It’s been four years since the AAA development scene in Australia quietly collapsed under the weight of increasing expectations, publisher indifference and a thriving international economy that left the country behind.
Australia’s game development landscape, like our natural one, is vibrant and diverse and really hard to keep track of. Before the crash you just had to list what the main five studios were doing and you were done. In 2014, growth in Australian game development is slow and awkward but, in a strange way, far more exciting and positive than they ever were in the “good old days”.
(I should say at this point I don’t claim to have a complete, all-encompassing view on what the Australian game development scene is like. For all I know there’s a bunch of teams out there who have had to hire as many accountants as they have programmers because of all the money that’s coming in. That’s actually part of the charm of this country - because we’re not the type to publicise everything we do, we tend to be doing cool stuff that nobody knows about for a long time.)
Most of us who were suddenly out of a job generally fell into one of two camps. Those under 30 and didn’t have any serious commitments took the first plane out of the country and continued working in the AAA space. Those that were over 30 and / or had mortgages, families and other commitments fought over the scraps of whatever related work was available. The rest of us just left the industry altogether and traded creative freedom for regular working hours and a steady paycheck.
It’s a symptom of the great brain drain of Australia is a serious problem here, and has been for decades: we’re not a country that wants to be known for making things, especially in the technology sector, so smart people across all industries end up leaving for more promising opportunities overseas.
So what are the people who stayed in the Australian games industry working on?
Most of us are doing piecemeal work here and there, helped along by government grants (which have just been axed thanks to a new government budget that 'cut the waste') and commercial work for private / government concerns that don’t generate headlines.
For example Disparity Games did an Aboriginal community language translation app in between Run Fatty Run and Ninja Pizza Girl. Krome does some behind the scenes conversion work (and a new TY The Tasmanian Tiger game) for Microsoft. N3V are quietly churning out new Trainz titles for a not inconsiderable European audience. Hardly exciting stuff, to be sure, but it pays the bills.
The big success stories here are Halfbrick (who are expanding cautiously with new games like Collosotron, Yes Chef and continued conversions of existing hits, as something as big as Fruit Ninja isn't likely to happen again for a while) and Defiant Development (who just had a successful Kickstarter for Hand of Fate, and has only recently launched it on Steam Early Access), but it's a far sight away from the glory days of the last decade. Still, sales of Fruit Ninja plush toys and Ski Safari IAP costumes aren’t slowing down anytime soon, and that’s a good thing.
Kickstarter opened here in November last year and it's been a Godsend. Developers around the country quickly got on board the service and have successfully Kickstarted several titles currently in various stages of completion. There's no DoubleFine-esque Kickstarter miracle stories to be found here, but we don't have to deal with San Francisco rents to pay or DoubleFine-level expectations to match.
Two local Kickstarter successes that come to mind are Collateral, a Fifth-Element meets Quarantine esque racing / action hybrid, and the pseudo-reboot of Syndicate Wars, Satellite Reign, which earned over $800,000 in its Kickstarter campaign and continues to draw interest.
By the time this goes to press Disparity Games’ Ninja Pizza Girl will have started its Kickstarter campaign and we’ll be anxiously watching its progress. We’re asking for a fraction of the money that Satellite Reign needed, but selling a new IP is always a tough prospect in any creative environment.
PAX opening their Australian show in Melbourne last year was another big deal for many reasons. First of all it was confirmation that we actually mattered. It’s hard to explain to my overseas friends just how much we feel like an afterthought in the games industry - a region controlled by frustrating geo-locks and brash price gouging. All of a sudden we had a PAX with real international guests, international press and a chance to prove our worth to the world.
It was the first time we all got together in years to see that there's a lot of good game development going on. A thriving local industry scene drew in great crowds, with Oculus Rift-enabled Lunar Flight and innovative comic-themed puzzle game Framed drawing the most attention. Each of them have gone on to considerable success since getting attention from the outside word at PAX. Witch Beam used its literal last-minute inclusion of Assault Android Cactus onto PAX Australia showfloors to snowball interest into a several successful appearances at GDC and E3 this year. It’s a story that was repeated all around the show - we’re doing cool stuff, all we want is a chance to show you.
Thinking about the local games at PAX, it occurs to me that one of the things that makes the Australian scene so exciting is that not only have we ditched the traditional publisher model but we also seem to have walked away from the traditional types of games we were known for. For example Tin Man Games have made such a name for themselves with their Game Book apps that they’ve just recently nabbed the rights to the Fighting Fantasy series that started it all in the ‘80s. This wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago.
Sure, Australia hasn’t had a mega hit to show for ourselves lately, but the weather’s nice and people care about their work more than they have in years. I don’t know if Ninja Pizza Girl will be the game to put Australia back on the map, but we’ll be trying with a self-assured smile.