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Want to be Surrounded By a Thriving Local Games Industry? Grow Yours

August 21, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

This is how an optimistic girl on a teacher's salary helped grow her local industry from a handful of development studios to nearly 30 making and releasing games. In two years, the Sydney Chapter of the IGDA grew from 300-something to a membership of nearly 1000 -- and all this cost less to pull off than an overseas trip to GDC.

With only a few cities in the world known for a culture of great game development, it's easy to imagine towns where the conversation just never comes up. Places where, instead of saying "How can we make better games?" they watch football or arrange matchsticks or something.

In the three years I've been coaching game developers, I have yet to meet one that starts out saying "You know, I don't want to be known for original games and genre-defining discoveries -- no, I think I'll just copy what's already out there, but spend more money and more time to produce something half as good!"

Folks don't go into this wanting to set up unsustainable businesses around crap games. All of us, from triple-A to Indie, got into this wanting to work on awesome stuff. So where does it go wrong?

What looks like a people problem is usually an environment problem. It isn't something wrong with the people making games; it's something wrong with the environment they're making games in. Tweak the environment, and behaviors change (Try it yourself: go throw all the snack food in your kitchen away and replace it with fresh fruit and veg all washed and chopped and ready to munch. By the end of the week, you'll be eating healthier and feeling better about yourself. Nifty, huh?)

We'll go into more detail about how we changed the culture of game development in Sydney throughout the article, but here's the key points if you're in a hurry:

Step-by-Step Community Development

  • Step 1: Clearly define what's motivating you
  • Step 2: Pick the right metrics to measure success by
  • Step 3: Volunteer first, identify which problems need solving
  • Step 4: Study what folks are already doing to solve those problems
  • Step 5: Prototype, Playtest and Iterate on Everything
  • Step 6: Keep an Eye out for Emerging Solutions
  • Step 7: Experience Design (Every Detail Matters)
  • Step 8: Replace yourself in the pipeline as soon as you can

Our Critical Change Factor: Regular, community-wide, peer-to-peer playtesting and feedback.

If there's one thing I can point to and say "this had the biggest impact on our games and the health of local industry" it's introducing regular playtesting, open to all devs, from commercial to indie. We now have better games getting made, finished, and released here in Sydney. Creating a culture around experimentation and feedback has been fundamental to that.

"I had no idea Sydney had such a healthy game development scene!"

We hear this a lot now. It's totally fair. Because up until recently, we didn't.

My part of this story starts back in 2009. I had turned down a producer role at L.A. Noire developer Team Bondi to take a teaching gig with a $20k pay cut. Why? I was sick to death of crunch. After crunching on projects seven days a week for years, I needed a break. You've been there too. It's exhausting. A steady 9-to-5 job helping folks learn how to make games was well worth dropping salary for.

Fast forward to 2010, and I'm working with this group of inspiring artists and programmers making games way cooler than anything I'd been contracted to do so far (something about them being young and naïve, maybe!) This was their last year with me, and naturally I wanted to see them do well in the industry (I'm just maternal like that) so I started looking for local studios to recommend the best of my guys to...

...and found next to nothing in Sydney! The combination of the 2008 writer's strike and the global financial crisis had devastated games and film industries in Australia, and Sydney was still a wasteland.

The few studios we had at the time weren't hiring -- and if they were, they'd snap up one of many veteran developers recently dumped into unemployment by publishers making liquidation decisions by spreadsheet ("Oh, sorry, you're in the red this month. We've got to close your studio. Sucks I know, but that's corporate policy.")

Here I was with these talented creatives about to step from my class into a nearly non-existent local industry -- and the next group due to join me was twice as big and equally awesome! Shit! Where were my guys going to go!?

All videos were done by Rhys Votano of Upstair Studios - who just showed up with a camera at one of the events and asked if he could film stuff! Here's a video from the second playtesting event I ran at the Arthouse hotel towards the end of 2011.

