Immigration stoush could mean game over for $20 million Dunedin studio
High-profile gaming developer Dean Hall was shaking hands with the CEO of Microsoft, just as Immigration New Zealand contacted his company asking if it was financially viable.
The creator of DayZ, a zombie survival game that has sold more than 3 million copies and made more than $137.7m, had been planning a $20m gaming studio in Dunedin.
After months of wrangling with Immigration NZ, Hall may now base that business offshore.
The department recommended he pay migrant software developers around $60,000, which he argued was way above what the industry was paying in New Zealand.
Hall, frustrated by his treatment, has written an open letter to Immigration New Zealand imploring them "to stop wasting the time of me and my staff and make a decision".
"In selecting erroneous data, you are demanding that we either provide preferential benefits to overseas graduates or that we alter all graduate employee positions," he said in the letter.
"That means either you are forcing us to give overseas graduates more or you are fixing industry prices."
A spokesperson for Immigration NZ said there was no suggestion migrants should be paid more than New Zealanders.
"Anyone working in such a skilled position, with the qualifications and/or experience that such a position requires, should be paid more than $35,000 – the salary that Mr Hall is proposing to pay workers in this case."
Immigration New Zealand was assessing all the information submitted in support of Hall's request before making a final decision, the spokesperson said.
Even if Immigration NZ backtracked on its stance, it may have come too late for Hall.
"I'm still hopeful that in the future I can make my dreams of a Dunedin mecca for graduates – of all countries – come true. But I suspect without a serious change in government attitudes I'll pass."
In comparison, the United Kingdom had been proactive in trying to get his company Rocketwerks to be based in London.
"[The UK Government] is pulling out all stops to attract video game companies because of the tremendous opportunity the industry provides."
Hall said video games were worth more than the film and music industry combined, and the "New Zealand Government are bending over backward for both of those – where are video games?"
"Ultimately, I don't think this is about blame so much as frustration because I know how good it can be. I just want the politicians, and New Zealand, to see just how much opportunity is out there to make video games."
In addition to his 30-strong team in London, Hall has six people working on a small scale project in Dunedin and had wanted to increase that to around 30 before creating a Queenstown-based studio with similar numbers,
He said he had been planning and negotiating to upscale the Dunedin studio as a place where "great graduates can go for their first video game job; leveraging Dunedin's low cost of living, vibrant student life, and great facilities".
To overcome obstacles, such as chronic labour shortages, he was hoping to supplement New Zealand graduates with overseas graduates.
However, after receiving support from Work and Income, which noted the difficulty in finding local candidates, the search for international candidates reached a stumbling block when Immigration NZ rejected an application because they did not feel a job offer to one of those graduates was genuine.
Hall described the "surreal moment" when attending a Microsoft press conference following the announcement of his new project, ION.
He had just shaken hands with the Microsoft CEO when his company received an email from Immigration New Zealand asking whether his company was financially viable.
"In the end, I got so desperate I asked the bank to provide Immigration with details of all my accounts and the money available to me locally. I felt this was outrageous but by that time we had really run out of options."
On May 23, Hall made a complaint to Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse – a Dunedin-based MP.
On July 6, Woodhouse replied that a remuneration report from Careers New Zealand stated lower quartile salaries for software developers was $60,000, not the $35,000 plus bonuses Hall was offering.
Hall said the Woodhouse's specified salary levels "have no representation in reality".
"It really makes me wonder how a Dunedin MP could be so out of touch with what a large portion of his own constituents are earning."
Woodhouse was not in a position to respond before deadline.
A letter of support from the New Zealand Gaming Developers Association (NZGDA) revealed a graduate with a tertiary game programming or computer science degree could expect to receive a starting salary of $35,00-$45,000.
The association also noted that Hall was a "high-profile, internationally-acclaimed and successful game developer now re-investing in his homeland".
Hall, with the support of Dunedin South MP Clare Curran, the Dunedin City Council, and the NZGDA, applied for "approval in principle" from Immigration New Zealand.
At present, Immigration New Zealand said it would accept the company's approval in principle, if it paid the applicants $2500 more a year.
Hall said part of the problem was Immigration New Zealand was fixated on salary, while his focus was on graduates.
"Whatever salaries that are offered, my golden principle is that any one international graduate we recruit should be paid the same as what our New Zealand graduates are paid. Immigration simply seem like they fail to grasp how important this is."
The video game industry was not after handouts, nor wanted tax breaks, but it wanted the Government to recognise how much money was in the industry and what that potential meant for New Zealand, he said.
"If we really want to break out of our reliance on agriculture then let's see some real commitment from the Government to video games. My last game has generated over $100m – that's one game. That's $30m tax revenue that could have been here if the game could have been made here," Hall said.
"Imagine what tax revenue would have been here if I could have done my future big projects here. And I'm just one person, there are plenty of talented studios in New Zealand with amazing ideas."