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Australian Indie Development Scene and Screen Australia’s Interactive Games Fund – Beneficial, Limited or a Waste of Money?

by SamSeptember 22, 2013


Some of the Australian developed video games that have been released over the years from the PS2 to current-gen eras

My very first video game console was a Nintendo Game Boy, to be specific one of the original 1989 models that was bulky, had a monochrome screen and guzzled down batteries before rechargables became commonplace. Despite technological limitations, it and other home video game console releases saw potentially hundreds of hours of use by gamers and opened up the world of gaming to many people in my generation. This generation is now entering the workforce with a lifetime of ideas to bring to the table.

Coming out of the global financial crisis there has been a number of major third-party Australian development studios that have shut down. This list comprises of teams such as Sega Studios Australia (Their most recent release being the official video game for the London 2012 Olympic Games), THQ Studio Australia (Whose releases focused on youth-oriented franchises such as as Avatar and Megamind) and the Australian wing of EA’s Visceral Games and Pandemic studios.

It isn’t all bad news however. While also reportedly struggling there has been a number of Australian studios that have continued to remain open over the years. Despite significant staff cuts and a rumored closure, Krome Studios who became renown with their Ty the Tasmanian Tiger franchise are working towards bringing their most popular IP to a whole new generation of audiences. Similarly, Team Bondi who were behind L.A. Noire have been working towards their next-generation title Whore of the Orient. Despite questions surrounding viability, its development has continued thanks to a $200,000 investment by Screen NSW.

Despite the shaky state of the video game development industry in Australia today, high school leavers are still flocking to video game and interactive entertainment degrees around the country, with a passion of developing the next big game. While not everyone is necessarily going to reach the peak of being the lead developer in a world-renown studio such as Ubisoft Montreal or Square Enix, there is a growing love by gamers and the gaming industry alike for independent developers and publishers.

Shuhei Yoshida, President of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios showcasing the company’s love of indies while promoting the Playstation 3 / 4 / Vita. Indie development was also a talking point during their E3 2013 press conference.

Using the example of the Game Boy, when you look at a list of games available to play on the console over the years, many were published and/or developed by major studios and were often in the mid-double digit price range at the check out. But as technology has expanded and digital distribution / self-publishing channels become more readily available, this has led the doors to open to smaller studios. These independent or “indie” studios often offer smaller games at a bite sized price and to date has taken off like a storm, from well renown titles such as Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja to more niche market offerings.

Earlier this year I started a review series known as Sam’s Quest for Something Different“, where I highlighted the many interesting ideas brought to the table from small independent studios. As you can tell there was everything from role playing games (RPGs) which involved word clues to a simple third person adventurer with “octopus” style mechanics. Another simple yet local and highly popular example is Fruit Ninja, which has since its initial launch on the iOS store in 2010, found its home on many gaming platforms and seen millions of downloads both in free and paid forms. This simple idea of chopping fruit up with your finger, and later body movements was conceptualized by Brisbane-based studio Halfbrick Studios who have catapulted into being a success story. Not everyone is that fortunate however and may need a kick start into becoming their own success story.

In November 2012, the then ALP Federal Arts Minister Simon Crean announced that the Australian Government would be supplying $30 million over three years to their screen agency Screen Australia to support the interactive entertainment industry, $20 million of which would be through the Australian Interactive Games Fund. The AIGF has been developed to provide grants and investment into projects surrounding the production of video games as well as funds for supporting game development enterprises.

In March 2013 the final guidelines for the program were released and the first round of applications have since taken place. In June 2013 a total of ten studios received Enterprise funding through the Interactive Games Fund. “Game development is the fastest growing sector of the worldwide audiovisual market from a consumer perspective, Australian developers should share in the $80 billion global market” says Screen Australia Chief Operating Officer Fiona Cameron in a press release. “Screen Australia’s Game Enterprise program provides a diverse range of Australian companies with valuable funds to help develop original IP, employ more people, including promoting internships, and expand distribution and marketing opportunities.”

Professor Jeffrey Brand from Bond University’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences has had a long history in the Australian gaming industry, authoring the annual Digital Australia reports among many other academic papers and conferences. Professor Brand was kind enough to take up some of his time to share his insights on the potential of this program. His response is available in the video above. Additional parts of this exclusive interview will be incorporated into future articles.

Professor Brand was positive about the program and stated that we should see some interesting titles come out from Australian development studios over the next few years due to funding. Interestingly he identified the “greatest risk and the greatest challenge” as being the viability of the program over the next few years due to the switch from the ALP to the LNP in the recent federal election. “We have a new Government with new imperatives and this Government has already indicated that it will take a look at funding obligations.” says Professor Brand, “But I do wonder if we will see the $30 million for digital interactive games from the Screen Australia Fund survive what will very likely be a very tight fiscal environment for the next few years”.

