Judging by the tropical imagery splashed across QueenslandGames.com – in which a solitary human sits, gazing out across the placid ocean toward distant sand dunes – a naïve game developer intending to work for a Queensland-based company might anticipate to write code while breathing in salty air and wriggling their toes between the sand. The reality, of course, bears no resemblance to this image, which makes its on-going usage questionable. Especially considering the rather dismal say of the wider Australian game development industry in 2011.
Not pictured: game development in Queensland.
It used to be that mutually profitable relationships with international publishers saw Australian developers working on console titles that would be marketed across the world. In the past, Australian talent had a hand in working on mega-selling licenses like Star Wars, Transformers and Jurassic Park. This trend continues, in a limited capacity: Canberra-based studio 2K Marin played a significant role in the development of both Bioshock and its sequel, and is the lead studio working on the new XCOM game; Team Bondi is currently putting the finishing touches on the May-due PS3 and Xbox 360 title L.A. Noire, on behalf of Rockstar Games. It will be the first time since 2002′s State Of Emergency that the company is outsourcing development of a Rockstar product to a non-Rockstar studio.
Team Bondi has been working on L.A. Noire for a looooooong time.
But locally, these contracts are, by and large, drying up. And with the decrease in work comes the decrease in employment, as seen in the recent collapses of Auran, Pandemic, and, late last year, Krome Studios. All three were Brisbane-based. All three are no more.
“The huge oak trees have fallen; it’s time for the tiny seedlings to get stuck in there,” IGDA Brisbane coordinator Jane ‘Truna’ Turner told IGN last year in the wake of Krome’s demise. Indeed; much noise has been made about the success of smaller, independent Australian game devs, with Halfbrick Studios, based in Kelvin Grove, universally showered with praise for the remarkable sales of Fruit Ninja, as has Firemint, with its Flight Control and Real Racing games. But let’s not forget that smaller companies, by nature, employ fewer people. While those 40-odd staff who’re housed comfortably under Halfbrick’s umbrella are likely thanking their lucky stars nightly, what of the hundreds of skilled staff shaken loose from the huge oak trees in the past few years?
With few real opportunities to work on big, ‘triple-A’ titles – the kind that sound great on your resume – here in Australia, such talent is left to either shift overseas, or think about alternative careers. Either way, the Australian industry loses out. The dominant mindset – that this country is unable to support triple-A-level development – continues, and everyone involved continues to downgrade their expectations of what Australia is capable of in terms of games.
What, if anything, can be done to stimulate this process? Are we really headed toward a local industry consisting of a mere handful of bigger, publisher-owned studios – like SEGA’s Creative Assembly and THQ’s Studio Oz, both based in Brisbane – and a galaxy of smaller, agile developers concentrating on mobile platforms? Is Australia no longer a viable market for foreign publishers to invest in game development?
In 2010 Studio Oz released games based on the film Megamind. Sadly, they were not well received.
“The decline in studios over the last four years or so has been troubling,” states Guy ‘Yug’ Blomberg, “but it’s happening on a worldwide scale now.” Blomberg is well-versed in the Brisbane development scene and is one of the co-founders of the Brisbane-based, game-themed Mana Bar. He points out that regardless of how much Australian gamers spend purchasing games locally – the video game market generated $1.7 billion in retail sales in 2010 – it has “very little” effect on Australian game developers. “Just like every other developer, they are pitching for a global market, and Australia is comparatively small potatoes.”
“The reason why so many studios here focused on licensed properties is because a long time ago, Australia was a comparative outsourcing option to the Asian counterparts,” Blomberg continues. “We were cheaper by a significant margin; there were no cultural or language barriers, and we had solid talent here that was backed up by some internationally recognised titles such as Auran’s Dark Reign and Krome’s Ty the Tasmanian Tiger franchises.” He points to these past successes as a massive part of the reason why Australian studios got to work on popular, worldwide franchises like Star Wars, Spyro, Hellboy, Batman, and Avatar.
Still, at the time, Blomberg suggests that the continually rising Australian dollar was the impetus for local studios to “really kick things into high gear” in order to remain competitive. “Promising games for less budget and smaller timelines meant the quality declined. And where are we right now?” he asks. “As an industry, we are now one of the most costly options for game development; [we're] far away and on the wrong time, with a recent reputation for average games, failed studios, and missed deadlines. And to make things worse, due to the industry becoming smaller and smaller, a lot of our more experienced developers have left our shores for overseas [studios]. Yes, we have a lot of institutions that are training up the next generation of game developers, but an industry simply will not survive without veterans who are able to steer the ship, and mentor the new kids.”
Ty remains one of the larger Aussie success stories of the last decade.
One such veteran is Tony Takoushi, who has worked at gaming studios across the world since entering the industry in 1979. He currently splits his time between teaching game design at tertiary education provider Qantm, and working as Submissions Manager at Halfbrick Studios. He puts the downward spiral of triple-A-level game development in Australian down to “the typical things in the West: funding, staffing, experience, and vision. To distil it to two elements, it primarily comes down to the vision of the person that is creating the product, and innate production skills. I think one of the biggest things that we are not finding over here are those two elements coming together. We’re not seeing a synergy between them at a consistent high level.”
He elaborates: “So you find people who bang stuff out by sheer brute force; they come in and do crazy, crunch hours, and they are misguided because you have not always got the person with vision who comprehends progression within game design, or adding value to concepts within game design.” (“People do not necessarily want innovation,” he admits. “‘More of the same’ sells, to a point.”)
You can have a $50 million budget; it doesn’t matter, if the person who’s creating the game doesn’t have vision…
“With respect, you have got some very talented people at studios across Australia, but they do not necessarily have commercial sensibility,” Takoushi continues. “And there is no real reason why they should have that commercial sense. They may produce stunning, gorgeous art, but it may not necessarily be honed to the right level to be widespread; to be of commercial quality.”
He points to the ‘me-tooism’ that tends to pervade studios late in a console development cycle as symptomatic of a wider problem. “You can have a $50 million budget; it doesn’t matter, if the person who’s creating the game doesn’t have vision, doesn’t comprehend the raw elements of gameplay design. Are we going to take this wonderful $50 million we have got, and just do a ‘me too’ product with superb graphics, astonishing audio, and really playable… but it’s nothing new? Will that be a commercial blockbuster? Could be. Is that what we want to do in Australia? Again, there is nothing wrong with that; it’s normally what most studios do. My personal feeling is that, if you gave me a budget like that, the very least I want to do is add value. Why the hell am I going to spend the next one or two years producing a game which has been done before, but with better graphics? Personally, my view is you’d have to be stir-crazy. Why would you waste that money? Switch off the lights; go home. You’re wasting people’s time, unless you are adding value to what is already there, and/or innovating.”
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Submited at Monday, February 14th, 2011 at 4:00 am on XBOX by dave
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