All posts tagged game

  • Griffith Review essay: ‘Worlds Beyond: Teachable moments in virtual reality’, May 2017

    An essay for edition 56 of quarterly print publication Griffith Review, which is titled Millennials Strike Back. Excerpt below.

    'Worlds Beyond: Teachable moments in virtual reality' essay in Griffith Review by Andrew McMillen, May 2017Worlds Beyond

    Teachable moments in virtual reality

    The blue whale is only a metre or two away from me, and its huge right eyeball is level with mine. I have never seen the largest creature on Earth from this angle, at this depth, in these dimensions. Its body mass fills my vision, and I have to turn my head 180-degrees to take it all in. I’m standing on the bow of a sunken ship, and I have watched, enthralled, as this dweller of the deep sea approached from the dark-blue distance on my left. The surrounding schools of fish and graceful manta rays take little notice of the giant: for them, its presence deserves the equivalent of a submerged shrug; it’s something they see every day. But for myself, standing here on the ship, rooted in place in wonder, it is an extraordinary encounter.

    As it hovers before me, the beast blinks and emits a few curious groans before tiring of this underwater interloper. Just another human being. Boring. When it swims to my right in search something more interesting to look at, its tail-flukes almost lash me on the way past. In sum, I’ve spent only a minute in its company, but I feel as though quite a few things have changed. This is a fork in the road: my life can now be categorised as ‘Before Whale’ and ‘After Whale’. But perhaps the most astounding part of this experience is that it is running entirely on computer code. Even though every aspect of this scene feels real, it is not.

    After I watch the whale disappearing into the dark-blue distance, I turn around to see white text projected on the back of the sunken ship. It is a list of credits for the team of people who worked on this convincing simulation. It’s named ‘Whale Encounter’, and it’s part of a virtual-reality game called theBlu. In reality, you see, I’m standing in a tiled living room in New Farm, in inner-city Brisbane, wearing a headset that is attached to a powerful computer by a thick, black cord. The view from the balcony outside is filled by the Story Bridge. Beneath the steel structure runs the Brisbane River, where there are no blue whales, as far as I’m aware.

    Next, I use one of the wireless controllers in my hands to point and select ‘Turtle Encounter’. This is just as impressive as the previous immersion – and several minutes longer, too. In startlingly clear water, with the sun shining through the surface above me, I stand at the edge of a coral reef. A loggerhead turtle cuts a lazy circle above me, just out of reach. On my right, I’m approached by hundreds of football-sized bright orange jellyfish. Before long, these small creatures are accompanied by several enormous, man-sized giants whose tentacles trail behind them like windblown dreadlocks. Using the controllers, I can prod the jellyfish to affect their trajectory. It is simply gorgeous, and like the whale, it inspires a sense of awe unlike anything I’ve experienced while playing a traditional video game.

    When it comes to eliciting emotions, it appears that virtual reality is streets ahead of everything that’s come before. Moreover, it strikes me that this sort of experience could foster new understanding for children who struggle to process information that’s delivered verbally, or presented on a printed page. Any child can strap on a headset, fire up theBlu and take something away from the experience of feeling as though they are immersed underwater, inside a potentially dangerous and hard-to-reach part of the planet, while still engaging their minds in a way that a textbook, or even the most fervent educator, might fail to achieve.

    To read the full essay, visit Griffith Review‘s website and purchase edition 56, Millennials Strike Back. The image on the book’s cover above is credited to illustrator Laura Callaghan.

  • CNET story: ‘The Man Who Virtually Has It All’, March 2013

    A feature story for CNET Australia; excerpt below.

    The man who virtually has it all

    A 30 year-old Sydneysider has amassed a small fortune by trading virtual items for real cash in the online game Entropia Universe. What next, though?

    Zachurn "Deathifier" Emegen in Entropia Universe, pictured as part of 'The Man Who Virtually Has It All' story for CNET Australia, March 2013

    In game, the nearest moon to Planet Calypso sits huge in the sky, framed against a blanket of twinkling stars and space clouds. Surrounding mountains tower above and oddly bendy palm trees sway in a gentle breeze. It is beside the teleporter located at Camp Icarus, Planet Calypso’s seaside outpost for new players, that I met with Zachurn “Deathifier” Emegen, leader of the Dark Knights society and one of the wealthiest men ever to play Entropia Universe.