Step 1: Clearly Define What's Motivating You. Know what you're going into this to achieve. You won't get paid for this, and the established industry won't want to get involved -- at least not until after you're successful. And that's fair; they have their own businesses to worry about. But if you're doing this because it's something you're deeply passionate about, and you're willing to sacrifice to make it happen, then none of that matters so much. Money and recognition is only motivating when you don't have something deeply personal at stake. You know how you can lose all track of time doing something you're passionate about? Yeah. It's like that.

My motivation: At first it was "make sure my guys can make a living doing awesome creative stuff... instead of getting sucked up into advertising or have to leave Sydney to find work." Later this evolved into "help people go indie, live well, and make better games."

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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Wilson Almeida
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Thanks for sharing your experience it was inspiring, i'm from Portugal and we don't have an industry just a couple of small studios. The good thing is that we have a lot of people interested in making games so I guess wee need more jams to get together.

Epona Schweer
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Starting with jams is a great idea!

Think about it like game design: it all comes down to iterations :)

Start small, learn from the experience, ask "what could we do to make this better?" and test that. Continue to build, test and learn as you go.

You might start with jams and end up somewhere totally different with a weird and awesome and vibrant community that's completely unique!

This is totally a game design challenge...just happens outside the .exe :P

Curtiss Murphy
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Brilliant and inspiring!

Dustin Clingman
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Great Article. Lots of amazing advice here.

Jeremy Alessi
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This couldn't come at a better time, fantastic article!

Jay Jennings
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Great article. At first it filled me with hope that I could do something like that here, but then realized the population of Sydney is about 3.6 million and the population of the entire state of Alaska is about 720,000.

I don't think you'd run out of fingers on one hand to count all the game developers in Alaska. *sigh*

Epona Schweer
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You'd be surprised! I had no idea how many individual indie developers there were in Sydney when I started this (I can now look at past IGDA facebook events to see, which is kind of cool) and the community GREW as this progressed. We didn't have lots of developers...and then we did. At some point earlier this year I looked around and had a moment of "holy crap, we have a development scene" and figured it might be helpful to share what we did.

Man, there are so many people all over who are doing nifty things and a) you just haven't met them yet or b) they haven't been inspired to make games yet.

Start by Googling what exists in your area already - maybe check as well?

Also, as much as it isn't immediately local, start interacting with folks on TIGSource and polycount and Indie Game Developers facebook group, etc. There's an online community out there for when you don't know where to start locally :)

Brandon Sheffield
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Some of the things I don't see in here but am curious about are: how did you have time to do all this yourself while working full time? How many people helped you regularly? where did the money come from when you needed to foot the bill for a food spend that wasn't met? how were you able to hire people without money? did you at any point get funding/sponsorships?

It all seems pretty tough to do without working at least half time on it and/or getting some cashflow.

Epona Schweer
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"How did you have time to do all this yourself while working full time?"

Lunchbreaks, early mornings, evenings and weekends! Phone calls to arrange stuff were done during lunch. Emails and social media stuff was sent out either early in the morning before work or after I got home. My events would run after work on a Tuesday (would head straight to the Arthouse after work to setup) or on the weekends.

This was my passtime and my passion and my hobby so I didn't spend much time playing games or watching TV or anything. And these folks were my friends and graduates - so running these events was ticking all my social boxes as well.

Heh, basically anytime I wasn't at the office 9-5, I was doing this stuff :)

"How many people helped you regularly?"

Dan Graf helped with Game Day. iFest I had the help of Neil Boyd (AIE head of school at the time). At first all the Arthouse events were all me, but recently Rebecca and Paul have been a huge help (especially as all my free time has now been going into my own startup). My super awesome amazing students would often volunteer to help me setup at the Arthouse (thank you Jared and Jalyn!)

"Where did the money come from when you needed to foot the bill for a food spend that wasn't met? "

From my bank account. After two events I was able to negotiate the price of the venue down significantly and it was rare that I would have to foot the bill. There were a few times that I had to cover costs and live a bit lean for a couple weeks but normally I only ended up paying $250 every other month to keep running at The Arthouse.

Living lean to do this has been awesome practice for getting ready to go full time indie myself - all those money saving tips (and money making tips) I've been turning into "funding development" articles when I could.

