Video Games: PAX reflects local games resurgence

After several years of pain, things are looking up for the Australian video game industry — and the local branch of a massively popular fan convention is helping fuel its recovery.

The third annual PAX Australia was held at the Melbourne Convention Centre this past weekend. An extension of the existing two conferences in the United States — one for each coast– the gathering saw tens of thousands flock to the city for the usual pop culture-geekdom fare. Strange costumes, panels on both serious and frivolous content, and international publishers hawking their wares to a crowd eager for more.

In a substantial section of the show floor, dozens of Australian indie developers showed off their games to lines that never seemed to dwindle. Many are built as a labour of love, but an increasing number are being picked up by publishers and achieving international success on an impressive scale.

“The past year has been a watershed moment for the Australian industry,” Chris Wright, the manager and co-founder of the publishing label Surprise Attack, told Daily Review. The company’s games include the recent international hit Hacknet, which has grossed over $650,000 in just two months.

Lance McDonald, a developer whose unreleased game Black Annex has been attracting attention for years, says “the quality of the games is really starting to rise”.

As is their variety. Everything from pixel-art dungeon crawlers to a virtual reality title in which players explore a peaceful forest were shown. One ridiculous fighting game had players attack each other as the inflatable characters you often see outside car dealerships. It’s silly, but it only takes one silly idea to make a million dollars.

In one corner, Jay Kyburz showed off his strategy title Blight of the Immortals, for which he received a $200,000 grant from Screen Australia.

The most recent success of Australian indies stretches back seven years to a neat little title called Flight Control for the iPhone. It sparked a rush of mobile development, quickly followed by other local successes such as Halfbrick’s Fruit Ninja.

At the same time the iPhone was becoming the new Game Boy, the global financial crisis meant the established studios in Australia — mostly working on contracted deals for other, larger studios overseas — fell to the wayside. Between 2009 and just this year, studios including Blue Tongue, Pandemic, Team Bondi, Krome, Visceral and 2K Australia all shut doors, taking plenty of jobs with them.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the number of employees in the local industry fell 59% between 2007-2012.

But as those studios fell, their employees went and started creating projects in smaller teams. And other amateurs simply picked up tools by themselves. With cheap digital distribution, anything is possible.

The more recent sprint started with Antichamber in 2013, created by the Melbourne-based Alexander Bruce. It sold 100,000 copies in two months. More recently, the Melbourne group League of Geeks launched their digital board game Armello, which was backed on Kickstarter to the tune of $300,000.

Matt Trobbiani’s Hacknet is continuing to enjoy financial success. Framed, an interactive type of comic book, has picked up several international awards, and sales after various promotions including a spot on the front page of the App Store. Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima — a hallowed figure of the global industry — called it his favourite game of 2014 on Twitter.

The biggest prize, however, belongs to Andrew Sum and Matthew Hall. The duo’s app Crossy Road has made such an impact the pair were invited to present at Apple’s most recent event to show off the gaming capabilities of the new Apple TV. The game has earned their small studio, Hipster Whale, more than $10 million.

PAX is helping aspiring developers be more likely to achieve these types of success, developers say.

“One of the most important factors here though are the flow on effects to local game developers that come from the presence of a major mainstream event like PAX,” says Trent Kusters, the co-founder and director of Melbourne collective League of Geeks.

“The sheer money and attention that event brings into the state…has shone the spotlight on the Victorian and broader Australian games industry like you wouldn’t believe.”

Chris Wright, the managing director of Surprise Attack, agrees, buy says the indies at PAX have their work cut out for them.

“I think it’s really important for all of our developers to head overseas,” he says, referring to the global trade shows such as the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco — where local talent can get a rude awakening. “You can really see the difference there and suddenly realise where your place is.”

Back at home, though, there are the local benefits.

“These studios…League of Geeks, Hipster Whale…they hire people,” Wright says. “They need more people, and that’s what’s helping to grow the industry.”

Matt Trobbiani, creator of Hacknet, says the financial success of his game serves as an opportunity to feed back into the local industry and community. As he points out, with the sheer number of indie games being released, releasing a title can be a dice roll.

Trobbiani, who has shown his game in the United States and Japan, says the PAX Aus conference compares globally.

“The indie section here is coolest…maybe in the world. PAX Aus is doing amazing work in Australia…the support they’re giving is really good, on an international level.”

That sense of community is strong. The local independent games festival, Freeplay, is continuing to grow, while co-op working spaces such as The Arcade are playing house to more successful titles, such as Armello. Local meets and “game jams” are unearthing more talent every year.

It’s not all positive. While the games industry is worth billions, the Australian pie is comparatively small, and the chances of breakout global success are low.

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