All posts tagged gaming

  • The Saturday Paper story: ‘The Other Worlds Game: League of Legends and eSports’, October 2016

    A feature story for The Saturday Paper, published in the October 29 2016 issue. Excerpt below.

    The Other Worlds Game

    With hundreds of millions of players, online gaming now has professional ‘eSport’ competitions watched by huge global crowds.

    The Saturday Paper story by Andrew McMillen: 'The Other Worlds Game: League of Legends and eSports', October 2016. Photo by Dylan Esguerra

    Ten young men sit on a stage behind computer monitors deftly manoeuvring mouses and frantically stabbing at keyboards. These two teams of five are the best in Australia at a game called League of Legends, and it is their full-time job to stare at screens while attempting to outsmart their opposition. On a pedestal between them sits the winner’s prize: the Oceanic Pro League (OPL) cup, a gleaming silver trophy lit at all times by an overhead spotlight. Facing the stage is a raucous crowd of 2000 fans who have each paid $26 to sit on a hard plastic seat at the South Bank Piazza, in Brisbane’s inner city, and cheer on their favourite team.

    Hundreds have dressed in custom-made costumes based on their favourite game characters. Two commentators provide a running dialogue of the action, which is displayed on three enormous screens above the players and their machines. Wearing headphones to block external sound, the players communicate with each other via headsets. A battery of green and blue LED lights flashes overhead, while at the front edge of the stage live webcams capture the gamers’ facial expressions above their gaming nicknames: among them Swip3rR, Tally, k1ng and Raes.

    There are also tens of thousands of fans watching the OPL grand final at home on Fox Sports, at several cinemas around the country, and streaming the footage online around the world. Welcome to eSports, short for “electronic sports”. Such competitions have been enormously popular overseas for years, particularly in South Korea, where strategy games such as StarCraft and Defense of the Ancients – or DoTA in the online world’s abbreviated fashion – are watched and played by millions. The OPL 2016 grand final is Brisbane’s best-attended live eSports event to date, and one of the biggest yet held in Australia.

    League of Legends is the world’s most popular online game – the most recent figures this year show that 100 million players log on to its servers each month. LoL is a multiplayer online battle game, where each player controls a “champion” with its own strengths, weaknesses and special moves.

    Leading the Legacy eSports club is Tim “Carbon” Wendel, a 24-year-old health sciences graduate whose boyish features offset a lanky athlete’s body. “It’s kind of a mix between basketball and chess,” he explains. “It’s five-a-side, every person has an individual role, in the same way you’ll only have one centre or point guard, and you’re always moving. It’s obviously a lot less physical, and very strategic like chess, but the difference there is that it’s in real time.”

    Beside him sits Aaron “ChuChuZ” Bland, Legacy’s second-longest-serving member, a 19-year-old in a black hoodie and dark-rimmed glasses. The five members of this minor-premiership-winning team live in a share house in Sydney’s western suburbs with their coach, An “Minkywhale” Trinh. They spend about six hours a day training together by playing friendly matches with other teams. There are also regular video reviews of their performances, and individual practice is expected on top of that. Heading into events such as this, the players will spend up to 12 hours a day in front of a screen.

    To read the full story, visit The Saturday Paper. Above photo credit: Dylan Esguerra.

  • CNET story: ‘Ingress: The Friendliest Turf War on Earth’, February 2015

    A feature story for CNET; excerpt below.

    Ingress: The Friendliest Turf War on Earth

    We embed in the field and go behind the scenes of Google’s augmented reality game, Ingress. Is walking through the streets of hundreds of countries the future of gaming?

    CNET story: 'Ingress: The Friendliest Turf War on Earth' by Andrew McMillen, February 2015

    Eleven of us gather deep in the enemy heartland on a balmy Sunday evening to partake in Operation: Green Court. Meeting in secret, we are agents of the Enlightened, a faction which seeks to advance society through our actions. The enemy will be unaware of our presence until we begin attacking and capturing a long corridor of their prized portals, flipping them from blue to green while figuratively flipping them the bird. Our movements must be coordinated and efficient, as it won’t be long before we attract the attention of the Resistance, the opposing faction which fears change and seeks to crush our idealism and progress.

    In actuality, we are 10 adults and one child meeting on a street corner to bond over our smartphones — specifically, an app called Ingress, a free-to-play augmented reality game that has been downloaded over 8 million times and is being played in more than 200 countries.

    The massively multiplayer mobile game encourages its players to walk around the real world, using data overlaid atop Google Maps to attack and defend real-world public locations known as “portals”. Our common goal for this operation is to turn the suburb green — the colour of the Enlightened, and the colour of the shirt of Aladrin, the 39 year-old agent who arranged this operation via Google+ earlier in the week.

    Milton — an inner-city suburb of Brisbane, Australia — is usually coated in blue, thanks to the dedicated efforts of its Resistance population, many of whom work at nearby IT firms. Our own neighbourhood, just across the Brisbane River, is firmly green-held, but on this Sunday night we’ve set out to ruffle a few blue feathers. Owing to their team colour, Resistance players are commonly referred to as “Smurfs”. The Enlightened tend to self-identify as “frogs”.

