Friday, January 25, 2013

Our Response to the Australian Interactive Games Fund Option Paper

We've responded to the Screen Australia Interactive Games Fund (AIGF) option paper. We're reposting it here so you can all take a look.
Australian Interactive Games Fund Options Paper

Response by David Surman, Pachinko Pictures
January 25th, 2013

The Australian Interactive Games Fund will transform the Australian game development sector. It will accelerate the changes that have already reshaped the production landscape of the country, away from work-for-hire and license title development and toward a more agile independent business community, with small to medium size businesses at the core of the emerging new games sector. The suggested structure in the options paper, with it’s emphasis on pre/production and enterprise make sense and compare with other international examples. We suggest that a dedicated fund for cultural enterprise be integrated into the paper, to properly reflect the commercial and competitive reality of contemporary game development, where public engagement, community building and demonstration constitute an essential part of professional life.  

Who Are We?
Pachinko Pictures is an indie game development studio based in Melbourne, established in 2010 by Ian Gouldstone and me, David Surman -- two British expats. Together we have worked for over 20 years in games, animation and film production. We’ve also worked as teachers and researchers -- before committing full time to Pachinko Pictures, I worked for 8 years as as University Lecturer teaching game development, co-founding the undergraduate degree in computer game design at the Newport School of Art. My experiences as a GameCity/ACMI curator, teacher and freelance practitioner inform my perspective on the AIGF, because I see developers in Australia going through many of the same contractions and changes that we saw in the UK over the past decade. I’d like to offer such a view for consideration by the Screen Australia panel. As immigrants to the Australian game development community, we’re excited about the effective use of this fund.

The Fund
We strongly believe that the AIGF fund should provide financial assistance to developers and businesses working on original material. As an addition to the current outline, we believe that such a fund should also assist in the development and sustainability of games culture. Festivals and events are platforms for developers to professionalise as individuals, grow their businesses and play a significant role in the improvement of products and culture. We would like to see some of the fund apportioned to cultural enterprise initiatives that directly support the national games sector.

Funding of this sort doesn’t exist in the UK. Australia has a huge international advantage in that funding is made available at both the state and federal level. Because of that lack of funding, a great deal of importance has been placed on national events such as GameCity and Eurogamer Expo, and also on graduation projects. In the UK graduate and freelance designers are acutely vulnerable because of the lack of available public funds to allow them to make their own work, stifling innovation. Australia has a unique opportunity to insulate a generation of game developers and foster a wealth of new projects and businesses, and create a robust scaffold for graduates to move into independent production.       

History & Context
I want to talk about some of the key issues that I see interconnecting over the past 10 years in the UK, and how they relate to the games sector here in Australia. Game development in the UK really began to change in the early 2000s, and only recently have we begun to take stock of those changes. I started teaching game production to undergraduate animators back in 2002, providing them an alternative perspective and possible career track to the ailing animation industry which was going through major transitions. Commissioners shifted away from service-based studios to overseas outsourcing, leaving only directors working in the UK -- a reflection of the changes to Australian game development where Publishers closed Australian interests because of the cost effectiveness of other markets.

Animators, much like game devs, are creatures of comfort and habit. Among my students there was a strong expectation to work within a rigid studio production culture, perhaps bolstered by the press image of large US studios in the mould of Pixar. These young people placed great importance on securing a full-time position upon graduation at any game studio that would take them, and when quizzed would say without hesitation that “you need to get industry experience”. I tended to agree, and in those first few years after graduation students would cut their teeth and develop a sense of how game making really happens. The veil would be lifted, and graduates would exchange their romantic view of the game development process for practical realities and pragmatism. Our graduating animators found jobs in games studios like Rockstar and Blitz Games.  

Then when things began to become more uncertain within the global financial markets, game studios began to feel the squeeze. The studios that didn’t close went through tough times, sometimes involving restructuring, and certainly the number of graduate opportunities went down. In opposite trend to this decline, I saw a raft of new opportunities for independent development. This new movement was gaining real momentum in around 2003. In the UK, most of the degree courses had adopted a strong industrial focus that catered to the large number of studios in their respective area -- take for instance those in the north of England at Teeside University. The emergence of industry skills accreditation and Skillset helped parents skeptical of studying game development to make an informed choice about where to send their kids, and likewise studios could better locate skilled graduates.

In 2003 James Manning and I launched the BA Computer Games Design degree at Newport. When we founded our degree we believed that industry skills were crucial, but at the same time there had been some new developments in game technology and culture that meant alternatives were emerging on the horizon. We wanted to shift the focus from solely “hands” to “hands and minds”, fostering the next generation of designers with leadership skills, directing nounce and creative agility on top of taken-for-granted skills to use the necessary yet ever-changing tools.  

