Fear and Loathing in Sydney

We’re Bestest!

Most of the stuff you read about in way of the Australian game development industry, has to do with what is taking place in Brisbane and Melbourne. As for Sydney, the only real news for the most part, is LA Noire – who based on recent stats, I’d say actually comprise the bulk of the commercial developers employed in NSW.

Of course, that’s changing, with “new” studios and projects getting up and running. What’s spurred this changed? Funding.

With the (relatively) new NSW Digital Media Initiative, there is actually scope and hope for the Sydney development community to perhaps flourish. That perhaps we can show our sibling cities, just why were the biggest. That perhaps we have the creative culture here, without the pretentiousness of Melbourne. Actually, it’s not that bad as it’s mostly superficial. What I don’t like about Melbourne myself having lived there, is that in being very liberal in lifestyle, you also get a degree of corruption that comes with it – honestly, shopkeepers really need to keep an eye on their merchandise, to a degree that I’ve never seen in any other city.

I guess you can’t have the good without the bad.

And compared to Brisbane, well we have the sunny lifestyle that they have, just not as extreme of weather – personally, I like spring, (our mild) winter and autumn as well. You also get the work ethic and drive that a cosmopolitan city like Sydney has. It’s been said to me before, that Sydney is a great place to work, but, not to live – that it’s focus is on work too much, as is the perception of most large cities. Unfortunately, that’s just a superficial perception like Melbourne being pretentious.

One thing I quite like about Sydney, is no one gives you unnecessary bullshit unless they think it’s deserving or they really think they can get away with it; why it can seem kinda “cold” at times, as we’re not used to that kind of attitude being freely given to anyone and everyone – that said, Australians have their own perceptions of themselves and each other, which foreigners, don’t see other than how warm and easy going we are.

Anyway, you get the idea, that Sydney could become a real development hub and powerhouse for the game development industry. It has the right “mix” to realise its potential, and has nothing, that its sibling cities don’t have.

However, due to a lack of government support, it has remained stunted and stagnant for quite some time If you wanted to do game development in Sydney, you had to rely on other sources of investment – why we have so few studios, especially those that are thriving. What we do have beyond these, is either “gambling” or “interactive marketing” industries – even if they are seen by some as being all the same.

For all intensive purposes, I don’t see the gambling sector as being an issue in regards to this new funding in NSW; perhaps it is something they can tap into, but, something tells me that they don’t need the money. The interactive marketers, on the over hand, are the real contenders that local game development studios and indies will face in securing this funding. These will come in the form of web (fee-for-service) development studios that have some experience developing web games – these games are developed in order to “market” a product, they are NOT the product itself as they are played for free.

The other will come in the form or transmedia, the film industry’s version of game development. I lump it into the interactive marketing basket, in that much of the transmedia development I’m aware of, is in order to develop an “interactive” web-based game – largely text based – as a component to a TV and film property, so as to act as a marketing vehicle for it.

So like the web folks, these projects are a means to and end not the end itself – if I have that saying right. But unlike the web folks, at least their “product” will most likely be “entertainment” based and creative in nature, whereas theirs, will probably be for haemorrhoid cream.

My Sugar in your Gas Tank

Though I don’t necessarily want to paint either industries out to be our mortal enemies; even if I do consider what they think as being “interactive” as being far below the interactive sophistication found within your average game title – even a paid iPhone app, one of the better ones. But rather I just want to highlight the fear that comes to mind from what I see as possibly as the same pattern of abuse arising here in Sydney that has occurred elsewhere.

That pattern being, that there is funding, a fee-for-service (work-for-hire) developer salivates over it. They apply for the funding under the pretence that it is for an original IP title. Though they may have told themselves this, if they’re honest, deep down they know it is complete bullshit. The funding then gets syphoned off so as to support that studio in its ability to secure more fee-for-service work.

In other words, it ends up used as a hand-out to keep themselves afloat in between work-for-hire projects – as has been the accusation and opinion of past development studios, of which the main culprits no longer exist.

Since they have a track record of fee-for-service (work-for-hire) experience working on someone else’s project. Funding bodies love to favour them over others, as it is seen as a wise investment to support the established studio with a business track-record. Even if there is NO evidence of them being able to competently complete a successful original IP title of their own origin; and in the more extreme cases, that the “studio” and “track-record” is really just on paper, as there is NO studio and the track-record lists titles that people are embarrassed to actually have on their resume.

So the independents, pretty much get screwed, as does the local industry in the end. As sooner or later, someone wises up to what is happening, and the available funding, gets cut in half – for everyone.

Personally, I see the web dev studios playing this role in Sydney as they are doing either basic games currently, or, since they’re “web” developers, they’re perceived as being capable of “interactive” games development anyhow – honestly, this is mostly only a superficial similarity. Regardless, web development is usually on a fee-for-service basis for a client. So to me, it’s not that far a reach to see them naturally taking this place in the Sydney development landscape – one such studio, has already been actively hiring for their newly launched game development arm.

As far as the film folks and their transmedia… Honestly, Screen Australia has been supporting them for years – originally such funding was blocked to anyone without an applicant having at least one film or TV credit, last I checked (a few years back) they had loosened that requirement.

