A Roundabout way of doing things

History seems to tell us its culture not real estate that will make Silicon Roundabout work. How will Bricks and Mortar (or plate glass) effect grass roots innovation?

A digital hub in a transport hub: the vision for Silicon Roundabout (courtesy BBC)

A digital hub in a transport hub: the vision for Silicon Roundabout (courtesy BBC)

In early December, Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson united to unveil plans to transform Shoreditch, East London, in a bid to turn it into a high tech hub for the UK.

In a sure sign that both politicians and journalists still like to think in what Nicholas Negroponte might call ‘Atoms not Bits’ (Bricks and mortar are still seen as more impressive than abstract and rather invisible interventions in the market) media headlines led with the proposed £50 million new building and “largest indoor civic space in europe” which will sprout from Old Street roundabout. Cameron announced that Microsoft will open a technology developer centre and there will be an incubator centre run by UCL with Cisco and DC Thompson to help new companies. It’s not clear the effect this will have on the low rent environment that was Shoreditch’s original attraction for many start-ups.

Although the government now prefers the title Tech City, Silicon Roundabout was the original vernacular used by its earliest denizens. The term seems to have been christened in July 2008 by Matt Biddulph, who was at the time CTO of Dopplr (the online service that lets travellers share future travel plans with friends, since swallowed by Nokia). Dopplr was one of the first 15 companies identified then as a cluster. The term was seized upon by Mark Prigg, Science and Technology Editor of The Evening Standard with the headline “Roundabout is London’s Answer to Silicon Valley”. 

By January 2010, Wired magazine noted there were 85 start-up companies in the area, drawn by rents, hip nightlife and a legacy of existing tech and creative firms from the 80’s; Dopplr, Last.fm, Consolidated Independent, Tinker.it, TweetDeck, Berg, Trampoline Systems, AMEE, Skimbit, Fotango, weartical.com, Songkick, Techlightenment, Poke London, Kizoom, BrightLemon, Redmonk, Moo, LShift and Livemusic being the leading lights.

The undeveloped real estate: Old St Roundabout

The undeveloped real estate: Old St Roundabout

By the time DEMOS had written the report “A Tale of Tech City: The future of inner east london’s digital economy” in June 2012, the area had gained both acreage and density with over 3,200 firms and over 48,000 jobs.

This makes it the biggest employer of all the UK ‘Silicons’: Silicon Glen (Dundee/Inverclyde) and Silicon Fen (Cambridge). There seems to be a contest on for Silicon Beach between Brighton and Bournemouth, which hasn’t yet caught the public imagination.

Why is it when we talk about clusters of high-tech companies and media agencies, it isn’t long before some comparison to Silicon Valley is made? No other Silicon suffixed cluster has been able to nestle within a capital city outside of Africa (Silicon Lagoon in Lagos, Silicon Cape in Cape Town and Silicon Savannah in Nairobi tell a story of central funding in Africa), so London’s cluster is quite unusual in this respect. Israel’s Silicon Wadi centres around Tel Aviv, (although it has since stretched to Jerusalem, however that may be due to the concentration of space in Israel, and also media agencies like Thomson Reuters and the BBC needing such a base). Less well known are Silicon Alley in New York, Silicon Dominion in Virginia and Silicon Forest in Portland, Oregon, to name just a few.

As AnnaLee Saxenian Dean and Professor in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, – who has spent years studying the valley’s attributes – says “Simply having the ingredients of Silicon Valley doesn’t mean you have its regional dynamism. This notion that you can grow the next Silicon Valley by putting together a science park, venture capital and a university has been roundly disproven.”

So what makes Silicon Valley endure, and can we learn anything from it? The Santa Clara Valley (originally mostly walnut and apricot farms) seem to be as much about the culture engendered as the low rents and lock-ups of the time, and the ready supply of gifted students from Stanford and Berkeley.

Wish you were here? This is what 225,300 high-tech jobs look like

Wish you were here? This is what 225,300 high-tech jobs look like

AnnaLee Saxenian charts how what became Silicon Valley benefitted from the collapse of the Boston high-tech centre that had built up around Route 128 in the 70’s defined by six of the ten largest technology firms in the world (including DEC, Wang, Lotus, Raytheon, Sun Microsystems).

The towering monoliths of Route 128 operated in competitive secrecy. Former DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) VP Gordon Bell remarked that DEC was “a large entity that operates as an island in the regional economy”. At one point DEC employed more than 120,000 people, which like it’s rival neighbours was constricted by an insular culture that was enforced by ‘non-compete clauses’ and non-disclosure agreements, and scientists who were dissuaded from publishing in acknowledged peer-reviewed journals.

Against this command and control backdrop, where these ‘island’ companies kept to themselves, there was an urban culture of openness and collaboration developing in California. Silicon Valley’s success and Route 128’s nadir was about two competing social and business cultures rather than the setting aside of business parks or tax incentives.

In “Imagine: How Creativity Works”  Jonah Lehrer charts how the creativity of an urban area depends upon its ability to encourage the free-flow of information.  Although both Boston and San Jose had a density of talent, the talent wasn’t able to interact or share within the Route 128 cluster.

In urban California, the start-ups were more informal and being smaller, had to share engineers and techies to get by as a necessity. Work was more project-based, with companies having short lifespans (the average tenure at a Silicon Valley company was less than two years). The café and bar culture promoted informal interaction and dense social networks loosened tongues. Whereas information flowed vertically in the towering walled fiefdoms of DEC, Lotus and Wang in Boston, it flowed horizontally with ease in California. Also non-compete clauses (a powerful weapon in the hands of the big Boston corporations) were almost never enforced in California, thus freeing out of work engineers and executives to quickly re-enter the job market and work for competitors.

Informal urban networks grew through bar and café culture- and the zeal for informal meeting places spread to loose groups like the now almost mythic Homebrew Computer Club, founded in a Menlo Park garage in 1975. It was a club for hobbyists, since there was not yet an established industry for this new creativity. Within a year nearly 750 people were members. As early member and doctor, engineer, and entrepreneur Bob Lash states “The excitement at homebrew was electric, and during the period of ’74 to ’76 I constructed a working 12-bit microprogrammed minicomputer using a 30-bit micro-control store entirely out of about 100 SSI/MSI TTL wire-wrapped chips, which (thanks to the understanding of my wife) I still have in the garage” Members built their own inexpensive machines from components to impress each other, and circuit diagrams and schematics were shared as freely as advice and support. Alliances were made; it was here that a Hewlett-Packard engineer called Steve Wozniak had shown his ground breaking twenty dollar microprocessor with 256k of memory that caught the attention of a young Steve Jobs. As interest grew, meetings moved to the Stanford University Physics department.

The two Steves

The two Steves

Through a culture of informality, unregulated curiosity, sprawling social networks and a lack of centralised policy Silicon Valley grew to spawn 225,300 high-tech jobs and the most billionaires in the United States per capita.

It’s clear that this culture was also present in Silicon Roundabout’s inception. Hoxton’s cafes, bars and clubs provide that informal network, where everyone knows everyone. In a 2008 article Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, of interactive consultancy tinker.it (the online store for Arduino products), said the area had developed a sense of community, adding: “We are based in a building with a courtyard in the middle and everyone around is doing really exciting things. Generally we all end up having coffee together and comparing what we are working on. I think a lot of deals have been done that way.” That was in 2008, but Alexandra is still in Shoreditch, as an interaction designer & entrepreneur at Designswarm. Matt Webb, co-founder of design consultancy Schulze and Webb, said “The networking possibilities are amazing. On our first day here we were having lunch in the park and we came across the guys from last.fm, who we are really keen to work with”.

