Power players: The 20 most influential people in the NZ video gaming industry

The fast-growing video gaming sector is on track to be our next billion-dollar export industry, Digital Economy Minister David Clark said in February.

It’s certainly growing fast, and it’s certainly global.

Local game makers saw revenue increase by more than a third to $324 million in 2020 – with 96 per cent of their earnings coming from overseas, according to figures collated by the New Zealand Game Developers Association.

And figures for the latest financial year are likely to show another great leap forward, given gaming companies worldwide have seen record results during the pandemic in what has become a $258 billion worldwide market.

Here are the biggest names on the local scene.

1. Mario Wynands

PikPok

Of New Zealand’s big three gaming studios – Grinding Gear Games, Rocketwerkz and PikPok – the latter, founded by Mario Wynands in 1997, is the oldest, and also the largest in terms of numbers employed. Wynand’s company also sets itself apart from the other top-tier players with its focus on games for Apple and Android smartphones. It wasn’t always like that.

Initially known as Sidhe Interactive, Wynands’ company originally made its name through developing PC and console titles based on movie titles. When DreamWorks needed a game based on the movie Madagascar, for example, they dialled up Wynands. It was high-profile work, even if the results were not always memorable. In 2009, the company shifted gears as it created a subsidiary called PikPok to concentrate on smartphone and tablet titles. The rest was history as Flick Kick Football and dozens of other titles became global hits – and PikPok consumed its parent. While multinational game developers have railed against Google and Apple’s app stores, for many Kiwi developers they provided a low-cost, easy way to reach a global audience – and Wynands led the way. “

“Mario is like The Godfather of video game development in New Zealand,” MindLab founder Frances Valintine said earlier. “Not only has he led the country’s largest games studio he has given up endless hours of his time to nurture young talent and assist startup studios. Mario’s commitment to the games sector has included the provision of financial scholarships to game development students at Media Design School and the delivery of numerous workshops and lectures. Everyone lucky enough to meet Mario would support my view that you couldn’t find a nicer, more humble or committed person.”

Make that nice, but also not shy of going on the front foot when necessary. Earlier this week, Wynands gave the Government a sandblasting for ignoring the gaming industry as it grants various industries special border exceptions. Immigration NZ stonewalling over visas for overseas gaming specialists – who in turn could help create growth and more jobs – had forced him to stall hiring.

2. Chris Wilson

Grinding Gear Games

From an unassuming office near a West Auckland Pak’nSave, Grinding Gear Games chief executive Chris Wilson rules an online fantasy world, inhabited by millions of players worldwide as they play GGG’s Path of Exile. Wilson created Exile back in 2006 with GGG co-founders Jonathan Rogers and Eric Olofsson. In 2018, Chinese giant Tencent took an 88 per cent stake, paying a price somewhere north of the Overseas Investment Office’s $100m threshold. Wilson retained a 9 per cent stake (his cofounders hold the balance) and, more importantly, has sent an example for offshore deals by staying in the driver’s seat.

GGG has remained in West Auckland, and indeed expanded its staff from 114 to 155 since the Tencent deal. GGG remains a one-trick pony, but what a trick. Its latest accounts, released in March this year, revealed that Exile is a profit powerhouse. The Henderson-based company booked $113.4m revenue for the 12 months to September 30, 2020 – versus the $99.2m it booked in 2019 and its 2018 receipts of $73.3m. Pre-tax profit was a head-spinning $77.4m, and after-tax profit $51.9m (vs $48.6m in 2019 and $33.4m in 2018). Its result nicely topped off a year that saw Path of Exile win the Bafta (yes, the Brit organisation does awards for gaming too) as Exile won “Best Evolving Game” at the 2020 Bafta Games Awards – beating a lineup of blockbuster fellow nominees that included the likes of Final Fantasy XIV and Fortnite.

3. Dean Hall

Rocketwerkz

While the unassuming Chris Wilson generally keeps a low profile, Rocketwerks founder, CEO and majority shareholder Dean Hall is all about rocketship flash and bringing the biff to political tussles. Hall spent two years in the army before heading to Europe where he worked as a game developer, before returning to NZ to found his own studio – with multimillion-dollar backing from China’s Tencent, which now has a 47 per cent stake.

RocketWerks has had a steady output of modestly-budgeted games over the years, but its operation is now centred on what Hall hopes will be its first A-list global blockbuster: the high-production-value Icarus – where players are part of a human cohort inhabiting an alien world. After years of development, an Icarus beta (public test version) is set to drop in just days, on August 28, with the final version due in November.

