All posts tagged development

  • IGN Australia story: ‘This Vertigo-Inducing VR Game Will Scare The Crap Out Of You’, May 2017

    A feature story for IGN Australia that was published on May 28. Excerpt below.

    This Vertigo-Inducing VR Game Will Scare The Crap Out Of You

    Meet the Australian couple behind ‘Richie’s Plank Experience’, a hit indie VR title unlike any other.

    IGN Australia story: 'This Vertigo-Inducing VR Game Will Scare The Crap Out Of You' by Andrew McMillen, May 2017. Photo by Scott Patterson

    I hear a bright tone – ding! – and then the elevator doors open to reveal a vast cityscape stretching out before my eyes. Protruding in front of me is a wooden board, about three metres long and thirty centimetres wide – just thick enough to accommodate both of my feet, side-by-side. The task here is straightforward: just like the maritime method of execution, I’m meant to walk the plank.

    First, I must step up onto the board. I tentatively put my left foot forward, seeking the raised edge. I shift my weight and bring my right foot up to the timber. What’s most surprising is the immediate physical response that I encounter: my heart beats noticeably faster beneath my ribcage, and I begin sweating. My brain has suddenly thrown my balance into question, because never before in my regular life have I found it so hard to put one foot in front of the other.

    Heights have been problematic for me in the past: when I moved into a seventh-floor apartment in 2015, it took weeks for me to be able to stand by the edge of the balcony without gripping the railing or leaning backwards, away from the void. I had supposed this was an inherent self-preservation instinct retained from my ancient ancestors, who were smart enough to stay away from high places in favour of keeping contact with the earth. In the parlance of software development, I rationalised that this inbuilt aversion to heights was a feature, not a bug.

    A helicopter passes overhead, not far from where I’m standing. Out on the plank, eighty storeys in the air, I’m holding the two wireless controllers up above my waist, like ski poles. This is mostly for balance, I suppose, but also because my mind has been gripped by a set of emotions that I’ve yet to encounter in any other form of visual entertainment. It’s a cocktail of fear, exhilaration and anxiety, and it’s because my eyes and ears are taking in sensations which I know intellectually to be false. This is virtual reality, after all, and I’m playing a game named Richie’s Plank Experience. Yet out here, on the plank, real and fake are all but indistinguishable. All my brain is concerned with is survival.

    I only manage to shuffle about halfway across the length of the plank before giving in to the fear. My heart pounds, my skin prickles with sweat, and I’m completely out of my comfort zone. Before I put on the headset and headphones, I was just another guy standing in a building near the Brisbane River, watching a bunch of strangers attempt to walk a board that sits just a few centimetres off the ground, held aloft at one end by a hardcover copy of Steve Jobs, and a few stacked kitchen sponges at the other. Yet even after having watched these interactions and reactions play out on the faces of strangers, I was completely unprepared for the sensory overload that comes wrapped in the immersion. It’s simply too real.

    With careful consideration, I remove my right foot from the timber and reach out into space. For a moment, this act sends my mind reeling once again, and I give a clumsy shimmy from my hip before moving my left foot off the edge, too. For about four seconds, I fall toward the hard bitumen and slow-moving inner-city traffic. I turn my head to take in the last sights I’ll ever see. When I hit the ground, everything turns white.

    To read the full story, visit IGN Australia. Above photo credit: Scott Patterson.

  • CNET story: ‘Josephmark: the Australian architects of the new Myspace’, January 2013

    A feature for CNET Australia; my first story for the site. Excerpt below.

    Josephmark: the Australian architects of the new Myspace

    The Brisbane design studio tasked with rebuilding Myspace tells CNET Australia about its vision for bringing Myspace its sexy back.

    "Josephmark: the Australian architects of the new Myspace" story for CNET Australia by Andrew McMillen, January 2013

    Picture a racehorse wearing blinkers, galloping across the turf, completely oblivious to its competitors. The animal runs its own race, at its own pace, never for a moment considering whether it’s leading or whether it might ultimately win. This is the image used by Ben Johnston, co-founder of Brisbane-based digital design studio Josephmark, when describing the ethos of a unique Australian team that has just put the finishing touches on a refreshed version of Myspace.

    Speaking exclusively to CNET Australia, studio director Johnston was enjoying a rare opportunity to touch base in Brisbane with Josephmark’s general manager Carl Watney and creative director Jess Huddart. The studio’s 21-strong team has scarcely been in the same room in the last year, when Josephmark [pictured above] landed a contract to retool the world’s first truly global social network.

    Johnston prefers the racehorse-with-blinkers analogy because he lives by the same mantra in his personal life. “[The point is] not to win a race, but to not get distracted by what’s on either side of you,” the 29-year-old said. “You set your own benchmarks, I guess. That, joined with a sense of curiosity, is what drives us to work, to go beyond a brief — to invest heavily in our own learning.”

    The blinkers are evidently helping. All three Josephmark leaders told CNET Australia that they can’t name any other company in the design sector that they aspire to emulate. “There are aspects of other companies [that appeal], but I think we inherently live those traits,” said Johnston. “It feels good, because it means that as a company, we’re leading — even if we’re going in the wrong direction!” he laughed.

    Though Josephmark has driven unique web design projects in recent years — including real-time music chart We Are Hunted and Australian independent journalism hub The Global Mail — this is the first time it is competing on the world’s stage as Myspace’s design and vision partners.

    The pitch

    Five design studios were invited to tender for the Myspace partnership; four of those were based in North America. The invitation arrived at just the right time for Josephmark. “Past clients helped firm up our resolve about what we know, and how we know things can work, too,” said general manager Watney. “If you’re going to do something bold and radical, and it’s design-led, the design has to overcome bureaucracy and egos and whatever else might be involved, and actually push through it. We have to stick to our guns if we’re committing to something of this size.”