For students, bedroom developers and hobbyists, the barriers to making games lowered as tools became standardised and available. Newly available tech such as the Unreal engine could be used as the basis for new independent productions. Then in what seemed like a very short period of time, the Independent Games Festival launched as part of GDC, Indiecade emerged, and in the UK GameCity kicked off. Our degree took the view that as games developed, and in an effort to “future proof” the skills of graduates, a focus on the directorial and creative development aspects of game production would put them on the right side of history, as the number of production positions diminished and studios began to outsource labour overseas. In a clear repeat of what happened to the animation industry, UK game developers would have to reorient their business around the only kernel of development that couldn’t be outsourced -- idea generation and creative direction. As I see it, the “manufacturing” paradigm of the old studio system became it’s own worst enemy as studios competed for license work, and studio overheads prevented the release of teams to develop original IP.

Sensing that traditional industry placement was changing, the burgeoning indie scene gave a name and a destination to the kind of games that our graduates were and continue to produce. In time the message of our degree began to reach the ears of those prospective students who had become interested in alternatives to conventional industry placement, and who actively set out to be independent developers upon graduation.

At the same time, many who had been working in the studio system of the UK were becoming both skeptical of the longevity of the business, and curious about developing content for new platforms such as Steam, XBOX XBLA and PlayStation Network. Graduates understood that they would work independently, and we taught them accordingly. Experienced developers we knew were leaving companies in large numbers to set up smaller studios to pursue their own projects. Festivals like GameCity began with a question, “can games be culture?” and in the process of curating their content pulled together the work of graduates and experienced designers.

I worked as curator to GameCity, collaborating with director Iain Simons and the team to mould the event. The festival has become a platform for game developers from studios, graduates, soon-to-be-graduates and indies to showcase their work in a novel format that enables them to engage with real audiences. “GameCity is a unique celebration of culture” is the definitive tagline explaining the event, but very real business happens in the midst of play and conversations.

Many major titles of the past few years such as Little Big Planet, Noby Noby Boy, Joe Danger and Thomas Was Alone were showcased at GameCity in their early stages, and this cultural platform enabled the developers to gauge the viability of their product and its potential performance in the marketplace. In the UK right now, if you’re a developer looking to showcase your game, you know that GameCity is the place to do it, because you’ll meet many other developers, you’ll engage the public in playing your game, and you’ll get a comprehensive sense of where the broader standard for production sits at that time. You can take your game to market with both eyes open, having had it tested at this cultural event. At the same time you’ve given something back, explaining to the curious and the ambitious how you go about making games.

How We Work
The journey from graduation, to festival demonstration, to international events such as GDC, to further indie development (perhaps of their graduation project), to the sale of a game on one of several digitally distributed marketplaces -- this is how more and more young designers are going to be working, and how many experienced developers are already working. It’s not so different to film after all. Taken together, it’s still an industry, but many more people are working independently than ever before.

We think that the pre/production and enterprise funding split is strong and suits the needs of a variety of companies at different stages. At the same time, it provides a model for individuals or collectives to progress from graduation into business independence; progressing from discrete project funding to enterprise funding and beyond. Where the fund falls short is providing resources for the cultural context of communities of practitioners across Australia.

Ian and I work together as Pachinko Pictures, and we both have backgrounds in animation prior to working in games. As a studio we would benefit from project funding and enterprise funding. We would use the project funding to create original game titles and develop our existing original properties further. We would use enterprise funding to develop our human resources, bringing one or two skilled staff into the full-time studio team. Our ambitions for Pachinko Pictures no doubt reflect those of the many micro-studios across the country who find it difficult to raise the appropriate capital necessary to grow their companies and develop their projects.

We trained as animation directors, and have always placed great importance on original ideas. We created award winning work and benefited hugely from the often sponsored trips overseas to speak at festivals and events. Our commercial clout was developed and tested by our ability to engage with overseas colleagues and audiences. Since the turn of the millenium, game development has begun to embrace a culture of festival competition and there are now many showcase events around the world.

There is a minimum expectation from the independent community now that developers should engage with games culture events in order to expect justified returns in the form of reviews, downloads and cross promotion. The remote nature of the Australian experience means that it is financially difficult for developers to attend the number of events that their counterparts in North America or Europe might attend. As such it is imperative that any fund to support the sustainable growth of new talent and IP in Australia should further support a strong domestic games festival presence.

There is a lot of incredible talent here in Australia, but they lack the competitive advantage of engaging with a wide variety of events and festivals. Seen from the perspective of two equally strong developers heading to GDC in March -- one from the UK, the other from Australia -- the British developer will have had many opportunities to demonstrate their game, while the Australian developer will have had perhaps only half a dozen. In the world of design iteration, audience engagement and community management that now defines the games industry, an Australian development scene should safeguard its national events calendar with a dedicated funding opportunity. Events such as Freeplay, GCAP, LunarCade, Lets Make Games, ARGGGH Adelaide, and Gametech have emerged from a wide variety of different contexts, but play a crucial role in developing Australian talent.