The Rocketwerkz crew has been applying the final touches in its new office on the top floor of the new PwC Tower at the $1b Commercial Bay development on Auckland’s waterfront. The new digs were fitted out to resemble a spaceship. Hall will be hoping it will shortly take off. If it does, it will – in Hall’s opinion – be no thanks to the Beehive. The founder has accused the Government of kneecapping the gaming industry by subsidising the film industry but not video game studios – when the two industries compete for the same pool of staff.

4. David Clark

Digital Economy Minister

Gaming industry eyes are on Clark, and whether he’ll follow Scott Morrison’s Government, which in May introduced a 30 per cent tax offset for local and international businesses that develop digital games in Australia. RocketWerkz’ Hall says local game developers need an equivalent move, given the local film industry – which is already enjoying substantial rebates – competes for a lot of the same staff. And Wynands says NZ’s failure to match the Aussies is already seeing scarce skilled staff choose roles across the ditch over local job offers.

5. Chelsea Rapp

NZGDA, Cerebral Fix

As chair of the New Zealand Game Developers Association, Rapp advocates for a membership that includes more than 50 digital media and video game studios and 3000 individual members as she works closely with the likes of government agencies, tertiary educators and private companies as she grapples with issues around building the industry, and overcoming its lack of diversity. She gained a Master’s degree in immunology and worked in medical devices – leading the software development teams who pioneered the liquid biopsy technology that is now used in personalised medicine worldwide – before migrating to NZ from the US. In her day job, she works as head of strategy and business development for CerebralFi, a Christchurch-based game studio that creates mobile and digital location-based experiences for clients like Disney, Universal, DreamWorks, and Pixar.

6. Chris Harris and Stephen Harris

Ninja Kiwi

Ninja Kiwi founders Chris and Stephen Harris – and some 70 staff spread across New Zealand and Scotland – quietly created a mobile gaming empire from Kumeu that generated $50m in revenue last year (according to a Technology Investment Network estimate). Their 15-year-old company, Ninja Kiwi, now has more than 1.1m people daily playing their low-cost games – including their breakthrough hit “Bloons”, profits from which enabled them to purchase UK game studio Digital Goldfish, which now accounts for around half their staff. Earlier this year, Chris and older brother Stephen sold their firm to Sweden’s MTG for $203m, plus potentially another $68m in earnouts. The pair say MTG – which has a multibillion-dollar market cap – will help Ninja Kiwi market to the world.

7. Sir Peter Jackson

Weta Digital

Sir Peter’s digital effects empire saw a generation of Kiwis develop new skills in graphics, with many of them subsequently poached by the likes of Grinding Gear Games and Rocketwerkz. The feeding cycle continues through to today.

8. Gabe Newell

Valve, Steam

The US multi-billionaire founder of gaming company Valve, and the global gaming platform Steam was on holiday in NZ in March 2020 when the first lockdown hit – then decided to sit out the pandemic here. He’s just returned to the US, but Newell made a big impression during his time in Aotearoa from school visits to inspire future developers to talking up an NZ office for his multinational and a possible international gaming tournament in Auckland. Steam hosted a session for local game makers at the NZGDA’s recent annual conference at Te Papa, and the local game association wants to further ties with the US giant.

9. Maru Nihoniho (MNZM)

Metia Interactive

Maru Nihoniho credits games of spacies while waiting for fish and chips for her interest in gaming. Today’s she’s leading the charge for Māori game developers as managing director of Metia Interactive, based at Auckland innovation hub GridAKL. Māori stories and language are integral to Metia’s games, like Māori Pa Wars, a tower defence game that can be fully played in te reo Māori; learn-to-code game Tākaro; and Metia’s flagship game Guardian Maia. “Right now – with game sales going up globally – is a huge opportunity to get global reach through digital storytelling in gaming, with our Māori and Pacific stories, our unique identity. The world is looking at Aotearoa right now,” Nihoniho says.

10. Duane Mutu

LetsPlay.Live, NZ Esports Federation

A youthful Mutu first made the Herald after a marketing stunt for an Xbox game – which involved customers being “held up” by an assailant with a plastic gun – went wrong, resulting in a police callout. These days, he’s best known as the founder of e-sports company Lets Play Live, which produces a twice-weekly e-sports gaming show for Amazon-owned Twitch TV from an Auckland studio, bankrolled by Mutu’s major investor, SkyCity; a director of the New Zealand E-Sports Federation (NZESF); and a lobbyist to have video gaming included at the 2024 Olympics.