Tech City and 3,200 firms

Tech City and 3,200 firms

It’s this cultural narrative that politicians often miss in their desire to see high tech clusters mushroom in their own backyard. It’s a culture of serendipity and accidental meetings, a loose social network where unplanned alliances can transform companies.

In London we are seeing the rebranding of Silicon Roundabout into Tech City, led by the creation of the Tech City Investment Organisation (TCIO) as a branch of the government’s UK Trade & Investment (UKT&I) group. Erik van der Kleij, chief executive of the Tech City Investment Organisation outlines their mission “The digital sector is the only sector of the economy that is capable of giving us double digit growth. At government level, that is an area we’re very keen to help with and not mess up. We want to do the things at policy level to help growth happen” Plans involve merging Tech City with the vacant Olympic Park media centre further east in Stratford which has never had the social buzz of Shoreditch, but definitely has the post-Olympic cheap rents.

TechCityLogoIn their 136 page “A Tale of Tech City: the future of inner East London’s digital economy” Demos’ Centre for London thinktank issues a caution; “There are fears that by concentrating its energy on the Olympic Park sites, which many see as the main reason for the government’s continued attention, the TCIO risks diminishing the energy of what is still a young cluster.”  It also comments “our evidence also tells us that artificially generating clusters in mature industries – as digital content and ICT now are – is very difficult”.

Innovation and Growth is not an exact science. It may well be that the Tech City vision will be realised not by a 50 million pound civic centre and start up incubator complex as much as the ability to hold whatever todays version of the Homebrew Computer club may be, in some bar or café, where chance encounter and talent footfall might combine and connect.

Where next? But the culture needs to be right for Innovation, and that means social culture.

Where next? But the culture needs to be right for Innovation, and that means social culture too.


MISSING IN ACTION: Why Women aren’t animated about games

(Published Dec 2010) With a major report highlighting that women are leaving the media industries in their droves, Animation and Games are shown to particularly lack female talent. So what’s it like for that rarest of species, the female games animator?

This is an abridged version of an article in IMAGINE magazine, available from here


In my previous article here I discussed the curious dissonance between the increasingly familiar imagery of the casual female gamer  (replacing that of the male hardcore gamer in the popular unconscious, primarily thanks to the Wii and Nintendo DS campaigns) and an industry that remains remorselessly male.

Considering the shift in how we consume games, and the rise in woman gamers, why aren’t we seeing young women being attracted into the industry. Seemingly, despite being welcome to play games, they aren’t being welcomed to work on games.


Vital Statistics

The gender imbalance is a normal fact of working in games. It only achieved wider exposure recently when Skillset published their “Women in the creative media industries” report in September 2010.

Statistics often don’t reveal causes or motivation. However, if we look a little wider we’ll see that the Animation industry as a whole isn’t good either- 20% women, almost half the percentage as in the TV industry (41%).

Now, a number of social and economic factors could be at play here. It’s true for instance that other high-tech laden media sectors like Interactive Media also suffer such an imbalance (5%) and that the increasing proportion of coding and programming roles within modern games companies (and proportionately less growth in art roles) doesn’t particularly favour women’s entry into the industry since less women study those subjects at school or college.

It’s also important to discount rife sexism or lack of opportunity as factors. The few women in the games industry don’t cite chauvinism as a contributing factor. At a “Women in Film and TV” event at Waterstones Piccadilly branch in London in February cleverly entitled “Wiimen: a discussion about women in the gaming industry” the feeling of being welcome in the games industry amongst the all-female panellists was unanimous, but compounded with the recognition that women in games tended to congregate around marketing and organizational roles.wow_women

The Rare breed: women games animators

Women Games Animators are therefore doubly rare, being a dwindling section of an even smaller section in one of the most dynamic media sectors in the UK.

Like some endangered species, they are worthy of study.

What do Women Animators within the Games Industry say about gender? Althea Deane, a freelance animator for over 20 years and currently contracted as a character animator at Evolution (behind the famous Motorstorm series) states “Generally, people are just glad to see a woman in a sea of men, to be honest! However, it is quite a macho culture compared to the field of television in which I worked previously”.

“In our project, I’m the only women animator” adds Alma Salinas from Sony’s London studios, “and at my last company too” but she is also of the opinion that no roles need be male dominated “I think any role can be female friendly” she says. “The video game industry offers equal pay and a great working environment, but somehow it always feel that the girls are on land owned by others”

Ellen Holland, a games animator for five years at Rare, one of Microsoft’s big studios says “Sometimes guys don’t know how to relate to women initially so you need a bit of a tough skin and to be willing to give as good as you get, but there’s no discrimination here”

After a while, most games personnel seem to have acclimatised to this situation, which in other media industries might raise more concern.

casting-female-games-charactersLisa Harmon, a Senior artist and animator with Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, who has worked in the industry for ten years on titles such as TV Superstars, LittleBigPlanet (PSP version), Primal, 24: The Game and Heavenly Sword speaks for many when she says “I don’t think that a lack of women in this industry harms it, and anyway I don’t know of any women already in the industry that are bothered by it. During my time in games I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced any discrimination, but I do think the games industry is still seen as geeky and something you do as you’re growing up rather than as a career.”

This view was expressed more stridently by an animator who preferred to remain anonymous “I realise that it’s probably not a very PC answer as there is always talk of trying to increase the interest/roles for women in games but, in the end, I’ve never come up against any discrimination nor have any of my fellow female colleagues (to my knowledge). I find it raised by others as an issue when, to me personally, it has never been one”.

In other words- it’s a free country. Women just don’t choose to do animation or games. Get over it. But there must be some reasons why the figures are SO low, right?

So, if the sea of male faces isn’t so intimidating, why aren’t women animators coming through? Is it something about how animation is taught? Or does animation have an image problem, with games only being at the extreme end? Or is it all about role models- the lack of a female Walt Disney, John Lasseter or Nick Park, for instance?

leavesturncomFinding a Unicorn

How do women games animators explain the apparent lack of female animation talent? Firstly to most the animation department is less imbalanced than  than other areas of games development. “Someone said to me recently finding a female programmer was like finding a unicorn” quotes Rare’s Ellen Holland, whilst SCEE’s Lisa Harmon states “female animators are fairly rare but female game coders are even rarer” whereas Elisa Capretto exclaims “female games designers….I don’t think they even exist!”


“Not so many women are aware that games animation is an option when they are making their career choices, I certainly didn’t” says Rare’s Ellen Holland “I attended three courses, and I must say I did notice that the more technical the course the less women there seemed to be in them”.

“There were about 25% women on my course at university and they were generally more interested in producing some kind of artistic output at the end of the course rather than making a career from it”, says SCEE’s Lisa Harmon.

Alma Salinas, who studied in Spain, remembers being surprised that on her masters course there were only 2 women out of 17 students.

Elisa Capretto, a Junior Character Animator at Ubisoft Reflections (the Newcastle company behind the famous Driver series) says, “Girls seem more interested in people-facing roles in games, rather than just sitting in front of a PC.”

A major factor seems to be technology and how it is taught. We tend to think of animation as craft, but the increasing levels of programming that are impinging on games animation could be one explanation. It’s long been thought that women tend to opt out of technical subjects when they choose University courses.

However the UKRC suggest women chose a wide range of technological subjects, but then don’t see the career path into jobs.

The UKRC is the UK Government’s lead organisation regarding the under-representation of women in science, engineering and technology (SET) and they highlight revealing figures regarding who studies Computer Science courses at university. 16.5% of students are female, whereas in strategically important specialist subjects like software engineering there are only 760 women on university courses in the whole of the UK (out of 6,400).

This lack of female talent has repercussions for various industries. The ICT professional workforce consists of 59,059 women which may sound a lot, but is only 12.5% of the 474,000-strong sector. Maybe that’s why both interactive media and games are so extreme on gender balance. As modern games animation practice relies more and more on technical fixes, on games physics created by code to produce animation (as opposed to keyframes crafted by animators) are the skills needed migrating from the arts to the computer sciences?