    With a few quick mouse gestures, Deathifier — a tall, handsome avatar clad in shiny red armour — had spawned a Quad-Wing Interceptor, an impressive and expensive-looking aircraft. He then added me to the vehicle’s guest list and invited me to take a seat inside. Our destination? Treasure Island.

    Deathifier is the owner of the 25-square-kilometre plot of in-game land called Treasure Island. He purchased it for US$26,500 in December 2004 and set a Guinness World Record for the largest amount spent on a virtual item. We had to take the long air route, though, because Entropia Universe game developer MindArk had, without notice, disabled the teleporter that allows new players to travel between Camp Icarus and Treasure Island with ease.

    My pilot wasn’t pleased about this unexpected change: he’s reliant on hunting tourism for much of his income, and if players can’t easily get there via teleporter, he’s missing out on potential Project Entropia Dollars (PED), the in-game currency that’s tied to the United States dollar at a fixed exchange rate of 10-to-one. (Treasure Island cost 265,000 PED in 2004.)

    In real life, outside of this vast virtual planet and its two continents, Deathifier is David Storey, a 30-year-old Sydneysider who has been playing Entropia Universe for almost 10 years. Throughout that decade, behind the screen, in-game investments and earnings have comprised the bulk of Storey’s income. With help from a handful of silent partners, whose identities he has never revealed, Storey has invested over US$1 million into the game. The $26,500 Treasure Island purchase broke even in its first year, thanks to Storey’s tireless development, salesmanship and marketing, both online and off.

    At first, this is a strange concept to get one’s head around. This man makes a good living by spending his work week inside a computer game, a space more readily associated with fun and entertainment than commerce and profit. While Storey piloted the Quad-Wing Interceptor south-west across vast oceans and jagged mountain ranges toward Treasure Island, my avatar sat in the gunner’s seat — the aircraft is armed and able to shoot down opposing vehicles if necessary — while we spoke over Skype.

    I asked him whether it’s been difficult to separate the fun from the business side of the game. “They’ve always been intertwined,” Storey replied. “At some points, it’s been more for fun; at others, more for business. More recently, I’ve transitioned more toward business, because the fun elements have declined, so to speak. The core gameplay hasn’t changed in 10 years.”

    To read the full story, visit CNET.

  • 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.

  • Qweekend story: ‘Goal Mining: Minecraft and education’, October 2012

    A story that was published in Qweekend magazine on October 13, 2012. Click the below image to view as a PDF (link opens in a new window), or read the article text underneath.

    Goal Mining
    Story: Andrew McMillen / Photography: David Kelly

    A video game that uses collaboration and communication to engage children online has inspired a new method of teaching.

    The first thing we need to do is collect wood. We do this by smashing our fists into tall trees until the wood disintegrates into small blocks, which then become ours to keep. Curiously, punching out the tree trunks makes no difference to their structural integrity; they continue standing tall, trunkless, while we pilfer their wood.

    The second thing we need to do is make sticks. “Using the crafting table, put one wood block on top of the other,” says James Keogh, who acts as group leader and instructs our gang of five as we navigate this strange world.  Easier said than done. Under the clear blue sky, I can’t interpret his instructions to make the most obvious and essential item.

    Sticks are the basis of the pickaxe, the shovel and the sword. I need all of these things to survive and prosper in the world of Minecraft, a computer game set in a randomly generated landscape of mountains, valleys, forests and deserts. Minecraft is unlike any game I’ve played – there are neither clear objectives nor clear instructions. The player is left to his own devices in this virtual playground, to spend his time however he wishes.

    My fellow adventurers – four 11-year-old boys who attend West Moreton Anglican College, west of Brisbane – try time and again to explain the simple process of creating sticks. I’m sweating as oblong clouds pass across the square sun. The blocky mountains surrounding us seem to be frowning at me. Dark squid float idly in the lake nearby, indifferent to my crafting struggles.

    I feel stupid and inadequate, especially in the company of these four well-travelled friends. Darcy Keogh, James’s twin brother, takes pity and gifts me a stone pickaxe, short-cutting the process considerably. It’s a relief. Without my companions, I’d be clueless; come nightfall, I’d surely be dead.

    James and Darcy have been busy using their pickaxes to excavate dirt out of the side of the nearest mountain for our “hidey-hole”, while their friend Liam Catlan patiently attempts to coach some success into me. Torrin Beverley has taken it upon himself to begin digging deeper into the earth in search of precious resources like iron, gold, and – if he’s lucky – maybe even diamond. Mining tools in hand – just a pickaxe and a shovel for now – I climb partway up the mountain and stand at the entrance, admiring their handiwork.