With the first Abbott Government having been sworn in last week and primarily working towards a number of their election promises, there is no word on when we will hear of any cuts to the Interactive Games Fund. The Otaku’s Study aims to follow this up at a later date.

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A selection of consoles released in Australia over the last twenty-five years. While not all development has been official, almost all of them have seen some form of end-user development.

The Otaku’s Study also reached out to a number of Australian indie studios who are currently active in the industry at the time, including some who have received first round funding through the Interactive games Fund. A number of them answered a few questions on their experiences during their start-up days, the Interactive Games Fund and how it may help future developers achieve a name for themselves. A number of varied responses were received, however the most frequent issues that arose when starting up related to both limited funding for development and the marketing process. These are both issues that the ‘Games Production’ and ‘Games Experiences’ aspects of the Interactive Games Fund aims to target. Individual opinion on the Interactive Games Fund from Australian studios Hitbox Team, The Binary Mill and Witch Beam Studios can be read below.

Two studios interviewed that have received funding were The Voxel Agents and Tin Man Studios. As already established studios they had different uses for the funding. “Without funding we have to balance supporting existing games and creating new ones, with funding we can do both” states The Voxel Agents co-founder Simon Joslin. Tin Man Studios on the other hand claims that this funding will allow them to hire new in-house coders. “This means we will increase productivity significantly allowing us to sign more licensing deals and releasing lots of new IP based on our Gamebook Adventures brand” says Tin Man Games Creative Director Neil Rennison.

The full in-depth interviews can be viewed below.

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Dustforce - The first game released by Hitbox Team

Dustforce – The first game released by Hitbox Team

Hitbox Team

Would you be able to share with my readers a bit of information on your studio and the titles you have released in the past.

We’re a studio of 3 people called Hitbox Team. We’ve released one title, called Dustforce, and are currently working on our second game, Spire.

When founding your studio and releasing your first title(s), what were some of the challenges you faced?

We basically lived out of a shed on very little money for a solid 4 months when we were developing the prototype of Dustforce, so that was pretty hard. Another issue we’ve faced is motivation and burnout, which can be pretty severe when all the workload is on a small number of people.

With Government funding and grants more actively being offered to the interactive entertainment industry through programs such as the Interactive Games Fund, do you believe this will have a positive effect on the development process?

We aren’t going for the funding because the criteria and application process didn’t fit us, but I imagine that local companies will get some good results out of it.

Where do you see the Australian video game industry in the coming years?

It’s difficult to say. On one hand, the digital marketplace brings everything closer, but on the other hand there is a severe lack of job opportunities in this country. If people are able to strike out on their own, we might see some growth due to the lowered barrier to entry for distributing a game.

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Motor Racing EVO – A recent released by The Binary Mill for the PC

The Binary Mill

Would you be able to share with my readers a bit of information on your studio and the titles you have released in the past?

The Binary Mill is a Gold Coast-based development studio. We’ve been around for about half a decade working primarily on mobile apps and games, though our most recent game also released on Steam. Our first major game was Assault Squadron for iOS. It was an old school top down shooter in the style of games like Raiden or R-Type; insane difficulty, complete bullet hell, all the hallmarks of the genre. Most of the games we develop are inspired at least in part by the games we loved growing up.

This is especially true of Mini Motor Racing, an arcade-style micro racer for PC and mobile platforms. It’s pure arcade action; nitros, powersliding, and most importantly, no brakes. It’s ridiculous fun, especially in multiplayer, and it still gets a look in during our in-office LAN parties. But our most popular title in terms of downloads in the Gun Club series of weapon simulators. They have a massive following around the world, people love the super high model detail, the realism, and the huge library of different weapons. And with the impending launch of Gun Club 3, we’ve added a whole new dimension to the app which will appeal to all gamers, not just dedicated gun fans.

When founding your studio and releasing your first title(s), what were some of the challenges you faced?

In regards to the iPhone/iPod, the introduction of touch screens (and the lack of joysticks/buttons) required a new way of approaching game design, and the lack of middleware meant writing everything from scratch. While this meant it was possible to get a lot more performance from the devices, it also meant a lot more development was required just getting things like graphics and controls working before you could even work on the ‘game’ part.  Because it was so new, the OS was being continually revised by Apple, which often caused delays as we had to rewrite sections of code that suddenly stopped working the way they used to.  Additionally, since the App Store was an entirely new market with nothing really like it to look at for comparison, it was also impossible to know what was going to be successful, so there was a kind of exciting freedom to try new ideas, while also being very stressful in that there was no way to know if months of work was going to prove worthwhile (which, for a start-up with no money in a fast-moving market, can be disastrous)!

