Oz Developer Watch: Firemint/Infinite Interactive

GameSpot AU's Aussie game developer blog is back in 2011 with a fresh look at the local industry; kicking things off is the newly formed Firemint/Infinite Interactive studio in Melbourne following a friendly merger between the Flight Control developer and the Puzzle Quest studio.

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Earlier this month, Melbourne-based development studio Firemint (Flight Control, Real Racing) announced it had acquired fellow Aussie studio Infinite Interactive (Warlords, Puzzle Quest). Firemint said the acquisition would help it build confidence in developing original titles while providing Infinite Interactive with a channel for independent publishing.

Firemint was founded by Rob Murray in 1999, starting out as a work-for-hire mobile games studio before developing the hit iPhone title Flight Control, followed by Real Racing in 2009. The studio has since expanded to work on platforms including Nintendo's DSiWare, Sony's PSN, and Steam (PC and Mac). The developer now works exclusively on original IP.

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Firemint's hit title Flight Control.

Infinite Interactive was founded by Steve Fawkner 10 years before Firemint, in 1989, and is best known for the Warlords and Puzzle Quest series, both designed by Fawkner. In the new merger, Fawkner will take on a product management position at Firemint and will continue to work with his current team on a game already under development (the details of which the studio will not release until later this year).

The merger doesn't come entirely out of the blue--the two studio heads first met in 2003 and became close friends; Fawkner showed Murray an early version of Puzzle Quest in 2006, which he had prototyped over his Christmas holiday. According to Murray, this is what inspired him to go on to make Flight Control during his own Christmas holidays almost two years later.

The two studios will be consolidated in one location at Firemint's offices in Melbourne, and all further games developed by the studio will be released under the Firemint name. GameSpot AU sat down with Murray and Fawkner to find out a bit more about the merger and how the two studios will work together in the future.

GameSpot AU: Can you tell us a little bit about the new merger, and how it came about?

Rob Murray: I've been talking to Steve since 2006 about the possibility of working together in some way. It's been a conversation we've had for a while, but it's more recently that we actually saw an opportunity to actually do it. It's been intensifying over the last two months.

Steve Fawkner: I've always admired Rob's studio; I think it's grown in a similar way to ours, and so it seems like a good fit.

GS AU: Was there anything more specific that fuelled the decision to merge? Financial troubles or the like?

RM: Firemint is in a better position at the moment with our self-publishing capabilities. We've established ourselves and finished off our trailing work-for-hire. At the time we merged, Infinite had also finished some contracts, and so from my perspective it was a great opportunity to finally start working together; it was also the realisation that we could perform better together than as separate studios.

SF: Infinite had really wanted to get into self-publishing for a while, and with Firemint having already gone down that route, it made sense for us to jump on the wagon with these guys rather than trying to reinvent the wheel all by ourselves.

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Infinite Interactive's Puzzle Quest: Galactrix.

GS AU: How will the new company structure work? What will happen to future titles?

RM: We're going to use Firemint's publishing capabilities, and Infinite will effectively become another part of our team, like the teams we currently have working on our other brands. So we are merging together; they are coming into our space, and they will continue to work on their own titles, but we will be publishing them.

SF: It made sense for me to go with the Firemint brand because from my perspective I think Rob has done a great job building that brand up, and I am happy to put all my effort and my team's effort 100 percent behind Firemint. We have business as usual with Infinite's current stuff--the games we are working on now will still have the Infinite name, but all of our future work will be Firemint.

GS AU: Steve, what will your new role in the company be like?

SF: I don't actually have a title yet! For the moment I'm working with my team to finish a game we've been polishing for the last six months, which we can hopefully have some announcements about in the near future. Apart from that I think the plan is that I start to work on some of the Firemint products--I'm dying to get my hands on some of those actually!

GS AU: What made you want to move into self-publishing?

SF: Well, we were publishing the traditional route, through publishers, but they were mostly moving into the digital space, and we were doing much more digital work than retail. It was working fine; we released Puzzle Quest 2 last year and it went very well, it was reviewed well, etc. We had another few games too. But as much as I've enjoyed working with publishers--don't get me wrong, Namco and D3 have done a great job over the years with Puzzle Quest, and we'll continue to work with those guys on Puzzle Quest--it just came to that time when I felt I wanted to go out and do my own thing, and Firemint were already in that space doing their own thing, so it was just exciting for Infinite to be able to jump onboard and do that with them.

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Warlords Battlecry was a popular title for Infinite Interactive.

GS AU: Rob, how did the transition from work-for-hire to working on original IP feel for you and the Firemint team?

RM: It was a stressful and challenging time, but exciting too. When it happened it was a new lease on our business; something fresh. We felt great about it. Of course, now I feel much more in control about what we're going to do, and much more relaxed about the fact that we can stretch ourselves creatively.

GS AU: It's exciting to see two great Aussie developers joining forces, especially in the current climate of the local industry. What are your individual thoughts on the state of the local development industry and ideas on how we can move forward?

SF: Obviously in the last few years we've taken quite a big hit. The industry has seen a lot of closures, and there is no denying that it's been a tough few years with the GFC and the fact that we are in the middle of console life cycles--that's when it can get quite hard for work-for-hire developers. Coming out of that I think there are great opportunities for the worldwide game development industry with new platforms appearing and lots of indie studios springing up. I think the industry is moving and changing really quickly, and I think if the Australian development industry can adapt with this new change, we will come out of this OK.

RM: I certainly agree. The dollar's state and the structural changes that happened were very bad for the work-for-hire developers locally, and we all knew it was not a long-term solution. We knew we had to get into owning and publishing our own IP. Infinite have been great at doing that; they've always focused on the creative side of things and owned their IP, even when working with publishers. It's really sad that the bad stuff in the local industry happened so abruptly; if it had been smoother, maybe we would have had time to build up our self-publishing capabilities, but I think we're doing the right things now. You're seeing a lot of good indies around now, starting their own thing, and some of them will form into larger studios, and we'll get there.

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Infinite's Heroes of Might and Magic V on the PC.

GS AU: Do you think platforms like the iPhone are the way to go for Aussie studios instead of the much tougher console market?

RM: Yes, definitely. Focus on what you can afford to develop!

SF: Some of those platforms have a very low barrier for entry, as far as cost goes too, and because they are digital downloads there is no cost associated with release, and that's really important for smaller studios.

GS AU: Final question: What are you both working on right now, and when can we expect some news from the new partnership?

RM: Well there are those titles Firemint and Infinite are already working on, and you'll probably see something on those within the next six months or the next year. So there are certainly a few things we have happening in 2011. As far as joint titles, I guess all our titles from now on will have some flavour from the partnership, since we do want to make the most of each of our capabilities. So, the answer is: You'll see something very soon!

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