I suppose I should explain to people what transmedia development is, and the distinction between it and something that can be seen as being quite similar, multi-platform development. Multi-platform is where you have the largely the same “story” but that it is told on multiple platforms. So that latest AAA title comes out on both PS3 and X360 with little difference in way of content beyond quality of graphics. Transmedia is kinda different, in that is effectively the same story, however, it’s different parts of that story (threads) told via different media.

And that is also a distinction, as game developers think of multi-platform as being limited to console platforms, and/or PC, but in transmedia’s case. It can be across film, TV, web, console, mobile, print, etc – though it’s more likely to be film or tv, and, web and/or mobile. I guess that’s why they call it trans-media, even if their focus is on the former method of cross-platform storytelling as a means of engaging their established audience, growing that audience base, and, retaining it.

The film industry seems enamored with it, thinking that it is the cure to their own lack of “interactivity” and supposedly audience lack of interest in all things non- interactive and social media. Like how 3D is also perceived as being the potential cure in regards to getting people back into the cinema. A number of sub-standard flicks have been convert as an afterthought into 3D, so as to do better at the box office by adding the novelty of this technology. The “interactivity” in transmedia, also for the most part seems to have been tacked-on as an afterthought.

I guess you can get away with it, at least for a while. In that unlike other interactive mediums for storytelling, it is not the end product but just the free marketing component of another product. It is there to market a film and TV property to an audience, building a community around it that is kept attracted to it via online media and games. All so that they will keep on watching, keep the ratings up and therefore not get the show canned – Heroes for example. Sources of income come from other areas, as the transmedia component, is part of their “marketing” budget.

I can see how transmedia for film and TV marketing, could potentially work via a freemium arrangement. Where you initially get the free version, maybe ad supported, but at some point, they hit you up to spend your dollars on stuff. Whether that has or hasn’t happened yet in a transmedia context, I don’t know. From what I’ve seen, it’s been all for free so far, and maybe, there is good reason for that. As when it’s for free, people are willing to put up with a lot less in way of quality as their expectations are lower

Though eventually, like with the Apps market, they are going to want higher quality, even from free apps, as the novelty wares off and the market is saturated with me too clones.

A Squandered Breakaway Title… ?

I don’t want to create animosity to rival that of the past – and lets hope that the guy that was a part of this as well as shaping the “get big and to survive” strategy, doesn’t come back to Sydney. As long as these transmedia projects aren’t merely “marketing” for film and TV properties, that they are something more than that. Then I don’t have that much of a problem with it – I watch more films than play videogames, and find script writing, one of the more accessible writing approaches available, even if not immediately beneficial.

But using this available funding, to waste it upon creating interactive marketing projects, whether that being developed by web or film practitioners. Is to squander a rare opportunity that has been a long time coming.

I know that film folk, aren’t going to take kindly to me saying that, but, that’s how I see it being from where I stand. As for the web folk, well to be honest when I think of web development, I cringe at the thought – I’m not that taken in by Facebook or the supposed profitability of its games; it’s not a market that I’m currently interested in as an indie game developer. But, I know that these are the two direct “competitors” if you will, to game development in more ways than one – especially in Sydney with it’s small and rather insular game development community.

When I think of Rockstar Sydney (Team Bondi) who seem to be finally on track to deliver LA Noire this coming May, having gotten over their irrational fear of HUDs. I have to wonder, what will come of the rather large team?

My guess is that many will come to the end of their contracts and will be looking for work elsewhere – if this hasn’t already started. I know that a good portion of them will end up going to web (coders) and film (artists) based companies. That is those that want to stay in Sydney. A smaller group will go to other cities, and not just those in Australia, so as to work for other game development studios. And I’m assuming, that a small core will remain so as to work on the studio’s next title, if, they’ve planned that far ahead.

But what I hope for, is that with the knowledge some have picked up working with Rockstar staff in getting the project actually finished. That some would strongly consider establishing their own studios and projects. With a high-profile title like LA Noire under their belts – probably with egos to match – they should fair well if they can think small for a change and put together a coherent business plan to support their project(s) – or know someone who can.

That’s how industries truly grow, from the seeds of success of a breakaway title, being spread and fertilized by the recently unemployed.

Anyway, I think Sydney devs of all flavours, should learn from the mistakes that have occurred in other development cities. And make decisions based upon the (sustainable and equitable) long-term, not, (selfish and greedy) short-term.

At the end of it all, web, game and film (TV) people can all learn from one another and maybe even get along. But unless the web and film people take this opportunity seriously, then this watering hole will quickly get poisonous as people ignorantly shit and piss into the same water supply everyone has to drink from and depend upon – and part of that, is either abusing local game devs as cheap labour, or, pretending that you don’t need their expertise altogether. As for game people, I think the biggest risk is their blind naivety and enthusiasm, and, what is taken to be arrogance.

And often it is just that, but perhaps, for good reason. After all in game development, interactivity (gameplay) is king, and we as an industry have a lot know-how (even experience) when it comes to it.

Something indies shouldn’t ever forget ;).

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