    Josephmark’s approach to the Myspace tender was straightforward. They simply asked themselves, “If Myspace was ours, what would we do with it?” Though the brief was “quite thorough”, creative director Jess Huddart said that the team soon decided to ignore it.

    “We looked at it and went, ‘if you do what you think you want, then we’re just going to end up creating what you already have. That’s not going to solve this massive problem that’s ahead of you’,” Huddart recalled. “Then we took ownership of it, and I think that’s a massive difference between us and perhaps other studios in their responses. Rather than just simply doing what the client’s asking you to do, we actually own it as if it’s our own project.”

    “There’s a certain boldness in that [approach],” admitted Johnston, “but effectively, it comes back to how we value our own time.” Josephmark didn’t approach the project with a pay cheque in mind. The studio saw this as an opportunity to make a real difference to an ailing, yet historic online media brand. “Obviously, there were certain things in the back of our minds, like, ‘it’s f***ing Myspace! Is there a chance for this thing to turn around?” And what would it take to turn it around?'” Johnston said.

    The solution developed by Josephmark was delivered as a video pitch — which Johnston described as a “two and a half minute narrative capsule with a voiceover that painted a picture of what Myspace could be” — accompanied by a more traditional pitch document. “Unbeknown to us, the video went down extremely well, to the point where [Myspace executives] called everyone in and showed the whole company, saying ‘this is where we’re going!’ This is before they even engaged with us.” That video then went on to be used in the company’s sales pitches as they sought potential partners.

    Josephmark’s pitch became the company’s decisive flag in the ground, allowing the company to state proudly: “This is what we’re doing.”

    For the full story, visit CNET Australia. More on Josephmark here.

  • Kotaku story: ‘What Went Wrong With Silicon Knights’ X-Men: Destiny?’, October 2012

    A 6,000 word feature story published on Kotaku in October; excerpt below. This is the result of 15 months’ investigative work.

    What Went Wrong With Silicon Knights’ X-Men: Destiny?
    by Andrew McMillen

    Bad video games are released all the time. A raft of factors conspire to influence the quality of the outcome. Maybe tight deadlines are to blame. Or maybe the problems include inexperienced developers, incompetent project management, impossible publisher requests, funding concerns. It’s a seemingly unavoidable fact that not every game can be great, or good, or even average.

    So how does a game, one made by a celebrated studio and backed by one of the richest game publishers in the world, turn out to be a bad video game? This is a story about exactly that. It’s about Silicon Knights the studio behind the great Eternal Darkness, the miserable X-Men: Destiny. It’s about a proud leader, frustrated ex-employees, many internal clashes and a secret sequel everyone hoped would be great.

    To an extent, it’s the role of the gaming media to warn potential buyers away from these inferior gaming experiences, and encourage them to spend time with well-designed games developed by skilled teams, led by sound project management, and unhurried by unrealistic demands. The conventional wisdom is that life’s too short to play every game — or read every book, or listen to every album, or see every film — and as a result, we tend to only want to invest our time and money into the very best.

    X-Men: Destiny — developed by Canadian studio Silicon Knights for Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii — could have gone either way. Sure, previous X-Men titles didn’t exactly set the world on fire: 2006?s X-Men: The Official Game, averaged a score of 52 out of 100 on Metacritic across seven platforms, while 2009?s character-focused X-Men Origins: Wolverine averaged a 65 across six platforms.

    But X-Men: Destiny (XMD), released September 27, 2011, underperformed them both with a dramatically low Metacritic score of just 41 across four platforms. (The DS version, developed by Canadian studio Other Ocean Interactive, registered a 33 on the site, making it the single worst-reviewed X-Men title in Metacritic’s records.)

    There are plenty of possible explanations for the poor result. Maybe the game’s publisher, Activision, rushed the release in an attempt to hit a quarterly revenue goal. Maybe it was just dragged down by the weight of a crappy, overdone superhero licence, as so many games before it. Maybe the title just didn’t come together in the end, or simply failed to resonate with reviewers.

    These are all possible, but discussions with former employees of XMD developer Silicon Knights suggest that the game’s fate was sealed long before Activision gave the project a green light back in 2009. The following story excerpts extensive interviews with former Silicon Knights employees who describe their experiences at what they say was a disorganized, unfocused company that squandered ample time and resources before being forced to release a game it was far from proud of.

    Management at Silicon Knights refused to be interviewed on the record for this story, despite repeated requests over many months. A spokesperson for the game’s publisher, Activision, also declined requests for comment. Accordingly, keep in mind that what follows is but one side of a very complex story. When first confronted with wide-ranging allegations of XMD‘s tumultuous development in mid-January 2012, company president Denis Dyack gave the following statement:

    “Silicon Knights is obligated to its partners (in the case of X-Men: Destiny — Activision and Marvel) to not disclose the development process of any project they work on. These obligations also apply to all the people who worked on X-Men: Destiny. Silicon Knights appreciated the opportunity to work on the game and we hope to get an opportunity to work together with Activision and Marvel again.”

    This statement remains the only comment that Kotaku can attribute to the man behind the biggest failure in the studio’s 20-year history.

    Enter: “SK Whistleblower”

    It’s not as if Silicon Knights was some untested, fly-by-night developer brought on to quickly crank out just another licensed title. Founded in 1992 by current company president Denis Dyack, the St. Catharines, Ontario-based company is best known for their 2002 GameCube hit Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, which scored a “universal acclaim” score of 92 on Metacritic, based on 41 reviews. The company’s 2004 Metal Gear Solid remake, The Twin Snakes, scored 85 across 54 reviews. And while Silicon Knights’ 2008 Xbox 360 release Too Human averaged a sub-par score of 65, the company’s history still suggested it could produce good games.

