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Monday, October 19, 2015

Developer roundtable: On why Australian development has had its best year ever


It might be a contentious statement to make, but 2015 has proven to be the best year on record for independent video games from Australia. With a major government push for funding a couple of years ago bearing fruit, we've seen the product of the last couple of years start to land on the market.

And that's just as well, because this year also saw the last AAA-studio in Australia shut down. For good or ill, the indies will be flying the flag for games that represent Australia and its culture into the future, so it's just as well that we've seen some genuine classic stuff land.

To celebrate the strong year the local industry has had, I've pulled together nine of the local industry's most creative, exciting, talented and successful developers to chat about the local industry, where we might be going into the future, and what we might expect from this new wave of artists that are just starting to hit it big in the market.

The developers who participated in this discussion (and the recent games they worked on or released) are:

Santana Mishra (Assault Android Cactus)
Morgan Jaffit (Hand of Fate)
Nicole Stark (Ninja Pizza Girl)
Neil Rennison (Gamebook Adventures)
Ross Symons (Don Bradman Cricket)
Nic Watt (Blast 'em Bunnies)
Leigh Harris (Metrocide)
Trent Kusters (Armello)

Assault Android Cactus

Digitally Downloaded: The quantity and quality of games from independent developers in Australia this year has been incredible. Why do you think the industry has been able to be so productive when there aren't any major studios left?

Santana Mishra: It doesn't make a lot of sense really, as our biggest studios collapsed and a huge amount of our talent left for greener pastures... but somehow we're producing better games than we ever have before! Logically the only conclusion I can draw is that the work for hire model we were following was holding back a lot people in Australia, and you're now seeing the pent up creativity of a highly trained workforce that's now able to create without the heavy restrictions overseas publishers placed on the local teams for so long. It was also hugely beneficial to have the Interactive Games Fund in place and supporting a lot of great projects.

Morgan Jaffit: There was a period of strong investment into the local games space, both in terms of developers and community. Events like Game Masters, Freeplay, PAX, GCAP, funding at both the state and federal levels. That period was at its strongest a few years ago, and we're now seeing the fruits of that investment in terms of projects and the strength of the Australian community. That accounts, at least partially, for the quantity of amazing Australian content that has hit the shelves this year. In addition to that, there's great talent around doing great work.

Nicole Stark: Because there aren’t any major studios left! Left to our own devices, Australian game devs have been incredibly imaginative and innovative in ways that likely wouldn’t have been possible in the old studio model.

Paul Turbett: I think there are two factors at play here. First, as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of inventions, and so without the structures of the major studios, developers have had to be creative to make games that stand out and are of a high enough quality to be competitive in an international industry. Second, we are seeing the fruits of the Australian Interactive Games Fund - projects approved 12-18 months ago are hitting the market this year.

Metrocide

Neil Rennison: Australian game development has always had a wealth of talent and when the major studios went down the marketplace was suddenly awash with skills. Those that didn’t move overseas or change industry tapped into their entrepreneurial spirit and started their own small gigs. Those small one or two man teams have since blossomed and we have some really strong (small) teams now hitting it out of the park.

Ross Symons: One word; talent. While the AAA studios and publishers may have left our shores the talent has remained, it has just taken time for that talent to make post GFC adjustments and learn how to market and distribute directly to their fan base, something they’ve never had to do before.

Nic Watt: I think a large part of this is due to necessity. When the money was coming in for work for hire before you have to do what your paymaster says and asks for. When you are trying to make a name for yourself as an indie you have to really push the quality bar and find that niche. I think this year is probably a confluence of the indie movement in Australia getting to the point where people have worked out how everything works, got a good production system in place and are now really hitting home with quality games.

Leigh Harris: Some of is fortuitous timing (Ninja Pizza Girl and Satellite Reign took years to make), and some of it is down to some very hard working and creative people having the support of one another. Truly, our community is strong. Stronger than ever and it’s precisely because we faced near extinction and had little government support to help us rebuild. A shared experience like that has meant that all the developers I know are happy to help one another out. We give feedback to each other, playtest each other’s games, help each other out with major bugs when one of us gets stuck. It’s a camaraderie which, from my understanding, is rare in the world of game dev.

