Welcome To Your Future

Everyone has to answer to someone…

Well, it’s been 5 months since my last blog. I guess I can make excuses, that I’ve been very busy, which I have. But honestly, all it takes is a different approach, writing shorter blogs for example. And that problem is solved. I think part of the problem was just not having anything I cared to write, especially gaming.

I suppose I have myself to blame on that front, having spent more time recently playing big budget AAA titles over finding and playing smaller, low-budget indie games instead. The AAA front is rather stale and “design by financial numbers,” or at least, that is the impression it has left me with.

And, I have been busy working on projects. One to do with being finally able to publish my masters research; hopefully the offer to publish the material has not withdrawn. The other project is DigiZen, which I was lucky — or unlucky depending upon your point of view and experience with raising funding — to receive funding for. It wasn’t the amount I asked for, which has delayed its development some. Anyway, the first video of the game I put up a little while back:

It’s of the dungeon gameplay prototype as part of a submission for this year’s IndieCade. Whilst working on it I got a reply from Screen Australia in regards to a Digital Ignition funding app I put in earlier in the year. Basically it was unsuccessful. I sent an email asking for some form of explanation, feedback, initially none was provided and I was too busy to focus my time on this negative news.

Getting a chance to think about this, I decided to chase this up and get some answers.  In my case, I was spurred on to find out why my project was unsuccessful in that it was fairly clear that it was out of the running from the very beginning of the evaluation process. I finally obtained the feedback by indicating my intention to contact the Commonwealth Ombudsman if it was not forthcoming — I decided that silence was not answer enough.

Digesting the feedback and wrestling a while on it and my intent to take it further, I decided to post it up in that it will at least shed some light on the process for some and perhaps explain how and why projects get approved for funding.

The following is a summary that reflects the opinion of the two Screen Australia assessors in regards to DigiZen:

“The application for DIGIZEN is thorough on every front, and the passion of the developer is clear from these extensive materials. There is admirable ambition in the game narrative but the complexity feels at odds with the game mechanic, and risks undermining rather than enhancing the game play. The game mechanic feels slow and might need to be more dynamic and intuitive to compete with other digital download titles. The proposal showed encyclopaedic knowledge of the influences and predecessor games but could be accused of feeling derivative without bringing enough new to the table. From a professional development and sustainability perspective, the application would have been more compelling had the developer been less of a ‘one-man-band’. It places extraordinary pressure on an individual to be able to perform all required roles at a professional standard, and Screen Australia will frequently preference teams over individuals. In some cases this can be compensated for by previous experience, but there was no evidence that the applicant had personally shipped a game, and the most relevant credits were dated. Furthermore, the applicant has been supported for funding previously (MEME) and unfortunately was unable to advance that project beyond the agency funds. The support from [REMOVED] was encouraging and the applicant is to be commended for attracting [REMOVED]’s interest. Screen Australia is no stranger to this type of gaming. It was disproportionately represented in the round and also in our funding decisions. Therefore, diversity of slate put increased pressure on the decision.”

A picture is worth a thousand words…

Let’s now break it down and read between the lines and uncover some of the subtext, as much as this “summary” allows:

“The application for DIGIZEN is thorough on every front, and the passion of the developer is clear from these extensive materials.”

This means very little. It’s a disclaimer of sorts, in that you start off with a positive comment so that no one can accuse you of being just negative and vindictive. I also think that the assessor(s) did not look at all these materials in depth, especially the document I prepared outlining the limitations of the prototypes and what my intent was.

“There is admirable ambition in the game narrative but the complexity feels at odds with the game mechanic, and risks undermining rather than enhancing the game play. The game mechanic feels slow and might need to be more dynamic and intuitive to compete with other digital download titles.”