    But X-Men: Destiny stands alone as the worst game that Silicon Knights has released since it was founded. How did a company that was once known for compelling, original, quality video games come to release a title best described as “mediocre,” “mindless,” “generic” and “an absolute mess”?

    (1UP gave the X360 version a D+, concluding that the game is “is an absolute mess that isn’t worth your time.” IGN gave the PS3 version 5.5 points out of 10 — “mediocre” — and remarked that “even for an action brawler, this one is as mindless as they come.”GameSpot reviewed the same version and awarded the game 4 out of 10, noting that XMD “does the incredible: it makes being a genetic marvel a generic bore.”)

    “I am writing to you in regards to Silicon Knights’ upcoming title X-Men: Destiny,” read the July 21, 2011 email from a mysterious, throwaway Hotmail account with the handle SK Whistleblower. “Silicon Knights’ executive team has just recently implemented a new policy to discredit all employees who have recently resigned. This includes employees who have worked on it for between six months and three years. Between 35 to 45 former employees will fail to have their credits appear in the game.”

    I knew firsthand how to deal with such serious allegations. At the time, IGN had recently published my 4,500 word feature story based on interviews with 11 anonymous former employees of the Australian studio Team Bondi, in which those developers detailed seven troubled years of work on L.A. Noire; years that culminated with many of those employees failing to receive the credit they believed they deserved for their work. Now, someone was suggesting that Silicon Knights was having similar problems with its latest title.

    “Much of what was written about Team Bondi’s situation can be said about Silicon Knights as well,” SK Whistleblower continued. “I am certain that if you contacted former and current Silicon Knights employees and offered them anonymity, you would receive evidence of an appalling antipathy from management towards the employees, publishers, and the quality of their games.”

    Anonymous allegations are easy to make; verifying them is much tougher. I spent the next couple of months reaching out to dozens of former Silicon Knights employees, including a list of 32 allegedly omitted names supplied by SK Whistleblower. Many of those who responded confirmed that they, too, had heard the rumours of their names being removed from the credits of XMD. Some refused to speculate (“I can’t confirm who made it into the credits or not until the game is released, so I’m unable to comment”); some expressed concern for their former colleagues (“I feel that any information I give you will only hurt the current employees at SK”); others feared the ramifications of their involvement in this investigation (“any other information possibly leaking would not look good towards my professionalism and possible future opportunities”).

    Ultimately, I secured interviews with eight former SK employees who worked on XMD, including the initial whistleblower. Between them, these former staffers represented over 45 years of service to the Canadian game development studio. All of them spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, for obvious reasons. Interviewees suggest that the company has been plagued by a complex set of internal problems for years. It soon became clear that this story was about much more than a minor grievance with SK’s crediting standards.

    To read the full story, visit Kotaku.

  • Talk: “Team Bondi, L.A. Noire and The Truth: The Perils of Online News”, October 2011

    This is the transcript of a presentation I gave at the Brisbane Emerging Writers Festival on Saturday 15 October 2011, as part of a panel discussion around the topic of “Writing online – How different is writing for an online audience, how can you do it creatively, and what are the challenges and opportunities for writers working in this field?”

    Footage of my presentation is embedded below.


    Team Bondi, L.A. Noire and The Truth: The Perils of Online News

    by Andrew McMillen

    This is a cautionary tale about online journalism. It’s about learning first-hand how the internet can be a beautiful and terrible place to break news. It’s about choosing what kind of writer you want to be.

    In June, the biggest story of my career was published. It was the result of four months of investigation, based on my interviews with 11 former employees of a company named Team Bondi, who made the biggest, most expensive video game ever made in Australia, called L.A. Noire. These 11 sources all spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. Between them, they’d spent a combined 24 years at Team Bondi. They each alleged that their experiences working there were uniformly terrible: long hours, no overtime pay, a praise-free workplace led by a guy who treated them like crap. As a result of these factors and high staff turnover, the game took seven years to make, which is an incredibly long time in the games industry. I put these allegations to the Team Bondi founder, who did not deny what his former employees had told me, and made no apologies for his style of management.

    My story encapsulated all of this, and was published on the gaming website IGN. Within 24 hours it received over 120,000 hits, and was being reported and analysed by the gaming media around the world. My four months of patient work – including building trust with my sources, and many conversations with IGN’s editors about the story’s final shape – were reduced to a handful of quotes and rushed summaries rewritten by other gaming journalists. To my knowledge, nobody tried to track down my 11 sources and verify what they were saying, nor did anyone seek additional comment from Team Bondi.

    Soon after the story was published, two other former employees emailed me, and provided some more information, including company emails they’d saved from their time at Team Bondi. This new information shed more light on the fact that the company had been stringing their employees along for years, consistently saying that the game was close to being finished, even though it clearly wasn’t. I combined this new information into a supplementary feature that was published on the gaming website,

    One of the more interesting comments made by one of my sources in this second story related to the breakdown of the relationship between Team Bondi and Rockstar Games, who published L.A. Noire. You might know them as the guys behind games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. My source said, and I quote:

    “I’ve heard a lot about Rockstar’s disdain for Team Bondi, and it has been made quite clear that they will not publish Team Bondi’s next game. Team Bondi are trying to find another publisher for their next title, but the relationship with Rockstar has been badly damaged.”

    Now, keep in mind that these are informed comments made by a person who worked at this company for a few years. Still, these are some pretty strong allegations to make, about some high-profile businesses. My source has inside knowledge, for sure, but it’s very easy to start these kinds of rumours – namely, that one of the world’s best-known videogame companies has decided to cut ties with the Australian studio that they’d sunk millions of dollars into. In the eyes of every sane and rational person in the world, though, allegations and rumours stay just that until they’re either confirmed or denied by those in the know.