Trent Kusters: The size of a studio doesn't dictate how prolific it is, in fact, scale can often have the inverse effect. Right now in Australia there are literally hundreds of studios making games. From little one person teams to 50+ person studios. The fact that the vast majority of those are smaller studios actually means that across the nation more games are being developed concurrently than ever before in the history of Australian game development.

Star Hammer: The Vanguard Prophecy

Digitally Downloaded: Do you think the rate of quality games will slow down, now that the government funding is drying up?

Santana Mishra: The growth rate will definitely slow down, which is a shame but I think a lot of teams, including Witch Beam, were able to secure their future with that government support and I hope we'll all keep on making great games. Other studios, like Defiant Development, are now much larger than they were before the fund existed and we should start seeing a lot more output from them and the other success stories.

Morgan Jaffit: I don't expect the rate to slow, but I also don't think it will accelerate as much as it could with external funding. Regardless, I look at the next year of Australian releases and it already looks amazing - and that's just the games I know about. There were a few surprises this year from developers that weren't really on my radar, and I expect more of the same in the following year.

Nicole Stark: It's hard to say. The government funding was a great opportunity for us, but there’s been a lot of success stories from indies that did it on their own and I can't see that changing. Also quite a few studios are pretty well established now and as close to stable as an indie gets. I’ll be really interested to see what people do next.

Paul Turbett: I don't think it will slow down, but nor will it increase. The teams that got funding will continue to produce quality work, however new teams will find it harder to take the first step.

Neil Rennison: The quality won’t slow down. The quantity might, because a lot of the funded studios or teams have now released or about to release their titles, so 2016 may be a little bit slower. But I wouldn’t bet against some awesome games still turning up in the next 12-18 months as established teams find their stride.
Blast 'em Bunnies

Ross Symons: We’re on a roll, so I don’t think there will be a slowdown in the short term, however without further government support I don’t think the longer term will be so bright for future generations. Many of the people behind the hits we’re having today honed their craft making console games, the reason we have the talent we have in the industry is the many years, indeed decades, of investment from the larger studios and publishers of times gone by in our local industry. Now that those larger companies are gone we definitely need the Federal Government to step in to fill the void to ensure there is investment in tomorrow’s game developers.

Nic Watt: I think that the hardest part of this industry is making a sustainable business. Many of the amazing games we see coming out (and not just from Australia) wont necessarily find their audience and make the money they deserve to make. This could be to lack of marketing, lack of support from the platform holder or just hitting at a time when users are not looking for that type of product. Without government support I think that it will be hard to keep the talent here long enough for the quality and the business savvy to kick into a sustainable model.

Leigh Harris: Absolutely not. It hasn’t slowed down so far, and I don’t think it’s going to start all of a sudden. Halfbrick built its empire off its own IP. Prettygreat came out of Halfbrick. Mighty Games is a combination of people from Many Monkeys and Tin Man Games, the former of which started at Defiant Development which was set up by the ever-ambitious Morgan Jaffit. Sure, each of these developers likely received government support along the way, but the one thing they all have in common is that they’ve all made at least one amazing game that deserved its success.

‘But Leigh’, I hear you ask. ‘Why, then, do developers clamour so hard for government support if awesome games are still coming out of Australia and kicking ass? Surely this means you don’t need their help!’

That’s a good point, Matt, and I’d answer by saying that if this is what we’ve been able to do with such a limited amount of support from our government, just imagine how many more amazing games and how much bigger and richer our community of developers would be with it... Lack of government support didn’t cause our developers to be talented. They were already hugely talented people. Lack of government support just made it epically harder for these talented people to spread their wings.

Don Bradman Cricket

But when Hipster Whale invested AUD$500k into Prettygreat to help get them started, that demonstrated what I think we all knew: we have talented people who need early capital to get their business ventures started, and we’ll do it ourselves if our government is ignorant of the opportunities here. Funding our indies isn’t about if they’ll create great games. It’s about when.

Trent Kusters: Funding doesn't determine quality. It simply assists in making it more achievable. In fact, if you look at the year on year growth of the Australian games across export dollar, number of people gainfully employed and the rise in quality titles, even with federal funding being pulled, I'd say that the case for federal government support for games is stronger than ever before. If you want to discuss Australia's future in the arts and entertainment industries, you simply can't do it without admitting that games have bankable, legitimate cultural and commercial capital. This is now indisputable fact.

