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Hook Turn: How the Aussie game industry turned a corner

Hook Turn: How the Aussie game industry turned a corner
November 8, 2016 | By Katherine Cross

November 8, 2016 | By Katherine Cross
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Business/Marketing



Coming to Australia from the Northern Hemisphere, one finds familiar commonplaces at odd angles. During my week in the country for Melbourne International Games Week (MIGW) I set out to find what, if anything, made the Australian games industry different from its counterparts.

Several features set it apart, and all have a certain ‘through the looking glass’ quality about them: the industry is at once entrepreneurial and anti-individualist, capitalistic without jealously guarding secrets, indie-driven while still highly stratified, devastated by their country doing well amid the 2008 financial crisis, shy yet distinctive. 

All echo characteristics common to the creative communities that spawn games in many countries. But there is a unique self-effacement here that has at once created a very rich and open community, while also filing away any trace of Australian-ness from its products.

This, however, is all the result of a profound transformation that, arguably, made the community distinctly Australian: the long recovery from the disaster of 2008.

***

The short version of the story told to me again and again during MIGW runs as follows: a few major studios outsourced game development to Australia because a weak Australian Dollar made this an economically attractive prospect. When the financial crisis and Great Recession of 2008 struck, it was Australia’s resilience that did in its game industry.

"With barely any warning, a whole homegrown community of Australian (and New Zealander) devs were left without work as triple-A studios shuttered offices."

The country weathered the storm, even as The U.S. and Europe took a beating, causing the Australian Dollar to become stronger than ever, eliminating the country’s competitive advantage. With barely any warning, a whole homegrown community of Australian and New Zealander devs were left without work as triple-A studios shuttered offices.

Though some scattered to the four winds, finding sanctuary in London, Montreal, or Seattle, many more stayed and did something quite extraordinary: they created one of the only indie-led industries in the world. Indeed, it’s impossible to talk about Aussie or New Zealander games without discussing indies at some length. Crossy Road, Agent A: A Puzzle in Disguise, Mini Metro, Armello, Framed, and many more found their origins in Oceania.

Even the steady and inevitable rebirth of triple-A in the country has taken on something of a hybrid approach. EA Firemonkey, a local outpost of the EA juggernaut, formed from the merger and purchase of two Australian indie studios. “Independence” is a byword here; it’s as if there is a psychic scar from 2008 that’s still healing, a sense that one could never trust the big overseas studios to truly invest in the country and keep jobs here. In response, many decided to make their own way.

This had a few consequences. Liam Esler, one of the directors of Game Connect Australia Pacific (GCAP) and the driving force behind GaymerX Australia, spoke to me at some length about how open the community had to become, shedding the triple-A norms of NDA-bound secrecy. Many came to believe that no one could win unless everyone won, he said. “It’s a small community, so we have to get along,” he added.

Lisy Kane, one of the developers at Melbourne-based League of Geeks, concurred. “We had to be a lot more willing to share and collaborate with each other, without expecting any benefit,” she said, adding, “we have to share if we want to survive.” Morgan Jaffit, himself a former Pandemic/EA alum, added that “Australia isn’t anyone’s biggest market, so we’re not really competing with one another. Crossy Road’s competition isn’t from here, it’s a game like Angry Birds.”


Crossy Road

As I wandered around GCAP 2016’s 800-strong crowd of devs, it was a story I heard over and over again, even from people with the odd gripe about the local scene. Elissa Harris, a Sydneysider programmer at Flat Earth Games, told me that she was actually taken aback by the black-box atmosphere of PAX Dev in Seattle, which outright bans press coverage.

“It felt weird,” she said, “people felt like they could vent only if they could guarantee outsiders wouldn’t hear.” She contrasted this to Australia where there was less stifling of criticism and more willingness to talk about what you were working on or what challenges one faced. Without a large triple-A presence to act as a lodestone, one might say “indie norms” have developed.

With this, of course, comes other forms of stratification. Harris also talked about how some people in the community looked down their noses at people with triple-A experience and were a bit snobbish towards them--adding insult to injury after many of those people had unceremoniously lost their jobs after 2008. But things appear to have mended at least somewhat; during my time in Melbourne, I saw people like Morgan Jaffit standing shoulder to shoulder with local “indie darlings.” Indeed, Jaffit won a lifetime achievement award this past week at the Australian Game Developer Awards for his service to the wider industry and his experience as a veteran of the market crash was singled out for particular praise.

