News & Commentary, Screen, Video Games

Australian-made games need an Australian identity

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The annual PAX exhibition in Melbourne has become one of the greatest boons for the local game development community. At this year’s PAX (held November 4-6) dozens of indie developers occupied a massive slice of the Melbourne Convention Centre and the crowds responded in kind.

Every time I walked past an indie booth I saw crowds around every game. It was positive to see the Canberra-based indie developers express solidarity via a “made in Canberra” sign, given the closure of Australia’s last large studio in Canberra last year.

Even more impressive were the student projects. The Academy of Interactive Entertainment (AIE) has produced a great number of young teams of creatives who  showed their games as a group at the large AIE booth.

In another corner the winners of a secondary school STEM-based challenge competition highlighted the good work that schools were doing in encouraging kids to get into coding. Even if those kids don’t end up making games, all the research is suggesting that people with STEM-based skills are going to find work easier to come by in the coming years.

There’s a lot to be very positive about with the Australian games industry now. After looking like it was on its way out a half decade ago, a series of hit games and the few remaining large development teams have incubated some new talent.

When one of the legends of the games industry, Hideo Kojima, calls a humble Australian game (Framed) made by a tiny, previously no-name development team his “favourite game of 2014,” the announcement of Framed 2 suddenly became a big deal.

But if you compare PAX to say the Tokyo Games Show there’s a sense that  Australia’s game development lacks a national identifier that marks locally-made games out as distinctly Australian.

If you go to Tokyo Game Show, the big publishers right down to the smallest of independents make it clear that you’re playing a Japanese game. It looks and feels different to games developed in America, Canada, and the “west” as a whole.

Japan’s games industry works very much like a “foreign film” industry, and while in most cases a Japanese game can’t hope to compete commercially with a title like Battlefield or Grand Theft Auto, they have deep value as works of art in reflecting the culture that created them.

I’ll often have discussions with people about Australian games but the response is: “Wait, Crossy Road’s Australian?”

As much as the films of Akira Kurosawa, Sion Sono and Hideo Nakata, Japanese games by the likes of Goichi Suda, Shigeru Miyamoto and Tomonobu Itagaki might not resonate so well with western audiences, but they engage with the culture that created them in discussions about values, philosophy and meaning.

Australian films do that too. Our filmmakers are lucky that they have the unique Australian landscape to lend their films a distinctive aesthetic. Whether it’s Mad Max, Strictly Ballroom or Priscilla, our films are undeniably culturally specific, even at the expense of global box office viability.

Our games are not like that. I’ll often have discussions with people about Australian games but the response is: “Wait, Crossy Road’s Australian?” or “That game Kojima liked was an Australian game?”. About the only games that people reliably know are developed by Australians are our sports games about AFL or cricket.

The reason is simple; Australian games look like games developed by ‘western’ creative people, and the developers rarely put any thought into “Australia” as a concept or setting for the game. Indeed, recent games set in Australia – Forza 3 Horizon and Max Max — were not developed by Australians.

The global games industry is starting to mature into a creative environment not unlike what we have in film: America and Canada produce the blockbusters, but there are emerging developers in South America, Africa, Europe and Asia who are doing some incredible work in representing their cultural values through their games.

Australian developers are finding their feet after the buffeting the industry copped from the GFC and the local industry has recently emerged as a real powerhouse in the mobile development space. The next step will be to start developing a national identity within our games so that when a player picks one up, they instantly know they’re playing something Australian.

[box]Main image: a still from Don Bradman Cricket 17[/box]

2 responses to “Australian-made games need an Australian identity

  1. Most Games Development are singular examples, developers, on shoestring budgets without co-operation or industry support. Teams, companies of one developer. Total.

    I believe you’re trying to argue on the merit of nationalism in an industry that isn’t financially or intellectually supported by Australia, trying to argue that it should be better, bigger, more evocative. Why should someone try to be patriotic when there’s no support or backbone of industry to finance or support, purchase or invest in great ideas or great developers and teams. Even if the entire Australian gaming community helped to finance games development, the income would be insignificant to the costs involved without any sign of a return.

    Each year, thousands of students graduate in Games Development and creative arts programs, and of those, a fraction are employed in Australia, most end up not pursuing their scholarship or interests because there’s no industry, funding is continually gutted, and developers move overseas, hire foreign talent, produce, work and sell overseas, and work without local support.

    Sometimes they will find work in the periphery of Games Development, or in separate industries. It is disappointing, but inevitable that thousands of graduates won’t be employed in the industry they studied because there’s no employment in Australia, but there is overseas.

    Games Development is not cheap, easy, or lucrative. In Australia. PAX and GCAP, GDAA, AIE might be the shining examples, but that is entirely due to the people, not government support, or any kind of nationalistic support in return. A game like Forza Horizon 3, has a budget and staff for $130 million, with 300+ staff from Microsoft Studios, Turn 10 studios, and Playground Games in the UK, with over 100 staff just to make Forza Horizon games.

    Crossy Bird, had 2 (now 4) and lucked out in the best possible way. EA’s Firemonkeys, is a mobile app developer with 60+ staff, that were bought by EA Activision that was combined with 3 previous australian companies. Those are pure exceptions in every way.

    Australia’s efforts towards Creative Arts funding for Video Game Development is stagnant, and has been for over a decade compared to Film, Literature, and the Arts which have spent and recouped millions in return.

    Conversely it’s also far more expensive and less result oriented as a field, failure in VGD is more often inevitable when it’s on a large scale, as costs tip over into the half a million dollar mark with no product, even in smaller teams, due to the sheer volume of work required to get production going on complex titles, even in the mobile or VR game development space. The amount of work that is never shown, is staggering. Overwatch, a best selling title, was put together over 2 years on a reclaimed project under development for 8 years. that’s 30 to 100 staff, that worked on a failed MMO project for several years, costing several millions of dollars.

    I can’t imagine any state or federal program helping a game company with a $3 million dollar loan or subsidy/grant to develop a game with the potential never to see any return on funding, let alone private or public investors on that level to handle staffing and support costs for such endeavours in Australia.

    You’re also looking at successful examples that are the exception.

    1. Thanks for your in-depth reply.

      I’m most certainly not arguing that games should be nationalist and/or “patriotic”. I find these concepts repugnant. All I am suggesting is that it is of benefit to both Australia’s cultural development, and the industry itself, if games were to follow local films, literature, theatre, and so on, and develop a set of characteristics that make them identifiable as Australian.

      We do ourselves no favours in developing games that are indistinguishable to American or European games.

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