Digitally Downloaded: Do you think consoles have become a major opportunity for independent developers now?

Santana Mishra: With Steam opening the floodgates, it seems the PC is well on its way to being a truly open marketplace once again, which brings all of the problems and benefits of that system. Meanwhile, consoles are becoming easier than ever to develop for but are still heavily curated spaces, so I definitely see them as a great space for indies with a high quality but not necessarily vital game. Australia's indie scene is dominated more by experienced developers who were out of a job with the big crash, so we're in a better position than most when it comes to opportunities like console development.

Morgan Jaffit: Any open platform is a major opportunity, and consoles have been opening up a lot more over the last couple of years which is great for indie developers. The more open, the more competitive however, so it's also getting tougher for developers to stand out.

Nicole Stark: I hope so. We’ve really enjoyed developing for console again, and all three have been really great to work with.

Paul Turbett: Yeah, I do. The console manufacturers are much easier to approach now, and are keen to work with proven independent developers. It's still more technically and logistically difficult to make a console game than a PC or mobile game, but it's lot easier than it used to be.

Ninja Pizza Girl

Neil Rennison: For some yes, especially for those doing well on Steam. I still think mobile is still the best entry point for aspiring indies, though.

Ross Symons: Big Ant’s recent experience certainly reflects that however it still requires a fair amount of investment with teams of up to 40 people for 18+ months to produce the games such as Don Bradman Cricket and Rugby League Live 3. That said, smaller independent developers have never before had the console access they have now, the tools are better, costs are down, and because of Apple, the platform holders are more likely to listen to what developers need. However, I still think that many mobile developers underestimate what it takes to get a console game developed and they should tread warily.

Nic Watt: I think that developers need to try to think about covering as many devices as they can (and is reasonable given their team skills and size). This includes console. To write off a potential revenue stream could be you writing off the platform where your game finds its audience. That said publishing on console is not easy and is a large reason why we have been working across the industry to sign up more games to our Nnooo Presents publishing label.

Leigh Harris: I think consoles are the greenest pastures we’ve got right now, insofar as the major platform holders are still competing to ‘win’ this hardware generation, and they know that indie development is a big battleground for them. We’re a coveted bunch, and that’s awesome, but there are a lot of us. As soon as a gold rush scenario appears around a new distribution platform or service, it gets quickly reconnoitred, shafts get sunk and the colour gets plundered. I think I’ve well and truly beaten that analogy to death, but my point is that it won’t be long before a deluge of great games reduce consoles’ value to indies as we once again find ourselves amid thousands of other games, each of us vying for attention.

Trent Kusters: If you already have a game and can foster a relationship with Microsoft or Sony in order to get it on console too, sure. Releasing there first? No. Not a major opportunity. In practice, the barrier to entry on console is still quite high and the install bases for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are still just getting off the ground. As such, we're not seeing any international success stories in console exclusive independent titles. In another three to five years, sure, we'll see smaller, high quality Australian indie titles have great success with console first titles. Not just yet though.

Hand of Fate

Digitally Downloaded: What have been your big achievements this year, and what are you looking forward to in the new year?

Santana Mishra: After three years of development, we released Assault Android Cactus! I can't even describe what that moment felt like, and how elated I was with the responses we got from players and critics alike. It's definitely the best game I've ever made and I think one of the best arcade games ever made in Australia, and I'm really looking forward to releasing Cactus on the PS4, PS Vita, and Wii U next year, as well as starting a new project and building a slightly bigger team.

Morgan Jaffit: Shipping Hand of Fate, certainly. Getting a major, cross platform, Australian-made and owned game to market as a critical and commercial success is really what we've been aiming for from the time we set up the studio. It's immensely gratifying to have done it, and it gives us the opportunity to keep building on that success.

