The Australian game development community has changed in some fundamental ways. Learn how it has changed, and how you can use it to your advantage.
Despite numerous large-scale studio closures in the past five years, game development in Australia is not dead - far from it. Playing the Indie Game is a monthly column on a mission to explore, set expectations, and offer advice to any and all that would like to work in today's mostly independent Australian games industry, featuring insights collected from interviews with a wide variety of Australians already engaged in programming, producing, marketing, and writing about independent videogames.
When working independently it’s easy to feel alone. You often spend your days working at home alone. You go on coffee runs (to your kitchen) alone. You eat your lunch alone. At knock-off time you just move to a different room of the house.
It’s important for those working independently to find ways to fill the social void, though it should be stressed that this isn’t a purely social need – there are aspects of community that have practical benefits, over and above our need for companionship.
In the videogame industry, large studios employ dedicated staff to perform tasks that are tangential to the actual production of a product. Community Managers and PR staff handle public perception, marketing teams find gaps in the market and follow trends in social media and the news to help to plan messaging. Junior staff are put onto teams with senior staff in order to receive mentorship and on-the-job training. There are safety nets, training manuals, someone above you to shield you from the hard parts of running a business.
Most indie studios simply can’t afford these luxuries, despite being subject to the same risks the luxuries are designed to assuage. Instead, these issues are handled socially. Where larger studios could throw money at such problems, Australian indies seem to huddle together against the cold.
During my time at the 2015 Freeplay Independent Games Festival, I was struck by how vital community seemed to be to the developers in attendance. It was a gleeful confluence of shared interests, multiple parties that could be locked in bitter competition, but were instead working together toward a brighter future. Both online and off, I’ve seen Australian indie developers freely sharing critical information with other developers, information that consultants would have previously sold for thousands of dollars to the larger studios. I’ve witnessed veteran developers offering feedback to their juniors, feedback that would ultimately improve games that are in direct competition with their own works. The breadth and depth of the mutual care I saw exhibited at the festival, and in various online communities since has been astounding and affecting.
In trying to learn more about this phenomenon, I spoke with Lauren Clinnick and Katie Gall, the brains behind Lumi Consulting in Melbourne. Both Lauren and Katie have a strong belief in the power of community, for building better industry. “When we collaborate, not only do we grow and strengthen the quality of the games we produce, but we create a happy and positive environment to work in. We make friends,” said Katie.
Lauren echoed the sentiment, “I feel that the community benefits greatly by sharing burdens or concerns with one another. It means a lot to know that others have faced challenges or doubts, and we are often able to share insights or simply listen to one another. It’s enormously helpful.”
Bear in mind that this is coming from a consulting company, a consulting company that has been created to work primarily with the indie games scene in Australia, as it exists today. This isn’t the stereotypical ambulance-chasing picture of consultancies of old.
“The Big Crash” is the name used by some to describe the initial round of large studio closures in the country. It left a huge number of Australian game developers out of work. A significant portion of those developers - some of the most experienced veterans in the country - felt compelled to take their skills and experience overseas in order to continue their careers. This left a sizeable hole in the remaining Australian industry, a wound which if left to fester could have brought the rest of the industry to its knees. Instead, according to GCAP organiser Liam Esler, the community recognised that if it didn’t band together, it wouldn’t survive.
“Like in the wake of any family death, the family has to come together or it fractures,” said Liam of the Australian games industry after the crash. “We had to come together to support each other through that time, and that’s where our community as it is today comes from.”
For those that remember the crash, the path to today’s generous and caring community is apparent. Those entering the industry in recent years, though, may not know anything different – to them this is just how it is, how it should be. They've never been forced to stand idly by as fellow studios fold under the weight of unlearned lessons. Their instinct isn’t to mourn with one hand and celebrate with the other, but rather to reach out with both and lift up those that fall.
Gracious generosity is infectious. As members of the Australian games industry observe compassion in their peers, they're moved to compassion themselves. As inexperienced, junior members of the fraternity rise to greatness, they reach down and help others to similarly achieve. As indie studios experience success and growth, the resulting funds don’t go entirely toward the next venture; rather, some portion is used to create internships and training programs for up-and-coming junior staff. Time is freely offered to speak at community events for the betterment of those around them.
“Everyone works for the benefit of everyone else,” said Liam, “if one studio is struggling, more often than not others will help.” Liam noted that, possibly due to the gap left by experienced staff forced to head overseas, there was and continues to be a significant gap in the local market for staff that hold specialised skillsets. “We have specialists in certain fields that do a lot of work in Australia because they’re shared around a lot, and that’s a very positive thing.”
It can be easily observed that job opportunities are handled internally in the Australian games industry today, for the most part. Very few games jobs are being advertised publicly at places like Seek.com.au or similar, leading to an impression held by some that the Australian industry is still in dire straits – especially if you opt to back-up those claims by comparing the number of advertised positions to the number of students going into games-related tertiary studies. The thing is, there are a huge number of job openings that are being filled, they’re just not being advertised. When opportunities come up, they’re shared and filled socially amongst the community. Rather than spending a lot of time on advertising and interview processes, individuals are recommended and selected based on the trust formed in peer-relationships.
Breaking into the circle
As discussed in previous Playing the Indie Game entries, the way into the current games industry isn’t just through training and a strong resume, it’s about getting to know the people you hope to one day work with. It’s about showing them that you’re worth considering, that your work can be of value to them. It’s about building up not just a portfolio of excellent work examples, but also of experiences and relationships.
The best and most common piece of advice offered by members both new and old of the Australian games industry is to join the community. Are you interested in making a game? Make sure you search Facebook for “game development [your city],” or “IGDA [your city]” and meet people. Find industry events in your local city and attend, or even better volunteer to help run them. While you have it, offer your time to help get big industry events up and running. Make a name for yourself. Ingratiate yourself. Show people that you’re someone that it’s worth knowing, and they’ll remember you. They’ll recommend you.
The path to a successful job in the modern Australian games industry is through people and relationships. It’s obviously still about your skills and experiences, but ultimately whether or not an employer bothers to look at your portfolio will come down to whether or not you’re known to your potential employer’s trusted peers. If you can show through social events that you desperately want to be there, that you want to be around others who work in your desired industry because you want to leech as much of their experience as you can, then people will come to know you. They’ll want to help you.