"How were you able to hire people without money?"

Didn't hire anyone. I did as much of the work as I could myself, only asked for help if I really needed to and only if I could make it a valuable opportunity for someone who needed the exposure.

"Did you at any point get funding/sponsorships?"

At one point Ninefold offered to sponsor some of the events. Felt REALLY weird. Up until that point the events were all about playtesting, design and issues facing the industry - once we introduced sponsorship it started to feel a bit salesy. Stopped asking Ninefold to sponsor it after that.

Been running these events for a year now, cost less than $2000 all up. I didn't have that in the bank just sitting there or anything, I just budgeted to make sure I could keep running them over the last year.

Next challenge: run something like this without any one individual having to pay out of pocket...without spending more time looking for sponsorship than focusing on creating a great experience. The folks taking over in Sydney are on that now and they're awesome - they'll find a way :)

I was in a position to do this because I wanted to help other people make games...I wasn't particularly interested in making my own (at the time, the side effect of working with game developers for three years is that game ideas have a sneaky way of taking root in your imagination. Damnit.) All the time and money and energy other people were putting into going indie and making games, I was able to put into community development.

Brandon Sheffield
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Thanks for this, and that's all quite impressive! the reason I asked about hires is because you mentioned at one point you hired two people on to do research, but I suppose that was more of a volunteer sort of hire!

It's very surprising to me that anyone would have the dedication to see something like this through. I hope it pays back dividends karma-wise!

Epona Schweer
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Ah sorry man! Totally misread that regarding hires - it was a $350 contract with each of my assistants! They saved me heaps of google-fu time :)

One of the things I want to stress is that I'm one person and I'm not special...just really really REALLY stubborn LOL. If I can do this so can anyone. No need to wait for anybody else to make a policy decision or do a vote or anything. Just see a thing that needs doing and (slowly) work towards it.

Zsombor Berki
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I'm really into this idea. I'm from Budapest, Hungary, and Hungarian game development is practically in the ground by know. It used to be better.

Nowadays there are a few active companies around (I work for one of them), but basically there is a huge gap between those working in the industry, and those wanting to do so.

I wanted to somehow bring these crowds closer together, and build a better gaming culture in the capital, but I don't think anyone of the "big players" is interested in any kind of organized crime of fun, even though I was planning on setting up a game jam of sorts.

What would be a good approach to reach out to all these people without having a fortune of promotion to back me up? Forums? Starting out small, with less crowded jams?

Epona Schweer
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Start super small - game jams, workshops, just light hearted nifty things to give people an opportunity to make games together (hell, we should all be making more games more often anyways).

The more things like this the more people you meet...keep in contact through facebook, twitter, email, whatever. Keep a spreadsheet of all the people you end up meeting if you have a hard time remembering - or use a group in email or something maybe?

Each time you run an event/workshop/jam reflect on what made it awesome and what might make it MORE awesome...whatever you feel would make it more awesome is the thing you're trying to achieve at the next event.

It took two years to grow up to the events you see in the videos. Lots of reflecting, tweaking, iterating, running it again and trying to improve the experience.

Helps HEAPS to have someone who's comfortable playing MC. I've got the benefit of a theatre experience and I'm a bit of a if I can get people laughing at/with me then they can get comfortable laughing about bugs in their game or botched ice breakers. If this isn't you, maybe partner with someone who IS comfortable helping a crowd get comfortable?

Regarding promotion: try to only email/tweet/facebook people you've met. That way when you invite them you're inviting them because you really do believe the event will be valuable for them. Objective here is not to spam as many people as you can...but to make as many genuine connections as you can so you that you do get to know the community around you and can start developing a feel for what they might need more of.

Hah, my replies are getting a bit epic.

Long answer to a short question. Sorry about that :P

Zsombor Berki
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Very good advice! I'm a bit concerned, since Hungary is in very deep financial problems now, so it sounds difficult to motivate people over here to do things that don't get them paid in cash, but I still have the feeling that this country/city has people who are passionate about video games at least as much as I am.