    James warns us that it’s almost night time. I step inside the hidey-hole, shutting the door behind me. Foolishly, Liam stays out and attempts to fight a giant spider. Anguished howls echo across the landscape as he dies at the fangs of his eight-legged foe. His now-itemless character respawns beside us. “Did you have anything worthwhile on you?” James asks. Two stone pickaxes, his friend types. “Not really much, then,” replies our leader nonchalantly.

    Torrin asks if anyone wants a sword. “Yes,” I type, before opening the door and stepping outside. It’s snowing. Pretty, digital snowflakes criss-cross the night sky, falling lazily to the ground. “Whoa,” I say to no-one in particular. It’s a beautiful sight.

    I check my inventory and find Torrin’s gift. All four boys have joined me outside, just beyond the light cast by the flames of our farthest torch. The square moon passes slowly overhead. I wonder aloud whether it’s a good idea for us to be out here, given that one member of our gang of five was so recently slain. “Not really,” says James, swinging his sword defiantly at nothing in particular.

    The boys tell me that there are zombies, skeletons, Creepers, spiders and Endermen out here, prowling the dark landscape. Horrible creatures all. We head back inside and close the door behind us. I turn and stare through the window once again at the mesmerising snowflakes, reflecting on the wide range of emotions I’ve experienced during my first 20 minute-long day/night cycle: confusion, frustration, satisfaction, wonder and, finally, fear.

    ++

    Minecraft is fun because it’s so divorced from reality that minds run free with possibility. Key attractions include its detachment from the responsibilities of daily life – school, work, parenthood, traffic, taxes – and the ease with which the digital world bends to your will. Want to dig a hole in real life? It’s bloody hard work, for starters. Then there are property rights and land ownership to consider, as well as the high likelihood of your dad going off at the sight of his well-tended lawn transformed into a crater.

    In Minecraft, though, it takes just seconds to carve into the ground, or a mountain, and begin exploring what’s beneath. (Once you’ve conquered the admittedly tricky first act of crafting your mining tools, of course.) Likewise, it’s just as easy to create solid structures in-game. Two of the most impressive mega-creations include a 1:1 scale model of the Starship Enterprise, from Star Trek, and a current project involving a few dozen people working on crafting the entire Westeros realm, from the fantasy series Game Of Thrones. Put simply, it’s Lego in a limitless virtual world where the only impediment is your imagination.

    Created by 33 year-old Swedish game programmer and designer Markus Persson, best known by his online handle “Notch”, Minecraft is an international phenomenon. Notch self-published the first “alpha” version of the game online in May 2009, charging a one-off fee of about $12 (€9.95) and updating Minecraft with new features until version 1.0 was released in November 2011 for $24.50 (€19.95). More than 10 million players have bought the game across both the PC and Xbox 360 platforms; it also boasts 42 million registered users, a figure still growing by around 140,000 new players per day.

    Few are immune to its charms, even those who struggle with the game’s mechanics at first – which is essentially everyone, as the PC version of the game offers no in-game assistance. (Minecraft Wiki – a popular first destination for the clueless – contains more than 2,000 detailed articles.) This is the kind of unorthodox design decision that few gaming studios or publishers would allow, yet since Notch created it all himself, he was beholden to no such orthodoxy. Evidently, it hasn’t hindered the game’s popularity.

    “Younger gamers are completely enthralled by Minecraft,” says Janet Carr, series producer of ABC TV’s Good Game, which screens Tuesday nights on ABC2 and attracts an average weekly audience of 108,000. “Since you create your own fun, it gives you the freedom to play it the way you want to. It’s personally satisfying because you have that feeling of discovery, and of creation. Normal game design theory would say that making it hard to play is lethal to your game. Minecraft is the complete opposite: because the kids have to work quite hard at getting a handle on it, they get invested in it really quickly, and very deeply.”

    Carr’s team also works on Good Game Spawn Point, a program aimed at gamers aged 8-12 watched by 80,000 viewers on ABC3 Saturday mornings. She estimates that half of the 10,000 emails sent to the show’s presenters each week are from younger gamers seeking answers to Minecraft gameplay questions. “It’s not even just the number of emails we get about the game that’s surprising, it’s the sophistication of the information they’re seeking,” Carr says. “It’s not, ‘how do I build a pickaxe?’ It’s ‘how do I set up my repeater units so that my mine cart will travel a few kilometres?’ Engineering questions.”