Nice work if you can get it?

Maybe it’s a mistake to look for a single determining factor. Work patterns might also contribute. Skillset’s “Women in the Creative Industries” report found that representation is highest in sectors comprising larger employers in which more stable, permanent employment models are common, such as terrestrial television (48 percent), and it could be said that animation and games companies are relatively smaller, more volatile, and therefore not as attractive. However, there are many games and animation companies that have now been around for the best part of ten years or even longer- so instability isn’t the full story.

Julie Prescott, a PhD student from the University of Liverpool whose own survey of 450 women in games across the globe found 43 percent felt that long-hours culture was adversely affecting their health and well-being. 31 percent were unhappy with the work-life balance. 22 percent reported working between 46 and 55 hours a week, and 10 per cent more than 56 hours a week. 80 percent felt that their company had a long-hours culture.

So it may be the so-called “Crunch” work cycle in games production that marks it out particularly as an acute case, with ever evolving workflows and technology meaning it’s as hard as ever to predict deadlines, and the burden of extra hours is expected.ceriseirisnetwork

Animator Althea Deane seems to agree- “It’s primarily the butch ‘crunch’ culture in games. Even women without children prefer jobs that allow for a life outside the studio, and for women with children, (who are still the primary care-givers in this country), the long hour culture must make the games industry an extremely off-putting prospect. As for animation as a whole, outside of games, I’m less sure why more women aren’t involved. Possibly the uncertainty of working from one short-term contract to another, with few of the benefits of a permanent job – pension, sick pay, paid holidays”

It therefore may be significant that the admin roles that women tend to cluster around in both games and animation have the advantage of more regular hours.

“The games industry needs to shake off its macho ‘work or die’ image. This will mean more careful planning of schedules and less assumption that it can work its employees over their required hours for weeks on end. It should also try to project a more fun, less aggressive image generally. We’re making games, not annexing Poland” says Deane.gamegirlsxr6

The animation gene pool

Could it be that work patterns and culture combine with a creeping procedural approach to animation  into a potent toxic mix, keeping women away?

“The most significant difference between videogames and movies is the pipeline….in games you do not have the same freedom of interpretation as in tv and film” explains Sony’s Alma Salinas “The animator has to be able to perform functional animations, responding and exchanging with the technical team. The animator must also understand the limitations of the games engine they are working with. They have to enjoy the technical part of the job.”

Elisa Capretto, who previously worked as a character animator on a short film agrees “While animation for tv is more straightforward and immediate, game animations needs to be processed and compressed, and rigged carefully to fit into the memory budget of the game”. The process can be tedious and long, and usually needs a lot of iteration between the technical and art teams.

All this is conjecture, and the statistics aren’t granular enough to really come to conclusions. But at least we’ve heard some female voices on the subject. No-one is suggesting that all jobs need to feature equal proportions of the sexes, but a gross imbalance like games animation raises questions about whether the industry is getting the widest gene pool of talent. If 50% of the population won’t really consider working as games animators, even for arbitrary or mistaken reasons, then that’s an issue. If, once informed, they still choose not to make it a career, that’s their choice. However such information isn’t getting through to girls at the key points when they make decisions about what to study, or what is even possible. It just maybe the animation and games industry are missing a trick by not promoting themselves to half the population, and therefore a lot of raw talent drifts elsewhere.


The Wii revolution and the rise of the female gamer is a five year old phenomenon, and as such maybe not long enough to change attitudes, university choices, career destinations. “Maybe we should just wait for the new generation of gamer girls to grow up. I think it will take some more time” says Ubisoft’s Elisa Capretto.

Ellen Holland from Rare suggests we might be starting to see the green shoots of this new generation of gamer girls. “I attended The London Games Industry Career Fair this year and did notice there seemed to be quite a lot of young girls looking to get into the industry. It was really nice to see. We need more events that aim to get girls excited about technology and change perceptions about what it’s like to work in the technology industry”.

The Women in creative media industries report is available here
You can find my full Missing In Action article in IMAGINE animation magazine December issue 2010. Thanks to all the animators who answered my questionnaire and gave a human perspective to dry statistics!

TWO’S A CROWD: Crowdfunding new animation

Black Sunrise: a Crowdfunded feature length animation by Nick Cross

Black Sunrise: a Crowdfunded feature length animation by Nick Cross

(First published Nov 2011) The rise of Social Media over the last five years has meant that many industries have changed the way they do business. Whilst some people’s social media world is limited to connecting to mates on Facebook and following celebrities on Twitter, social media has presented the animation industry with new ways to do business and to market itself. Whereas it used to be your dog-eared rolodex or contacts book that was the limit of your reach as a practicing freelance animator, now there are identifiable virtual communities out there to pitch to and persuade- if you have the ambition, temerity and thick skin.

Great ideas remain great ideas until you can persuade others to help make them a reality. Traditionally there are gatekeepers between you and the funds needed (like arts officers, fundholders, VCs, commissioning editors) and they don’t necessarily want to sink a few thousand into your idea, because as a creative you are probably not very good at filling in forms or describing your idea in a document, right?

In cases of funding via screen agencies, arts organisations, film commissioners or broadcasters, it can be nigh near impossible to get in front of the right person and make that pitch where they see the fire in your eyes, sense the passion in your voice and understand that whilst you couldn’t string two acronyms together in your application form, you have a great idea and can be trusted to produce a seminal animation of world shattering import.

This essentially is the lure of Crowdfunding- where the internet cuts out the middle man/woman and instead of appealing and pitching to one important funder or venture capitalist to greenlight your project, you appeal to the masses via social media. If enough people give you ten dollars, euros or pounds you have circumvented the need to go through the official channels.


The Pig Farmer: Nick Cross's animated short that led to plans for a crowdsourced feature

The Pig Farmer: Nick Cross’s animated short that led to plans for a crowdsourced feature

One of the early successful adopters of this approach in the animation world is Nick Cross from Toronto, Canada, who raised funds for The Pig Farmer- a sad tale of porcine tragedy at the hands (or rather paws) of drug-addled yet cunning foxes. “It’s like Porky Pig, Ren & Stimpy and The Manson Family all fed into a blender together” exclaimed cgchannel in a review. Nick was no ingénue- he’d worked in the animation industry for around 14 years (including a spell with Jon Kricfalusi, where he may have picked up the Ren and Stimpy black humour) and had always made films in his spare time.

Nick used the site IndieGoGo (www.indiegogo.com) which is now one of the main internet platforms for crowdfunding, to raise money. IndieGoGo was launched in 2008 as a place where anyone with an idea – creative, cause-related, or entrepreneurial – could build a campaign and raise money, using social media to get the message out. Essentially you have a page for your campaign- to make your case with text, stills or video, or to drive people to your website. You can tap into analytics to manage the contributions you get and build a sense of community. It makes economic sense to offer what are called perks to the idly curious who browse the site, to persuade them to part with a little cash.IndieGoGo_Logo_black_high_res

In exchange for a donation of $25 Nick offered funders their name on the credits of the film as well as a DVD and found 15 people soon signed up. This was just the lowest rung in the funding ladder. For a donation of $100 you could be credited as Associate Producer and receive a full credit on the film, a DVD copy of the finished film of ALL Nick’s previous work as well as a signed, limited edition print. 12 people bought into this arrangement. True diehard fans could show their support by becoming an executive producer for $500; and that’s what three people did- receiving credits, all the other benefits, and a signed original drawing.

So Nick got almost four thousand dollars of his 5k target. This enabled him make the film (http://vimeo.com/19113506) which was released in January 2011 and allowed IndieGoGo to claim a 4% fee- one of the ways the site is sustained.