As I was saying, if they had read the doc, or bothered to read the initial tutorial prompts that are hard to miss, they would know that the game narrative — dynamic narrative system mechanics — has been set up for testing. It is not set up as you would find it in the final game. The mechanics need more work and some are even missing. If they had read that, or, not treated the prototype as if it were the final game. Then they would understand that it did not represent the final product but was only developed enough to show the complexity that the system was capable of.

The game mechanic I take it is in reference to the dungeon gameplay prototype. Yes, it was rather slow in pacing to do with how the turn-based play was set up. There were issues with it and plans on how to improve it. Though the video is poor in quality, dull in colour and jittery, with the audio out of sync with the visuals by the end of it. It does show that this system(s) have been improved upon. However, I am still not happy with it and will keep on working on it until I am happy with it.

Regardless, this was all mentioned in the app. Either they didn’t read it or they did but chose to ignore it anyway when making a decision.

I also find the wording of it interesting, in that they seem to think there is only one mechanic to the game or that the game narrative system is not a mechanic. I’m also assuming that what they mean by game mechanic is actually the dungeon gameplay prototype. Games are made up of all kinds of mechanics. Games are a collection of mechanics, some encapsulating others. You can even argue that another way of saying mechanic is object, to use software terminology.

My point is that they don’t sound very competent in their grasp of the fundamentals based upon what I’ve read.

“The proposal showed encyclopaedic knowledge of the influences and predecessor games but could be accused of feeling derivative without bringing enough new to the table.”

Either this means that they can see how it can come across this way but know that is not the case and have decided to use it against the project anyway. Or, they don’t know whether it is or isn’t the case so on the safe side, they are just going to say it is the case.

Anyway, the comments are in regards to my use at the start of elevator pitches and other games — including screenshots — as a way of communicating the game concept clearly and as succinctly as possible without having to take several pages and have concept art created. There was no funding for that whilst creating the prototypes.

I guess it is no longer safe to use these if people will accuse you of being derivative. Which is probably the case, in that if you know anything about games, you will know that an original idea is very rare.

“From a professional development and sustainability perspective, the application would have been more compelling had the developer been less of a ‘one-man-band’.”

It’s funny, accompanying the feedback I got were a bunch of links to past funding recipients. One was Brawsome. If I am not mistaken, Brawsome is largely one guy, Andrew Goulding. I’m sure that he periodically works with contractors but really I can’t see it being more than a ‘one-man-band’ operation. He makes all the creative calls and does a lot of the leg work himself. Can’t say for certain, as though he’s one of my LinkedIn network contacts, I’ve never talked to the guy and really don’t know him. But I suspect that this is the case and it brings to mind something I saw recently that Sony Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida said about indies and Vita:

Yoshida says: “When games are made by a small number of people, the creative vision of one person really shines through the entire game. That’s really where we find some magic happens.”

I mention this in that the other links provided weren’t all that impressive. I think it is because the creative vision of one person did not shine through.

As far as the ‘one-mand-band,’ I was NOT a one man operation. For the prototypes I had worked with a contract coder. I also listed in the app additional contractors that had given me permission to list their details as they were interested in being apart of the project. One was for art, the other was for audio. Then there was another’s support listed, that would have made the marketing side at the very least less of a headache for me.

I also find the ‘one-mand-band’ comment as somewhat derogatory.

“It places extraordinary pressure on an individual to be able to perform all required roles at a professional standard, and Screen Australia will frequently preference teams over individuals.”

How nice, they’re concerned for my well-being. Well, not really it more of a cheap shot in that they’re painting a picture of me not being able to deliver anything of quality. It also clearly disregards the “team” of contractors I put forward as part of the proposal.

“In some cases this can be compensated for by previous experience, but there was no evidence that the applicant had personally shipped a game, and the most relevant credits were dated.”

Anyone can ship a game, the real question is whether it was worth shipping to begin with. There have been many devs that have shipped numerous titles but have never had any commercial or critical success with their titles. These titles may have been technically competent development-wise, but they were lacking in various respects. If I wanted to ship a game, I probably could churn out something competent within 2 months.

