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Monday, May 19, 2014

How to make it as a games developer in Australia, now that there is no Government funding

Feature by Matt S.

Last week the local Australian games industry was hit by the unfortunate news that the government would be pulling all federal funding out of the industry. The total value of the lost support was $10 million, which isn't much for the Government, but it was a critical lost opportunity for a games industry that is looking to rebuild after being decimated by the GFC.

The program was to be worth $20 over three years under the previous Government's vision. The first two years would be $5 million each year, and the third and final year was to be $10 million. It is this $10 million that has been slashed. The hardest hit will be young game developers. Australia lacks the big development studio structure that is crucial in giving young graduates their first experience in the industry, and thus helping them to develop the skills they needed to strike out on their own and create their own games or studios. The Government funding was helping those same young game developers to get started on their projects right away, learning from their mistakes as they went along.

With the funding gone, many developers will be forced to move overseas to develop their careers, creating a 'brain drain' that will stymie the growth of the Australian industry, and limit the variety of skills within it.

Uppercut Games is a perfect example of what the government funding was doing for the local industry. This small developer is behind the popular iOS games Epoch and Epoch 2, and the game fund helped the company recruit local talent and expand the scope of the game.

"The vast majority of the money we have received from grants has gone to employing local developers and paying people's salaries," Uppercut Games Founder, Andrew James, said. The company will continue to receive its funding as the money allocated to it was done as part of the first two years of government support. That's just as well, according to James, because otherwise the company would not be able to support its small team, and yet more Australian developers would be out of work. "We are sustainable without the funding, however we currently have four employees whose salaries are partially funded by the Australian Interactive Games Fund. Our understanding is that we will continue to receive the current funding as it was part of the initial $10M investment. While we would not have to close our doors if we didn't have this funding, we would not have been able to hire these employees full time," James said.

In addition to the lost work, a smaller staff would limit the scope of the projects that Uppercut Games could take on. James said that he was concerned for the ability for other developers to achieve the kind of innovation that Uppercut Games was able to realise without that government support. "Our concern is for other small studios of a similar size, who will now miss out on the additional help that funding as given us to become sustainable," he said.

Surprise Attack is a small publishing label based out of Melbourne that works exclusively with independent labels. Its Founder, Chris Wright, said that the local industry would lose both young and veteran talent overseas, and struggle to encourage them back in the future. "If you are an experienced developer here your options are stay in one of the few larger studios, set up your own thing or move overseas to work at a big studio. This funding made that second option much more viable so the loss of the fund will certainly have an impact on that," Wright said.

"Similarly, we have a lot of Australian game development talent overseas at the moment and this fund and the ongoing support for the industry was a factor in their decisions whether to come home or not."

In the aftermath of the budget, discussions have raged over whether the private sector could pick up the tab left by the Government. Some have pointed to Kickstarter as an opportunity for young developers to gain much-needed exposure into the industry. According to Wright, Kickstarter is simply too unpredictable to be relied upon. "Some people might point to Kickstarter or other sources of funding and those are definitely good avenues but replacing $10 million of investment is not an easy task," he said.

Others have argued that Australia's publishers should be working harder to invest in local developers. Unfortunately, the local publishing arms of international companies such as EA and Ubisoft are marketing and support arms in Australia, and it remains difficult for local developers to gain exposure to them, short of spending significant amounts of time and money to travel overseas to pitch their ideas.

The local publishers themselves, such as Surprise Attack and fellow indie developer/ publisher, Nnooo, are simply too small to cover $10 million in lost grant money themselves, Wright said. "We’re building Surprise Attack Games as an Australian publisher and a key goal for us is to be able to help the local scene grow but we’re an indie label not a cashed up publisher. It’s also simply the case now that publishers don’t look to fund game development from independent teams in the same way," he said.

Wright's predictions for the local industry following the loss of that Government grant are chilling. "In the short term it’s going to mean 100-200 less paid jobs in the industry that would have been sustained or added through this funding. 30-40 games that would have benefited from the funding next year will now need to find other funding and many of them will not be viable," he said.

"In the longer term it’s going to significantly slow down the growth of the industry as that is what the fund was aiming to do. This funding wasn’t life support but an accelerator for the industry. And that slow down n growth has wide-reaching impacts on the scene from the immediate issues of companies not being formed, games not being made, profits not resulting, tax revenues that aren’t generated and then trickle down effects on those who want to be developers, the courses that prepare students for the industry and so on."

So, what can a young developer do to make a career in Australia?

We want to keep Australian game developers in Australia. This country has been one of the true innovators in game development, with companies as far back as Beam Software pushing boundaries long before other nations even had game developers. In fact, the parallels between the Australian games industry and its film industry are amazing - the first feature-length film was make by Australians, in Australia, and for many years in the early era of cinema we were at the forefront of film innovation. A lack of government interest eventually crushed the industry as other markets realised just how valuable film is to both culture and economics.

However, just as film has continued to survive in Australia, and the country has produced some great works with films such as Wolf Creek and artists such as Baz Lurhmann, so too can game developers succeed in a hostile market.

Sebastian Perri, Incubator Co-ordinator at the Canberra Campus of AIE, Niel Boyd, the Marketing and Business Development Director of AIE, and Alex Carlyle, Founder of Intuitive Studios and formerly of Team Bondi, created a list of ten things that young game developers should look to do, so that they can continue to work in the local industry and find success. You might well need to turn to Kickstarter to get the money to make your game, but the below grassroots ideas will, at the very least, ensure that you're being proactive enough about your games to get them the exposure that they need, and as your reputation grows you might just find those commercial opportunities that are like mana from heaven at the moment:

Network: Go to IGDA meetups, join LinkedIn developer groups, go to game events like PAX Australia, iFEST and Freeplay. Introduce yourself, show off your game/artwork/coding/etc and hand out your card. Be known as a developer that's looking for an opportunity.

Get skilled: Make yourself someone that studios need. What skills are in demand? Actively work at improving your development skills. Enrol in a course or challenge yourself to learn new skills, technology or tools.

Make games: It seems obvious but make sure you always have something in development that demonstrates your talent. Game jams are a great way to keep creating content and you don't have to wait for others to run one. Why not get together with a bunch of mates and set a goal of getting a game done in a day?

Show off your stuff: You should be posting your stuff to your website, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc. Make sure people looking for someone with your abilities can find you and stay in touch with what you're up to.

Research: Find companies and developers whose work you like and follow them on LinkedIn, subscribe to their websites, learn what they are doing and tailor your work to their style if and when you apply for a job with them.

K.I.S.S.: With the first few games you make as a team or solo developer keep them simple and achievable, make a couple of games that fit with in the scope of a 42 hour game jam.

Make mistakes: Don't be afraid to fail when making your first games. Learn from your mistakes and apply your experience to the next game project.

Get people playing: When developing a bigger game idea one that you want to self publish; be sure to get feedback from as many people as you can about the game you are making. Watch them play it see where they are getting stuck and adjust the game in the next development cycle to fix and problems. Ask your audience if they have any suggestions to improve thee game, if the same idea is suggested by multiple people then it is worth exploring.

Play: Play games that are similar to the games you make, concentrate on building an awareness of where the games you make fit with in the market.

Investigate: Get to know the local industry. Research your favorite games and find out who the developers are. If you have questions to ask them use forums to communicate if there is no obvious way to contact the developer directly. Go to PAX Australia or EB Games expo the developers are there promoting their games you can chat directly with the developers.

Good luck, and hopefully Australia's games industry can continue to find relevance as part of the most important emerging art form in the world.

- Matt S.
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld
How to make it as a games developer in Australia, now that there is no Government funding
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