MA. Considering Incentives for the Video Game Industry

Correction: I erroneously wrote earlier that "Massachusetts has a thriving video games industry – mostly in the Western part of the state in and around Boston." This is quite incorrect and doubly embarrassing because I actually live in Massachusetts (I do know where Boston is, for the record). A revised story below:

Massachusetts may join Texas, Georgia and countless other states that offer some sort of tax incentives to the interactive entertainment industry. According to a report in the Boston Herald, supports of the effort want to expand the "the state’s $2 billion video game industry to $20 billion" within the next five years. To do that, the state will have to be willing to invest in incentives, but opponents say the state is already in the red.

One of the initiative’s supporters, State Rep. Vincent Pedone (D-Worcester) said it is too early to say what the effort would cost, but wants to expand the industry:

"Twenty-five or 30 years ago, no one in the Commonwealth knew what biotechnology was, and it has now become a critical part of our Massachusetts economy," said Pedone. "We think the video game design industry has equal potential."

Massachusetts has a thriving video games industry – mostly in the Eastern part of the state in and around Boston. Companies such as Turbine and Harmonix are long-time studios that have managed to survive despite the lack of incentives and the not-so-pro-business atmosphere in the state. Approximately 1,295 people are directly employed by video game developers or publishers, according to the Entertainment Software Association. That places the state fifth behind California, Texas, Washington and New York.

Turbine says that local colleges and universities offer a decent talent pool that fits the industry’s needs: "Our world is really a combination of everything creative, from visual to storytelling to game play, combined with good, old-fashioned sophisticated software engineering," said Ken Surdan, vice president of operations for Needham-based Turbine, Inc., maker of the online "Lord of the Rings" game.

But Harmonix sees its business constrained by high costs in Massachusetts that tend to inhibit startups and firms looking to expand.

Florian Hunziker, chief operating officer for Cambridge-based Harmonix Music Systems, said his company is often forced to outsource work to out-of-state studios: "It’s difficult for some of the Massachusetts development companies to be cost competitive with studios that are either in a state where there is a tax break or studios that are in place where there is a lower cost of living," he said.

Meanwhile opponents of new tax incentives for the game industry point to past failures with tax incentives, as well as a budget that is already stretched beyond belief.

Rep. Bradley Jones, the House Republican leader, said he’s not against cutting taxes for companies, but doesn’t believe the state should pick "winners and losers" in the private sector: "Do we go pick an industry, or do we focus our energies on more broad-based initiatives that would help all companies?" he asked.

He also pointed to last week’s announcement that Evergreen Solar planned to close its solar panel factory in Devens and lay off 800 workers. He notes that the company received $58 million in state aid in 2007.

Still, the news that someone on Beacon Hill is thinking about the industry probably gives companies like Turbine and Harmonix hope that someday the environment for business might improve. After all, it’s obvious that these companies — and others like Irrational Games – love the state; if they didn’t they’d probably be headquartered in Texas by now..

Source: Boston Herald

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