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Gun Club 3, the next installment in The Binary Mill’s “most popular title”. For iOS and Android devices at a date yet to be confirmed.

With Government funding and grants more actively being offered to the interactive entertainment industry through programs such as the Interactive Games Fund, do you believe this will have a positive effect on the development process?

Funding and grants could be a tremendous boon to smaller developers, so long as care taken with how such funding is doled out, with regards to criteria and content. Games are at their hearts a creative endeavour, like films, and as such they thrive on a unique vision. And as with films, the more outside influences that creep in on that vision, the greater the chance the end product becomes watered down and less enjoyable. But so long as funding does not impede to greatly on the choices developers make with their games, there’s no reason why it can’t help the industry.

Where do you see the Australian video game industry in the coming years?

It seems likely that the large number of indie studios that were formed as a result of the major studio closures over the last few years will continue to be the dominant form of game development in this country. Large-scale development is an increasingly competitive and risky endeavour, as it requires an enormous amount of money (and thus requires enormous sales in order to break even, let alone profit enough to fund the next title). The cost of living, and thus the cost of development, is much higher here than much of the rest of the world, so its unlikely any publisher would open a new studio here in the foreseeable future.  

This is not a bad thing by any means though, as small studios have the ability to be more experimental and develop in genres that are more niche, enabling greater freedom of design and more opportunities to push the boundaries of the medium.   The Australian indie scene has been extremely successful with a large number of breakout hits having been developed locally over the last few years, with most of those studios able to maintain ownership of the I.P. they have created, and thus able to build a future for themselves from that success and keep making the games they want to make.  Several Australian indie titles were among Apple’s ‘Best of 2012′ (including our own Mini Motor Racing), and while some people probably aren’t aware that the developers are based here, the games themselves are often well known around the world.

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Toy Mania, a recently released (and free) Facebook game by The Voxel Agents

The Voxel Agents

* The Voxel Agents has received funding through the Interactive Games Fund *

Would you be able to share with my readers a bit of information on your studio and the titles you have released in the past?

The Voxel Agents are developers of original hand-crafted games for “on-the-go” fun. They are one of the most exciting indie teams in Australia, and are situated in the game development hub of Melbourne. Creators of the smash hit Train Conductor series and Puzzle Retreat, The Voxel Agents are proud producers of addictive game substances for millions of players worldwide. We learnt a huge amount from our first release, Dolphin Hero. It failed instantly and terribly, and so we spent much more time thinking of games people would actually want to play. The second time round we hit a home run with Train Conductor and have since had more than 8M downloads from all our games, including more than 1M paid players.

When founding your studio and releasing your first title(s), what were some of the challenges you faced?

We really had no idea how to market and promote our titles. We tried absolutely everything, and simply stuck with what seemed to work. Since then we have refined and spent more time improving the facets that matter most, in particular the marketing materials around a product, such as websites, posters and trailers. Ultimately though, knowing what to make and why is the hardest part. Most new studios struggle to find a title that people are interested in and willing to spend time and money investing in. It goes further than just the idea. Yes you need the right idea, but more importantly you need to think of how the player will experience it, and the type of experience you want them to have. That should be spread throughout the entire design, and reinforced at every turn.

How will this funding help your company progress further in the industry?

Funding enables us to scale to our studio to continue to make games that people love, but also to further develop and expand the titles people already are addicted to. Without funding we have to balance supporting existing games and creating new ones, with funding we can do both. Funding also allows us to remove the day-to-day distractions that prevent us from releasing new IP faster, for example: performing market research, preparing promotional materials, managing press contacts and simple things like bookkeeping and handling support requests.

HexBF_screen5

Artwork from Strange Loves: Hex Boyfriends, the latest title released last month from Tin Man Games for iOS, Android and Kindle devices.

Tin Man Games

* Tin Man Games has received funding through the Interactive Games Fund *

Would you be able to share with my readers a bit of information on your studio and the titles you have released in the past?

Tin Man Games was founded by myself around 5 years ago (September 26th  is our anniversary in fact!). TMG started out as an extension to my art outsourcing company, Fraction Studios, providing 3D art for companies like EA (we contracted on Need For Speed, Tiger Woods and The Sims). In 2009 we started developing small apps for the newly released iPhone and then in late 2009 Ben Britten Smith joined the company and we began developing Gamebook Adventures, our digital choose your own adventure RPG gamebooks for smartphones and tablets.

In 2011 we started pitching for licenses and were able to sign up both Judge Dredd and Fighting Fantasy. FF was very special to us as Gamebook Adventures was a homage in a way to that series, which was very popular during the 1980s and 90s. Since we started our adventure we’ve released 16 digital gamebooks across Apple, Google, Amazon, Nook and Desktop PC & Mac (via Desura) platforms. Some of these have been translated into French too and we have our first Spanish release coming soon.