    Over the next couple of days, I was surprised to find that many websites were not exercising caution when publishing these additional rumours. Some sites didn’t even acknowledge the source of these allegations, instead simply saying that, quote “Rockstar have decided not to publish Team Bondi’s next game”. Full stop. It was alarming and disappointing to see my work skewed beyond its original form, purely because other writers didn’t care enough to provide full context.

    To complicate the situation, neither Rockstar nor Team Bondi made any public comments on any of these matters. I learned during this process that their silence bred a kind of quiet acceptance of ‘the facts’ of my stories – which is a really shitty thing. To this day neither company has publicly commented on what I reported.

    This whole experience was simultaneously exhilarating and depressing for me. Exhilarating because it was the first real newsworthy story I’d worked on, and I got a kick out of watching it being passed around the world. Depressing because I also watched commenters misinterpret my findings, and fellow journalists misrepresent my work in their editorials. It made me wonder what would’ve happened if I was less restrained with my own analysis and storytelling. Arguably, my stories would never have been published if they didn’t meet editorial standards, but the manner in which other online publications were loose with the facts made me wonder how far I could’ve stretched the truth and gotten away with it.

    This is an interesting thought to entertain. And I should point out that my two published stories on this topic did not stretch the truth in any way. But hypothetically, let’s say that I’d fabricated a few quotes that were supposedly made by my anonymous sources. The reader wouldn’t know any better, and it’s doubtful that I’d even get found out. The story was re-reported with such breathless enthusiasm, often containing only the most inflammatory and controversial quotes, that it would barely have mattered. The success of the stories, and the additional opportunities that have since been offered to me, might have led me down an entirely different path. I might have become addicted to seeking easy controversy in my journalism, had I made that choice.

    I didn’t, and I haven’t. I’m glad I was thorough and responsible in my reporting, but the alternative is still fun to think about occasionally.

    This experience taught me a valuable lesson, about how quickly people tend to believe what they read online as the truth, especially in the absence of denial from the parties in question. The more the story was reported around the internet, the more true these allegations became to most readers. This is reflected in the comments sections of these articles. I watched the tide turn from acute doubt, to utter contempt for Team Bondi and Rockstar, in a very short period.

    This experience taught me that no matter how thorough and careful I am with my own work, once a story is published online, it’s completely out of my hands. I think that, in the rush to ‘first’, some web publishers are a little loose with their words. This is troublesome, because whoever reads their articles may not have the time or inclination to read the initial source material, and if a website has their facts wrong when re-reporting a story, then the reader’s understanding of a situation may be compromised. It’s hard to shift facts in people’s minds once they’ve come to a conclusion, and I think web journalists, editors and publishers have a more pronounced responsibility than their print counterparts to check the facts and exercise caution before hitting ‘publish’.

    It’s tough, though, because on the internet, there is little incentive for this kind of cautionary, responsible journalism. Inflammatory and controversial stories spread much faster than their circumspect alternatives. This has always been the case, with any kind of news, but the trouble with the web is that the publishers of these kinds of stories are rewarded with traffic, which in turn directly benefits them, as advertisers are more willing to pay them to run ads on their sites.

    A few thoughts to close. Writing for the web, it’s very easy to become swept up in instantaneous, inflammatory, controversial reporting. But I urge you not to go down this road. To do so is to toss away your integrity, to swallow your pride and sense of self-worth in favour of short-term gratification. It is a fucking shame that online journalism appears to be built on this principle, and that it is so ingrained in our day-to-day web browsing that you probably don’t even notice.

    Like I said, there’s little consequence for following the path of ‘publish first, fact-check second’. But if you have even a shred of integrity, again I urge you: do not take the path of least resistance. Always err on the side of caution before pressing ‘publish’. You owe it to your readers, your sources, your fellow journalists and yourself.

    Andrew McMillen is a freelance journalist based in Brisbane, Australia.

  • GameSpot story: ‘The State of the Aussie Game Development Industry in 2012’, September 2011

    A feature story for GameSpot. Excerpt below.

    The State of the Aussie Game Development Industry in 2012

    In the wake of THQ’s studio closures in Brisbane and Melbourne, GameSpot AU investigates the path forward for the Australian game development industry.

    The State of the Industry

    Fortitude Valley, Queensland. Four years ago, this suburb functioned as the central nervous system of the tight-knit Australian game development industry. Employees of the five big studios–THQ, Krome, Pandemic, Auran, and The Creative Assembly–all worked within walking distance of one another. It was an extraordinary period of growth, wherein contracts to build licensed games for overseas publishers were relatively easy for development houses to secure, and to profit from. Studio executives, developers, and the Queensland government’s “Smart State” flag wavers toasted each other’s success.

    One by one, these companies were faced with insurmountable difficulties: new IP failing to attract adequate market attention; cost reductions by overseas headquarters; and licensed game contracts drying up, due to a rising Australian dollar. In early August 2011, another death knell sounded across the community: THQ’s sudden “right-sizing” saw the shuttering of its Brisbane and Melbourne studios, resulting in the loss of around 200 jobs. Less than a year ago, Krome Studios–once the country’s largest independent game development company, home to more than 400 employees across three cities–ground to a halt.

    Around 40 of Krome’s best talent were kept on and quietly folded under the banner of KMM Brisbane, a local arm of Kennedy Miller Mitchell’s Sydney-based animation and development studio. Yet, recent online rumours suggest that once KMM Brisbane’s current project, Happy Feet 2, is completed, the studio’s lights will be switched off. (GameSpot AU contacted a KMM Brisbane producer for comment, but they would not respond; an anonymous source said that four artists were laid off in the first week of August, that “most” would be laid off at the end of the month, and that “a core few” would stay until October, when the game ships.) Once again, some of this country’s most experienced and talented developers will return to an ever-contracting job market.

