In the first part of GameSpot AU's Oz Industry Insights series, we looked at rising game prices in Australia. Now, we go back in time to look at the history of the Australian game development scene, tracking its meteoric rise through the 1980s to the early 1990s to today and focusing on the success and popularity of some of the industry's most respected developers and iconic Aussie IP. We also take a look at what factors brought about change within the industry and what part the rise of digital and mobile distribution platforms is playing in shaping its future.
It's no secret that the Australian games development industry has been through a rough time in the last couple of years. The global financial crisis took its toll on many local studios, causing loss of revenue, staff cuts, and studio closures across the board. Some wondered if this would be the end of the road for Aussie-made games; others continued to hope that somehow things would right themselves. Eventually, studios began to reform: smaller than before and with a new direction. The increasing popularity of digital distribution and mobile platforms gave hope to many, signalling a rebirth in the local industry and paving the way for new successes in a new market.
But there's more to the Australian development industry than Flight Control and Fruit Ninja. The industry is built on solid home-console foundations, laid down in the late 1980s by a handful of passionate and influential individuals that successfully nurtured a growing business. Once upon a time, Australia was a powerhouse of game development, producing best-selling international titles such as The Hobbit, which sold more than a million copies worldwide upon its release in 1982, and pioneering game design and development strategies influential to the growth of not just the worldwide industry but the medium of video games itself.
In a time when video games were still a nascent medium, Australia's game development industry was booming with innovation, paving the way for future generations of developers and creating a business framework for what would soon become one of the most profitable industries in the world.
In order to paint an accurate picture of the personalities and games that shaped the beginnings of Australia's game development industry, GameSpot AU has spoken to a number of key industry figures who have humbly shared with us their early experiences and memories of working with studios such as Beam/Melbourne House, Micro Forte, and Strategic Studies Group. Through these accounts, GameSpot AU hopes to illuminate both the strengths and weaknesses of Australia's game development industry, highlight the shifts and influences that caused it to change, and reflect on those new trends that will help it grow and evolve in the next decade. In Part 1, we will look at the early history of the industry and the key players that helped define it; in Part 2, we will speak to industry luminaries about the past and the future.
The Big Players
The birth of the Australian game development industry in the early 1980s saw three studios leading the charge: Beam (later Melbourne House), Strategic Studies Group (SSG), and Micro Forte.
Beam was founded in 1980 by Alfred Milgrom and Naomi Besen, the UK founders of the Melbourne House book publishing company. The Melbourne-based studio worked independently until 1999, when it was acquired by Infogrames (later Atari). It was sold to Krome Studios in 2006.
In 1981, Beam obtained the licensing rights to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and began to develop an adventure game with real-time elements, promising the original publishers to include a copy of the book with each copy of the game sold. The game, developed at Beam by Phillip Mitchell, was published by Melbourne House and released in 1982, where it reached number one in Europe and went on to sell more than a million copies worldwide, establishing Beam as a groundbreaking new Australian talent.
In 1987, Nintendo granted Beam a developer licence for the NES, making Beam the second non-Japanese studio developing for the new console. By 1990, Beam had 30 employees, and by 1991, its first subsidiary, LaserBeam Entertainment, was established to publish Nintendo games--the only Australian company at the time to obtain an official licence.
Infogrames bought Beam in 1999, officially changing its name to Infogrames Melbourne House. At this time, more than 130 developers were employed at the studio. In 2003, Infogrames adopted the brand name Atari, renaming the original Beam studio Atari Melbourne House. The studio was then purchased by Australia's then-largest games developer, Krome Studios, as an extension of its Brisbane Studios in 2006.
Notable Beam/Melbourne House games include: Lord of the Rings: Game One, The Way of the Exploding Fist (the first martial arts game for the home computer), Rock'n Wrestle (the first wrestling game for the home computer), Mugsy, Mugsy's Revenge, Street Hassle, The Hunt for Red October (the first Game Boy game to feature head-to-head arcade action), Star Wars for the NES, Super Smash TV for the SNES, Fist 2: Combat, Krush Kill 'N Destroy, Cricket '97, GP500 for Windows (praised for its attention to detail), Test Drive Le Mans for the Dreamcast (voted best driving game by some publications), Grand Prix Challenge (voted best driving game by some publications), and Transformers for the PS2 (voted one of the best games of 2004 by some publications).
Strategic Studies Group (SSG)
SSG was founded in 1983 by Ian Trout and Roger Keating. Trout was a bookseller, and Keating had some experience in making games, having written the game Conflict, which was published by Strategic Simulations Inc in 1979. After forming the studio, Trout and Keating made Reach for the Stars, a sci-fi strategy game published in 1983 for the Commodore 64. The game is credited with being one of the earliest known published games of the 4X genre (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate).
Notable SSG games include: Decisive Battles of World War II series, Battlefront, Halls of Montezuma, Europe Ablaze, Carriers at War series, Rommel, Decisive Battles of the American Civil War series, and Gold of the Americas. The studio continues to run today.
Micro Forte was founded in 1985 by university friends John De Margheriti, Steve Wang, Stephen Lewis, and John Reidy. Over the years, the studio won a number of business and game industry awards for their contribution to innovation within the Australian game development scene, including the 2002 Asia Pacific ICT Award (APICTA) (Creative Digital Industries category) and the 2003 Telstra and Australian Government Small Business Award (Panasonic Australia Business Award category).
The studio's first title, Official America's Cup Sailing Simulation, was developed for Electronic Arts and released in 1986 for the Commodore 64 on a budget of roughly A$20,000. It sold in excess of 60,000 units in Australia. The studio's second title, Demon Stalkers, was also for EA--the game was based on the same idea as the arcade title Gauntlet.
In 1989, Micro Forte halted its game development in order to allow its founders to attain more business experience. In 1994, the company regrouped and worked on children's titles before coming up with a new idea for a communication system to be used in massively multiplayer online role-playing games: De Margheriti and Lewis developed a patent and subsequently won a research and development grant from the Australian government. The project--codenamed "Large Scale Multiplayer Persistent Universe"--eventually became BigWorld Technology, a new strategy that aims to help developers create better MMO games on multiple platforms with more players.
While still developing the early ideas for BigWorld, De Margheriti founded the Academy of Interactive Entertainment (AIE) in order to join together and support Australian-based IT-related businesses. (De Margheriti was made honorary ambassador by the Australian Capital Territory Government for his efforts in creating AIE). AIE continues to train developers in fields such as 3D animation, modelling, texture art, and game programming.
De Margheriti also set up the Australian Game Developers Conference (AGDC), which enables the local development industry to meet once a year and discuss new strategies and recruit new talent. In conjunction with AGDC, De Margheriti founded the Game Developers Association of Australia (GDAA), providing the initial funds to allow Australian game developers to communicate and share resources.
Notable Micro Forte games include Official America's Cup Challenge, Demon Stalkers, FireKing, Nordice, Bombs Away, Enemy Infestation, Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel, Hotwheels: Bash Arena, Citizen Zero, and Super Spy Online. Micro Forte continues to run today. Click on the Next Page link to see the rest of the feature!
I am glad that Australian GD's have achieved alot in the industry at an international level, not to forget to mention the standard for MMO chat created by SSG. Australia has inevitably had a down-time in throughout the past few years or so. I hope GD's are resilient and comeback from a major set-back rendered by the economic crisis. I hope to see an industry standard game under Australian name on the shelves again soon. Improvement may take time, but we will have to be patient and smart, creating games that will be interesting to the world wide gaming community while maintaining the budget.