There was a real sense that the Australian game industry had beaten its way through to a proper comeback and that old wounds were being healed. 

***

A lot of that fight took place in and around Melbourne, where the state government of Victoria has proven to be relatively forward-looking when it comes to funding video games. Generous grants from Film Victoria, whose definition of ‘screen’ helpfully includes those on which games are played, have ensured a staggering 42 percent of the Aussie industry is based in Melbourne.

But there are other hubs of indie devs in cities like Canberra as well; games from the nation’s capital were quite well represented on the showfloor of PAX Aus, and there were more than a few offerings from Sydney and Brisbane as well. One of the most innovative VR games I’d played--which didn’t make me sick, to boot--was the clever terraforming-puzzle game Symphony of the Machine made by Perth-based Stirfire Studios.

Symphony of the Machine

Melbourne remains the heart of things, though. The beat is loudest at The Arcade, a downtown co-working space that serves as an incubator for various precincts of the local game industry. Studios like League of Geeks and videogame-focused PR firm Lumi Consulting operate out of the space--which operates as a model of the local sharing ethos. People look over each other’s shoulders, take pictures, share ideas; there are no sharp lines of division that demarcate trade secrets here.

That mentality also shapes their approach to dealing with Australia’s notoriously terrible internet--which one PAX speaker described as “held together by corroded copper wires and broken promises.” Lauren Clinnick, a partner at Lumi, told me “when Unity releases an update, one person will download it and then pass it around on a hard drive to everyone else because it’s just much faster that way,” she said after lamenting how even Australia’s fastest available internet scales poorly in a space where dozens of people need high speed connections at once.

It’s yet another example of why collaboration is as much a brute necessity as an aspiration here.

Even so, it would be unwise to give The Arcade all the credit for the city’s success in games.

***

The man across from me at the cafe table pinched his fingers into circles and drew them closer together. “There are people who think,” he said, “the Venn diagram of Melbourne game devs and The Arcade is a perfect circle.” The gentleman in question was a local game academic who gives reality checks over wine; that night, he told me that there were many indies in the city operating out of their far flung basements and apartments who’ve not seen the inside of a co-working space. He drew a distinction between what he called “the corporate indies” and other indie devs who were, presumably, more independent than everyone else.

Australia is ground zero for challenging what we think we know about "indie games"--forcing a confrontation between different kinds of indies; those with access to corporate-style resources, those without, and so on. "Indie" was never a monolith, never immune to the darker pressures of our industry. But Australia has had to face that in its fullest bloom since 2008.

As I noted earlier, the absence of a triple-A anchor has not completely obviated stratification. The local academic emphasized to me that all though there was plenty of bonhomie in the community, there were still insiders and outsiders; people with more access and resources than others. “There’s this sense that the division is between people who, on the one hand, want to make money, and those who just want to make ‘art for art’s sake,’” he said, “and that’s just not the case. It’s way more complicated than that.” Solo indies, with their delightfully weird projects, also want to make a living off of their work, as much as everyone else--and some financially successful indies who, nevertheless, are very much ‘auteurs.’

Put another way, what’s wrong with the industry here is what’s wrong with it everywhere; I heard reports of casual sexism and sexual harassment, gatekeeping by powerful men, cliques freezing people out, and devs struggling with the minefield of marketing. Regarding institutional barriers, Lisy Kane told me quite plainly, “our representation of indigenous people is pretty abysmal; virtually nonexistent.”

But what goes right with the industry here does feel at least somewhat unique. So much so that it tends to be the place a lot of New Zealander developers end up going--I heard from at least two NZ-based developers who have concrete plans to relocate to Melbourne in the near future. (New Zealand’s government explicitly blacklists videogames from receiving government funding of any kind, stifling local development.)

This state of affairs also obtains elsewhere in Australia, increasing the attractiveness of Melbourne to game devs. It’s a powerful example of what state funding can do for a local economy, and many devs told me quite proudly of the grants they’d received from the government to work on their projects.

