State of play: the videogame industry’s push for recognition

15 August, 2017 by Brendan Keogh

‘Wayward Stand’.

Videogames have been made in Australia for over 40 years now, but the idea of a videogame that feels uniquely Australian isn’t a notion that has been treated too seriously in the past. As a global industry, videogames have historically been more ‘culturally odourless’, and the videogames Australians have contributed to have typically been large blockbusters published by American corporations.

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But the last five years has seen a shift. Emergent developers and industry veterans alike are being confronted with circumstances that are forcing them to find their own identity. Yet, even as some of the most commercially successful and artistically experimental videogames in the world are being produced here, Australian videogame developers are still struggling to be noticed as a significant sector of the local screen industries.

The same numbers get trotted out every article. Globally, the videogame industry is approaching an estimated worth of US$100 billion. Over half of all Australians play videogames. Practically every Australian household with a child also has a device with a videogame. The average Australian videogame player is 30-years-old, and female as often as they are male. Videogames are very much a normal part of the country’s media ecology, yet the stigma of videogames as toys for nerdy teenage boys remains, and constantly holds the now 70-year-old medium back.

Locally, videogame developers have had to adapt to some radical shifts. While Australia got through the Global Financial Crisis relatively unscathed, it spelled the end of the way videogames had long been made here.

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, videogame development in Australia was largely as a workhorse for American publishers: cheap, offshore studios to do the busywork of videogame development. Australian studios were responsible for a large portion of the work on international blockbusters such as Bioshock: Infinite, LA: Noire, and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. When the Australian and American dollars hit parity, though, Australia was no longer cheap, and one by one the Australian studios shut down, leaving a large pool of talent without many jobs.

This didn’t destroy Australian videogame development so much as prune it and encourage it to grow into a new shape. As larger studios collapsed, others realised the worth of the emerging smartphone market. With online marketplaces like the App Store allowing someone to publish without an international distributor sending discs to physical stores, and the relatively small scale needed for a mobile phone compared to a massive console game, a whole new world of opportunities opened up.

Early iPhone videogame successes were produced in Australia, like Flight Control and Fruit Ninja, as well as a whole spate of others. More recently, Crossy Road is a juggernaut success so successful that Disney funded a branded offshoot.

‘Crossy Road’.

The previous federal Labor government saw the value in a sustainable, home-grown industry not chained to the whims of the American dollar and, in 2012, implemented the Australian Interactive Games Fund through Screen Australia, worth $20 million over three years.

However, when the Coalition took office, the $10 million still in the fund was abruptly cancelled with no industry consultation, leaving local developers in the lurch.

Elsewhere, as Arts Council funding was altered, “interactive games” were explicitly excluded from obtaining funding. The Greens offered a small ray of hope by obtaining a Senate inquiry into the future of Australia’s video game development industry. However, more than 400 days since the inquiry handed down its report, the federal government is yet to respond.

Across Australia’s videogame developers, there is a sense of excitement about the new scenes and communities emerging, and a sense of frustration at the lack of institutional acknowledgement, support, and isolation.

“It shows a lack of respect for what we do,” says Elissa Harris, co-founder and lead programmer of Sydney-based Flat Earth Games.

“And little knowledge of how creatively important—and profitable—[videogames] can be.”

Creative projects are a high-risk business at the best of times, and the absence of the safety nets of both large studios and government support makes it difficult for new projects to reach sustainability.

“Games (especially at the indie level) are generally a high risk/reward industry,” says John Kane, who works as designer and programmer at Sydney-based Gritfish while also working full-time in other sectors.

“That makes it very hard to get a business going without investment or a major hit… Almost everyone I know in the Sydney games space has a day job doing something else.”

For Ken Wong, lead designer on the BAFTA-award winning Monument Valley and founder of Melbourne-based studio Mountains, this makes it difficult for the local industry to foster talent: “[Large] studios are able to retain top talent, nurture upcoming talent, employ more specialists, and take on large scale projects.”

While homegrown larger studios are starting to emerge, such as Defiant Development in Brisbane, many developers continue to sustain themselves with work in other sectors, making this growth difficult.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Or, rather, the doom and gloom has produced its own opportunities.

Harris notes that “the damage done to the collection of [large] studios we had in Australia… has developed a vibrant collection of smaller indie studios, making far more successful and unique indie games for our size than most countries or regions do. It can be very exciting working as an indie developer in Australia.”

Wong agrees: “The lack of large, big name studios and IP has meant that Australian game developers have had to rely on ingenuity and innovation. They are enthusiastic about new technology and opportunities. For the most part, the community feels very inclusive and embraces diversity.”

One exception to the difficulties faced by the Australian game industry is the funding made available to Victoria-based developers through the state body Film Victoria. A number of smaller, experimental games have reached commercial release with this assistance. As other state and federal funding lags, Kane notes that there is “a mentality that you have to move to Victoria to work full time in games.”

‘Paperbark’.

Louie Roots is a former game designer who moved to Melbourne from Perth to open the Melbourne pub/gallery space BarSK, featuring a vast range of experimental works from both the local and internationally game scenes. “I moved to Victoria because of the state government’s assistance in the videogame sector. I don’t seek it personally, but its existence has allowed smaller and more interesting creators to grow in the local scene.”

Roots points to videogames coming from younger studios in Melbourne, such as Paperbark, as evidence that Australian developers are starting to make videogames that could have only been made in Australia; that are contributing to a cultural identity.

“We have an amazing country with a unique history, and I love seeing it used as inspiration.”

Marigold Bartlett, art director for Wayward Strand, a game set in rural Victoria in 1978, agrees: “Australians have a unique way of looking at history, and writing stories. It’s very exciting to be working with young artists who are using the medium of games to explore history and storytelling in ways it hasn’t been done yet.”

Although videogames have been made in Australia for decades, the destruction of the work-for-hire studio model has spawned the seeds of a homegrown scene producing—which has no choice but to produce—videogames that are uniquely Australian.

At the moment, that industry is disproportionately focused on Victoria as other state funding bodies lag behind. But as younger generations grow increasingly ambivalent towards traditional media and turn towards digital media, the potential exists to grow a sustainable, domestic videogame industry that both exports to a global audience and which also powerfully contributes to the contemporary national identity.

However, at the moment, those seeds aren’t getting the support or attention they both require and deserve from either governments or the screen industries. For all its creative and economic potential, videogames seem doomed to wallow at the margins of the national creative conversation for the foreseeable future.

Brendan Keogh is a media studies critic and academic, and a lecturer of Game Design at SAE Creative Media Institute, Brisbane. He is the author of ‘Killing is Harmless’ and the forthcoming ‘A Play of Bodies’.

This article originally appeared in IF Magazine #177 June-July.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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