And the principles of development, of game and level design, don’t actually date as much as people would expect. It is more the technology and tools that we use in creating games that tends to. That is until a platform arrives, like the iPhone, that makes the old new again.

I’ll say something else on the matter of the picture that the assessor is painting, that because I haven’t worked on a shipped title since Far Cry, that I am not competent. It’s something I am sick of, in that when I came back from Germany and working on Far Cry, I could not get any work as a designer in Australia, no matter what I did to show that I had a lot to offer. Actually, the reason I went to work on Far Cry, was because of this.

Unfortunately events in the world meant that nations were tightening up their borders, and places like Germany were no longer as open. I also had developed a need to work in countries were they spoke a language I could understand. Let’s just say that having worked for a period of time in a small German town, where I had little time to learn the language and we game devs must have seem awfully funny to the slower paced locals. Well, I know what it’s like to be a foreigner who isn’t entirely welcome; it’s not an experience I was eager to revisit anytime soon. Unfortunately, my lack of a university degree meant that I was barred from English speaking job markets — I now have a masters.

If it weren’t for DigiZen, I would aim to find out whether working overseas again is now an actual possibility. As I’ve grown tired of Australia’s treatment, as many others have as well.

“Furthermore, the applicant has been supported for funding previously (MEME) and unfortunately was unable to advance that project beyond the agency funds.”

Lets put this one in perspective, shall we.

In 2004 (8 years ago) I put in a funding app with the Australian Film Commission via their Strand V development stream for a project called Meme. If memory serves me correctly, this funding stream was intended for the development of pitching materials in order to secure additional investment with. It had a limit of A$15,000 that could be applied for, with Strand W allowing for up to A$50,000 in matched funding — to get it you had to get another source of funding to match it dollar for dollar.

With Far Cry (PC, 2004) being my most recent project, I knew that a project of mine would be more likely to secure funding if it was something that was seen that I had strong experience for. So, I pitched a shooter concept, that had some ambitious ideas to do with AI to power the gameplay and narrative experience — a continuation of ideas I had for Far Cry that weren’t seen as important as pretty hardware intensive graphics.

You have to put this into context. There were no free-to-develop-with-immediately low cost middleware solutions like UDK and Unity — the best was Torque for U$500 and it really was not up to the job. For example the Unreal 3 engine was something like U$350-750,000 to license, Fear around $250,000, Source had no public details listed and this was before it was “free” of sorts. I had limited business experience. I had no programming qualifications — now I do — and I still have under-developed 3D modelling and animation skills; and sites like OpenGameArt.org didn’t exist.

This was before the advent of digital distribution and the iPhone app store. This was before there being a range of funding sources for games — really, in Australia the AFC was it unless you were based in Victoria. This was before games were really taken seriously at all, especially from a business perspective. This was just as the indie scene was gaining momentum.

I exhausted all avenues. I put the concept in with international publishers, pointless when you don’t have a demo. I hunted down and approached angel investors, venture capitalists — most were a waste of time, with a few only being interested in getting me involved in their own projects whilst one or two just being douche-bags. I attended every free business workshop I could find, especially those to do with entertainment — like the music business. I put the project into any and all competitions I could find, and applied for what grants I could find.

Again I reiterate, this was before games were taken seriously and before the rise of the indie.

Concept art mostly by this guy and some by this guy

For all this I managed to get people involved — on paper only, no one but me lifted a finger — even if some had ulterior motives. And in the process had to put up will all manner of arseholes telling me how it could never be done — since then many of the features I proposed had been done by other shooters and the case is being made for others in areas similar to what I proposed. I ended up writing it up as a learning experience and nothing more and enrolling in a 2 year programming course at TAFE.

I still would like to revist Meme in the future, but the ridiculous contract I had to sign with the AFC for what is pocket-change when you consider the budget a title like it would require, means that I will probably never develop a game by that name or create any derivative works based upon it — unless they just happen to be the “spiritual successor” to in limbo Meme.

