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Wrap-Up: The 2004 Australian Game Developers Conference


December 20, 2004
 

Attending the Australian Game Developers Conference is a bit like taking a trip back in time. Walking around the Melbourne Convention Center, it suddenly becomes obvious that the videogame industry in Australia is analogous, in many ways, to the U.S. videogame industry of ten years ago - a small development community, in which everyone seems to know one another by first name. Local developers here share ideas freely, quite unlike the more competitive markets found abroad.

Truth be told, being at AGDC as an outsider makes one feel like he is being privy to the inner dealings of a secret society. (To help give a sense of scale: Where the U.S. GDC last year attracted over 11,000 people, AGDC 2004, which is unrelated to the Game Developers Conference in ownership terms, came in at just about a thousand.)

Rubin On Next-Gen

With the Australian games industry growing at such a steady clip (Wired magazine recognized Australia's growing international reputation by naming Melbourne as one of its four "gaming global hotspots"), however, there was a great deal of excitement surrounding this year's show. After a bit of technical difficulty, the conference's opening keynote was provided by Jason Rubin, co-founder and former president of Naughty Dog.

Rubin's speech focused on the increasing development costs for next-generation titles, and the catalog of problems this pattern is creating for the industry - all stemming from the fact that it will essentially cost three times as much money in 2006 to turn the same sales numbers publishers are seeing today. (Quick math: publisher spending $10 million on a AAA PS2 title to sell 500,000 copies at $50 a pop, vs. that same publisher spending $30 million on a AAA PS3 title to sell… yes, 500,000 copies at $50 a pop.) Clearly, Rubin points out, someone is losing quite a bit of money in this equation - and, in his estimation, this will result in publishers taking fewer risks and allowing for less creativity.


Jason Rubin giving his opening keynote.

Of course, one huge outgrowth of these rising development costs is outsourcing. In discussing a series of impromptu interviews he conducted with various U.S. publishers regarding Australian game development, Rubin illustrated that the country appears to be becoming a major player along these lines, and will become increasingly key to the continued growth of the industry. The general consensus was positive: for publishers looking to outsource particular aspects of their games - or even the entire games themselves, for that matter - all interviewed parties agreed that Australian games development is generally 40% cheaper than the equivalent work in America. Significantly, the quality was agreed upon by all to be on par with US development - unlike the somewhat patchy work coming back from various outsourcing programs across Asia.

Here are a couple of choice excerpts of Gamasutra's interview with Rubin following his keynote speech:

Regarding the increased production costs of videogames, and the necessarily higher retail price point that will come out of it:

Rubin: "Think about it like this: Halo 2 will sell seven or eight million units lifetime. If there's an extra buck per unit going to the publisher, that means eight million dollars-roughly a third of the development budget for making the game. If they get an extra six bucks per unit, that's $48 million extra-they pay for the marketing in Europe, and as well as the distribution, off of the extra cash.

"A company like EA will go out there and spend a massive amount of money setting up something that gives them a 15 to 20 cent a title efficiency, because 15-20 cents, times all the titles they print adds up to a lot of money. So if you're giving them a few dollars more per unit-that's a massive difference. Both THQ and Activision have already made public statements saying that in some of their top-line games they expect to increase the price.

It's not pie-in-the-sky stuff anymore - in the past seven months, literally every publisher but EA has come out saying they have to do it. They're projecting the next generation consoles-they're saying we're seeing it coming. They're warning the street. I think it's inevitable, and I don't think that in the end it's gonna make a huge impact on how many games people buy. You will still see games coming out at $39-$49 - but you'll also see games coming out at $69-$70. I mean, if you break it down on dollars per hour, it's not that bad a deal. Much better deal than music, much better deal than music."