***

Melbourne is a pulsing sun; its chaos takes on unusual colors and shapes to match its eclectic postmodern architecture, which often abuts sooty Victorian-era buildings. It bills itself as a “European-style” city, and its grand railway stations--old and new--lend it that touch of glamor, certainly. But as you walk down the covered arcades and up the city’s many laneways, reconstituted alleys that now serve as narrow pedestrian malls, you get the sense that this city, the “Queen of the South,” is very much its own thing that doesn’t quite know what that thing is. To look down a street is to catch a glimpse of New York or Toronto, while down a broad boulevard you see a leafy shadow of Paris, but everywhere you look you see something that is quintessentially of this harbor town under Cygnus.

The crowds lack the unbridled chaos of London’s twisting sidewalks and the drivers, well schooled in the arch discipline of Melbourne’s regimented right hand turns, hath not the fury of a Los Angelino motorist. Unlike Sydney, the city doesn’t flaunt its wealth; glittering high streets quickly bleed into gritty street malls where cheap crap jostles for space with cheap food. It seems like the perfect place for game development; a city that’s relatively cheap, diverse and full of creatives, without a large tech company to suck all the life out of it while driving up rents.

There’s character here in spades, yet it rarely makes it into the local games in any way but the most abstract sense. I saw vanishingly few games that had more than trace elements of visible references to their place of origin.

Perhaps it was the “tall poppy syndrome” I heard about, again and again, while here; individual modesty projected onto the whole nation. Perhaps it was just baldfaced marketing, led by a sense that Australian environs wouldn’t sell well abroad. But whatever the cause It wasn’t easy to find a game about Australian life--or even one that used the country as a backdrop. Even the traffic drives on the right, rather than the left, in Crossy Road.

Still, there were a few exceptions.

Oscar Brittain’s Centrelink Simulator, a free browser-based game, puts you in the role of an Australian civil servant training to work at Centrelink, the national welfare office. It’s a kind of Papers Please title with an extra helping of crushing futility, meant to simulate the experience of working at an under-resourced public office. A larger game made by Brittain, World’s Fastest Pizza, is a comedy rogue-like, with a similar aesthetic to Hotline Miami, involving the travails of a pizza delivery man from outer space being hounded by angry gun toting Aussies furious about the pizza-slinging alien in their midst.

A more subtle take comes from Melbourne-based Robot Circus’ Ticket to Earth, a turn-based RPG which uses different colored/themed tiles on the battlefield grid to add a layer of strategy to moving your characters. You and a band of miner misfits are trying to get tickets on the last ship back to Earth from a boom-planet that’s long past its prime. One of the developers told me that he was inspired by Australia itself, a country grappling with a shifting economy that can no longer rely on a mining rush to sustain itself. As the resource-rich country adapts to a changing environment, so too does Ticket to Earth portray a world in transition. It’s certainly inobtrusive, but quite intentional, and a roadmap for other Australian (or New Zealander) devs who want to put a bit more of their homelands into their art. 

***

“They’re modest to a fault,” one British developer transplanted to New Zealand told me of his Oceanic comrades. At Melbourne International Games Week, however, there was plenty of celebration and a quiet, distinctive sort of pride. At PAX Aus, a vast space was dedicated to ANZ indies under the bright banners of PAX Rising; a colorful cavalcade to rival any offerings elsewhere. From the Myst-like Eyes of Ara, to cheerful co-op games like Canberra-made The Incredible Journey of You and I or Push Me, Pull You, to the topical Orwell or Hacknet, there’s much to be proud of Down Under.

I write this paragraph in a bar, awaiting my taxi to Tullamarine International Airport, surrounded by palmcards, notes, folded-up flyers, and a couple of adorable press kits. There’s too much to distil into one article, however long. But what was evident to me is that even as large studios start to come back--Japan-based mobile developer Gree had a much touted Melbourne-office-opening while I was in town--something significant has changed here since the height of the global financial crisis. Indies dominate for now, and while triple-A will almost inevitably reform a beachhead on Australian shores, it feels safe to say nothing will ever be the same here.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.

Travel and accommodations paid for in part via the Victorian government's Visiting Journalist Program.



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