The Australian game development industry has seen better days. From continual job cuts and studio closures to the ever-present threat of a shaky global economy, local developers are facing serious challenges. When industry stalwart Transmission Games closed its doors late last year, followed by two rounds of staff cuts at Australia’s largest studio Krome, many thought the future bleak for Aussie game development.
But it hasn't been all doom and gloom Down Under. What few anticipated was the emergence of a new breed of developers whose willingness to adapt to changing market and consumer trends has kept them relatively immune to the problems faced by the struggling local industry. Mobile and indie developers like Firemint and Halfbrick Studios are slowly reinventing games development Down Under by focusing on lower-cost development projects for platforms like the iPhone, XBLA, and PSN, as well as creating more games with fewer resources in a shorter amount of time. The benefits of doing business this way speak for themselves: job security, increased revenue streams, and the satisfaction of creating original intellectual property (IP) without the help of overseas publishers.
In this GameSpot AU feature we profile four up-and-coming indie and mobile developers and look at how they are shaping the future of the Aussie game development industry.
Considering the 2-million-plus unit sales and the number one positions on Apple's App Store in some 19 countries, there are few people who have not yet discovered the addictive joy of Flight Control. The iPhone app was Melbourne-based developer Firemint's first self-published game, and its worldwide success has ensured that the Aussie team can keep making original IP for some time to come.
Firemint was founded in 1999 by CEO Rob Murray as a mobile and handheld developer, working primarily as a subcontractor for other developers. As the team grew larger, the studio began working directly with publishers before making the transition to self-publishing in 2009 and releasing Flight Control. The studio now employs 37 full-time staff in its inner-city Melbourne office.
"When we made the transition to self-publishing, we suddenly found ourselves having to take on all the roles that publishers normally fulfill, from external producer to marketing and support," Alexandra Peters, Firemint community manager, told GameSpot AU.
Peters believes the success of Flight Control comes from the game's ability to resonate with its audience.
"Flight Control makes perfect use of the touch screen, and it's a great casual pick-up-and-play game. It's extremely easy to get into because it literally just takes a minute to learn, but it also has great depth because you constantly want to beat your high score. Every time you die in the game, you feel like you can do better next time and like you really should have seen that plane coming."
The studio has already adapted Flight Control for Nintendo DSiWare and has received further interest from other platforms. But according to Peters, digital distribution is the only way to go.
"We're very interested in any digital distribution platforms that give us a direct channel to consumers. We think that [local] studios need to play to their strengths and do work that fits with their structure. If a developer is able to produce an iPhone game that is high quality and/or unique enough, can market that game to stand out in a very crowded space, and can support it if it does sell, then the iPhone can be a great platform to develop for, but the gold rush is definitely over. It's a lot of hard work," she said.
Peters recognises the fact that making iPhone games is relatively easy in the grand scheme of game development, at least at the start. However, simply "having a go" and developing and marketing a successful game are two vastly different things. Firemint’s approach to game development is to make the best game possible and then pump resources into promoting the title in the best way possible so that it will reach its target audience. The latest example of this work ethic is Real Racing, Firemint's follow-up game to last year's Flight Control for both the iPhone and the brand-new iPad.
"We spent over a year and over a million dollars making Real Racing ridiculously good, and it was released to great commercial and critical success. This allowed us to strike a deal with Volkswagen Group of America and they used a demo version of the title to launch the 2010 GTI in North America. As a result, [Volkswagen] enquiries and car sales went up, and we got great press coverage and increased Real Racing sales," she said.
Peters believes that while the Australian game developers have more barriers to overcome than other countries (population, distance, distribution costs, and so on) the rapidly changing global games industry means there is an opportunity for all studios, regardless of location, to adapt and find new ways to prosper. While this doesn’t necessarily mean looking to platforms like the iPhone, it's certainly something that's proved a success in Firemint's case.
"We have never defined ourselves by the platform we work on, but always in terms of the type of games we make and the players we serve," Peters said. "However, had we grown the studio on console work, then we would have developed along a different path and it's hard to say how we might have performed. I think we're in a stronger position to make console titles now than when we started. Our heritage creating smaller titles has been important in developing our skills and learning to walk before trying to run. There is little that can replace that sort of time and studio experience.
"However, it's certainly easier to fund development of an iPhone game than it is to fund the development of a console game. That is why more companies are able to participate in iPhone game development than console game development--the barriers to entry are lower. But I think that in five years' time we will no longer be differentiating so much between console and handheld/mobile games as we do now, because the technology and capabilities will be more closely matched."
Part of this adaptation process involves looking for trends in the industry, something which Firemint has been doing in regards to social gaming.
"Anything that gets new people playing video games is good for the industry as a whole. We have been building social features into our games for about two years now, so to us it makes sense to work with that trend rather than to ignore it," she said.
Firemint is currently developing a number of yet-to-be-revealed titles.