Nicole Stark: Finishing our game! After nearly three years of development, that certainly feels like an achievement! And winning the WiG award was personally absolutely amazing and such an honour. Next year we’re looking forward to releasing on the consoles and then I have to be mysterious and cyptic and just say we’ll be working on some very cool things that I can’t give details about yet. Trust me though, very cool things…

Paul Turbett: Releasing Star Hammer: The Vanguard Prophecy on Steam was the major achievement for Black Lab Game this year. After almost two years in development, getting it into the hands of players was great. For the new year, we are looking forward to bringing the game to new platforms (iPad is in beta already), and then, hopefully, starting a new game.

Neil Rennison: Reaching our seventh year in business is certainly an achievement. Success can be measured in many ways but I like to think that our ongoing stability and release consistency is a credit to the team around me. We’ve also been able to grow, hiring new staff, so I’m really pleased with that. Next year I’m looking forward to releasing more titles with Games Workshop and finally unveiling our brand new 3D gamebook engine, which will debut with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the classic Fighting Fantasy title. I’m also excited by a new venture we are working on that will turn our business model on its head – hopefully!

Gamebook Adventures







Ross Symons: With Don Bradman we released the first Australian-made PS4 and Xbox One game at retail and digital, and proudly, managed to have Big Ant keep the IP rights. Following that up with Rugby League Live 3 across five platforms just last month, and hitting #1 on the Australia/NZ all platforms charts against the likes of NBA and Mad Max, was also awesome.

We’re certainly looking forward next year to continuing the development and releasing the sequel to Don Bradman Cricket for console, PC, and also a companion app on mobile. It’ll feature all-new commentary and a host of new features never before seen in any sports game – we really can’t wait to start sharing what we have on the cards with our fans. I have to say, Big Ant’s pretty busy for sure, we’ll have three console titles out within the next 12 months!

Nic Watt: We have some really cool announcements coming in the next few months. We have been doubling down on our publishing efforts and building up overseas relationships to help with that. We are, finally, getting close to our final submissions on Blast ‘Em Bunnies so we are looking forward to releasing it next year (yay!) as well as some of our publishing deals coming to fruition too! I’m personally hoping to see a few titles released by us next year...

Leigh Harris: I’ve been battling depression and anxiety a lot this year, and it seems to have gotten even worse. In the past few months, I’ve seen numerous specialists and tried several new medications while planning coping strategies with a psychologist. It’s been a nightmare, frankly, but right now I feel like I’m in a place where I’m rising. Slowly, sure, but rising nonetheless.

I know that seems like a deeply personal achievement to list, but from what I hear the number of panels submitted to PAX Australia this year about mental health in gaming (and game development) was so through the roof that they had to knock back heaps of them just so it didn’t seem like a mental health conference instead of a gaming expo. I’m on one of them (More Than a Game: Playing For Mental Health and Wellbeing), and increasingly feel like it’s a place where I’ll be able to be a positive voice for others going through similar things.

Armello

We lost a beautiful man from the games industry recently to suicide, so for me, doing well in this battle against depression is something I cherish and really want to celebrate.

In the new year I’m looking forward to our next game. Rohan and I have been working on it for ages now, and it’s the closest game to our hearts we’ve made yet. We’ve worked harder on it and care more about it than anything we’ve done with Flat Earth so far. I can’t speak for Rohan, but for me it’s the best thing I’ve done with my life. Or at least it will be once it’s out. It’s a space trading game with combat akin to submarine simulators called Objects in Space. People can check it out here.

Trent Kusters: Our big success has obviously been launching Armello on Early Access and then full release on Steam, PS4 and DRM Free. If we're talking 2016, I'm excited about working with our incredible community across the globe to continue evolving Armello and bringing it to new platforms. However, we've also got some other exciting stuff up our sleeve too. Especially the folks we're collaborating with from around the world.

Digitally Downloaded: Finally, list your favourite Aussie games from this year, and what it is about them that you enjoyed?

Santana Mishra: I simply adore Expand, an adventurous platform game where you play a tiny cube moving through an ever expanding circular world that's sort of an elaborate labyrinth. Every element in the game is synced to a wonderful soundtrack and you just get drawn in to this amazing black, white, and red world. At the end of the experience I was left feeling like I'd just experienced the best parts of REZ and Journey without the game ever directly telling me how I should feel.