Super small is really a good idea. I don't have the cash, neither the portfolio that would help me get people who have the kind of money to organize an event of this magnitude, and my idea was that the first jams would only feature a handful of people in either public spaces, or either in someone's apartment who is generous enough.

After that, word of mouth, and thoughtful expansion would help a great deal to make it bigger. Maybe if people could see the results of creative people sitting down together, they would be more motivated to invest their time, and to learn standing up on their own as an indie.

I think most of the challenges of this come from the fact that people want to see results, and money, but indie development seems like a pointless endeavor over here. Glad to see it worked out for you, it motivates me a great deal!!!

Brandon Sheffield
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Zsombor, you should talk to Theodore Reiker, he is a good dude! Maybe you know him already...?

Zsombor Berki
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Well, I know who he is (and I've been to the Digital Reality building once for an interview), but I haven't met him before, but thanks for the idea, maybe I should think more about contacting guys in the business.

It's just the fact that I want to have something already going on and promising before showing it to other people, to prove that it works. No one invests merely in sparks of ideas, and I can understand why one would think that way.

Eric McVinney
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Awesome article with well detailed materials and points for everyone who is in or wanting to be in the industry to learn from.

Tora Teig
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Loved this piece, and exploring Indiebits now! What you have done demands a lot of respect, and I gotta hand it to you - it's really really impressive. And awesome! So YAY! Thank you!

Epona Schweer
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Oh wow thank you Tora!

Ramon Carroll
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This was very powerful and motivating. Thank you Epona.

Ian Snyder
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Awesome article, thank you so much for creating this write-up! I'm checking out indieBits now :)

Marvin Hawkins
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Chicago's a bit larger of a 'scene' but we're definitely undergoing something very similar. This article reinforces what I thought already. We're on the ground floor of something cool. I'm going to get more involved locally.

Epona Schweer
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I've been hearing really good things about what's happening in Chicago! Keep up the good work guys - looking forward to reading your article ;)

Bazil Akmal Bidin
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Awesome stuff. I'm fighting a similar battle in Malaysia, glad to hear tips and success stories from other 'community managers'.

When people asked me on whether I get paid to do what I do for the community, my answer has always been "Nope, instead I am paying to be able to do this". Game ON!

Epona Schweer
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That is totally the best attitude to have man :)

I've had a few people react with "WHAT? OMG...why are you paying for this yourself?!?"

My response: "Um...I pay $250 every other month and we get more people goind indie, making games and like...hiring people and doing cool projects and stuff. If people are getting jobs, working on cool stuff and staying in Sydney to do game development - I call that a freaking bargain".

Also, it's heaps cheaper to do this kind of stuff when a few individuals invest what they can afford. If the alternative is waiting for a bigger group to spend lots of time and money doing something bigger and flashier that's too expensive to keep running regularly...well, I'd rather do it this way and start doing cool stuff right now indie style :P

Jason Carter
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This is inspiring. I just recently started going to the Denver, CO IDGA chapter and it's pretty small here.

It's a great opportunity to grow the indie dev scene here in Colorado and promote something really fun and exciting. Neat article.

Shekhar Gyanwali
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One of the best article. Thank you so much Epona. You've always been inspiring for us. Your every articles helps us to keep ourselfs on track. :)

Alexander Kraus
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I haven't looked around in my area if there are any game developers (currently living in the northern part of Ohio), but I do like that I'm starting small here. I'm working on porting a tutorial for a roguelike game in Python into C#/XNA here with each day. So far the results are pretty well, and it gives me more ideas on how to improve the game even further.

I'll look around more in my area if anyone else is interested in game design. I really should get into Facebook and Twitter more. Thank you Epona!

Sean Scarfo
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Interesting. The sad thing is, in Tampa we have a ton of talented devs/artists, but no place for them to grow their talents. Even in Orlando, the market is so over saturated that most of the artists leave the area.

I'd like to have a decent studio to work at and expand my skillset in Tampa, but they either don't exist anymore or they're swamped with vetererns who have 10x the experience I have.