It’s still an open question whether we’ll see anyone awarded a gold for their Fortnite skills. But last year, the competitive multiplayer tournaments he champions took a big step toward the mainstream as Sport New Zealand officially recognised the NZESF as aNational Sporting Organisation. The top e-sports players overseas make millions. New Zealand’s top player, CounterStrike specialist Sean Kaiwai, has career earnings of just over $120,000.

11= Tim Ponting and Vee Pendergrast

Code

Despite often being whacked over the head for what’s seen as his film industry favouritism, Digital Economy Minister Clark can point to some government initiatives to help video gaming. In late 2019, $10m was earmarked for a “Centre of Digital Excellence” (or “Code”) in Dunedin, with a mission to foster the local gaming industry. And it was at Code in February that Clark made his projection about gaming becoming a billion-dollar sector. Code is handing out $700,000 in grants this year. Clark announced grants including $147,000 to Otepoti Games to develop “cosy”-genre adventure game Pae Moana, based loosely on Otago Harbour and its surrounds. The Dunedin company was founded by Kylie Jackson, a former underwater diving instructor. And Gfactor Technologies, headed by Otago rally car driver Rhys Gardner, received $150,000 to launch educational driving simulation game CoDriVR. Code is run by establishment director Tim Ponting and its operations manager Vee Pendergrast. Pointing is also an angel investor, while Pendergrast mentors startups, and is doing groundwork for a possible expansion of incentive programmes for the sector.

13. Alexey Ushnisky, Afanasey Ushnisky

MyTona

Gabe Newell isn’t the only international gaming rich-lister to gain residency in New Zealand. The founders of one of Russia’s most successful mobile game publishers, MyTona, are now NZ residents and have a studio in Takapuna. Twin brothers Alexey and Afanasey Ushnisky – who also have offices in their home country, the US and Singapore – are currently trying to hire an office manager and HR manager, plus three developers for their Kiwi outpost, if you want to join the Russian Revolution.

14= Chris Jagger and Rob Vickery

Alt Ventures, Hillfarrance Venture Capital

At a time when NZ’s booming venture capital scene has largely ignored video gaming, Chris Jagger and Rob Vickery are both pioneering investments into games from a venture level. NZGDA’s Rapp says, “I think they’ll be key ambassadors to traditional tech investors for the next couple of years.” Code’s Tim Ponting (see above) is also active in the nascent angel investment scene for video gaming.

16. James Everett

Magic Leap

Everett was a lead game designer for Magic Leap, the US startup then spent billions last decade in a bid to create an augmented reality headset (Kiwi special effects whiz Richard Taylor was also in the frame). After Magic Leap folded its gaming efforts in 2020, Everett formed NZXR (the “XR” stands for “extended reality”), which has become an influential consultancy, boosting local game developers’ virtual reality and augmented reality efforts, in less than a year.

17. Zoe Hobson

Runaway Play

The managing director of Dunedin’s Runaway Play, Zoe Hobson is a leading advocate for gender and other diversity in the NZ games industry, and creator of nature-inspired mobile games. Hobson garnered an Industry Pillar award for her long-term commitment to the industry at the 2020 NZ Game Awards. At the same event, Runway Play community director Lisa Blakie won the Rising Star award.

18. Stephen Knightly

Rocketwerkz, NZGDA, WeCreate

Knightly shifted from offering PR about gaming to entering the industry himself. He currently serves as a director of the NZGDA, a steering group member for creative industries ginger group WeCreate, managing director of consultancy InGame, and chief operating officer of RocketWerkz.

19. Frances Valintine

Tech Futures Lab

TechFuturesLab founder Valintine has led multiple efforts that have helped create New Zealand’s pool of video gaming development talent, both indirectly through the likes of her MindLab and directly. When chief executive of the Media Design School, she created NZ’s first Bachelors degrees in game development and creative technology.

20. Jessica Manins

Beyond Studio

Manin’s Wellington startup Beyond Studio was recently a recipient of Spark’s $625,000 5G Starter Fund – a reward for its work on various technologies to enhance virtual reality gaming. Those span from free-roaming to maximise the advantages of wireless gaming with the likes of Facebook-owned Occulus’s latest headset to a technology that allows those with regular smartphones to play along with those wearing VR goggles in a multiplayer session.

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