Toronto animator Nick Cross

Toronto animator Nick Cross

“I had pretty much given up trying to get funding for my films after a few unsuccessful attempts at grant applications to various government art funding agencies,” Cross recounts in an interview with Jeremy Fries on his Independent Animators Blog. “It was just too much work that I realized I could put to more productive use by actually making the film instead of writing detailed budgets and art statements trying to justify my idea and convince a group of people that it had “ artistic merit,” whatever that means.  However, it seems that this new model of soliciting fans and other filmmakers for “donations” in return for various “perks” actually kind of works. I only tried for a small sum that helped me to hire a musician and offset a bit of the cost of software upgrades, but I was really encouraged by the response that I got. I think that more and more filmmakers are going to go this route in the future”
Nick quickly got to work on another crowdfunded project. Black Sunrise will be my first feature-length film” he explains “My hope is that with financing, I will be able to work full-time on this film instead of having to divide my energies between this film and taking on commercial work”.

He’s raising his sights towards raising 25,000 dollars for a feature length animation, which at the time of writing has garnered donations of 9,500 dollars, with 16 days till the end of donations. IndieGoGo offers a limited timeframe to encourage the creator to be pro-active themselves.


In a way none of this is new. Artists have had Donate buttons on their websites since the birth of microtransaction operators like PayPal, or have attained funds by asking the wider family and friends to be ‘associate producers’. The main catalyst for the explosion in crowdfunding now is the ascendance of social media platforms and video services like YouTube which mean anyone can put forward a personal in-your-face pitch for cash to the online communities they can now reach.

It’s important to do a reality check here. Crowdfunding has its difficulties, it’s not a licence to print money. Firstly, it needs to be remembered that in order to get your idea made you increasingly need to promise something special in return, and sometimes that can get in the way of your production. Promising access to a behind the scenes production journal or blog, or unique assets (crowdfunded stop-motion animators Justin and Shel Wagner Rasch gave away their original puppets to funders) or offering visiting rights on set to your funders could interfere with your creative process. If you’re worrying too much about the updates to the blog or organising twenty donors to visit your audio dub you’re probably not in the right frame of mind to do the work, so you need to think carefully about what you offer. There’s a reason why creative people have agents, publicists and producers- to evangelise and barter in ways that the creator sometimes can’t.

Black Sunrise (image courtesy Nick Cross)

Black Sunrise (image courtesy Nick Cross)

Crowdfunding increasingly demands the artist is a persuasive performer and eloquent orator, and that’s not the kind of personality trait many animators have. Ask yourself how many animators are household names through shameless promotion and the ability to do great soundbites, compared with film directors. Maybe Animators just haven’t got the chutzpah for this showmanship?

As the crowdfunding marketplace grows, one can imagine there’s a danger of a nuclear arms race of perks, with funders expecting ever greater trinkets or souvenirs for their ten dollars. Also, just how many associate producers can be credited before it ceases to become an accolade worth having?

Another important factor is reputation. People need to trust you can deliver before they fund. Nick Cross has been part of the canadian animation scene since 1998- making short films on his own. People trust him to deliver, and via his previous portfolio they know the kind of animation that they might expect to be produced. It’s not so obvious that college leavers will be able to generate the same kinds of sums, although some clearly do with the right patter and prototype work. Another thing to bear in mind is Nick releases his films on the internet for free- he’s not making money, so is probably viewed more charitably because of this.


A word of warning to all who enter the world of crowdfunding- you need a thick skin. There’s no guarantee that anyone will be interested in your life’s work. Also, there’s a fine art to pitching your project. It seems people react best to certain emotional triggers in the pitch.

our epic "What if the nazis escaped to the dark side of the moon after WWII?" animation

The epic “What if the nazis escaped to the dark side of the moon after WWII?” animation

Energia Productions, the company behind the science fiction comedy Iron Sky based on Nazi invaders from the dark side of the moon recently put out a request on crowdsourcing site Sponsume (www.sponsume.com) for funds to cope with going over budget during their shoot due to bad weather conditions, and asked for 50,000 euros. Only seven backers came forward, and a meagre 4% of the proposed target was reached.

Iron Sky is no hastily thought up operation- it’s a fantastic looking CGI film produced in collaboration with an on-line community of film enthusiasts, that has already secured 6.3 million euros through traditional film funding channels like the Finnish Film Foundation, Eurimages, Hessen Film Invest, Screen Queensland, and pre-sales. They aim to eventually cover 900,000 euros of the budget through crowdfunding. (see http://www.ironsky.net). As such the failure to reach 50,000 euros to assist with an over-budget shoot could be seen as worrying.

It may be the public didn’t warm to supporting the fact the production team went over budget, or it maybe that in this instance Energia Productions had pitched the offer too high- a name on the end credits for 850 euros, or an associate producer name check for 8,500 is steep compared to Nick Cross’s offer. Alternatively it might be that Sponsume is a relatively new site and therefore hasn’t got the traction of major crowd sites like IndieGoGo or Kickstarter (not mentioned in this article because it is US only). Whatever the reason or mix of factors, it seems to be a matter of finding a sweet spot where the public’s imagination and conscience can be engaged and they will donate in enough numbers to significantly meet your target.

ironsky_newlogo1The good news is that other methods of crowdfunding like selling “War Bonds” and merchandising has raised about 50,000 euros to date for Iron Sky, helping support the core team, and it has been stated that this fantastic looking project has 200,000 euros committed by crowd investors so far. For large productions it seems that  crowdsourcing needs to be just one ingredient in the funding mix. It’s clear in a world of crowdfunding there will be winners and losers- and some media forms may suit better than others.


Crowdfunding isn’t seen as a business model to reap financial profits from, but that might be starting to change. Crowdfunding offers the chance for new business models in other media too. Games apps website Appbackr proclaims itself “the first crowdfunding marketplace for mobile apps”. It uses crowdfunding principles in a different way by enabling app developers to find funders (called backrs) who can help fund applications and drive sales. The app developer receives payment from a backr for a designated number of app copies. When the purchased copies are downloaded in mobile app stores, the developer receives an additional payment and the backrs also profit. The real advantage here is giving the developer money upfront (a small percentage goes to Appbackr too). The site suggests backing an already completed app has a potential profit margin of 26%, or backing a concept (that will take several months or longer to yield revenue) has a potential profit of 54%.

appbackr-logoAt the time of writing “App of the week” on the Appbackr site is Boogie Monster by Monstrous with $11,765 raised in funds.Backing an app early gives you the opportunity to make a higher return, thus encouraging popular themes and genres, and therein may lie the achilles heel of crowdfunding, which is the notions of surprise, novelty and innovation.

Would some of the greatest animation films of all time have ever been made through crowdfunding? Or would imagery and story have been toned down to appeal to the vanity of the widest range of funders? Imagine a world where Nick Parks debut “A Grand Day Out”, Jan Švankmajer’s “Dimensions of Dialogue” or Len Lye’s “Free Radicals” were originally funded in this way. Would they have produced the same film, or have made certain compromises for the audience?

It maybe that the answer will be up to us- the public- since with our new role as funders we become arbiters of taste. We may no longer be able to blame commissioning editors, broadcasters or moguls for mediocre animation fare- we’ll be forced to blame our own conservatism. Crowdfunding gives us a chance to put our money where our mouth is. Let’s invest wisely, but not TOO wisely, eh?

This is an article originally written for IMAGINE animation magazine Autumn 2011.

UPDATE: I’ve now written a second article on Crowdfunding with a UK success story here

Reigning Cats and Dogs: crowdfunding animation part 2

(first published November 2011) In an earlier blog I talked about how Crowdfunding might work for animation. Unfortunately my examples were all from Canada and Europe, so I thought I’d balance that with a UK success story, below. Particularly nifty is the way this project hooks in donors by suggesting your pets could be stars!