    ++

    It’s impossible to discuss Minecraft without acknowledging its potential to become truly consuming. Since the game world is randomly generated and limitless, it’s unsurprising that those who fall for its charms tend to invest serious hours in the never-ending process of day and night, mining and crafting, exploring and expanding. “A lot of parents are concerned their kids are spending too much time on video games,” says Carr, whose youngest son was obsessed with Minecraft but has since moved on. Unlike most other games, though, Minecraft is undirected. Players must use their own intelligence, intuition and inspiration to derive enjoyment from the game, rather than relying on objectives and rewards predetermined by game designers.

    “A large issue for parents is that they don’t understand what their kids are so enthusiastically raving about,” says Luke Bennett, a 49 year-old ecological consultant who lives in Castlemaine, Victoria and is the father of 11-year-old twins. “When our son first started playing, my wife and I discovered that if he played up until he went to bed, he was so mentally wired that he could not sleep. I’ve responded by letting him play, but not in large chunks of time. Minecraft is a valuable part of a complex lifestyle. You need to leaven it with the other stuff.”

    Recently, Bennett and a friend set up a private online server where about ten children aged 7-12 play online together most nights. “This means my own gameplay is now more of a moderator role, rather than just purely building,” Bennett says. “We’ve set up a blog for the kids so that they can discuss differing playing styles, and resolve conflicts. The biggest issues in the game are virtual urban and environmental planning. The kids’ default response is to ask me to intervene, which has resulted in some very odd conversations at afternoon school pick-up,” he laughs. “But I think it’s great,” adds Bennett, who now tends to play late into the nights with his middle-aged friend after their kids go to bed at 9pm. “Minecraft is a game that encourages players to think, create, solve problems, engineer, train reflexes and socialise. It’s almost education-by-stealth, in the guise of a video game. It’s like hiding cauliflower in mashed potato.”

    Janet Carr agrees that playing with children, rather than observing their behaviour from a bemused distance, is the best way to appreciate their enthusiasm and set limitations around gameplay. “If everyone in the household understands the rules, it doesn’t become an issue,” she says. “If you’ve got a child who’s really wanting to spend all their time talking about Minecraft, you’re almost beholden to get a great understanding of it yourself so at least you can have high levels of conversation about it, and talk about how to manage that time.”

    Steven “Bajo” O’Donnell is co-host of both Good Game shows. “I hate the word ‘addictive’, because it has a negative association,” he says. “I like to use the word ‘compelling’ instead. Minecraft compels you to go back into it, and keep playing it, and keep building.”

    His co-host, Stephanie “Hex” Bendixsen, agrees. “I don’t think it’s necessarily addictive in the way that [online role-playing game] World Of Warcraft is addictive, because that game offers you constant rewards for ‘X’ amount of hours that you’ve put in. Whereas Minecraft doesn’t really have any kind of reward system; it’s really about what you get out of it personally. It may be hard for people to stop playing, but that’s really due to their own experience rather than something that the game is doing.”

    The Good Game hosts regularly hear from teachers who’ve had to ban the game from their schools, or allocate specific times when kids can go into the computer labs at lunchtime to play. “Some teachers use it as a system of reward: if the students get through a computing studies class, then they’re allowed to play for 15 minutes at the end, because they just can’t stop kids from playing it,” says Bendixsen. “They’ve had to try to find ways to work it into school life. Since it’s a game that doesn’t have any kind of guns or shooting, and encourages kids to be imaginative to work cooperatively, it works quite well in the classroom.”

    ++

    High above the clouds, I’m standing on a transparent platform bathed in the orange glow of twilight. At the edge of one horizon, a square sun dips; behind me, a square moon rises. Underneath the platform is an enormous mass of blue-green. It’s the kind of view only an astronaut would see in reality: star-speckled blanket of infinite space above, stable blue marble below. Suddenly, a man in a white labcoat appears next to me. The glowing yellow text above his head reads “Elfie”. He begins giving me a virtual science lesson while showing me around his greatest Minecraft creation – an animal cell he built for his biology students.

    “The whole idea of these first platforms was to give the kids an overall picture of the cell, because it’s very hard to imagine what it looks like from the outside once you’re in there,” says 32 year-old Stephen “Elfie” Elford, who teaches science, maths and humanities at Numurkah Secondary College (enrolment: 300) in north-eastern Victoria.