    On the first floor of an unremarkable office building, on Warner Street in Fortitude Valley, sits Sega Studios Australia, an 80-strong outfit that was known as The Creative Assembly until June 2011. They’re deep into the development of London 2012, an Olympic Games tie-in for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. The walls are adorned with interesting artwork and materials that can’t be described, due to the nondisclosure agreement signed upon entry.

    “We’re now the biggest developer in Brisbane, and probably Australia,” says Gareth Gower, director of studio marketing. “We’ve got a bit of a responsibility to nurture as much talent as possible, and help the industry that way.” They’ve got only two vacancies at the moment, both high-level positions: studio art director and senior engine programmer.

    “It’s brutal. Absolutely brutal,” says studio director Marcus Fielding of the job market. He held the same role at Krome at the time of its closure in late 2010. “I’m seeing people at the local gym who can’t believe it’s happened again. They’re asking the question of me, ‘Is Sega secure?’ All I can do is work really hard to ensure that we are secure.”

    Of the studio’s 80 employees, 60 are full time; the other 20 are contractors, mostly animators. Fielding introduced GameSpot AU to several staff from a range of disciplines. Senior environment artist Chris Conte began his career with online gambling developer Eyecon in 2004 and then spent nearly five years with Krome and, later, KMM Brisbane. Senior animator Adam Dowley started with Ratbag Games, an Adelaide-based outfit that was acquired by Midway Games in 2005. After being closed by Midway, Krome rehired many of Ratbag’s staff and established Krome Studios Adelaide before eventually closing the doors in August 2010.

    “It throws your entire life into disarray,” recalls Dowley of the closure. “When Krome went down, I’d just bought a house in Adelaide.”

    “I’d just bought a house here in Brisbane, too,” says Conte. “It’s scary. It puts you in a mind-set where you don’t know what’s going to happen. I think we’re pretty good here at Sega, but there’s always that thought at the back of my mind now: ‘What happens at the end of this game?’ It’ll be there probably for the rest of my career, now; once we get to wrap-up time, what’s going to happen? Are we going to be able to do another project?”

    “It’s a fear that’s in the back of every developer’s mind,” says technical director Mark Rowley. “As an industry, it’s far more fragile than most.”

    “The problem is that people are very specialised in this industry,” adds Dowley. “They don’t have skill sets that are applicable to other industries. Game designers; where can they go? I can animate; how do I use that outside of games or film?”

    “You’ve specialised yourself for the love of the job,” replies Rowley.

    “You love it so much that you’ve kind of doomed yourself!” concludes the senior animator. He and his colleagues laugh knowingly.

    For the full story, visit GameSpot.

    Further reading: A Matter Of Size: The State of Triple-A Game Development in Australia

  • GameSpot story: ‘Game Developers’ Quality of Life: Why Should Gamers Care?’, August 2011

    A feature story for GameSpot; my first for the site. Excerpt below.

    Game Developers’ Quality of Life: Why Should Gamers Care?

    In this feature, we ask if quality of life at development studios should affect how gamers think about the industry.

    Blowing the Whistle on Working Conditions

    A video game is composed of millions of tiny achievements made by hundreds of people. When combined, their work results in innovative, genre-defining artistic statements like World of Warcraft, Half-Life, Super Mario 64, or Tetris. The fruits of their collective labour are savoured around the world by gamers, a once-exclusive tag that is now, thanks to the burgeoning market of Web-based casual games, embraced by more people than ever before.

    Despite the impact that generations of video game developers have had on the medium of interactive entertainment, though, it’s easy to forget those millions of tiny achievements when you’re embedded deep within virtual worlds like Azeroth, the Black Mesa Research Facility, the Mushroom Kingdom, or a 10-block-wide screen of endlessly descending shapes. Logically, our brains know that none of these worlds can exist without the imagination, artistry, and programming skills of human beings. Yet for many gamers, those who work in the gaming industry are, essentially, faceless purveyors of joy. There are a handful of household names like Shigeru Miyamoto, John Romero, Hideo Kojima, and Will Wright; as for the rest of the names listed in the closing credits and the instruction manual…well, who?

    This apparent cognitive failure of gamers to acknowledge the contribution of game developers to our overall well-being is only brought to the fore on rare occasions, when the people behind our gaming pleasure see no option but to go public with their sentiment of systemic discontent. The enduring example of the entire discussion surrounding game developers’ quality of life arose in November 2004, when an anonymous blog post by the partner of an EA Games developer working on The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth detailed a studio-wide, 85-hour work week.

    “The stress is taking its toll,” the blogger wrote. “After a certain number of hours spent working, the eyes start to lose focus; after a certain number of weeks with only one day off, fatigue starts to accrue and accumulate exponentially. There is a reason why there are two days in a weekend–bad things happen to one’s physical, emotional, and mental health if these days are cut short. The team is rapidly beginning to introduce as many flaws as they are removing.”

    The blog post gained widespread media attention and, later, saw EA settle over US$30 million in overtime to staff at its California studio following three class-action lawsuits. The “EA Spouse” saga, led by blogger Erin Hoffman, shone a spotlight into the dark corners of game development. For the first time, it seemed, gamers were made aware that making video games for a living isn’t necessarily as fun as it sounds.