When founding your studio and releasing your first title(s), what were some of the challenges you faced?

Money! I had made some money via Fraction Studios, which I invested into the company, but that pretty much ran out quickly. We secured two loaning funds from Film Victoria which helped a lot and got us in a position where we could release some titles and generate income. We mostly used contractors and freelancers to help generate our content. For about 18 months both myself and Ben barely earned a salary, which was obviously a big strain. We came through that though and can happily say that we’ve both taken a monthly salary for about the last 12 months! With a relatively healthy income from our apps and Screen Australia funding we are now in a good position to grow the company and have employed two new staff members.

How will this funding help your company progress further in the industry?

We can hire new coders to work in-house with us. This means we will increase productivity significantly allowing us to sign more licensing deals and releasing lots of new IP based on our Gamebook Adventures brand. The other important thing is we can now aford to take a few risks with a better financial cushion behind us. We are also looking further afield and have plans beyond digital gamebooks. We can’t say too much about that at the moment but it’s safe to say we’ll stay within the RPG genre.

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Assault Android Cactus, the very first title from Witch Beam Studios

Witch Beam Studios

Would you be able to share with my readers a bit of information on your studio and the titles you have released in the past?

Witch Beam is a three person team based in Brisbane, Assault Android Cactus is our studio’s first game but before forming Witch Beam we all had industry experience working on games such as Total War, L.A Noir, and Castle of Illusion.

When founding your studio and releasing your first title(s), what were some of the challenges you faced?

There are so many challenges you face when starting a studio so I’ll try to cover some of the bigger ones.

As an indie you will have to take on a multitude of roles which can be tough if you’ve come from a studio where you focussed on just one, I’ve learned a lot about scripting & audio in addition to my design skills and I’ve also had a crash course in PR/Marketing. I’m not sure I’ll ever be comfortable splitting my time between development & promotion but if you want to stay independent you’ll need to stay flexible.

Dealing with limited funding is very difficult and can easily spiral out of control depending on your ambitions, we’re entirely self funded and so every decision to add a new feature, use a new piece of middle ware, or travel to a trade show to promote the game has to be considered very carefully. Games are notorious for taking more time and more money than you think they will when you start them, and that problem is compounded when you’re starting out which is why many new studios end up signing away their rights & I.P in bad publishing deals just to stay afloat.

Aside from making a good game (Which is incredibly difficult) the hardest part about starting a new studio is getting noticed, as we weren’t already famous and had no existing press contacts we found that at first nobody would even respond to our e-mails or look at Cactus. Since then we’ve learned a lot about how to approach the Press & YouTube communities, we set up a website with Vlambeer’s fantastic PressKit() and started reaching out via other avenues like Twitter where those groups are incredibly active, and we partnered with IndieViddy to create professional press releases for any big announcements.

Assault Android Cactus

Assault Android Cactus

With Government funding and grants more actively being offered to the interactive entertainment industry through programs such as the Interactive Games Fund, do you believe this will have a positive effect on the development process?

The funding programs are a fantastic idea and have the potential to build up an Australian owned industry, but the end result really depends on how that money is spent. In the past the Australian industry relied on being a cheap and effective for international publishers and that’s what caused the collapse a few years back, if we want to create a sustainable industry then we need to focus on making quality games that justify the costs of developing here. I don’t envy the decisions Screen Australia will have to make.

Where do you see the Australian video game industry in the coming years?

Right now there’s a massive space between Indie and triple-A games where high quality quality yet experimental games used to live before development costs got out of hand, I think that’s the space Australia is moving towards and I think the platform holders are embracing that with new indie friendly development programs. There’s no way we’ll see a return to the major studio driven industry we had in the mid 2000′s,

Now that you have heard an academic viewpoint and the viewpoints of several different developers in the industry at this time, what are your thoughts on the Interactive Games Fund? Do you have a particular Aussie-developed game you would like to see a sequel of? Are you perhaps starting your own indie game company and thought of other benefits that the Interactive Games Fund might have on the industry? Share your thoughts in the comment box below or on Twitter using the hashtag #AussieGameFunding (Don’t forget to tag @otakustudy as well).

If you are an indie studio from anywhere in the world and would like to see your titles covered on The Otaku’s Study or would like to take part in future articles such as this, feel free to contact me through the CONTACT page.

Sam
Your average, perhaps slightly geeky 22 year old University student who spends his days studying but his nights watching, reviewing and reporting on video games, anime and manga. Has been writing for The Otaku's Study ever since it opened in 2006 as Sam's Anime Study.
  • Amy Marie Stroud

    Very informative and engaging article :) I think it is about time the government backs local artistic industries especially gaming when are starting to emerge as a world leader in certain aspects of gaming! Hopefully they keep up or increase the funding.

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