    As we travel between observation decks by right-clicking on teleportation terminals, we’re getting closer to the giant blue-green mass. Its curvature is reminiscent of the human brain. On the fourth and final deck, I’m presented with the option of teleporting to four unfamiliar, scientific-sounding stations. I choose “Golgi”, the first option. Now I’m inside the giant mass, and before me is a roughly rectangular prism that represents the Golgi apparatus. Right-clicking on an information block at the edge of the platform gives a text overview of its function, written in the same straight-talking language Elford would use while standing at the head of his classroom. “This is an animal cell,” says Elford. “As my biology students tour the cell, they fill in a booklet. I wanted to deepen that understanding and give them a good visual representation they could call on, when needed.”

    So Elford invested six months, on and off, in creating this three dimensional, to-scale replica of how he understands the inside of an animal cell might look. He estimates that he’s moved two million virtual blocks during the 50-hour building process. The brightly-coloured textures of this fascinating structure bear little resemblance to the lifelike shades of the world I explored with the four 11-year-old boys.

    Elford’s animal cell is a remarkable, inspired piece of work from Australia’s foremost expert on MinecraftEdu, a modification (or “mod”) based on the existing game engine. Developed in collaboration by teachers in Finland and the United States, the mod’s disparate but growing network of Games-Based Learning practitioners see efforts like Elford’s as a way to engage the next generation of “digital native” students. (Elford runs a blog called “MinecraftEdu Elfie” where he shares his learning experiences with teachers throughout the world. He has also uploaded dozens of videos to YouTube showing how his classes have interacted with the game.)

    For the last eight years, Elford had taught Nurmurkah’s science students about animal cells from the textbook, two or three times a year. “I was kind of over it,” he reflects. “I don’t know if it was a seven-year itch a year late; I just didn’t feel like I was enjoying myself. And then this came along, and now I’m enjoying my job again. It’s given me that little bump to keep going.”

    Rather than learning through Elford’s descriptions and the biology textbook, it’s much more engaging for students to see his scientifically accurate representation of an animal cell with their own eyes. I didn’t take any science subjects in senior high school, partly because it all seemed so dry and dull. Had MinecraftEdu existed when I started year 11 in 2004, though, I could well have been drawn in by the technological lure.

    Elford is the first to admit that fanciful creations like this won’t entirely replace traditional teaching methods. In fact, he has used this incredible virtual environment in-class once so far, for a total of two hours. He has plans to upload the map so that other teachers can use the animal cell in their own classes. “The time and effort I put in is far outweighed by the students’ immersion in this cell,” Elford says. Using the game, he’s also led students through reaction time experiments; he’s explained the transformation between solids, liquids and gases (by setting his students on fire, in-game, of course); and he’s run an assignment wherein students built energy-efficient houses, then recorded video tours of their new creations. Despite these breakthroughs, MinecraftEdu is only used on occasion at Nurmurkah, when it’s appropriate to the learning at hand.

    “Personally, I think it should be in every school,” says Elford as he wraps up his tour of the animal cell while we stand outside, gazing up at the monolith. “The opportunities it provides for students to create, and to be creative, is something I haven’t found anywhere else in my time as a teacher.”

    Meanwhile, 15km north-west of Cairns at Kamerunga in far North Queensland is Peace Lutheran College, a prep-to-year-12 school of 585 students. Andrew Wright, 40, is eLearning mentor at Peace. He’s the one who drove the college’s IT department to adopt MinecraftEdu for the first time this term, across two classes of 25 students. “It’s been fantastic,” says Wright, who also teaches Year 7. “We’re studying Ancient Rome at the moment. We found a MinecraftEdu map of that, where the pupils started off in the Colosseum, then partnered up and walked around Rome to have their photographs taken outside iconic landmarks such as the Pantheon. They then went away and researched what that real building would have been used for, and made a presentation about it. You walk around [the virtual] Rome yourself and you think, ‘wow, someone must have spent years doing this!’”

    Though a classroom of 25 kids running rampant in MinecraftEdu sounds chaotic – despite the availability of teacher-only crowd control tools that can instantly freeze, mute or teleport students – Wright assures me it’s quite the opposite. “Because the students want to be learning, and they want to be engaged, they’re very respectful of the game and of each other,” he says. “That’s what we try and teach them – within the game, you have to cooperate, you have to use all the skills that you’d need in the real world. Collaboration, communication; it’s all there. There’s a real learning curve going on because the Year 7s are teaching the Year 1s.”

