The financial crisis hit Australiaâ??s game sector hard, but now numerous indies have risen from the ashes

Wizards of Oz

According to the Game Developers Association of Australia, the industry it represents is growing at an incredible rate. During 2008 alone, the country’s video game sector reportedly grew by an impressive 47 per cent to $1.96 billion.

Yet thanks to a business ecosystem that depends heavily on the US, the economic downturn meant times were tough in Australian games development during 2009, and the larger studios felt the pinch as staff cuts became all too common.

Now the industry is bouncing back, and a new model based on small indie teams is proving incredibly popular. So what do the people getting Australia back on the map think of the country’s games industry today?

We sit down with an assortment of Australia’s front-line developers to explore the issue further.

As the rise of the indie studios like your own and the proliferation of iPhone and online games continues, do you feel being positioned as you are in Australia means you are well placed to take advantage of that trend?
Alexandra Peters, Firemint: Digital distribution is a big thing for Australian developers, because with it becoming more prominent and easier to access, it’s becoming less relevant where you are geographically. Just in terms of time zones and flights and meeting people and stuff like that, it’s getting much easier as everything goes online.

David Zwierzchaczewski, 5th World Media: That’s a really big thing that we’ve noticed. Digital distribution has taken away a lot of those borders. I honestly think that now you could set up a developer in the middle of the bush and it wouldn’t matter. That has been a big thing for this country. There’s also been a lot of infrastructure support from the Government that’s really helped us.

Simon Joslin, The Voxel Agents:
To reiterate some of that, our company, for example, has three founders. All three are living off income support from the Government that is designed to pay a year’s wage while you set up your company. That’s great that they provide that, so that we can concentrate on establishing our own IP rather than worrying about paying the rent.

As well as a great range of funding bodies, there’s also an excess of people looking for this kind of work in the country right now. It’s really easy to find people who are keen to work in games in Australia now. They’re happy to do it cheap too, which is good for indies.

It seems you have a positive view of regional bodies and the support offered to your games industry by the government?
Peters: For us in Victoria the state government really does a lot to help out lots of different segments of the games industry. We’re very lucky, and I hear the Queensland guys get a lot of help too. Hopefully we’re set to make a lot of progress with the federal government too. I know everyone is really keen to see that happen.

Andrew Goulding, Brawsome Games: If you know the right avenues to go down then at a government level Australia can be a very supportive place. There are great incentives in place to help start-ups and to get the games industry growing – if you know about them.

Jason Seed, Codesion: What it boils down too, across the entire IT industry in Australia, is that to be successful you have to reach outside of Australia. You’ve always had to do that, and this current fragmentation of larger companies that’s happening is actually working in our favour, as we’ve always been that way anyway. We’ve got lots of small teams working from a long way away, and to make money we’ve always had to sell to the US or Europe or Asia anyway.

So what challenges unique to Australia do game developers face?
John Lycette, esc Factory: Despite what’s changed, it is still the isolation factor. It’s great to see that digital distribution means our product can easily reach everyone, but face-to-face meetings are obviously still hard. You do need that financial support to get those face-to-face meetings happening, especially if like me you’re very indie.

Again, I can only speak for the Victoria area, but there is help in place to aid with that kind of thing, and to attend trade shows and so on. The federal Government offers support too, through support programs for exporters. All of us here are exporters really, and on that note, from our point of view the most challenging thing is the Australian dollar and how strong it is. That strength comes from all the resources, and all the mining, which lifts everything up. We’d really like things to kind of go down.

What are the solutions to that isolation issue then?

Phil Larsen, Halfbrick Studios: I’m the entire marketing and PR department for Halfbrick, and overcoming that problem involves me working to American time quite often.

It seems like a miniscule issue, but in reality it means we’re always a day a head or a day behind. So I have to arrive at work and work based on what happened the day before, because I’m selling to a worldwide issue. That may not seem too big a deal, but in the games industry things like coverage in the media and release dates can be really affected by 24 hours.

Yes. I was up at 3am for the iPad launch.

Larsen: Exactly, so in terms of solutions we need to establish a better way of communicating with the people we work with overseas, and especially in America, as for me I have to deal with Microsoft everyday. The solutions are to get face-to-face with these guys at things like GDC, and help them understand where we are at and what we’re about, and understand the challenges we are facing, so that when we come to them and say ‘we’re having problems with this’, they’ll be more receptive. Then they can understand what we need done and what kind of timeframes we need.

Goulding: To add to that, dealing with overseas companies makes it very hard to take a holiday, because we have to work to other country’s public holidays, and miss our own. It means you don’t get to take off their public holidays either, and end up working from Tuesday to Saturday, and usually Monday too, which is a strain.
Peters: Trying to hit both the US and European time zones makes things harder.