    Among the eleven of us is Apocs85, a dedicated level 15 agent who is widely known and respected as the unofficial guardian of Brisbane’s West End. The 29-year-old loves his day job of testing video games, and his Ingress statistics show that he has walked 118 kilometres (73 miles) in the last week while defending and rebuilding portals throughout the inner-city.

    Niantic’s ‘success failure’

    In-game action is shown on our smartphone screens, which act as “scanners” to reveal the portals located all around us. They’re invisible to the naked eye, but with Ingress loaded on our Android or iOS devices, we’re able to see portals attached to structures, artwork, historic locations and buildings of cultural significance — train stations, public parks and post offices are three common examples.

    The portal locations are user-submitted and manually checked by staff at Niantic Labs, the game’s Google-owned developer, to ensure their accuracy and suitability. Globally, more than 3 million such locations have been approved so far, in numbers far greater than expected when the game was first released as a public beta version in November 2012.

    “At Google, we call that a ‘success failure’,” says Niantic Labs founder John Hanke with a chuckle. “It’s a failure because it’s so successful: lots of people submitted portals, which is great, but now it’s more than we can really handle to keep the response time down.”

    To read the full story, visit CNET.

  • 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.

  • 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.”

  • 1UP story: “Rumour: “Massive Layoffs” at Canadian Studio Silicon Knights, October 2011

    A story for gaming website 1UP; my first for them. Excerpt below.

    Rumor: “Massive Layoffs” at Canadian Studio Silicon Knights

    Sources tell us the team has shrunk from 97 to 25 employees.

    All but 25 staff at the Canadian video game development studio Silicon Knights have been laid off, according to sources close to the company.

    Silicon Knights has not officially confirmed the cuts, but two credible independent sources contacted us with the information over the weekend. One wrote that “Silicon Knights has had massive layoffs. They are now down to a core staff of 25 people.” The other said, “It may interest you to note that SK laid off all but 25 employees today.”

    This outcome follows the St. Catharines, Ontario-based studio receiving three recent funding grants, totaling CDN $8 million: $1 million in 2008, invested by the Ontario Media Development Corporation, $4 million in 2010 via the federal government, and most recently, $3 million in July 2011 via the Ontario government.

    Silicon Knights president Denis Dyack stated in July 2011 that the CDN $3 million investment would allow the company to improve its technology, hire 80 new people while keeping 97 current jobs and allow the company to become “self sustaining.” We do not know at this stage what went wrong, nor how the studio’s payroll has shrunk from 97 to 25 in three months. A source says, “I heard they laid off all of HR including Denis’ wife,” in reference to Joanne Dyack, SK’s director of human resources.

    On October 26, another source told 1UP that “you might want to keep an eye on SK in the next few days. If you were connected to many of SK’s directors and producers on LinkedIn, you would be noticing a very disproportionate amount of CV updating and connection-making activity. And yes, I have heard that the worst is happening. Stay tuned.” Silicon Knights’ publicist responded that same day, saying “Silicon Knights is not shutting down and no layoffs have happened at this time.”

    For the full story, visit 1UP. Expect more stories concerning Silicon Knights in the near future.

  • GameSpy story: ‘The Health of the PC Gaming Industry’, October 2011

    A story for GameSpy.com; my first for them. It’s a feature split into two parts: one to discuss the retail side of PC gaming, and one for digital.

    Excerpts from both halves included below.


    The Health of the PC Gaming Industry Part 1: Retail

    Dying or developing – just how is the PC doing?

    If you want to make a hardcore gamer roll their eyes in exasperation, tell them that the PC gaming industry is dead and/or dying. Variations on this well-worn statement have been circulating for years, and it’s never been particularly true. In 2011, it’s less true than ever: thanks to digital distribution, more people are buying and playing PC games, so it’s no surprise that developers and publishers continue to invest heavily in the space. Their efforts don’t necessarily have the goal of extracting gamers’ wallets from pockets, either: the burgeoning ‘free to play’ model is being taken seriously by publishers like EA and Activision. And though the hardcore among you might be loath to admit it, those who choose to while away their hours playing Facebook games are technically PC gamers, too.

    All told, PC game sales accounted for $16 billion in revenue worldwide last year, according to research conducted by DFC Intelligence on behalf of Nvidia. If DFC’s forecasts are to be believed, PC games will eclipse console game sales in 2014, and incur a sense of deja vu among those gamers old enough to remember a pre-console period where the PC ruled the emerging market for home video games.

    In this two-part feature, GameSpy will examine the health of the PC gaming industry across two fronts – retail and digital – in an effort to dispel those pesky death rumours once and for all.

    Bricks and Mortar
    When compared to the reams of laudatory material that have been dedicated to praising the virtues of digital distribution platforms, it’s easy to overlook the roots of PC gaming: the humble bricks-and-mortar retailer, a place where chunky, colourful cardboard boxes containing CD-ROMs once received pride of place on shelves a few short years ago. Though the cardboard boxes have been downsized and the CD-ROM technologically superseded, Steve Nix counters that there’s still a significant market for over-the-counter sales of PC titles.