    Wright, who is now in his fifth year of teaching at Peace, says that “addictive” is “a strong word” when used in the context of Minecraft. “As a teacher, if you’ve got something that the students are keen on using, and you can use it in an educational way, you’re on to a winner. It can be seen as taking up a lot of time, but as with anything, you have to manage that time. When parents see their children coming home and working on this stuff after doing their homework, I don’t think you can put a value on that.”

    ++

    James and Darcy Keogh are showing me around their virtual world one week before my first in-game experience. It’s the first time I’ve seen Minecraft in action. James walks through their well-tended farm of pumpkins, melons, wheat, sugar cane and cacti while playing on a laptop that’s connected to a widescreen television in the living room of a house in Chuwar, about 6km north-west of Ipswich.

    Parents Robert and Grace, who are separated, watch intently from the lounge as their 11-year-old sons walk them through a world they understand a fraction as well as their youngest children do. Throughout the 90 minutes the twins spend pumping me with information, they chatter constantly, challenging one another on which elements of the game to demonstrate and how best to describe its complex functions. It’s a dizzyingly detailed language spoken by twins fluent in Minecraft-speak.

    “There are different ranks of tools,” James explains. “You start with wooden, which is the worst, then upgrade to stone, iron, gold and diamond.”
    “But you’ve got to mine all that stuff to make it,” says Robert, who has himself dabbled with the game.
    “You’ve got to chop down the trees to get the wood,” Grace adds. “That’s the first thing you do – punch a tree. I never got past wooden tools,” she says, with a hint of regret.
    “When you play, you just muck around,” James gently cajoles her, “putting blocks down anywhere …”
    “You’re not fanatical like some!” Robert interjects. The Keogh family laughs together.

    Countless hours sunk into this intriguing world built on blocks, mining and crafting. Millions of players absorbed by the limitless promise of what this game represents better than any before it – a tangible, tantalising sensation of freedom. Two 11-year-old boys who have been playing video games as long as they can remember, and who have played this particular game practically daily since their eldest brother, Brendan, first showed it to them in 2009.

    “So why do you guys play?” their father asks.
    “Because it’s creating, and you can basically do anything you want to,” replies James.
    “Where most games are just, ‘you do this, then you do that …’” says Darcy, “and you don’t get to …” James interrupts by finding the right word for his twin.
    “Most games are linear,” James says. “Minecraft isn’t linear.”

  • 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, GamesIndustry.biz.

    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. http://andrewmcmillen.com/

  • 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?

  • GamesIndustry.biz story: ‘Revealed: The emails behind the whistle blowing at Team Bondi’, July 2011

    A feature story for GamesIndustry.biz; excerpt below.

    This a follow-up to my feature on the development of the videogame L.A. Noire for IGN, published last month.

    Revealed: The emails behind the whistle blowing at Team Bondi


    Last month a story on IGN called “Why Did L.A. Noire Take Seven Years To Make?” detailed the lengthy process wherein Sydney-based developer Team Bondi worked on the biggest, most expensive video game ever made in Australia. Published by Rockstar Games, L.A. Noire – released worldwide in May – was expansive in scope and revolutionary in concept.

    At the story heart’s were eleven testimonials – delivered by former Team Bondi employees interviewed under the condition of anonymity – which detailed the oppressive work conditions that hundreds of staff endured throughout those seven years. Among their complaints were an “ominous crunch” period of development which continually shifted year to year; a studio-wide expectation that staff would work overtime and weekends; a praise-free working environment; and a boss named Brendan McNamara, who one of the sources called “the angriest person I’ve ever met”.

    In the last few weeks, the story has been read and reported around the globe. Both fans and the game development community have reacted with contempt for Team Bondi, and for Rockstar Games, who seemingly condoned the Sydney-based studio’s incessant whip-cracking. The International Game Developer’s Association (IGDA) has declared that they are seeking comments from former Bondi staff as they investigate what they deem to be “absolutely unacceptable” working conditions.

    As the original author of the report I’ve been contacted by developers who have worked under Brendan McNamara at other studios over the years. All have concurred with the assertions made by the Bondi Eleven. “When Brendan came on board, it became clear that he was a huge bully with no talent, vision or management skill. But he really knew how to intimidate,” wrote one. “Fits with my experience of McNamara,” tweeted another.