Larsen: Of course, people who work in the media always work late, so that helps.

Peters: Exactly, and there’s a real advantage there. It’s really awesome when somebody wants a quote fast at 3am in their time zone, and you can be the one to provide it. We’re always ready for that, which is great coverage for us.

How much of a sense of community is their shared between developers in Australia?
Well, many of us all share relationships with the same publishers or platform holders on different projects, and there’s definitely a sense that we all want each other to do well. For indies working on the iPhone, it’s not as if any of the other Australian studios do well it is going to detract from our success. There’s so many opportunities on the iPhone, we can all find our own way, and maybe help each other when we can.

Joslin: There’s two big things that are going on in Melbourne community-wise. The IGDA has recently sprung up with a new lust for life, and has expanded massively in the last year, which has been great. The other thing that has been happening there is that the office we share is something like an industry cluster, and one of the CEOs there has set up something of a sharing arrangement with a bunch of other indies, so they can come in and share space in the office. We have access to their dev kits, and they’re really experienced dudes that share advice and help where they can. It also offers what becomes almost cheaper rent, making it a lot easier to set-up, so that’s been really good.

The thing about Australian development is that we’ve all got good ideas, and we’re never going to run out of them. There’s just loads coming out of all the indies, so it’s the executions that are the key, and Halfbrick likes to execute in the best way possible. If other studios do the same we think that’s great. We all need to work together and get lots of good stuff out there.

Another thing here is that, in my experience, we don’t really have to worry about NDAs when we talk to other Australian developers. We usually just chat openly because like Phil said, people here have enough of their own ideas. They just don’t need your ideas. I can’t say there’s any precedent for this, but I’ve never known there to be any issue with IP stealing. It’s mostly just employee stealing [laughter].

Joslin: The positive side of the games industry is a relatively new thing in some ways. I’ve only three years experience, but it does feel like there’s been a huge pendulum swing of attitude in the industry here in the past year. There’s been an indie revival here, and combined with the other things happening, there’s a new atmosphere – a new drive.

Peters: Yes. There’s indies everywhere in Australia. It’s so amazingly thriving, dynamic and exciting. It’s a great place to be right now.

Larsen: There’s been so many breakout successes from here too, like Flight Control and Real Racing – and hopefully some in the future – that it’s really helping us all. Once we get a good portfolio of hits that succeed across the industry and internationally, that’s when the good studios will start to have more motivation and opportunities. That’s good for us all, and that’s what the community can bring us.

Does your geographical isolation make access to tech any harder than normal?
Peters: If you’ve got good relationships with the tech guys, I don’t think distance or location is a factor at all. If you do good work, the hardware manufacturers will notice.

One limitation, though, is broadband in Australia. The hosting fees and whole infrastructure cost is extremely high in Australia in comparison with anywhere else in the world. You’ve also got latency issues. The tyranny of distance affects so much in Australia. There’s only a couple of internet pipes that come into Australia, so it’s pretty much what you could call a control duopoly. Everything’s expensive, for the consumers using games and downloading content to the developers using new SaaS stuff. It’s going to be hard developing in those environments when connectivity is an issue.

Peters: There is in fact a massive infrastructure project that’s just getting started, to establish a national broadband network, which I think is the biggest infrastructure project that the country has eever seen. We’re all really waiting for that
to happen.

How is Australia’s games industry supported by educational courses? Is there a good supply of suitably trained graduates?
Larsen: I can’t speak for the quality of the courses themselves, because I never did one in Brisbane, but with the Queensland University of Technology we have a great relationship that’s been very useful. Just a few weeks ago they let us use their filming studios to do some videos for nothing really. They just suggested we do a guest lecture. They always have interns that are keen to come by and learn, and it is brilliant to be part of that.

Peters: We love graduates and we hire loads of them. We have grads that have been with us for ages, who have gone on to quite senior positions. We always look at the individual, and we’re not just about what course they did, but for programming in particular we get a lot of people that are really well trained in the ‘hard’ degrees such as engineering. But at the end of the day, it’s down to the quality of their work and what they can do.

Zwierzchaczewski: The other thing I found is that a lot of the lecturers are very active in engaging with us, and finding out what we want from their students, and what they should be teaching them. That’s really handy, and quite refreshing. It’s so much better than having a set, rigid syllabus, that ends up being of no use to the students or to the industry at the end of the day.

Goulding: The one downside to having all these superb games and game-related courses is that they are producing far more graduates than we can hope to employ. There is an over-supply issue for certain.

They have to work hard to stand-out from the crowd though, which can be great for the industry in Australia. It’s tough, and it can sometimes be to see the talent of an individual when they show group work, but for this country it has been very good having so many graduates.

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