    A similar incident in early 2010, ahead of the release of Red Dead Redemption, saw the “Determined Devoted Wives of Rockstar San Diego employees” publish a scathing attack against that studio’s management on industry website Gamasutra and threaten legal action if their partners’ working conditions were not improved. It is unclear whether that situation was resolved, although it appears that no lawsuits were filed against Rockstar Games. More recently, Team Bondi, the Sydney-based developer of the Rockstar Games-published L.A. Noire, was revealed to have dictated what former employees referred to as an “ominous crunch” (the intensive period before a deadline) that lasted for years, and a revolving-door staff policy that saw over a hundred employees leaving throughout the game’s seven-year development.

    Those three games–Battle for Middle-earth, Red Dead Redemption, and L.A. Noire–achieved Metacritic ratings of 82, 95, and 89, respectively. Collectively, they were enjoyed by an audience of millions across the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 platforms. In the grand scheme of things, it’s all too easy to sweep a few months–or, in the case of L.A. Noire, years–of long working hours under the rug and bask in the shining glory of the final products. But to do so would be a mistake, argues Kenneth Yeast, who was the engineering development director at Electronic Arts during the Battle for Middle-earth project.

    For the full story, visit GameSpot.

    Further reading: Why Did L.A. Noire Take Seven Years To Make?

  • IGN Australia story: ‘Why Did L.A. Noire Take Seven Years To Make?’, June 2011

    A feature story for IGN Australia. Excerpt below.

    Why Did L.A. Noire Take Seven Years to Make?
    Examining the troubled development of Team Bondi’s opus.
    by Andrew McMillen

    Team Bondi’s film noir-inspired detective thriller L.A. Noire was released last month to critical and commercial success. Set in a lavish recreation of 1947 Los Angeles, the game eschewed a familiar open-world design for case-by-case detective gameplay that revolved around examining crime scenes and interrogating suspects. Featuring a vast city, cases that adjusted depending on the player’s actions and choices, and sophisticated motion capture technology that had never been used in a video game before, it was a mammoth project.

    So mammoth, in fact, that it took over seven years to complete, with a publisher switch – from Sony to Rockstar – midway through. That’s not the whole story, however. The development of L.A. Noire was anything but smooth.

    Much has been written about the long development cycles on games such as Duke Nukem Forever, Too Human, or Prey, but the story behind L.A. Noire’s rocky road to release stands out within Australia’s small, tightly-knit development community. Team Bondi’s crime drama is not just the biggest game development project ever undertaken in Australia, it also served as the first-ever project for many of the creative forces behind L.A. Noire. It’s perhaps the combination of all these factors that has resulted in surprisingly open testimonials from former Team Bondi members about their experience working on the game.

    Recently, a group of former Team Bondi employees launched a public website with an amended staff roll for L.A. Noire that includes 100 developers omitted from the official game credits. But the look behind the curtain started much earlier. On January 23 2010, an anonymous source on Twitter began leaking stories heard through the grapevine regarding the Sydney-based studio. The account wasn’t run by an ex-employee; it was anonymously dishing the dirt on Bondi as heard through unnamed sources, Wikileaks-style.

    The tweets alleged that studio founder Brendan McNamara had mismanaged Team Bondi and development of L.A. Noire, and had spent “tens of millions” on proprietary technology in just a year. Despite then-publisher Sony Computer Entertainment America’s faith in McNamara based on his PS2 hit The Getaway, Sony dropped the project in 2005, when the studio “had far exceeded SCEA’s expected price tag for the game.”

    According to the tweets, this situation “threw the studio into disarray. Strangely, McNamara quickly found hospice in his former rivals–the Houser brothers–and L.A. Noire was picked up by Rockstar [Games] in spring 2006… Since then, the game has been revamped, ported, and delayed four times. Rockstar spent more [than] Sony in their efforts to make it not suck.”

    Locally, when the tweets were reported by the Australian gaming industry hub Tsumea, several anonymous commenters stepped in to back up the reports: “I can certainly attest to the appalling working conditions, the angry and abusive boss and the ineffective leads who were completely unwilling to do anything to protect their team members,” wrote one. “It’s abhorrent that these young kids are being thrown into a 24/7 corpse grinder with perpetual crunch and weekend overtime,” wrote another.

    The comments on Tsumea recall events that took place in 2004, when an anonymous LiveJournal post by a user named ‘EA_spouse‘ expressed frustration at the fact that she rarely saw her fiancé, an employee of Electronic Arts, due to the long hours he was forced to work while attempting to meet deadlines for the title The Lord of the Rings: The Battle For Middle-Earth. The blog received wide press attention and eventually led to three class action lawsuits against EA for unpaid overtime.

    After the initial tweets and short-lived online discussions that followed, the situation returned to all-quiet-on-the-Bondi-front. In the meantime, there was finally light at the end of the tunnel: L.A. Noire’s worldwide release date had been set for mid-May 2011. The game would finally see the light of day, but many questions remained. Are the allegations true? Why did it take seven years to bring L.A. Noire to market?

    IGN Australia reached out to dozens of former Team Bondi employees to help get a deeper look and tell the story. Eleven agreed to speak on the record, under the condition of anonymity; many feared reprisal from current and future employers if they were to be tagged as whistleblowers. The combined experience of these former staff is extensive: between them, they represent 24 years of service. Their individual tenures range from a few months, to four years, and they include artists, programmers, animators, and software engineers. We also spoke extensively with Team Bondi studio head Brendan McNamara for his perspective.

    For the full story, visit IGN Australia.

    This story runs to 4,500 words. It’s the biggest story of my career thus far, in terms of length, readership, and impact. As is hopefully apparent, a lot of work went into this story.

    I first pitched it to my editor at IGN on February 14, 2011. My initial email, entitled ‘Story pitch: What was it like to work on L.A. Noire?‘, is below.

    Hi mate,

    Just catching up on some industry news via Tsumea and elsewhere. Am loving the allegations by (seemingly) dozens of anonymous ex-Team Bondi employees about the horrible working conditions behind L.A. Noire.