Dantron Lesotho
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Funny you mentioned this; I'm also in Tampa and I didn't think there were any devs whatsoever. I found a couple studios online but they look defunct. I have been thinking about organizing events like Epona's but I didn't think anyone would come to them. Maybe I'm wrong? Do you know anyone that does any game development? I know exactly zero, hehe.

Steven Christian
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Funny thing you mention about the community in Melbourne. I rocked up to a playtesting event at a local Melbourne bar that had free WiFi and there seemed to be no real organisation, and not much in the way of playtesting going on. I tried to order a few drinks for our group and was told that despite the free WiFi, they didn't have EFTPOS and we would have to go down the road.

Well we went down the road and didn't come back.

Maybe in future we'll find a more organised/structured event to partake in, or make an effort on our part to set something up.

Mitch Kearney
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I met Epona at one of these gigs, The Bank Hotel I think. She sat down, introduced herself to our group - very motherly, asked us all what sort of games we made, in that tone of voice just to make sure we're all on track with our respective dreams.

Being students, most of us really had anything to show or tell yet, so there were murmurs and nods. I spoke up; "I just haven't made a game yet."

Her response was like lightning.

"Well why not?"

The next day I started crunching on Unity, and now I have made a game. (Albeit a terrible one, but certainly a valid first step). Thanks Epona!

When Brian Schwab came and did a talk about his work and the industry, I got the chance to meet him and talk some. I unfortunately didn't realise that he was "the" Schwab that had authored the book on AI programming that I'd just started flicking through in my spare time. Oops!

But I guesss it goes without saying, despite it being a missed opportunity, I actually had the opportunity to miss and I don't doubt there will be more of them in the future. To take a look at how vibrant and social the local scene is at the IGDA event would make you wonder exactly how there were any problems in the first place.

Two thumbs up. Amazing article.

Epona Schweer
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Oh my gosh that is so cool!!

I had a great time sitting and chatting with you guys - and you all put up with me wonderfully, what with my whole "those are wonderful ideas, but have you playtested them yet?".

You never know who you're going to meet. I've met so many people now that later turned out to be "that awesome dude who..." or "didn't you know she was the one that..." - that at this point I just assume that anyone I meet is either a) responsible for something awesome or b) GOING to be responsible for something awesome.

Funny thing about life...there's never just one opportunity. You may meet someone at this point in your life and then run into them again later when you're both in a position to do cool stuff together. Just be cool and friendly and treat people with respect all the time...and that leaves all kinds of opportunities open to you in the future.

Only ways I know of to really miss an opportunity - is to either never try...or be a jerk :P. One means the opportunities never open up in the first place, the other means the opportunities shut before you can do anything interesting with them.

Yay! Ping me on facebook when you've got playable on your blog or something, can't wait to see your games!

Luke Quinn
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Well, this just brightened my day a little.
I'm from Brisbane which used to have a thriving games industry, but after the demise of Pandemic and Krome (and possibly THQ... not sure) there's not much left here. Or is there? :D
At least it's good to know that since HalfBrick are doing fine there's at least some hope for us Queenslanders.

Mark Venturelli
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This is amazing, and as someone who is trying to figure out the very same problem in Rio, very inspiring. Thank you very much for writing this.

Ulf Hartelius
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Really nice and inspiring read. We're working along similar lines in Gothenburg, Sweden, and advanced from the regular pub nights to a game dev week in a shared location that ended in an open show for the public with all participating devs (and some others) getting "common people" to playtest.
We've also been doing some debates and panel discussions this past year, to some success.

Roland Jarvis
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Thank you very much for this piece. I am currently in Michigan and I am about to start a High School mentorship program that focuses on this type of development. I think that upon a small success that I could expand into the community in order to help "seed" the industry here. I am going through a lot of right now in order to buffer up and plan a hardy lecture/lab rhythm so students can prosper.

I will try to encourage entrepreneurial traits so that students may exercise the option of bootstrapping, or if they choose the option of college, a good "road map" to help accomplish their goals. If there is anything you could add to help prepare me for this endeavor; I am all ears.