Regarding the "EA Spouse" letter controversy, and the growing issue of workers' rights in the videogame industry:

Rubin: "This much I know: The day of treating employees as mechanical beings - if they don't want it - is over. A lot of the work in the games industry these days is becoming very automated, which is a big factor. Because really, the problem happens when the love of making games is separated from what you're doing… I mean, how many times have you heard a rockstar's spouse write an email complaining, 'He's on the road all the time, he's always on planes…' Never! That's what he does! There's no innate wrongness in being away from your family all the time, if that's what you love doing. If you don't love it, however, it gets really bad really quick."

Four to the floor

Though like most GDC affairs, the AGDC wasn't overly obsessed with showing off new product, a few did make their way onto it onto the exhibitor floor. Perhaps the most impressive technological demonstration was Micro Forte's BigWorld, a massively multiplayer engine that supports real-time, action-based gameplay for thousands of players simultaneously.

"The Renderware guys like to say they can save you ten man years on your engine," says Robert Spencer, Big World's resident public relations guru. "If that's what we're measuring here, BigWorld tech can save a developer 100 man years - we've had ten people working on this full-time for ten years, and we're confident in saying that we have the most versatile, most powerful MMO engine on the market." And the industry is catching on: while only two third-party titles have been announced to be using the engine - Sega's Shenmue Online and the as-yet-unsigned Dark and Light - BigWorld claims that its engine has been licensed to provide the technology for a remarkable 35 upcoming MMO titles. (Of course, where the inhabitants of Earth will find time to play all of these MMOs is a discussion for another time.)

Developer Micro Forté's close alliance with BigWorld is no secret; BigWorld split off from the company when it became apparent that the engine itself was going to require an entirely separate staff. The result of this close relationship, however, is that Micro Forté has a very impressive BigWorld title itself: Citizen Zero, a massively multiplayer action game that at first glance looks like a shooter with a thousand of your closest friends. Zero is far from such standard fare, however, and is attempting to leverage the notion of merging cooperative strategic and action mechanics with the type of role-playing gameplay more familiar to the MMO genre ("If you want the one liner, it's Halo meets Morrowind," says lead designer Paul McInnes). Citizen Zero is quite easily one of the more promising titles left on the Xbox horizon, and should be find release around the middle of 2005.

While it wasn't necessarily a part of the conference, per se, there was a big buzz at AGDC surrounding the Australian government's increased support for local games development. While federal subsidies have not yet been implemented (whereby local game developers would be given direct financial assistance to help ease ever-growing games development costs), a host of internal programs are also already in place. Commercial Ready, for example, allows R&D costs to be written off at a higher-than-normal rate against taxes, while the Supported Skills Program allows people with skill sets identified as being able to "add to the growth of the games industry in Australia," can have their business migration visas accelerated. Additionally, the government has been providing PS2 development kits free of charge to those developers able to demonstrate both potential and need - a program that is exclusive to Australia.

Bang, You're Dead


Post-Australian Game Developers Awards festivities.

The conference ended with a dinner celebration of local games development, and the announcements for the winners of the 2004 Australian Game Developers Awards. Most of these went to the three biggest players in the Australian scene: Krome Studios for Ty the Tasmanian Tiger 2: Bush Rescue, Atari Melbourne House for Transformers, and Irrational Games for Tribes: Vengeance (which ended up taking home the award for Best Australian Game of 2004).

The ceremony ended with a (quite literal) bang, as all attendees were handed fully-loaded dart guns, goggles, and absolutely no direction whatsoever. After nearly 45 minutes of high-intensity action, one developer made the observation of the evening, noting that while people started by playing the "game" like a first-person shooter (shooting anything that moved, essentially), the experience slowly became more strategic (taking cover, cooperating with others, seeking out tactical advantages), and then, ultimately, became a collect-a-thon in the truest sense (searching for ammunition and discarded weapons, and looking to upgrade from the standard darts to "sticky" darts). The experience provided the perfect closure to four days of keynotes, lectures, and seminars, and reminded everyone of the most important thing: that at the end of the day, damn it, videogames are about having fun.

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