I'm also a fan of Ninja Pizza Girl, partly because it scratches the speedy platforming itch I've had ever since completing Sonic the Hedgehog 2, but mostly because I like the way it matches game systems with the story and the main character's mental state. When I run in to some ninjas and they knock Gemma down she gets frustrated and sad the same way I'm feeling frustrated and sad, and it's remarkably easy to get caught in that loop of frustration with other people pushing you around and it feels like there's no way out. I'm so glad the Interactive Games Fund existed so this game could exist.

Pac-Man 256

Morgan Jaffit: There's so many! Armello and Assault Android Cactus. Metrocide and Submerged. Shooty Skies and Pac-Man 256. That's just for starters.

Nicole Stark: I love Assault Android Cactus, because each android has so much character, not just in how they look/animate but in the way the game mechanics change. I love Satellite Reign, because damn they did a great job creating a cyberpunk city. I love Hacknet because its so unique, and who doesn’t want to be a badass hacker? There’s been so many awesome Aussie games this year, how much space do you have?

Paul Turbett: There is so much stuff coming out these days that it's hard to play everything I want to. I thought Crossy Road was really well done. The level of polish are outstanding, and the design was so simple and efficient, whilst still never getting boring. Even though we make deep strategy games, there is still a lot to learn as a designer from how Crossy Road was executed.

I haven't had a chance to try it yet, but I'm really looking forward to playing Satellite Reign. I was a Syndicate fan back in the day, and Satellite Reign looks great. The visuals are really appealing, so hopefully, soon!

Neil Rennison: Crossy Road and Pac-Man 256 have consumed a lot of my time! I’ve yet to play Armello properly, but already in love with the production values of that title and it’s ready in my Steam account. I also have a soft-spot for Bean Dreams by Kumobius.

Ross Symons: There have been just so many great games out from Oz over the last year! I’m a Borderlands fan and am impressed with what the guys at 2k in Canberra achieved (with Borderlands the Prequel); it’s a technical masterpiece. And as my Twitter will attest, I’m also a big fan of what Hipster Whale have done with Crossy Road, as it’s just so perfectly balanced. I also absolutely love Pac Man 256 as brings me right squarely back into my youth in the arcades of the 80s.

Malevolence: The Sword of Ahkranox

Nic Watt: Fight the Dragon, Majestic Nights and Crossy Road. Fight the Dragon is an amazing gameplay and technical tour de force with both an awe-inspiring adventure creation kit as well and an endless supply of hack ‘n slash adventures to play solo or co-op! Majestic Nights is a really interesting tin foil hat adventure/shooter where you have to investigate and solve all of the interwoven conspiracy theories from JFK to Alien invasion, faked Moon Landings and more! I don’t think I need to say anything about Crossy Road! The team have done a great job of making a fun, well polished and highly addictive endless road crosser. The sales probably say more about it than anything else!

Leigh Harris: Tough call. I wasn’t exaggerating when I extolled the virtues of Aussie devs earlier. There are so many that are just fantastic. Weirdly, my personal favourite is the undeniably frivolous Ski Safari 2 from Sleepy Z Studios, but I’m also enjoying Land Sliders from Prettygreat and Inflatality from a collective of local Sydney developers.

I think for the former two it’s just because it shows a mastery of the craft of game-making. For the latter it’s just because, like Nidhogg before it, it gives me a blend of mechanics which are unlike any I’ve seen before.

Trent Kusters: Hacknet - Absolutely brilliant game. The incredible fusion of the game's narrative and gameplay delivering the ultimate hacker fantasy is world class.

Shooty Skies - Addictive as hell. Crazy level of polish and another notch on the belt for Hipster Whale / Mighty Games.

Death Squared - SMG Studio just keep dropping these criminally simple, incredible games on us. This is one to watch.

Southbank Portrait - A game made by Ian McLarty in the multiplicity game jam we held for Freeplay this year and it's just such a wonderful exploration of what video games can be and what they can offer, literally giving us a whole new perspective of the world around us.

Putty Party is a rad little game from student team, HalfTale. Really showcases the level of talent we're seeing even at the student level here in Aus.

Also see; Everything Joe Wintergreen and Powerhoof cook up.

- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld
Developer roundtable: On why Australian development has had its best year ever
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