Established in 2001, Halfbrick started out developing games for the handheld market, including Heatseeker (PSP) and Avatar: The Last Airbender: Into the Inferno (DS). Last year, the studio began work on its first Xbox Live Arcade title, Raskulls (due for release this year), before going on to develop Age of Zombies and Rocket Racing for PSP Minis. The company has since grown to employ around 40 full-time staff and has just found success with its first iPhone game, Fruit Ninja.
"Fruit Ninja is now a worldwide success," Phil Larsen, Halfbrick’s marketing manager, told GameSpot AU. "We've hit the top three paid apps in over 10 countries, including the USA, Canada, Australia, Germany, and the UK. We've sold over 400,000 units so far and the number keeps rising. It's definitely one of the most popular iPhone games in the world right now and we're very proud of its success."
Like many Aussie studios, Halfbrick began by contracting for other local studios before establishing contacts with publishers like THQ. Thanks to new digital distribution services, the studio found it easy to begin managing its own titles, beginning with platforms like XBLA.
"The key isn't just to adapt to the changing markets and consumer trends, but also to try and anticipate them early. Zombie games were a big hit for over a year, but we didn't want to saturate the XBLA or PC market with another title--that's why Age of Zombies was a good fit for PSP Minis where gamers didn't have their zombie fix," he said.
"Our focus has shifted from handheld platforms to digital distribution, in a sense skipping the console environment. As time goes by, console games will likely be entirely digitally delivered, and we can easily step up to create our own projects from there. Platforms like XBLA and the iPhone are now leaders in their field. Both have a huge customer base, meaning that if you develop the right combination of tools--a great game, great marketing, and good community focus--you stand a good chance of success."
Age of Zombies and Fruit Ninja have been Halfbrick's most successful independent titles so far, but the studio also expects Raskulls to become a big hit upon its release.
"XBLA needs to have extremely fun games with depth that can be explored at will," Larsen said. "Raskulls can be understood and played within seconds, but the depth of the single-player and story mode really makes it stand out for those who need their longer gameplay fix."
Halfbrick is currently working on several new iPhone projects as well as exploring options for the Age of Zombies franchise and putting the finishing touches on Raskulls. Click on the Next Page link to see the rest of the feature!
Millipede Creative Development
Online and mobile development studio Millipede started out in 2005 as a Web-for-hire outfit based in Melbourne. With only 10 employees on board, the team began primarily as Flash developers in the e-learning space before moving on to work with game developers, advertising, and government agencies, as well as private enterprise. Recently, Millipede began working on its own original IP and is also looking to work with larger game development studios on iPhone or online versions of titles in development.
"I fell into educational gaming from my uni days, working as a Flash programmer for the Victorian Department of Education and Training," Millipede founder Wil Monte said. "Since then we have become a pretty major player in the e-learning development space, and I have always been pushing for our e-learning projects to be game orientated. Games engage young and old learners more efficiently and for longer time periods than other forms of learning resources."
Working in this space actually saved Millipede from financial struggles during the global financial crisis--the studio was closely aligned with the advertising industry and, as a result, work took off rather than slowed down. To date, the studio's most successful titles have been on the iPhone--City GT, a game developed as part of a Victorian Government roads and safety campaign, and Flinders Ninjas.
"City GT was developed for JWT Melbourne and was part of a very successful Vic Roads campaign. It has seen about 40,000 downloads in Australia, which isn't bad for something that is a bit of a fib (it was marketed as a game, but is really about raising awareness about mobile phone usage while driving)," he said.
"We also released a little game called Flinders Ninjas as a Christmas gift/promotional piece for friends and clients. It has since had about 20,000 downloads locally. We certainly aren't in the download realms of fellow Richmond buddies, Firemint, but then again not a lot of studios are."
Monte believes the popularity of the iPhone as a gaming device continues to increase and will continue to rise with the release of the iPad. But like Firemint and Halfbrick, Monte recognises it's not all about having a good platform.
"I don't think the platform makes it easy to develop a good game, nor be successful--otherwise I definitely would have retired by now. However, the distribution channel definitely helps. Having an instantly accessible market in the App Store is an incredible facility. But saying that, you can't just submit an app and sit back and wait for the cash to roll in--once the app is submitted, the real work begins in marketing your game and making people notice it among the 60,000 other games available on the App Store," he said.
Millipede plans to continue focusing on educational gaming while slowly branching into more iPhone development.
The Voxel Agents
Matt Clark, Simon Joslin, and Tom Killen met in 2003 while studying game development at the Queensland University of Technology. During their studies, the three agreed that after gaining industry experience at local studios, they'd start their own indie outfit. After two years working separately for Halfbrick, Pandemic, and Hoodlum Active, The Voxel Agents was born.
"We like to play games that execute a simple idea really well," Joslin told GameSpot AU. "We still enjoy the masterpieces on the major consoles, but we now tend to spend more time playing tight little mobile games with a simple premise that are instantly enjoyable. The modern world prefers instant gratification, and we don't think games are seen any differently--players want to be able to get the most out of the game almost instantly, and we like to build games that satisfy that. We develop tight and highly polished games, and for now we're focusing all our energy on the App Store."