Hazraf “HaZ” Dulull’s CGI film “Fubar” is probably the best example of a vfx/compositing crowdfunded project in the UK. Whilst Energia Productions’ Iron Sky rumbles on for years, Haz’s one-man band and fleet-of-foot approach means he achieved 125% of his target on Kickstarter.com for a Cats and Dogs/Gears Of War crossover. Fubar is an epic story of an on-going political war told in an alternate reality with cat and dogs.

FubarheaderHaZ started his career in video games cinematics as an Artist and TD before moving into visual effects and compositing for Feature films, commercials and music promos. Over the years he has worked with clients such as MPC, Passion Pictures, Partizan, Glassworks, The Mill and other high profile studios in London. He has recently completed work at Jellyfish Pictures as VFX supervisor on BBC’s most ambitious full CG creature series – Planet Dinosaurs due to release in Autumn 2011, and is currently Visual Effects Supervisor at Prime Focus London.

Although skilled in the software he needed his own copies- he couldn’t very well do the film at work. This was HaZ’s first challenge. The software for the film was sponsored by the Foundry (Nuke software) and Shotgun. However it wasn’t just charitable giving- it had value for the software houses themselves. “They provided the tools for free to support the film from a technology / product support level.” said HaZ, “In return I beta test versions of the tools being used in the film during production and also provide ‘making-of’ material showing how the tools were used to make the film when it’s done. So in a nutshell Fubar is like a test platform of a live production happening while I use the various beta versions of their tools to make the film.fubar_01 The Foundry provided Nuke which was the core VFX production tool of Fubar because the USP was to make a film completely in Nuke by creating a sandbox environment inside Nuke’s 3D compositing space”. Interestingly, a scan of donors reveal that several employees from the Foundry also felt excited enough by the project to slip in the odd donation.

HaZ’s own network meant editing and sound design were completed through calling on friend editor Deelan Sital, who then brought on board sound designer Luis Almau. Collaboration extended to Chris Maynard fromCMI-VFX kindly donating programming time using Nuke’s latest particle system allowing the creaion of bullet tracers in 3D space with controls such as velocity, glow, size etc. “This made it very quick to add bullet tracers in my war sequences” said HaZ.

fubar_04HaZ also thought creatively about how to make funding attractive- and proposed  to “Feature your Cat or Dog in the Film as a character when you make a Pledge…if you have a cat or dog and would like it featured in the film as one of the marines, or additional characters then send over 3 – 5 images in several angles for it to be digitally placed into the animation. We will contact you if it’s selected to be in the film and of course your cat or dog gets a credit in the film too!”

A video of the making of Fubar also helps foster a sense of involvement. By early September Fubar had attracted publicity. A mention in the Sep 2011 issue of Televisual Magazine helped drive donations.

By 24th September, $6,256 was raised with 75 backers; 25 paying $10 for a credit, whilst at the upper end 2 backers paid $160 or a mini full colour art book of the film, digital download of the film; Blu-Ray copy of the film, signed poster and thank you on the films ending credit. 7 backers paid $100 to get the same minus the art book.

So where next for Fubar? The Fubar “extended redux edition” will be released exclusively for distribution, cinema screenings and festivals while the current version continues to gain success online. It’s being nominated and screened at the yearly Renderyard film festival. Renderyard is a short film portal and agency site that screens selected short films for online and distribution worldwide. Fubar seems to be doing well.


Where’s the Level Playing Field?: women in games


(First published Oct 2010) Of all the computer games consoles and gadgets, the Nintendo Wii could be said to be the one that started to change attitudes towards gaming within the general public.

Despite it launching into a marketplace that back in 2006 looked locked down by the mighty Sony Playstation and the Microsoft Xbox, it sold 105,000 units over its opening weekend in the UK, reached an unheard of six million units in 3 years, and moved on to become the most popular of all the consoles.

Advertising featured spacious airy white living rooms where games brought the family together on the sofa. Jamie and Louise Redknapp played Wii Sports and Wii Fit, whilst Ronan and wife Yvonne Keating played Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training together with their three children Jack, Marie and Ali. Fern Britton even used Can’t Decide What to Eat? to choose a special meal for her husband in one advert.

The Wii succeeded because it sold a new games lifestyle, a compelling vision of games as safe and normal family entertainment, and of a range of more useful and autodidactic software products than shoot ‘em ups and destruction. Suddenly games did you good.

it seems like games like Mirror's Edge with its proactive female characters attract female gamers, but the industry itself doesn't.

it seems like games like Mirror’s Edge with its proactive female characters attract female gamers, but the industry itself doesn’t.

It seemed the image of the teenage hard core gamer had finally been replaced in the public consciousness. A wider cross-section of women could feel that games were of interest to them. Figures purporting to show increasing numbers of women playing games abounded. One survey proclaimed 40% of all gamers in the US were women. Received wisdom is that the social nature of gaming is prized by women, and this is in the ascendancy. Zynga’s Farmville on facebook has now over 85 million players for instance.

Seemingly, games is no longer the male preserve in terms of consumption that it once was. Whilst there have always been small numbers of hard-core female gamers, there are many more casual or social gamers now playing Bejeweled, Farmville, Wii fit. Interestingly, Women gamers are leading the way on in-game spending too.

But if you look around the Games industry workforce there’s a different story. Whilst Skillset research reveals that women make up 39 percent of the film production workforce – compared with 46% of the general UK workforce, and THAT is seen as bad news- consider the Games industry. Skillset’s 2009 employment census points to only 6 percent of women in Games development.

Bejewelled the popular puzzle game credited with attracting new female casual gamers

Bejewelled the popular puzzle game credited with attracting new female casual gamers

So, considering the shift in how we consume games, and the rise in woman gamers, why aren’t we seeing young women being attracted into the industry. Despite being welcomed to play, why are they not being welcomed to work?

Now, a number of social factors could be at play here. It’s true for instance that other high-tech laden media sectors like Interactive Media also suffer such an imbalance, and that the increasing proportion of coding and programming roles within modern games companies (and proportionately less growth in art roles) doesn’t particularly favour women’s entry into the industry.

The few women already in the industry don’t seem to cite chauvinism or lack of opportunity as contributing factors either. At a Women in Film and TV event at Waterstones Piccadilly in February cleverly entitled “Wiimen: a discussion about women in the gaming industry” the feeling of being welcome in the games industry amongst the all-female panelists was unanimous, but compounded with the recognition that women in games tended to congregate around marketing and organisational roles.


Zynga’s farmville on facebook is often credited with attracting new, older female gamers (Credit: Zynga)

Skillset’s “Women in the Creative Industries” report found that representation is highest in sectors comprising larger employers in which more stable, permanent employment models are common, such as terrestrial television (48 percent), and it could be said that games companies are relatively more volatile, and therefore not as attractive. Our report also shows games is a young persons world- of all Skillset’s sectors only film has as high a proportion of under 35s. However, there are many games companies that have now been around for the best part of ten years or longer- so instability isn’t the full story.

It would be easy to argue that our sample was too small to be accurate, or that only certain people respond to our surveys, but our findings seem to be reinforced and complemented by Julie Prescott, a PhD student from the University of Liverpool whose own survey of 450 women in games across the globe found 43 percent felt that long-hours culture was adversely affecting their health and well-being. 31 percent were unhappy with the work-life balance. 22 percent reported working between 46 and 55 hours a week, and 10 per cent more than 56 hours a week. 80 percent felt that their company had a long-hours culture.

