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Why the Creative Europe Programme Won’t Improve Video Games

Some thoughts about how the Creative Europe Funding works and how it can change to better sustain the European game industry.

During the last few months I took part with my teammates at Urustar in the Creative Europe Programme with a small project of ours. The project has not been able to access the funding, but we are really happy about how the process has been held. We’ve received a lot of valuable feedback and I have no doubts they carefully evaluated every single project.

However, I’m still not sure about how the programme is currently designed, and I would like to reflect for a bit about what I think could have been done better and why.

Let’s start by trying to understand what the programme is looking for. On the Creative Europe website there are two statements:

Creative Europe supports the development of video games, aiming to improve the competitiveness of the European video games industry by increasing its capacity to develop works with a high circulation potential, both in the EU and beyond.

Creative Europe supports video game concepts or projects which, compared to existing mainstream works, present works that:

  • Are original, innovative, creative, and culturally diverse;
  • Enhance Europe’s cultural identity and heritage;
  • Are substantially interactive with a narrative component;
  • Are ambitious in terms of gameplay, user experience, and artistic expression.

The works should also have decent commercial prospects, as well as the potential to access European and international market.

The first statement clearly addresses the programme to commercial games. But the second one seems to concentrate a bit more on the content, asking for games that are culturally diverse, original and innovative. Then they should represent in some ways Europe’s cultural heritage and they need some kind of narrative content. The necessity to access a worldwide market is stated as well.

The actual guidelines documents (available here) are a bit clearer about the nature of the fund. Maximum of 50% of the budget funding, from 10.000 to 150.000 euros, for the direct costs of development. There seem to be two tiers, one to develop a playable concept (whatever that means) capped at 50k, and the other one for the full development. All these elements makes a lot of sense, but the importance they have in the final assessment is not the same.

The Problem with the Content

Take as an example the narrative content and the promotion of the European heritage, as well as the diversity and the innovative content. If you take a look at the selected projects, you can clearly see two sequels to important independent franchises: Tribe 3 and Steamworld Heist. Being sequels they certainly fall short in the innovative content area. They are for sure not promoting diversity, they are great games, but hardly original. And they, for sure, don’t promote any kind of cultural heritage. Maybe Party Tennis: Euro Tour does? Probably, but how a tennis game is to be considered innovative? And where could the strong narrative content the guidelines eagerly request be in a sports title?

I’m not saying that these games won’t deserve the financing they get. What I’m saying is that the guidelines are vague at best. It’s very difficult to clearly define what a strong narrative content means, what is considered original, innovative or culturally diverse.

The Problem with Money

On the pure business side of things, fortunately, things are clearer. By combining the assessment we’ve got (basically stating that we failed to provide a solid strategy about how to get the rest of the funding, thus making ours an high-risk project) with the data from the selected project, it’s clear that the Creative Europe team have privileged few high-investment/low-risk projects over small, maybe riskier ones. Nineteen proposals over 29 have been financed with more than 100.000 euros, and a lot of them are well under 50% of funding, meaning that financial solidity and other secured investments have been seriously taken into account.

I can say that this aspect is the real marker between being selected and being rejected. But this makes Creative Europe Programme more like a typical financing than like a support fund for improving the overall industry in Europe. This is fair of course, but I wonder if there is a better way to sustain an industry than giving money to people that are obviously already able to complete their projects. This line of thinking easily leaves out smaller teams with little or no access to financing programmes.

The Problem with the Playable Prototype

Only three projects have been funded for less than 50.000 euros. This means that a maximum of three projects have been selected in the playable prototype section. I guess that what exactly is a playable prototype has not sufficiently made clear by the assessment team, and very few people have decided to try to ask funding for it.

So, why bother about a playable prototype at all?

A Statement

Since there are numerous private investors (and since the most financed projects of Creative Europe quite obviuosly have access to them) positioning Creative Europe just as another investment programme is not so interesting. It would be better to aim to improve the medium instead by sustaining projects with a different take. Artistic projects, political projects. Weird or diverse games. These projects are often developed by very small teams with limited access to financing, but they can be helped a great deal even with small amounts of money (10k to 50k).

For what I’ve seen from the program, the feedback we’ve received and the selected projects, the games which are reshaping the way we’re thinking about the medium would have never got a grant.

Experiments like Robin Arnott’s Soundself, political games like Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please, or artistic projects like Tale of Tales Luxuria Superbia would probably have been rejected. But these games are equally (or maybe more) important than the random sequel of an already successful indie game. A programme like Creative Europe should promote art and culture more than money and revenues.

So, What Can Be Done?

All of this may sound a bit harsh. Nevertheless I’m really happy to see the UE giving attention to games, and treating them in a very serious and professional way. So, I may have some ideas about how to improve the programme and making it even more effective.

In my opinion the fund should aim to both help promising companies to grow and become more stable and to explore new aspect of the games world by sustaining smaller, more innovative developers.

This year budget was 2.5 million euros. I think it would be better to divide this budget into two tiers: the first one, with a budget of 1.5 million, should be like it is now. A 50% tops financing for already financed projects. This way, up to ten projects could be financed, thus consolidating a fair part of the industry.

The second tier would have a total budget of one million. This tier would grant to small teams and individuals 10k to 50k euros to complete a small innovative projects. This grant should be given without asking for other investments, just as a help to complete interesting projects. To take part in this tier a playable demonstration of the game should be requested. The judging team should take into account the innovative content without completely ignore the business part. But this way, up to 20 small teams can have the money to complete a small game and make the industry grow.

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