The Voxel Agents' first critical success was Train Conductor, a simple strategy game for the iPhone game where players must deliver trains to their destinations throughout eight levels of evolving gameplay. To date, the game has topped the charts in 48 countries in the strategy category and garnered some 30,000 sales worldwide. The game was also recently chosen by Apple as one of the "Most Addictive Games" alongside Flight Control and Doodle Jump. According to Joslin, the game's success comes from its polished, addictive nature.
"It's one of those games that looks deceivingly easy, but once you start playing and the levels progressively get harder, you just have to come back for more. The gameplay works perfectly on the iPhone--the gameplay, the music, and the art direction all come together to form a very tight unit," he said.
Joslin and his team members now work out of Melbourne. They recently presented a talk at the Melbourne chapter of the International Game Developers Association urging startup developers to join the local development industry as soon as possible.
"Everyone has been hit hard by the global financial crisis, Australia in particular, but I think the Australian industry as a whole is becoming stronger and more resilient because of the lessons we're learning. We think it's an excellent time for starting indie studios because there is a real resurgence of interest in indie games. Digital distribution platforms are the indie developer's natural home--small, casual, fun games are where it's at, and this space is growing quickly," he said.
According to Joslin, the positive side of the recent closures in the local industry is that a lot of developers are on the lookout for new opportunities in the industry. This is where platforms like the iPhone come in.
"Aussie developers have proven themselves to be very good at making tight, gameplay-driven games, and these games are perfect for digital distribution platforms. However, it's much easier and cheaper to make an iPhone game for the App Store than it is to create an XBLA title. XBLA and PSN in particular are now out of reach for most indie developers. Many indie developers had high hopes for the PSP Go, but that platform hasn't taken off like many were expecting it to," he said.
Looking ahead, the Voxel team has just released an update to Train Conductor and has already begun work on a new installment of the game, Train Conductor 2: USA, to be released in June.
"We're improving every single aspect of the game in this sequel and adding the two highly requested features: endless play survival mode and heaps of new content. Each level has been designed from scratch, and we've taken inspiration from locations across the USA, including the complex New York City subway network and the great gorges of the Grand Canyon. We're posting screenshots and gameplay videos as often as possible to let everyone know what we've got in store."
The industry perspective
Indie developers are not the only ones who believe the current climate in the Australian games industry is suited to startup studios. Tom Crago, president of the Game Developers Association of Australia, believes studio closures and downsizing have caused more developers to be willing to take a risk and become part of something less traditional. This, coupled with a changing market that demands smaller, less expensive games, presents a good opportunity for smaller development teams working in the Australian industry.
"Already in Australia we've seen companies like Firemint and Halfbrick enjoy success on platforms like the iPhone and XBLA, and there are maybe 20 other developers of varying sizes who are starting to play in this space," Crago said. "The barriers to entry, especially on the Apple devices, are much lower than in the console space, and the capacity to self-publish and to interface directly with your audience is very powerful and very compelling."
Crago says that while developing for the iPhone is a relatively easy process, the hard part is getting noticed. His advice?
"Already there are thousands and thousands of titles for consumers to choose from, and for every Flight Control there are countless games that fall completely off the radar, no pun intended. If I was starting a game development studio today I'd be knocking on the doors of marketing and management schools looking for bright graduates to help me get my game noticed," he said.
One area that Crago believes presents an opportunity for local game developers is social gaming. He says it's impossible to ignore this space when there is so much money to be made.
"These games are typically cheap to develop, and obviously the market is huge. Monetising is tricky, as is community management, but these are areas in which the next generation of game developer will need to excel. Why not try to make a splash in this space here in Australia? I know we have a handful of local developers working on social network games, and we're famed here for our diversity and adaptability, so in my view it's only a matter of time before we see a breakout local title," he said.
Whether local developers choose to go down this path or not, one thing is certain: the industry can always do with a little outside help.
"At some point we're really going to need a funding ecosystem here in Australia to enable studios not just to prototype, but to take a game all the way to completion. I'm not sure that we'll ever return to the way things were. The industry is too dynamic and volatile for that to be the case. Obviously I hope the work-for-hire business returns, and I think it will, up to a point. But we need to get better at commercialising our own intellectual property," he said.
"It's difficult to see us becoming a true force without some support from our government. Certainly, if they chose to back the industry in the same way that the Canadian Government has assisted their local industry, then absolutely we would ultimately be on a par with Canada and truly world-class. Short of that, we just need to keep doing what we're doing, focus on quality as much as possible, and try to ensure that we're growing and that we're making games that are regarded as genuine hits. It would be great each year to have a handful of Australian-developed games that sell in excess of a million units," Crago said. Do you think the Australian games industry will have a positive 2010? Or will we see more job losses and studio closures this year? Leave us your comments below!