So it may be the so-called “Crunch” cycle in games production that marks it out particularly as an acute case, with ever evolving workflows and technology meaning it’s as hard as ever to predict deadlines, and the burden of extra hours is expected of workers.


Silver surfers can become silver gamers

The second major factor seems to be technology. It’s often been said that men tend to populate and lead new technology areas first. Our country’s IT, computer science and programming courses are male bastions, to the often immense disappointment of lecturers themselves, who wonder where the female applicants are. That shortage maybe why both Interactive Media and Games sectors are so extreme on gender imbalance.

So what can be done? Well, this seems to be in the hands of the industry itself. The government’s new Livingstone Hope review into computer games and VFX skills will be examining the ‘talent timeline’ and is particularly keen to look at how young people can understand that by studying programming and maths they can get into the exciting industry that is games. However, the industry will be hamstrung if half the population doesn’t want to get on the conveyor belt in the first place, (because it doesn’t have the opportunity or inclination to study maths or computer science) or upon arriving in the industry, finds it rewarding but unsustainable in terms of fulfillment or family.

More work needs to be done to make IT and Computer Science attractive to girls, but this needs to be complemented with a stronger message from the industry that it can do more about flexible working hours.


What is Creative Skillset doing? Well, our research has alerted the industry, who need to decide on how to address this. It needs to be noted that the money Skillset have to follow through and address such imbalance is limited to traditional media like Film, TV and Fashion and Textiles, because of the funding agencies involved. Games has no such agencies or elevated political voices so with the absence of these resources we need to start persuading the trade associations (TIGA and UKIE) how bad this situation has become, and see if we can work together on some solutions. There is no STEM (Science Technology Engineering Maths) ambassador for the games industry working with schools unless I’m mistaken, unlike other hi-tech sectors. There are good initiatives like Women In Gaming and various girl’s computer clubs in schools which could be empowered or proliferated, not to mention university and business outreach work.

However, at the end of the day, it seems the industry needs to convince new recruits that it is in many ways as stable, secure and full of opportunities as other media choices. Because of the recession and student debt today’s new talent ( male and female) will increasingly make choices based on these factors, rather than how cool the ultimate product they will create is.  For talented women programmers work in the IT department of a finance company might seem to be more attractive- because at least they get the free time to enjoy playing Wii fit, an opportunity which they might not get if they worked on the game itself!

Why we need to be STEAM driven

steam_jig2 copyOver the last few years the acronym STEM has increasingly entered debates within the collective creative industries, and also at Creative Skillset.

To those in the creative industries STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) as a concept has really been carried on the back of the technologisation of media, with its convergence, divergence and ensuing disintegration of traditionally stable and demarcated roles.
Its apotheosis with regards to education policy is probably in the Browne Review or what is known as “The independent review of higher education funding and student finance” which promises to change the landscape of Higher Education, although the document that doesn’t even mention the acronym by name. (A simple keyword search shows the Browne report mentions ‘Science’ 6 times, ‘Arts’ 1 time, ‘Entrepreneur’ only once, and ‘Creative’ is totally absent)

In the proposals set out by the report Higher Education institutions will actively compete for well informed discerning students on the basis of price and teaching quality. “We want to put students at the heart of the system. Students are best placed to make the judgement about what they want” it states. However, within this free market system students are given nudges- certain priority sectors are protected from the withdrawal of the HEFCE block grant to universities.

This is because of the worry that “Students may not choose these courses because the private returns are not as high as other courses, the costs are higher and there are cheaper courses on offer, or simply because these courses are perceived as more difficult”. These priority sectors are courses in science and technology subjects, clinical medicine, nursing and other healthcare degrees, as well as some language courses.

How the funding support for these courses may eventually skew student choice or influence the universities decisions regarding putting on new courses remains to be seen. One might imagine sighs of relief within science and technology faculties, and the despair within art departments.

steam_brownereview2However, the bigger picture is that from a creative media industry perspective, the often unintentionally university faculty led and framed opposition between Art and Science has been increasingly problematic over recent years. In Computer Games for instance, what are needed are programmers who are creative and flexible, and artists who can apply their skills to strict technological constraints. The best way to teach many cutting edge skills is in a university system that can foster multidisciplinary teamworking skills, and that’s usually a university that has synergistic and co-operative faculties, rather than competing ones.

What the Browne review may end up doing is not just introducing competition between Universities, but also between faculties. A games programming BSc might receive a grant from HEFCE whereas a games art course won’t. Following this scenario, the games art course will have to charge more, possibly leading to less students, and who knows, eventual closure.
This is all conjecture at the moment, but Higher Education tutors and management alike in cash strapped Universities are trying to read the runes.
Whilst a projected increase in programmers is something that the games industry would initially welcome, this might turn to consternation if there is a drought of artistic talent to envelop such code.
At a time when we need a more integrated balance between the “calculator and the paintbrush” in the modern learner maybe we should start using the acronym STEAM rather than STEM, where the A is for Art. After all, without an A there would be little visibility or for all the S,T,E or M.
Apart from being a witty cipher, STEAM also usefully alludes to the nebulousness and lack of fixity of much multidisciplinary work – something we can’t expect the Browne Review with it’s wide scope to have picked up on, despite the creative industries being a priority for successive  governments.

However it could be argued that the modern creative industries are at the vanguard of exploring STEAM and creating value from it. If you want proof that STEAM as a concept is in the ascendant, look at Universities UK report “Creating Prosperity: the role of higher education in driving the UK’s creative economy” published in December 2010. (whilst 72 pages to the Browne Review’s 60, a word search shows that this document uses the word ‘Science’ 66 times, ‘Entrepreneur’ 69 times, and ‘Multidisciplinary’ 59 times. I didn’t bother to count ‘Art’ or ‘Creative’….)

steam_UUK-ReportCreating Prosperity declares that “there is often a false opposition established between ‘creative’ subjects on one hand, and STEM subjects on the other. At one level, this is understandable, as the policy priority on STEM has meant a recent emphasis on increasing student places in these subjects, with a concern that this will come at the expense of places elsewhere. The outcomes of Browne and the CSR make this increasingly likely. However, STEM skills are also needed in the creative economy, whether engineers in broadcasting or maths and physics skills in computer games development. This is consistently overlooked in current debates that seek to polarise STEM and creative disciplines….Indeed, creative skills are needed in all industries, including those supported by the STEM disciplines. This clearly challenges a narrow view of STEM as the sole route to economic growth”
The report also includes 17 case studies- many of them highlighting what many educationalists have been calling STEAM (it’s not my invention) in practice, that is to say Art adding value to STEM. The report mentions that “much of this (multidisciplinary) activity takes place in spite of sometimes inflexible structures in universities, and the subject-based nature of funding policy and research assessment” (p24) .

The future of higher education is reliant on students terraforming the landscape with their well-informed demands for profitable skills, but the information they will get seems to be based mainly on the metrics of future employment, intelligence of which will always be behind the curve. Three years later they may roll off the conveyor belt to find a different landscape. So it makes sense to have transferable skills. But how do you sell creative courses with their multidisciplinarity, innovation and entrepreneurism to students who are being nudged into the priority sectors and seeming certainties of science and technology and possibly more stable future income? That’s our challenge in the creative industries, now that the Browne review’s inventive and wide ranging findings have been accepted.