    Favourite comment? “It’s abhorrent that these young kids are being thrown into a 24/7 corpse grinder with their perpetual crunch and weekend overtime.”

    I’d like to investigate these allegations and find out how much truth there is to it. Like my Krome story, could be the case of ex-employees agreeing to speak anonymously. As long as we can verify that they were employed by the company and they know what they’re talking about, we should be good to go. Right?



    It wasn’t until I got the nod from my editor and began reaching out to former Team Bondi employees that I realised the Tsumea story was published in 2010, not this year. Those allegations had existed for over a year, and no-one had checked them out. Curious.

    As mentioned in the story, I contacted dozens of former Bondi employees. Some were silent; some told me to leave the story alone, as they didn’t want their former colleagues to suffer in the event of the allegations being found to be true. Over the months, I rounded up eleven ex-Bondi workers who were happy to speak to me, anonymously, about their experiences working for the studio.

    Rockstar Games found out quite early on that I was investigating this story – via an overzealous source contacting an existing Rockstar employee, I think. They weren’t particularly happy. In an attempt to ensure balanced coverage, they eventually offered me access to Team Bondi CEO Brendan McNamara – though speaking with him was necessary if the story was ever going to be published, as it would be rather slanderous to publish the ex-employees’ comments without juxtaposing them against the responses of their former boss. Yet, as picked up by many of those who commented on IGN and the article’s resultant media coverage, McNamara did little to deny what I’d been told by his former staff.

    With a gestation time of over four months, this is by far the longest amount of time I’ve spent pursuing a single story. It was worth it, though, because I feel that it’s a story that needed to be told. I hope you agree.

    A final note: I’m interested in pursuing this story – and stories like it – on an ongoing basis. If you’d like to share your experience of working for Team Bondi and/or Rockstar Games, you can email me here.

  • IGN Australia story: ‘Blockbuster or Bust: The New Face of Development?’, April 2011

    A feature story for IGN Australia. Excerpt below.

    Blockbuster or Bust: The New Face of Development?

    Triple A or the highway?

    In February, IGN Australia took a magnifying glass to the state of the Australian game development industry. We found that locally, trends pointed toward bigger development studios – whose bread and butter was console game development, often for overseas publishers – closing down. In their absence, smaller businesses – who focus on developing games for mobile and social platforms – are where the real growth is happening. However, one of our interviewees suggested that it’s a “distraction” to talk in terms of geographically-specific industries. “It isn’t helpful to talk in local terms,” he said. “It’s a global industry.”

    With that in mind, we substituted our magnifying glass for a telescope, and peered across the Pacific Ocean toward the United States of America, where many of the world’s largest video game publishers reside. With the inferences from Activision’s most recent earnings call – that, increasingly, console game development is becoming “blockbuster or bust” – rattling around our brains, we asked a couple of triple-A-scale publishers for their take on this topic, as well as questions like: is basing your business exclusively around triple-A level development a sustainable approach? Is it riskier than ever to be debuting new IPs [intellectual property; ie, new games] in a crowded marketplace, where a handful of household names earn the lion’s share of revenue? And finally, does it take a huge set of balls to launch new shooters that directly compete with Call of Duty’s current market dominance?

    Bethesda Knows Best

    We’ll deal with that last question first, since it’s the most provocative. The company best-positioned to answer it is named Bethesda Softworks, whose headquarters – and its in-house game studios – are located in Rockville, Maryland. Bethesda also has offices in London, Paris, Frankfurt, Benelux and Tokyo. We can’t be sure, since they’re a privately held company – “we don’t ever release sales figures, annual reports, or employee numbers,” says Pete Hines, VP PR & Marketing – but we believe they’re among the biggest privately-held publishers in the world. Hines responds cautiously when asked about the size of Bethesda’s balls in relation to its propensity for launching new IPs.

    “The size of the balls it takes probably varies from [game to game],” he says “You could do a new IP that isn’t a big $30-50 million project. Look at Tiny Wings on the iPhone; that’s new IP. But if you’re going to try and put out a brand new shooter on the [Xbox] 360 and go head to head with Brink, Rage, CoD, Battlefield and the others, then certainly, it’s a bigger risk, and it takes some guts to say, ‘Yeah, we know what we’re up against, but we believe in this project and feel strongly enough about it that we’re going to do it.'”

    As avid IGN readers would know, the first two titles Hines mentioned are Bethesda releases. Brink is being developed by British studio Splash Damage, and will be released in May 2011; while Rage is the new shooter from the legendary id Software, the team behind Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein. It’s due in September. Bethesda is publishing both games, and they also have another IP – a third-person action game for PS3, 360 and PC – called Hunted: The Demon’s Forge due in June. While Hines won’t discuss development budgets – “I wouldn’t want to give you ballpark [figures]; big games and big ideas cost a lot of money to make,” he responds – it’s clear that there’s a lot riding on these three titles.

    To read the full story, visit IGN Australia.

  • IGN Australia story: ‘A Matter Of Size: The State of Triple-A Game Development in Australia’, February 2011

    A feature story for IGN Australia. Excerpt below.

    A Matter Of Size: The State of Triple-A Game Development in Australia

    IGN AU looks at whether the Aussie scene can still support big studios… and whether it should even want to.

    Judging by the tropical imagery splashed across – in which a solitary human sits, gazing out across the placid ocean toward distant sand dunes – a naïve game developer intending to work for a Queensland-based company might expect to write code while breathing in salty air and wriggling their toes between the sand. The reality, of course, bears no resemblance to this image, which makes its ongoing usage questionable. Especially considering the rather dismal state of the wider Australian game development industry in 2011.