    As general manager of digital distribution at GameStop, the world’s largest video game retailer – who employ some 17,000 full-time staff, and whose annual earnings in 2010 were $9.47 billion – Nix is well-placed to survey the PC gaming landscape. It also helps that he spent four and a half years at id Software, as director of business development and later, director of digital platforms. He’s been with GameStop since February 2011. “Many years ago, PC games were the largest category for GameStop,” he says. “But PC retail sales didn’t look good over the last ten years. There’s been a steady decline. As a PC gamer first and foremost, that always was very concerning. In the early 2000s, I was wondering, ‘What’s going to happen to the PC? Is it going to become completely extinct at some point, as a gaming platform?'”

    We now know that the answer to this question is a firm ‘no’. At the time, Nix reflects, “my strong belief was that we were seeing a user experience problem with PC games in a retail box, versus console games. Really, if you think about the fastest, easiest way for people to get a game and start enjoying it, it’s the consoles. They offer a really nice experience: you get your game disc, you pop it in, and you’re playing in under a minute. Whereas, by the mid-2000s, for PC gamers, games had gotten quite a bit larger. Before the DVD, you’d have nine CDs for some games. And then you might have to search the web for the latest patches. If you’d done everything correctly, maybe a couple of hours later, you’d actually be playing the game after all this work. Really, I think that a lot of customers who were PC gamers started transferring to the consoles just because the user experience on the PC was poorer at that point,” he reflects.

    According to Nix, all GameStop saw at that point was “the decline of the physical PC box sales, so they decided to focus on the console business. But fortunately, in the last few years, some of the leaders in the PC digital space have been more public about going out with their numbers. They’re seeing amazing growth. That information started to get back to GameStop, who did some extensive research and said, ‘the PC market is thriving, but it’s just shifted online. It makes sense for us to be a major player in the PC digital space’.” The company will invest $100 million in digital initiatives in 2011, according to a report in March. We’ll return to Nix and GameStop’s recent forays into the online marketplace in the second part of this feature, which focuses on the digital market.

    To read the rest of part 1, visit GameSpy. An excerpt from part 2 follows.

    The Health Of The PC Gaming Industry Part 2: Digital
    There’s money to be made in them thar online hills.

    In part one of this feature, we examined the boxed-retail past that many gamers have abandoned. Now we take a microscope to the digital-driven future of PC game distribution, which many gamers have already embraced. Like downloading music, downloading games for your PC makes a shitload of sense: it’s fast, convenient, better for the environment, and you can do it in your underwear and no-one will ever know. Sneaky and classy.

    Where did all the money go?
    Half to 70% of the $4 billion market for downloaded PC games are purchased through a platform named Steam [pictured below right], according to an article published by Forbes earlier in 2011. (Steam operator Valve refused to comment on the accuracy of this claim.) Though Steam was a right royal pain in the ass when it launched in 2002 during the beta period of Counter-Strike 1.6 – any gamer who recalls that frustrating time will no doubt concur – using the software is now as akin to the average PC gamer as breathing and circle-strafing. It’s the gaming equivalent of iTunes. Both are clear market leaders; both maintain an enormous brand loyalty worldwide.

    That same Forbes article quotes North American market research firm NPD Group as stating that, in 2010, “sales of PC games via download outstripped sales of boxed games in stores for the first time”. When I question Valve VP of marketing Doug Lombardi on the significance of this outcome – was this always a goal on the agenda, or happy coincidence? – he cryptically replies, “Our goal has always been to deliver a higher quality of service to the customer, regardless of where or how they purchase the product.” Perhaps enormous consumer uptake and financial success was always going to be a consequence of aiming to develop the market’s best digital distribution platform.

    Lombardi makes it clear that Valve still values traditional retail and healthy competition in the digital distribution market. “We don’t advise folks to skip retail, or other digital outlets,” he says. “Every publisher and developer should consider the widest possible distribution possible.” I’m curious as to how he pitches the service to prospective Steam clients – from indie developers, to the world’s biggest publishers. “We start with the 30 million-plus gamers connected to the service, the instant access to data on their Steam sales, and the increasing number of Steamworks features we offer free of charge such as matchmaking, anti-piracy, support for in-game DLC, and more.” Also of note is Lombardi’s eyebrow-raising claim that “Steam has grown over 100% year-over-year for the past six years.” A userbase of 30 million is a fairly compelling reasoning for both developers and publishers to do a deal with Steam, I’d imagine.

    Game developers such as Tripwire Interactive are among the legions of Steam supporters. The Roswell, Georgia-based studio – creators of Red Orchestra 2 and Killing Floor – have been fans since they signed up in 2005. “And we still are”, says vice president Alan Wilson. “They still have that Valve sense for what the people buying the games actually want, will give it to them at a good price, good customer service – and they treat the developers/publishers right as well. They’re always easy to work with. There are other good services out there – D2D, GamersGate and so on. But until Steam either starts getting it all wrong, or the others find some miracle formula, Steam will stay king of the pile.”

    To read the rest of part 2, visit GameSpy.

  • 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

  • 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?

    Interested?

    Andrew

    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 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.