All posts tagged ign

  • 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.

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    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 (@NiteShok) is a freelance journalist based in Brisbane, Australia. http://andrewmcmillen.com/

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Finalist for Microsoft IT Journalism Awards of 2010

    I’m a finalist at the ninth annual Microsoft IT Journalism Awards of 2010 – also known as the ‘Lizzies’ – under the category of ‘Best New Journalist’. Details below:

    2010 Lizzies finalists announced

    MediaConnect is proud to present the finalists in the individual categories for the Microsoft IT Journalism Awards for 2010. The winners will be anno unced on Friday April 8th at the Awards ceremony held at Doltone House, Sydney.

    More than two hundred entries were received for the 9th Annual Awards, which will recognise excellence in technology media and journalism for the year of 2010.

    Best New Journalist

    Andrew McMillen
    Ben Grubb
    James Hutchinson
    Josh Taylor
    Lisa Banks
    Luke Hopewell
    Spandas Lui

    For the full list of nominees, visit the Lizzies website.

    This nomination is a result of my coverage of the Australian games industry for IGN Australia. Key stories include:

    Krome Studios: Things Fall Apart, November 2010

    It’s the question that’s been reverberating around the corridors of the Australian game industry for three weeks: what causes Australia’s largest video game development studio to close its doors? Andrew McMillen investigates, and discovers that Krome’s current situation isn’t as clear-cut as first reported.

    Australian Games Education: A 2010 Report Card, December 2010

    Do you want to work in the games industry? The good news is that over two dozen education institutions across Australia offer games-related degrees. But how valuable is having a degree? Are they keeping up with the changing face of development in Australia? And with so many studio closures how many jobs are there anyway? IGN AU finds out…

    A Matter Of Size: The State of Triple-A Game Development in Australia, February 2011

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

  • 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.

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

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

    IGN Advice: Careers in the Games Industry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    For the full article, visit IGN Australia.

  • IGN Australia story: ‘Australian Games Education: A 2010 Report Card’, December 2010

    My second feature story for IGN Australia. Excerpt below.

    Australian Games Education: A 2010 Report Card

    Do you want to work in the games industry? The good news is that over two dozen education institutions across Australia offer games-related degrees. But how valuable is having a degree? Are they keeping up with the changing face of development in Australia? And with so many studio closures how many jobs are there anyway? IGN AU finds out…

    In the wake of Krome Studios’ significant downsizing in mid-October, one fact became very clear: finding employment in the local game development industry was going to be harder than ever before. Though Australia’s largest gaming company surpassed over 400 employees across three studios at one point, their gradual decline eventually returned the vast majority of that talent back into the national job pool.

    All industries move in cycles, and though the Australian game development sector is at a low ebb right now, it’s myopic to believe that things will stay this way forever. Though Krome’s wave broke upon the shore and left a great many stranded – as the saying goes, the bigger they are, the harder they fall – other sectors of the local industry are experiencing periods of unprecedented growth. Krome’s downfall served as a two-prong reminder: that large-scale game development is a high-risk business, and that relying upon overseas publishers’ work-for-hire cheques in a volatile world economy is among the riskiest business in the games industry.

    Disheartening though the events of October 2010 were, as I sifted through the detritus of vindictive former Krome employees and their shattered CEO Robert Walsh, one question kept flitting through my mind: what did this all mean for students graduating with games degrees in 2010? Here they were, about to enter the job market – many of them bleary-eyed, owing to marathon all-nighter sessions spent completing their final projects – only to be shuttled to the very end of the queue. They’d stand behind former staff from Krome, and the handful of other development companies who’ve shuttered in recent years; behind anyone who ever took on a temp QA (quality assurance; game testing) role; behind existing games graduates, many of whose only industry experience is submitting their portfolio to every studio with an email address, and – if they were lucky – participating in a brief internship, arranged on behalf of their educational institution in their final trimester.

    What else but passion could drive these people? To give up several years of their (often young) lives, to willingly put themselves tens of thousands of dollars in debt, just for the slight chance that they’ll be able to make a living making video games in Australia? The answer must be passion, if not madness. Yet here they are: hundreds of them, each year, graduating with degrees in games design, art, animation and programming. On the other side of mortarboards, robes and well-deserved handshakes awaits uncertainty, self-doubt, and a high likelihood of unemployment – within the game development industry, at least.

    Put simply, making games for a living sounds like fun. Given that gaming is the world’s fastest-growing entertainment medium – last year, for instance, Australian consumers spent over $2 billion on video games – it’s unsurprising that tertiary education providers were keen to institutionalise game development, just as they’ve done for practically every other form of creativity. As I discovered, though, investing in a games-specific education in the hopes of obtaining employment within the local industry is a decision of similarly high risk as building your company’s business model around ever-shifting economies and the mood swings of international publishers.

    For the full story, visit IGN Australia. At 6,000 words, it’s the longest article I’ve written. A huge thanks to everyone I spoke with for this story.

  • IGN Australia story: ‘Krome Studios: Things Fall Apart’, November 2010

    My first feature for IGN Australia. Excerpt below.

    Krome Studios: Things Fall Apart

    It’s the question that’s been reverberating around the corridors of the Australian game industry for three weeks: what causes Australia’s largest video game development studio to close its doors? Andrew McMillen investigates, and discovers that Krome’s current situation isn’t as clear-cut as first reported.

    The Precursor

    “Too often, game companies can fall into a production line mentality, and I think that hurts the morale of the employees who are naturally creative people – and in turn the creativity of the company, as a whole.” –Ex-Krome Employee

    As the annual Game Connect Asia Pacific (GCAP) event drew to a close on Friday, October 15, the local games industry’s mood of inspiration, optimism and enthusiasm was given a brutal reality check via whisperings that Brisbane-based Krome Studios was shutting its doors. Word spread among the industry quickly, and reports began appearing on sites like Tsumea that the developer – established in 1999 – was conducting a round of staff lay-offs.

    Such events were not unfamiliar to the Australian gaming industry, as the studio had been through regular rounds of employee redundancy in parallel to a decrease in development contracts. At its peak in July 2009, Krome employed over 400 staff across studios in Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide; four months later, 60 staff were let go, followed by another 50 in April 2010, and then an estimated 100 in August, which brought Krome Studios Adelaide to an end. The company was co-founded in 1999 by CEO Robert Walsh, creative director Steve Stamatiadis, and design director John Passfield, who left Krome in 2005.

    Read the full story – which runs to three pages, and around 3,000 words – on IGN Australia.

    This is the biggest story I’ve written, both in length and in terms of its scope. For three weeks, the Australian gaming industry had been assuming that Krome was dead. I looked closer, and found something different.

    Thanks to the editors at IGN AU, Cam Shea and Narayan Pattison, for taking a chance on this story. As a sidenote, working with Cam on this story closed a nice little circle: as a teenager, I was a big fan of Hyper Magazine, which Cam edited between 2005 and 2007. Thanks also to the ex-Krome employees and gaming industry contacts I spoke with for this story, both on and off the record, as well as Krome CEO Robert Walsh.

    16 November edit: IGN have also published my full interview with Robert Walsh. Read it here.