    Several more ex-Team Bondi employees have also contacted me to express their gratitude. “On the day the article was posted, I had been linked it by a dozen or so other Team Bondi ex-employees in the first few hours, and then it was re-linked on Facebook for the rest of the day,” one source told me. “Everyone I’ve spoken to is really grateful that it’s ‘out there’, and completely shocked that Brendan agreed to the interview.”

    Two former Bondi staffers, in particular, have supplied evidence which refutes comments made by Brendan McNamara in my original story, and strengthens the validity of claims made by the Bondi Eleven. Between them, this pair spent several years labouring under the Team Bondi banner. As with the original Bondi Eleven, the pair have supplied information under the condition of anonymity. Their rebuttals to their former boss follow; their evidence includes time-stamped internal emails and staff employment contracts.

    Deterioration of relationship with Rockstar

    Source: “It’s pretty well reported now that the working conditions were bad. What hasn’t been discussed yet (from what I’ve seen) is the relationship between Team Bondi and Rockstar. 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 – Brendan treats L.A. Noire like a success due to his vision but I think Rockstar are the ones who saved the project. They continued to sink money into LA Noire, and their marketing was fantastic. Without their continued support, Team Bondi would have gone under several years ago.”

    “Rockstar also made a huge contribution to the development; their producers were increasingly influential over the last two years of the game’s development, and overruled many of the insane decisions made by Team Bondi management. At a lower level, Rockstar also pitched in with programmers, animators, artists, QA, etc. Part of the conflict between Team Bondi and Rockstar was due to Rockstar’s frustration with Team Bondi’s direction, and eventually Team Bondi’s management in turn resented Rockstar for taking lots of creative control. It’s also worth pointing out that Rockstar used to be very keen on making Team Bondi something like ‘Rockstar Sydney’ – the more they worked with Team Bondi management, the more they came to understand that this was a terrible idea. I have a few logs that show the relationship souring – see below.”

    Date: Tuesday, April 06, 2010.

    From: Brendan McNamara [Team Bondi founder]

    To: Everybody List [everyone who worked for Team Bondi]

    Hi Everyone

    I found out this morning that Rockstar have pulled out of the E3 show. I’m trying to find out more information as to why. I don’t agree with this decision as I think the case we were going to show is looking great and that we could do some real damage there. Jeronimo [Barrera, Rockstar VP] is talking to the Marketing Team to ascertain what the Marketing Plan is going forward. Once I know what is happening and why I will get back to you.

    Brendan

    Source: “The context on this second one is that our Production Designer (Simon Wood) posted an email with links to a new L.A. Noire logo designed by Rockstar (which Brendan hated). The announcement apparently had a Rockstar logo, but no Team Bondi logo alongside it. Brendan’s reply was only supposed to be to Simon, but he replied to everybody at Team Bondi by mistake. He claimed he was only talking about commenters on news articles, but it was pretty clear to everyone that this wasn’t true.”

    Date: Monday, October 11, 2010

    From: Brendan McNamara [Team Bondi founder]

    To: Everybody List [everyone who worked for Team Bondi]

    Every dog has its day and there’s going to be hell to pay for this one. I’ll never forget being treated like an absolute c**t by these people.

    To read the full story, visit GamesIndustry.biz. You’ll have to register a free account with them to do so.

    UPDATE July 7: This story has been syndicated to GI.biz’s sister site, Eurogamer, where you can read the full story without registering an account. Click here to read it on Eurogamer.

  • 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.

  • Interviewed: ‘5 Minutes With’ for ITJourno.com.au, 2011

    After being named as a finalist for ‘Best New Journalist’ in the 2010 Microsoft IT Journalism Awards last week, I was interviewed about my (limited) experience as a tech journalist for ITjourno.com.au.

    The interview isn’t public – ITjourno is for IT journalists only, as you might have guessed – so I’ve republished the Q+A below, with permission.

    5 minutes with Andrew McMillen
    by Allie Coyne, Tuesday 29th March 2011

    Where do you work and what do you do?

    I am a Brisbane-based freelance journalist. The majority of my writing is for the arts and entertainment space, for publications like Rolling Stone, The Weekend Australian, The Courier-Mail, TheVine.com.au and Mess+Noise. Tech journalism is a relatively new field for me; since October 2010, I’ve written about the video game industry for IGN Australia.

    Why did you decide to become a tech journalist?

