The Australian games development industry is not all doom and gloom, thanks to a thriving mobile development scene that is shaping the path forward…
The breakdown of the traditional development system
It’s no secret that Australian game studios have had a tough time of it in the past four years, with a flood of high profile studio closures that have left only a handful of traditional video game development houses in its wake.
Our unsustainable service-for-hire model of producing licensed games and ports for overseas publishers, coupled with the high Australian dollar, meant that we were always going to feel the brunt of the global economic downturn.
The rising costs of producing retail titles for consoles and the PC market had even doomed the few Aussie studios that were producing well-received, original IPs – such as Team Bondi’s LA Noire and Blue Tongue’s De Blob series – as international publishers looked to cut back on costs and perceived risk in a post-financial crisis economy.
The waves of studio closures led to hundreds of industry veterans looking for work,and many more up and coming designers and coders found themselves short of studios at which to get a start.
Some of the talent relocated to a more thriving game development market, such as Canada, while others changed industries altogether. But a number of the ex-studio talent gravitated towards the burgeoning mobile game market, where gamers around the world were embracing a number of titles produced mostly by small, independent studios.
The lure of mobile game development
The self-publish model of the App stores on iOS and Android turned the traditional publisher model on its head. Developers could now, in effect, control their own destinies, working to their own rules and direction, producing games that they had always wanted to but couldn’t previously.
“Two of the great advantages of mobile game development – and the digital distribution model in a wider sense – are the low barriers to entry, to the point where literally anyone can release a game on the app store, and the ability to control distribution. Developers can now create games for a global market, control every facet of their product’s commercialisation, and communicate directly with the consumer”, said Antony Reed, the CEO of the Game Developers Association of Australia (GDAA).
Significantly reduced development times and the low-risk nature of producing mobile games was reassuring for many developers who had long been frustrated with the high-risk and highly volatile world of producing boxed titles for consoles and PC.
Then there was the allure of working with the fresh hardware of smartphones and tablets with touchscreens, accelerometers for motion and always-connected internet. It had instant appeal to industry veterans who viewed it as a scene that was ripe for creating fresh and innovative gaming experiences.
These factors compelled a lot of the talent to start up their own independent game development studios entirely focused on mobile. It’s no wonder then that the faces behind a lot of today’s local mobile game development studios came from the rubble of traditional game studios.
Defiant Development, makers of the runaway hit Ski Safari, is made up of a small team of grizzled industry veterans from Pandemic.
The three founding members of The Voxel Agents, which created the hugely popular Train Conductor series, formed the studio shortly after Pandemic closed its doors in 2009.
Matthew Hall started up KlickTock, which developed the mobile hit, Little Things, after a long history with Tantalus Interactive and Big Ant Studios.
The list goes on.
The potential of the mobile games market even drew veteran talent from one of the few thriving traditional game studios left in the country, Canberra-based 2K Australia, which worked on some of the most popular games in the industry including the Bioshock series, X-COM, Tribes, Thief, System Shock II and SWAT 4.
Ed Orman, Ryan Lancaster and Andrew James all left 2K in 2011 to form Uppercut Games, focusing on the mantra of bringing AAA quality to mobile and downloadable games.
“We were all day-one adopters of the iPad, and when we saw the games that were coming out, we saw the opportunity with the mobile market,” said Ed Orman.
Frustrated with the long development cycles and fuelled with the desire to create a new IP after working so long on other people’s properties, the three men were compelled to start their own independent mobile game development studio.
“It wasn’t until Chair released Infinity Blade, that each of us looked at each other and said that this game looks pretty much as good as what other people are doing with the Unreal Engine on consoles. We had a lot of Unreal experience and a really good relationship with Epic already. This convinced us that this was the right time to make the jump. We were excited about what mobile gaming bought to the table, both from a development and commercial standpoint, and we were very excited about the direction it was headed.”
The booming mobile market, which really only came to the fore when the App store model matured in 2009, also helped put a number of long-struggling Aussie game studios on the map.
Take Firemint founder Robert Murray, who says the iPhone and App Store helped save the company after the downturn showed them their model wasn’t working.
“Previously we worked with game publishers who would search out developers to do the work. But we got our biggest project canned because of financial problems for the publisher. In 2008/2009 we had the flattest demand for development services that I’ve seen in our history.”
“But we are now developing apps for the App Store, which is putting us into our own publishing role at the same time,” said Robert.
After grinding away for 10 years with the traditional service for hire model, the company shifted its focus to mobile game development and went on to release two of the most popular mobile titles ever: Flight Control and Real Racing.
Halfbrick had a similar history, developing a string of licensed-based titles for overseas publishers for almost 10 years before making the move to mobile in 2010 with one of the most successful mobile games ever, Fruit Ninja. Halfbrick has since continued its meteoric rise with mega-hit mobile games including Age of Zombies and Jetpack Joyride and the company hasn’t looked back since.
In many ways mobile game development challenges the traditional gaming studio convention with a low-risk/high-return model of small development team sizes, low barrier of entry and short development cycles. This has enabled Australian studios to succeed and grow.
Halfbrick, for example, had a three-man team develop Fruit Ninja in only three months and similarly, Age of Zombies was developed in the same length of time by a team of five.