    It used to be that mutually profitable relationships with international publishers saw Australian developers working on console titles that would be marketed across the world. In the past, Australian talent had a hand in working on mega-selling licenses like Star Wars, Transformers and Jurassic Park. This trend continues, in a limited capacity: Canberra-based studio 2K Marin played a significant role in the development of both Bioshock and its sequel, and is the lead studio working on the new XCOM game; Team Bondi is currently putting the finishing touches on the May-due PS3 and Xbox 360 title L.A. Noire, on behalf of Rockstar Games. It will be the first time since 2002’s State Of Emergency that the company is outsourcing development of a Rockstar product to a non-Rockstar studio.

    But locally, these contracts are, by and large, drying up. And with the decrease in work comes the decrease in employment, as seen in the recent collapses of Auran, Pandemic, and, late last year, Krome Studios. All three were Brisbane-based. All three are no more.

    “The big oak trees have fallen; it’s time for the little seedlings to get stuck in there,” IGDA Brisbane coordinator Jane ‘Truna’ Turner told IGN last year in the wake of Krome’s demise. Indeed; much noise has been made about the success of smaller, independent Australian game devs, with Halfbrick Studios, based in Kelvin Grove, universally showered with praise for the remarkable sales of Fruit Ninja, as has Firemint, with its Flight Control and Real Racing games. But let’s not forget that smaller companies, by nature, employ fewer people. While those 40-odd staff who’re housed comfortably under Halfbrick’s umbrella are likely thanking their lucky stars nightly, what of the hundreds of skilled staff shaken loose from the big oak trees in the past few years?

    With few real opportunities to work on big, ‘triple-A’ titles – the kind that sound great on your resume – here in Australia, such talent is left to either shift overseas, or consider alternative careers. Either way, the Australian industry loses out. The dominant mindset – that this country is unable to support triple-A-level development – continues, and everyone involved continues to downgrade their expectations of what Australia is capable of in terms of games.

    What, if anything, can be done to stimulate this process? Are we really headed toward a local industry consisting of a mere handful of bigger, publisher-owned studios – like SEGA’s Creative Assembly and THQ’s Studio Oz, both based in Brisbane – and a galaxy of smaller, agile developers concentrating on mobile platforms? Is Australia no longer a viable market for foreign publishers to invest in game development?

    For the full story, visit IGN Australia.

  • IGN Australia story: ‘Advice: Careers in the Games Industry’, December 2010

    A story for IGN Australia, which I compiled as a result of asking members of the Australian game development community for their games careers advice while writing my previous story for the site, about the games education sector. Excerpt below.

    IGN Advice: Careers in the Games Industry

    How should you go about entering the games industry? IGN talks to the pros.

    As a supplement to our feature story about the Australian games education sector, IGN asked 10 members of the game development community for the best advice they could give to those looking to gain employment within the local market. Our thanks to everyone who participated in creating this feature.

    Jane ‘Truna’ Turner – coordinator, IGDA Brisbane / co-founder, 48 Hour Game Making Challenge

    Play games. Read books. Watch movies. Understand your world, so that when you’ve learned some hands-on, practical skills, you have ideas to make new, exciting forms of games. Generate your own enthusiasm, and your own, new industry. Don’t go and be a little worker; go and make your own world. I think games are just beautiful. Design is powerful. Game design is utterly powerful. You’re playing with culture and philosophy and fun and image and audio; the whole kit and caboodle. Don’t just think about making new forms; think about pushing the boundaries with it.

    If you go to uni, you’re in the ideal position, because Duncan Curtis – one of the guys who started 3 Blokes Studios – I think it was him that coined the phrase ‘the uni advantage’, which is: there you are. You’ve got your mates, you’re used to not sleeping, you’re used to living off noodles, you haven’t got a mortgage yet. You can actually afford to set up a little company and see what happens, and explore. You need to do it for a portfolio anyway; why not start making experimental pieces, put them up on Congregate, do some iPhone dev, do some Android dev? Little, fast, experimental work.

    John Passfield – Chief Creative Bloke, 3 Blokes Studios / co-founder and former Design Director, Krome Studios

    One of the big things we look for when we’re interviewing people is their portfolio. Whether it be as an artist showing your work, or a programmer and having a playable game; that just puts you so far ahead of other people when you’re applying for a job. And even a designer, if you have a little walkthrough video. One of the guys we hired at Krome for Ty the Tasmanian Tiger 2 – Rob Davis, a graduate, who’s now working at Microsoft Games Studios in Seattle – he had a walkthrough of a Ty The Tasmanian Tiger level that just blew everyone else away. He’d thought about it, and made a level up. He couldn’t program, or really do art, but he did a simple little walkthrough video, and explained his thought processes. That was amazing. It gave him such competitive advantage.

    So many people come for an interview, but they don’t really have anything to show. And clearly, if they’re going for a particular job, it’s really important to have something [to show] that applies to that job. If you’re applying for an iPhone developer, even if you can’t program, if you just mocked up an iPhone game on screen in Flash or something, or as an animatic using whatever tools you’ve got, that would definitely put you way ahead of other people – as long as it’s an interesting [game] concept. That simple process of coming prepared with an example of your work, targeted to who you’re applying for. That’s how you put yourself ahead of people. The staff we’ve hired at 3 Blokes are those who’ve had workable demos up on a place like Newgrounds or Kongregate.

    When I’m looking to hire, I look for enthusiasm in the medium, the platform that we’re making games for. That’s really important. And also – team fit. Games is a collaborative process. And obviously, if you’ve started a degree program, it’s important to see that you’ve finished a degree. It’s really good to show that you’ve finished something. Degrees are good, because it shows that someone has the wherewithal to stick it out. Holding a degree answers a lot of questions about somebody when they come in.

    For the full article, visit IGN Australia.