    In mid-October 2010, there were rumours floating around that a video game development company named Krome Studios had fired all of its staff at both the Brisbane and Melbourne offices. At the time, they employed around 200 staff and were the largest game development company in Australia, so it was kind of a big deal. Yet it appeared that in the aftermath, no media outlets were investigating whether these rumours were true; and if so, why did the company collapse? So since I couldn’t find the answers elsewhere, I pitched the story idea to the editors at IGN Australia. It was the first time we’d been in contact, and they were immediately supportive of the story. I reached out to several former employees of the company, who anonymously provided their thoughts on why Krome collapsed. After speaking with those contacts, I got in touch with Krome Studios’ CEO, Robert Walsh, who agreed to provide his first media interview on the subject.

    I worked all of the above into a 2,800 word feature story which gave a comprehensive overview of the situation surrounding Krome Studios’ demise. This was the first time I’d written anything related to the games industry. As mentioned earlier, it only came about because I was curious to know the facts, and because no-one else was reporting on it. It wasn’t so much a decision – “that’s it, time to become a tech journalist!” – as it was a natural instinct to investigate an interesting and mysterious business development. It just so happened that the business was a video game developer. This led to further stories with IGN.

    What are you most proud of?

    In tech journalism terms, I’m most proud of securing the Krome story within a couple of weeks. It was an international exclusive, and judging by the response and coverage my article received afterwards, a lot of people wanted to know what went wrong with Krome Studios. That story immediately set the bar quite high for my ensuing feature stories for IGN. Since then, I’ve looked at Australian video games education and Australian big-budget game development. While neither were Krome-scale scoops, I’m proud of all three. But the Krome story was my favourite, because I was going where no-one else had gone before.

    Outside of tech journalism, I’m proud of making the most of the five minutes I had to interview hip-hop artist Big Boi – best known as half of the American duo Outkast – backstage in Sydney last November, for TheVine.com.au. It was tough to get something new out of Boi, since he’d been doing interviews – while playing video games – all day, but I eventually broke through with a few well-chosen questions.

    What are some top tips you can give PR pros for working with you most effectively?

    Get to the point. Don’t waste my time, and I won’t waste yours. If you’re emailing or calling me, you should be reasonably sure that I’ll be interested in hearing what you have to say because you’re representing a client who works within an industry that I write about. If this is not the case, don’t email or call. Find someone else who specialises in that particular area. There’s a lot to be said for tailoring your pitches to the right audience, rather than carpet-bombing as many journalists as you can find.

    What did you want to be growing up/ what would you be if not a tech journalist?

    One of my first career aspirations was to write about video games for Hyper Magazine, which I loved dearly throughout my childhood and adolescence. As it turned out, my senior editor at IGN Australia is Cam Shea, who edited Hyper between 2005 and 2007. So in a way I’ve ticked that box, though I tend to write about the business side of games rather than the beautiful graphics and totally sweet gameplay. Which is fine by me.

    Secret hobbies/ talents?

    I’m a passable bassist and competent guitarist. (There’s some evidence on YouTube, but it’s all pretty old footage.) I’m also decent at both IRL soccer and FIFA 11.

    What inspires you?

    Curiosity is my biggest inspiration. I can’t think of anything worse than sitting around, passively reading and accepting information. I want to be out there asking questions and challenging assumptions. That is the role of a journalist.

    Top 5 albums of all time.

    Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy
    At The Drive-In – Relationship Of Command
    Minus The Bear – Highly Refined Pirates
    The Drones – Wait Long By The River And The Bodies Of Your Enemies Will Float By
    The Knife – Deep Cuts

    Top-anything lists are ridiculously tough to answer, especially for a music critic. So these are five albums that I love dearly, whose place in the top five feels justified at the time of writing. (Whether I’d still feel that way tomorrow is another question.)

    What magazines/ publications do you subscribe to?

    Rolling Stone is the only magazine I subscribe to. I read The Weekend Australian and The Courier-Mail‘s Saturday magazine, Qweekend, religiously. Pretty much everything else is consumed online.

    What is the most important lesson you’ve learned about journalism?

    You can’t substitute curiosity, nor fake it. Remove curiosity from any journalistic equation, and it all comes crumbling down. If you’re not genuinely curious and enthused about a particular interview subject, industry, or topic, it’s going to reflect in your writing – in the worst possible way.

    What would your epitaph say?

    “I’ll leave it there.” I tend to say this at the end of every interview. It seems apt.

  • 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 QueenslandGames.com – 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.