Creating Prosperity takes to task “the belief of successive governments that science,  technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects represent the exclusive route to economic success” and adds that “STEM and creativity are inextricably linked – successful knowledge economies need strength in both”

A computer game is only an economic success if its imagery and animation matches and complements the code and circuitry it plays through; likewise a film’s story is only realised through multiple hardware technologies. TV’s broadcast engineers and IT infrastructure props up the “X Factor” as much as the artistic talent in front and behind the lens. This is increasingly the world of STEAM.
A surfeit of either programmers or artists means we become a nation for hire, having to outsource our services abroad.

steam_Students2We need to articulate the notion of STEAM (or another snappy acronym), and fast. As Creating Prosperity recognises, this is what Skillset has been advising policymakers for a while through our regular Sector Skills Assessments, but maybe it’s time to package and communicate this concept in a neat, concise and friendly way for this new breed of discerning student who may gravitate towards cheaper and easily defined STEM courses, instead of understanding the notion of STEAM.
Whilst it’s true that many creative sectors suffer from a shortage of programmers and a surfeit of artistic talent, the promotion of STEM through cheaper courses and clearer job route metrics on future income could skew the market so we have a shortage of creative and multidisciplinary teamwork savvy talent. Imagine being a fresh-faced games programming student at a university where there are no image assets to incorporate, because the games art course they hoped to be collaborating with had withered due to the market finding it too expensive. What context would such students have for working in the real world of teamwork, or innovation?

If students are to become more like shoppers, we need to think about how we can get the idea of STEAM across.
This is where the creative industry itself can have a powerful voice. As video games executive and interactive content producer John Tarnoff says  “In my experience as an executive and entrepreneur sitting on both sides of the creative/technology fence, I need to hire technologists who know how to collaborate in teams, express themselves coherently, engagingly and persuasively, understand how to take and apply constructive criticism, and how to tell a good story. I don’t find these kids sitting alone at a lab table or buried in an algorithm. I find them taking art classes to understand how color and light really work, I find them in writing classes learning how to express themselves, I find them in cultural studies and critical theory classes learning about the world at large”.

It’s an old cliché to say there is no ‘I’ in TEAM, but maybe we need to append that to say there IS a team in STEAM…..

READ THIS AND EARN POINTS! The curious rise of Gamification

(First published December 2011) The ‘phenomenon’ of Gamification is growing, and whether it’s another advertising and marketing industry fad or not, maybe animation companies should sit up and take notice says Saint John Walker. (The full article is available in the Winter 2011 issue of IMAGINE Magazine)

badgesAs online technologies mature, animation skills have been seen to seep into many new niches like advertising, architectural visualisation, interactive media or games, to service the many new business that spring up in the wake of the web. Currently a new hybrid advertising and games sector may be opening up utilising locative technologies enabled by a new breed of smartphones, and this may eventually become another important important source of work for the animation industry- if the advertising industry is to be believed. They are pinning their hopes that Gamification will be big. So let’s explore this subject; but first a little context is in order.

The advertising industry tends to see customer engagement through the prism of a battle for eyeballs. There are only so many hours in the day to hit people with your products message, and to do that you need to have a campaign focused where your targeted demographic congregates, and that is increasingly around the games space, which online technologies have enabled to proliferate.

2009 TNS-NIPO research study showed the time spent on games for the under twenty target groups gaming is third place, following Internet and TV. The advantage of a game over TV is that playing a game requires one hundred percent concentration, which means there is a maximum span of attention time no other media can compete with, and the Advertising industry is anxious to be there.

With one in three people now describing themselves as gamers, interactive entertainment is more popular than ever before with games being played by people of all ages at home, on consoles, on mobile phones, and on Facebook.

Zynga's Farmville; free to play yet made millions

Zynga’s Farmville; free to play yet made millions


Zynga’s FarmVille was the first Facebook game that really attracted the attention of wider media conglomerates in TV and advertising, hungry for new ways to engage with audiences. Founded in July 2007 by Mark Pincus, Zynga had 45 staffers in June 2008 and had mushroomed to 600 by the end of 2009. With its 100 million players, FarmVille was the top game on Facebook between August 2009 and December 2010, with over 100 million users, and then their next game CityVille claimed the top spot. By 2010, FarmVille had more active users than Twitter, and it still interrupts the behaviour patterns of 20 million people per day, who log in to water virtual crops.

Although FarmVille is now no longer the force it was, Zynga is still heading towards $1 billion in revenue in 2011 with its other games and Google has recently poured $100 million into the company. FarmVille’s success was based on leveraging the connectivity of Facebook (‘invite a friend’!) and analysing how people play in a social media environment. Also, it is free to play, so attracts ‘non-gamer’ audiences, especially women who would never class themselves as gamers.

farmville_friendsZynga games are free- if you want them to be. You can play as long as you like for nothing, but there are extras which will add to your enjoyment and sense of achievement. For instance you might pay for a virtual tractor to speed up your crops growth. 82 percent of Zynga’s customers pay nothing, but around 5 percent spend $1-5 in the game, and about the same amount spend $6-10. 3 percent of FarmVille users spend more than $20 a month. That’s the major way the company rakes in $1 million a day.

That’s a huge amount of eyeballs, but also mouseclicks. The key to the rapid success of many of these ‘casual’ games (the latest includes EA’s Sims Social, which clocked up 4.6 million players logging in every day after only a week after its release), are the metrics and feedback the games company get when you play. In a sense, these games are never fully built- they evolve, improving through user data. They collect statistics of how you play, and what you do and find out where people give up or fail, and update or modify accordingly.

They want you to keep playing, but you’ll only keep playing if the reward is balanced with effort. Zynga employ behavioural psychologists, games designers, and finance managers to constantly tune the game based on the feedback they get from you.

In the pre-online world this form of games balancing used to happen before the game was released, but it’s now become an activity long after the game becomes popular.


NGP_B_Hand_front2The global market for video games is projected to grow at an annual rate of 10.6 percent over the coming years to reach $86.7 billion in 2014. UK businesses generated £2 billion in global sales and contributed £1 billion to GDP.

It’s this ability to engage with huge numbers of people that the advertising industry is anxious to exploit. If by tweaking games mechanics and rules, you can so engross the player to make them come back again and again AND pay for something that’s free, using social media and peoples desires for ‘bragging rights’ about their game achievements, then you have a potent mix to manipulate behaviour and promote brands whilst the player is immersed.

Thus Gamification was born, and it’s everywhere.

foursquarecityGamification is broadly defined as applying game design thinking to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging. It’s part design, part psychology. The addition of game-like reward mechanisms help to drive involvement and encourage users to engage in desired behaviours. You are using the human propensity for fun and playfulness and rewarding the behaviour you want in the user, even encouraging people to perform chores that they ordinarily consider boring. Gamification is a new way of selling, well, just about anything.

Raj Paharia- the Henry Ford of Gamification?

Raj Paharia- the Henry Ford of Gamification?

“We all need motivation and incentivising” says Rajat Paharia, CEO of Bunchball, one of the top providers of game mechanics servicing clients like NBC, Hearst and Hasbro. “Games Designers have been doing this for years- changing player behaviour through points, badges, virtual goods, high score tables. All these elements can be taken out of the gameworld to anywhere there are people to incentivise them. They can influence user behaviour, drive participation and engagement and loyalty”.

Bunchball sell a Gamification platform called Nitro, which is already serving up to 70 million unique users each month. It allows the tracking of user behaviour and compilation of important user metrics and data, and the ability to apply it to your website. It allows you to use devices such as an avatar builder, virtual room builder, trophy case, an ability to set challenges and track the results, and to apply badges and points to whatever you’re selling on your site.


Jogging Gamified: compete with the world -or yourself

Jogging Gamified: compete with the world -or yourself

Gamification can encourage behaviours in real life too, not just on the web. Nike, the world’s largest manufacturer of athletic footwear and apparel realised in 2008 that one way to sell more trainers was to get more people running. Their solution was to ‘gamify’ exercise.Nike+ is an app on your iPhone or ipod Nano that you take out jogging with you.

Via GPS it gives you information on your runs- how fast you are going, how far, how many calories you are burning, and a map of your journey. When you upload that information to the Nike+ website you can see statistics and a history of all your runs.

