing console games mainly for retail. Angry Birds GO, Angry Birds Transformers and Lemmings for instance, are some of the wellknown titles that we have worked on. We also work with an iGaming company: PokerStars. They have a product called Powerup Poker. We did all the visuals for it, but did not do any of the coding or games design.
Based on your experience, what can the videogaming industry bring to the iGaming industry?
First of all, our visual and audio quality typically is much higher compared to the standards of the iGaming sector. We tend to be inspired by movie quality reproduction and aim for that in our productions. Also, we are very focused on the user experience. In free-to-play games you lose the player very quickly if the user experience isn’t great. I think the iGaming community could take advantage of our experience in this regard. We tend to develop games at a much faster pace than the iGaming industry. We need to know very quickly if a game is going to be successful and have to adopt a fail-fast approach. We are also a bit quicker in game development because our industry is not regulated. When working with iGaming companies, this also means that we won’t necessarily get it right from a regulatory point of view straightaway, but our content will most likely be a lot more creative and diverse.
Many iGaming companies want to make their products more social, fun and appealing, but often face regulatory constraints. The UK has come down hard on iGaming companies and forced them to remove characters that could appeal to children. What’s your view on this?
From my experience in video games we observe that children want to grow up quickly, and a mature character can be as appealing to them as cartoon characters can be. In fact, they often like mature characters more because they represent what they aspire to be. Look at Disney for instance, every Disney princess is a teenager and typically older than the core demographic. I am also pretty sure that if we had to take a look at an iGaming company’s portfolio, we could help to make their games more creative, more appealing and more mature for them without losing the qualities of the original work. For example, today in video gaming and movies we also use new scanning technology, which enables accurate capture of an actor’s performance and looks at a moment in time. So an actor at a certain point in time, will in digital form eternally retain that look and at that age. We can also augment the actor with skills and qualities for a character which may not be those of the actor, for example stunt work or other specialist skills demanded of the character one is trying to create. We are talking about a more authentic character than the real actor can portray. Just by looking at it on the screen, you won’t be able to say whether that character is real or a graphics model. I think this is very interesting technology for iGaming companies. I really believe that the iGaming industry could take much more from the video - gaming/movies industry – more than they actually know exists. I believe that potentially they don’t know what is possible because they are not part of this community. We should work on building stronger ties between the two industries.
So how did your relationship with PokerStars come about?
If I remember correctly, they actually approached another videogaming company in the UK, but they pointed them to us because they felt it was more our area of expertise. This is another difference between video-gaming
and iGaming - video-gaming companies share what they do. The iGaming industry is very secretive about everything they do. They are afraid that their competitor might get to know it. Personally, I don’t care if other companies copy us. It is the most sincere form of flattery, and frankly without going through the process to arrive at the creation, one can copy but, more often than not, will not understand its value. I believe our industry will improve by sharing our knowledge and experience, and we will get collectively better.
The video-gaming industry has come under fire due to the increased use of pay-to-win loot boxes, which are virtual boxes with random contents that one can purchase through video games with real money. Critics say that the rush of buying them is similar to the psychological sensation one feels when gambling. What’s your view on the controversy?
Loot boxes are a gambling product. There is no question about it, and are very similar to many other gambling products. Recently, Apple added a requirement that loot box odds are displayed on screen, which is a clear indication of the gambling nature of the purchase. The reason the industry had been getting away with it is that the player is not receiving money back, however, they are receiving value. In the iGaming industry it is very different, as players believe there is a change that they may win money or a prize. In video games the value is in the entertainment, and it is about the emotional journey through the game. We engage our customers in a broader diversity of emotions than I believe is observed in iGaming. That’s why video gaming is firmly established in the entertainment sphere. I think that once iGaming companies start thinking more about the emotional connection that they want to create with their customers, they will be able to offer a much more entertaining experience to their players.
You opened your studio in Malta a few years ago. What attracted you to Malta initially?
Five years ago the UK was one of the most expensive places to develop games due to low-cost competition from China and India and government support for the sector from nations such as Canada. So we had to find a way to lower our cost base. I looked at Canada, which has a great reputation for game development. However, in Canada we would have also been a small fish and in a sea of sharks. I liked Malta due to its proximity to the UK and the fact that it was a European nation with a shared history. However, I also liked the fact that we had easy access to decision-makers. I had the feeling that they wanted to build up this industry. I was hoping that we could build this sector together. We still kept our UK office in Leamington Spa though.
How has your Malta experience been so far?
Malta in many ways offers a plug-and-play environment, and I think many British people feel very much at home here. However, although my initial hopes were that we could create a game development ecosystem on the island, three years later I have to say that thus far we have had limited success, but there appears to be growing momentum. There are a few issues that need to be addressed. This industry needs highly technical and creative people, and so far we have seen limited co-operation with universities in Malta and abroad. More importantly, Malta is not tax competitive on the world stage. It does not offer what video-gaming companies actually need. Video games suck up a lot of cash before they make money. Corporate tax credits are not valuable to us. What is needed in my opinion is investment and development support, ideally a good package for R&D, cultural tax breaks, assistance for getting students into the industry, as well as some support for investors. I believe Malta really needs to look at what competing locations are offering such as Canada, the UK, France and Finland, and then create its own system. With costs rising in Malta, it is actually cheaper for us to operate from the UK at the moment. Ideally the Maltese authorities should consider devising a framework and incentive package specifically for the video games sector, as other jurisdictions have done.
How do you see the future of Exient in Malta?
We are staying and have invested significantly in Malta. For Malta to become the video-gaming hub we crave; we need political support, educational support, investment support and development support through an appropriately competitive tax regime. Without building the industry and bringing in more companies and talent, we cannot survive. Without the above, we would be wise to consider locations that already do so. Recently,
it feels like the winds of change are beginning to build, and the government and their agencies appear to be demonstrating a huge will to make this happen - for that I applaud Malta. In my experience, Malta is unique in their willingness to engage with industry, to understand their needs and to work on finding a solution. By working together, I am confident we will find a place for Malta in the huge industry that is video gaming.
David Hawkins is the cofounder, owner, and CEO of EXIENT, an internationally renowned award-winning developer of video games. EXIENT has developed games across various technology including Handheld, Console, PC/The Web and more recently the development of Free-to-Play mobile & tablet games. Included amongst EXIENT titles are games developed for IP such as: Angry Birds, F1, Lemmings, Little Big Planet, CSR Racing, FIFA, Madden, Tiger Woods, The Sims and Need For Speed. David has also served on the Board of TIGA (The Independent Games Developers
Association), he has an honours degree in Computer Science.