game development

Game Development – Canada vs Australia

A couple of weeks ago Parker sent me a link to a video about the Canadian games industry (via VillageGamer). In the video someone explains that if you want to make a great movie you're going to Hollywood, but if you want to make a great game you're going to Canada.

Canada's industry is impressive, some of the world's biggest studios are located in development hotspots like Montreal or Toronto. Recent blockbusters like Assassin's Creed Brotherhood were made in Canada.

In my new home of Australia, on the other hand, the industry experienced a downturn in the last years. The latest victim is Krome, the country's largest developer, which went bust last month.

It's an interesting development because Australia has some decisive advantages in terms of games development, a lot of which also apply to Canada.

Encouraged by the small domestic market, Australian studious successfully positioned themselves as international players.

Given the media history of Austrlia, the entry into the political economy of the game industry was facilitated by pre-existent patterns of a close integration into a globalised audio-visual trade. Australia was always very active in importing and exporting media.

The post-Fordist nature of game development and the industry behind it was reflected by the country's long history of post-Fordist practices in other media fields. Post-Fordist in this case meaning a lean mode of organisation and contracting out work as well as creative freedom and the absence of any "localism".

In addition, a tradition of a pronounced commercial awareness encouraged a mindset that was conducive in terms competitiveness and creating outside markets.

Australia's socio-cultural traditions helped to facilitate the creation of content which by means of its accessibility had a wide appeal. Due to Australia's egalitarian traditions, not only in terms of consumption but also in regard to production the priority was given to games which were comparatively easy to pick up and play.

This constituted an advantage on the crucial US market which, for example, shunned German games as too complicated. The more accessible titles of Australian game studios, on the other hand, stood closer to American sensibilities.

An important aspect in this regard is that Australia is an English-language production centre. This, in combination with its cultural alliances, made it easier for developers to take advantage of predispositions which appealed to important markets. Similar to other media, Australian studios could easily 'play' at being American and British.

Together with a small national market and the accompanying necessity to open markets abroad, this caused developers to not really see themselves as specifically Australian developers. Their standards were set by international criteria. They marketed themselves like game developers in the UK or the US.

Similar to previous media, this meant that locally produced content was not so much valued with reference to itself as with reference to imported product. Australian studios had to conform to international models and standards in order to succeed locally. While this posed a challenge it also meant that it was easier for them to internalise international best practice.

One could argue that Australia is geographically removed from the centres of Western game production. But this also gives it an advantage in terms of production schedules. Due to the time difference, by the end of the day Australian developers can send their work to other studios whose working day just started.

So why is Canada's industry booming while Australia is facing problems?

One of the main reasons is that Australia's work for hire model doesn't work anymore.

In the current economic climate it is almost impossible to green light games, and the competition for 'work-for-hire' contracts is so fierce that studios are spending months on developing incredibly elaborate prototypes, yet are still not winning the tenders. Also, given many publishers are based in the US where the economic downtown has arguably hit hardest, their priority is to ensure their own internal studios have enough work.

This problem is further complicated by the strong Australian Dollar which makes outsourcing to Australia unattractive. Skill wise, Eastern European developers are catching up and are able to deliver their work at much cheaper rates.

While a lot of Australian developers were working on (often rushed) licensed titles they did not create original IP to base future operations on and improve their cash flow (which is also due to the absence of an Australian publisher who could support local development).

Compared to Australia, Canada also has the decisive advantage of offering generous tax breaks to game developers. So generous in fact that the UK government handed a complaint to the WTO as they believe it constitutes an unfair practice.

Australian developers have long called for similar tax breaks on a federal level; however, so far nothing happened. Australia, it seems, does not take the industry as seriously as Canada.

Tax incentives would certainly not be the white knight that rescues the industry. Yet they would help Australia to gain a competitive edge in the international political economy of game development (It is doubtful, though, that its industry will become as big as Canada's in the next years).

It also needs to be pointed out that there areas of game development in Australia that are alive and well. Especially the development on iOS platforms is thriving. As was often the case, Australians were early adopters of new technologies and quickly made a considerable impact on the industry (not the least due to the reasons mentioned above).

Games by Halfbrick (Fruit Ninja, Raskulls) and Firemint (Flight Control, Real Racing) show that Australia is ready for the future. It is in a very good position to create great content of worldwide appeal. It just needs some help to fully realise its full potential.


My New Job in the Gaming Business

While Parker is wasting away his time I entered the workforce. Last month I started a job at a recently-founded game design studio in Berlin. Currently, my main job is writing the design document. A design document is basically communicating the overall vision of a game to each and every team member. It's goal is to describe the overall concept of the game, target audience, gameplay, interfaces, controls, characters, levels, media assets, etc. In short, everything the team needs to know about the design of the game.

It gives programmers an idea of what modules are going to be used, artists know how interfaces will look like and so on. Basically, as Tracy Fullerton puts it in "Game Design Workshop", a "good design document is like sound blueprints for a building. Everyone on the team can refer to and add comments while they do their separate tasks and understand how their work fits into the game as a whole."

The documents ensures that everyone is directing their efforts towards a common goal and not interpreting what they know about the tittle in their own unique ways.

Accordingly, I have to communicate with the whole team. As we're still preparing the prototype, I mainly talk to the main game designer (my boss and the founder of the studio), the artist responsible for the characters and visual design of the game world and the author of the game's story. This is to agree on the fundamentals of the title.

At the same time, this document will also be the basis of a pitch to the owner of the platform we are planing to release the game on and publishers. As such it also needs to be concise and very visual, containing concept art, flowcharts etc.

The document will end up having between 50 - 100 pages, and it may also include subsections or sub-documents on certain aspects of the game which need a more detailed explanation. There's still a way to go but the job is actually quite fun.

One of the reasons this is so fun because although this document is traditionally written by the main game designer,  this work was delegated to me. This means that I also have some input in regard to the game's design. Yesterday, for example, I spent most of my day trying to think of possible achievements and how they would influence the game play. I loved it.

Of course I'm quite curious  to see how the final product will develop. I can't wait to play the prototype!