Where Gamification is utilised to keep you running (and buying) is by introducing peer group pressure and competition. You can challenge your friends, or people around the world to races, and get rewarded with virtual trophies and medals, and a training program designed online just for you.

This literally healthy competition incentivises you. If you run the shortest distance among the people in your game, then you’ll try harder next time. Online coaching includes footage of well-known athletes congratulating you on your new personal best.

humanrace2009Gamification has turned what many people consider a chore or find hard to get motivated about into a system of social bragging rights and a sense that you are achieving progress through virtual rewards, on a global scale. Recently over 800,000 runners logged on and signed up when Nike sponsored a 10K race simultaneously across 25 international cities. Over 1.8 million runners are currently using Nike+

So, what has this got to do with animation? Well, data needs to be presented in a visual form, and it’s just possible that if this new industry takes off, new ways will need to be found to portray data attractively. Just as the games industry is a major employer of animation talent, it’s just possible gamification might increase that demand too.


Gamification is a hot topic. The Gartner Group estimates that by 2015, 70 percent of the Forbes Global 2000 will be using gamified apps, and M2 Research forecasts that U.S. companies alone will spend $1.6 billion on gamification products and services by that same year. Real-time networked communication, web analytics and location based technologies have all enabled gamification businesses, and allowed interaction with the real world.

Gamification has hit the car industry. In 2009, Ford’s Fusion Hybrid rewarded fuel efficient driving behaviour by the illumination of increasing numbers of leaves on a digital tree on the dashboard. The driver alters their behaviour to the challenge of growing a full leafy tree.

left: the complete dashboard. Right inset: the leaves grow as you save fuel....

left: the complete dashboard. Right inset: the leaves grow as you save fuel….

Gamification influences behaviour, and investors are rushing to fund gamification companies.

foursquare_specialoffer2Foursquare is a location-based mobile app that provides users with a list of places in their nearby vicinity ‘to explore’, such as retail stores, restaurants, gyms and any other type of business. Users check in to a coffee bar, restaurant, cinema or pretty much anywhere interesting and share their location with friends on Twitter and Facebook. By doing so, users can earn points to compete against friends and gain “badges,” which are virtual rewards for checking in to certain places. You can also take advantage of promotions from local businesses. Users who have checked in the most times at a certain venue will be crowned “Mayor” until someone surpasses their number, and this can unlock further badges and discounts. Users around the world are ‘checking in’ at the rate of 23 times per second. Foursquare raised $50 million of investment and has attracted 10 million customers on a platform that was built around solid game mechanics.

Various venues have embraced Foursquare, and offer special deals to users who are “mayors”. You and all your friends in your Facebook and Twitter lists can flaunt badges and share achievements. There’s also a leaderboard to encourage competition and conspicuous consumption.foursquare_highres

As evidence of critical mass, UK Prime Minister David Cameron recently joined Foursquare in an effort to expand his digital presence and better connect with the electorate. Foursquare members can track who Cameron is meeting with, when and why.


The business entrepreneurs who are running the leading gamification industries are the videogame generation. To them, using points, badges, virtual goods, high score tables, a sense of achievement and reward is something they’ve grown up with. They know the dopamine high of winning virtual rewards.

playSCVNGRhereSeth Priebatsch was 20 when he set up SCVNGR, a location based real world gaming platform app dedicated to doing challenges at certain locations and earning points. Users are able to broadcast where they are and what they’re doing to their friends on Facebook and Twitter. Companies, educational institutions, and organizations can build challenges too.

The US chain Buffalo Wild Wings & Bar was the first national company to announce an interactive campaign with SCVNGR. Restaurant guests complete challenges in the restaurants and win instant prizes and rewards that are redeemable there and then. In the first two weeks of the campaign, over 33,000 people played SCVNGR at the chain and one in three came back to do it again. Eating places are regularly seeing 2,000 new gamers a day.

With 60 employees and a total of 18 million dollars of investment SCVNGR is riding high, and can afford official zany job titles (Michael Hagan is Chief Rockstar, and founder Seth is Chief Ninja). Seth Priebatsch sums up the zeitgeist; “We’re moving from a decade-long social phase of communication, where we let Facebook and Twitter capture our social lives on the web – building a “social layer” on top of the real world, towards a new game layer or all-encompassing net of behavior-steering game dynamics that will reshape both education and commerce”.

Seth Priebatsch (photo: Arnold Wells)

Seth Priebatsch (photo: Arnold Wells)

It’s this movement that SCVNGR see themselves as part of. “Facebook own half a billion people, they own all our connections” says Priebatsch, “the framework has been built and decided on- its Facebook’s Open Graph API”. To Priebatsch, because of this there’s little point doing anything with social media outside of Facebook, it is literally ‘Game Over’. The new challenge of this next decade is the Game Layer, which is all about influencing behaviour, and it’s only just begun. The Gamification version of Facebook has yet to be invented.

Ex-college dropout Priebatsch sees a new, gamified world. He talks about how 21st century education is dysfunctional and broken because “It’s a poorly designed game”. To Priebatsch it suffers from two major problems- engagement, and cheating. “Grades are a naive implementation of a status mechanic,” he suggests.

All these apps rely on data, but that data needs to be presented effectively for quick recognition and consumption. “The visuals need to carry the story. Imagine mafia wars without images- it would be a series of abstract progress bars,” notes Sebastian Deterding, a designer and researcher working on user experience. In short, the advance of gamification might mean more work for designers and animators. Gamification company sites are replete with animated infographics showing how simple joining is. Foursquare’s introduction features an animation that wouldn’t be out of place on kids TV. The message is all about fun and ease of use.


It’s worth remembering that much of this zeal is from start-ups who need to attract big investors in the States, and at the moment they seem to be getting it. However, on this side of the pond we are a little more sanguine. Games Designers point out that escapism and fun are often being missed by ad agencies anxious to slap a bit of gamification onto any campaign going, and often ending up with poor results.

Margaret Robertson, game designer, commentator and development director at design studio Hide and Seek took issue with the concept of gamification in her influential 2010 blog“Points and badges have no closer a relationship to games than they do to websites and fitness apps and loyalty cards. They’re great tools for communicating progress and acknowledging effort, but neither points nor badges in any way constitute a game…games set their players goals and then make attaining those goals interestingly hard”.

Robertson penned the term Pointsification, and became a standard bearer for much of the games industry.

American academic Mark Sample agrees; “I oppose pointsification and the gamification of life. Instead of “gamifying” activities in our daily life, we need to meanify them—imbue them with meaning. The things that we do to live, breathe, eat, laugh, love, and die, we need to see as worth doing in order to live, breathe, eat, laugh, love, and die. A leaderboard is not the path toward discovering this worthwhileness”.

now everybody wants to be your friend: Shop on Oxford St, London

now everybody wants to be your friend: Shop on Oxford St, London

The next few years will see if Gamification becomes the normal way we respond to advertising brands and our daily retail choices. We’ll see if the job role of Gamification Animator will slip into common currency. When every commercial outlet wants to woo us with badges, trophies and often meaningless rewards, will there be a backlash? Will we view each offer of engagement with weariness and suspicion? Will we resent the fact that corporations know we are nearby, and ply us with offers?

On one Gamification blog, software engineer and entrepreneur Brendten Eickstaedt exclaimed “Who cares if you’re the mayor of your local grocery store? NOBODY. Gamification is a fad that needs to die quickly. Let’s get back to building games that are fun to play, and then worry about how to bring them into the real world”.

Gamification’s future is in the hands of the advertising agencies, and is becoming a gold rush industry that offers opportunity for games designers, animators and software engineers alike. Make hay whilst you can seems to be a good approach, but don’t open that Gamification Animation boutique just yet.