Anyway, my point is that I did everything I possibly could at the time in order to get the project moving forward before shelving it. However the moral to this part of the story, is that if you borrow money from the AFC — now Screen Australia — it will be held against you in the future if the project never “ships.” Even if it was a lousy A$15,000 for the creation of concept art and pitching documents 8 years ago, in a development environment where getting any game project funding was extremely difficult and avenues for indies, such as digital distribution and marketing, were non-existent or only just beginning to materialize as a realistic option.

It will in all likelihood be held over your head for the rest of your life.

“The support from [REMOVED] was encouraging and the applicant is to be commended for attracting [REMOVED]’s interest.”

A hollow commendation made more to indicate that this part of the application was “recognized” so that no one (meaning me) can claim it wasn’t used as part of the evaluation. Ultimately it matters little now, in that the more delay there is in funding the project, the more likelihood others will lose interest and walk away no matter what potential they saw in the beginning. As a lack of funding slows development which means things get dated very quickly and in this twitter age, you need to generate a constant stream of progress for people to retain interest in what you are doing.

Gaining and retaining support, however limited, can be rather fickle that way.

“Screen Australia is no stranger to this type of gaming. It was disproportionately represented in the round and also in our funding decisions. Therefore, diversity of slate put increased pressure on the decision.”

Apparently they received a lot of: dungeon-puzzler games set in cyberspace with a strong dynamic hacker narrative driving gameplay.

More likely they had a bunch of projects submitted that all had “-puzzler” as part of their project description. This does not mean that they were all identical in gameplay or respective components and ambition of vision. It just means that in the 2 year period since I conceived of DigiZen, others have cottoned on to this being a successful hybrid formula in particular for app games. Taking other genres and injecting a good dose of puzzler mechanics.

Regardless, I am curious to see just how many of the projects that secure funding have strong and innovative mechanics when it comes to narrative; a core purpose to the Digital Ignition funding that Screen Australia administers.

I’m also curious to see what level of prototypes or proof-of-concepts were submitted by these successful applicants. As apparently you need to submit a complete and polished game demo in order to get funding in order to develop one — just one of the expressions of Catch 22 I have found whilst playing the funding game. Or in my case, shipped the game in order to get funding to develop the demo for it.

Seize the day…

You might think I am making a big mistake in making this public or intending to take the matter up further with the Commonwealth Ombudsman. As it may not make any difference at all to the outcome. But the reality is is that this is not the first time I’ve been knocked back for funding by Screen Australia — and the AFC — and this feedback of theirs indicates that I will never be successful in securing funding from them for any project.

I have nothing to lose in that respect.

I also still have many questions that I want answered about the application process, in particular, what makes an assessor qualified to pass judgement on you and your project. I also wish to know whether the assessors in my case, meet Screen Australia’s “Conflict of Interest” policy.

I know that some assessors actually have little if no actual development experience, and comments I have read make me think that some are just a tad bit arrogant when it comes to the job. Arrogance born of the belief that they have power over those that submit projects and there is nothing that can be done about it as no one knows who they are. That on a whim, they can determine whether your project gets funding or not; for slights either real or imagined. Because Screen Australia in particular lacks transparency in their process and a chance for applicants to defend themselves from what are often naive and gross assumptions made by assessors. The kind that sees you get a quarter of the funding you asked for documents instead of a demo.

Unless you do your never going to know and nothing is ever going to progress for the betterment of all.

Last year was a bad year that ended in a death. I was hoping that it was just an end cap to what’s been a bad decade overall. This year has been a mixed bag you could say, and optimistically, I’ve been of the mind that it is too close to call yet as to whether it is bad, good or just so-so. That was until I pushed to get this feedback.

I’ll be damned if I’m going to let it become another bad year without a fight.

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