Like the students I taught a decade ago, Australian graduate expectations are changing; with the decline of the studio system that previously existed, many graduates focus on the entrepreneurial goal of being an independent developer. The talent left over from the crash of studio after studio is now organised and ready to work, albeit in a very different way than before. The AIGF provides an excellent framework for the new generation of developers to take the next step in their professional practice, and will allow others to pivot their business goals toward the development of original IP. Our hope is that the fund will also help to resource the cultural environment in which the productions take place across Australia, for the sake of producing better games and better developers, and attracting international interest in the region.    

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Creating ‘Take A Walk’ for Soundplay

One Month
Yesterday our new game Take A Walk was launched; the fifth release in the Soundplay series, produced by Kill Screen for Pitchfork, and funded by Intel. It’s a music video game, which is like a music video but playable like a video game. It feels like something very new and exciting to be doing, making games in collaboration with bands, and we were very lucky to have the opportunity to work with an awesome track by an awesome band -- Passion Pit.

The production of this game was a non-stop sprint from beginning to end. Something strange happens when you spend all day in your studio and rarely make it back home before midnight. That lived-in quality that we take for granted starts to diminish, a little each day. After a week or so you return home, only to realise that the atmosphere of home has migrated to the place you spend most of your time. Studio and home switch, and sleeping becomes a brief interlude in that strange place equipped with the shower and the kitchen.

As a studio, we’ve worked on short projects before. Every design company does it; a job comes in, and you evaluate, can I fit it in among all the other things that I’m doing? Something like sorting mail, you hope to pack the big things first into your schedule, and then sandwich smaller projects in to keep things varied.

Graphic design and illustration scale in such a way that a small job is just that, small. A logo here, some typesetting there. But videogames are a bit different. Even when they appeal to a simple look and feel, underneath the surface there’s so much stuff going on. Programmers and artists labour to create something that delivers a consistent experience, and sidesteps any question of how.

To return to the the post room metaphor: games are generally big packages, and the people making them have a good sense in advance of when they’re coming and when they’re being delivered. It’s an interesting challenge to create a game quickly in between other big jobs. In addition to the challenge of making games because of their technological complexity, there is also the social complexity of making games -- of bringing several different people together around a common goal.

With all that in mind, we happily took the opportunity to create a game in collaboration with the game culture company Kill Screen, to be delivered from start to finish in just under a month. When the project is exciting then good sense and organisational platitudes go out of the window; you commit all your resources to making the project happen.

After a couple of false starts connected to problems with the music approvals process, we kicked off the project mid-July, with a delivery date of the 12th of August. We had a month to create the game. Crazy. The appeal of game jams and short sharp festival workshops have distorted just how long it takes to make an interesting game, and a month certainly isn’t long at all. Add to that the pressure to make an engaging game that will honour the band’s song and the Pitchfork/Kill Screen project.

Some interesting things happen when you push to make a good game in a super short period of time. The traditional categories of pre-production, production and post-production break down a little, and it becomes much more of a process of iterating around a set of valued principles that you’d like to see in the final playable game.

The Design
We knew that we wanted to build our entire concept from the premise of ‘taking a walk’, and we wanted to have the character change to reflect different stages of the song, creating a strong sense of connection to the track as it played. We also knew that we wanted to explore the stylistic concept of backing playable content with video, which we have been toying with for a while.

We started to think about images of walking, and seized upon two different references. The first was the image of evolution as depicted in illustrations showing the development of humans from apes, or sometimes from primitive cell organisms to higher order lifeforms. We found these images interesting because they have a peculiar sense of time. They show change over millions of years, but also show what looks like a group of apes taking a walk.  

The second key reference for us was the image of a mother bird (in this case a duck) leading her ducklings in single file. In games like Yoshiro Kimura’s Little King Story where the king is followed by a number of villagers, or Pikmin for example, a strong sense of walking is communicated, because while your eye follows the movements of the main character, you’re also simultaneously taking in the individual nuances of the followers. Taken together, they create a single busy movement that is very appealing to the eye.

So for Take a Walk we combined these two intriguing walks, the walk of evolution and the walk of family, into a single statement. As the player played the game, they would evolve over time. They would also gain a small group of followers, who would represent the different stages of evolution that you’ve achieved. Taken together, we create a surreal family for the player to lead through the world of the game.

The Passion Pit song is very much about the struggle of ordinary people against circumstances they find themselves in. We knew that we wanted to capture that sense of struggle in the game, and so we played with the idea of having hazards in the world that would collide with the player-character. These would deplete the number of followers you had, or alternatively cause some kind of score attrition.

We knew that we wanted the player to get through the whole of the song, and therefore finish the game. How annoying is it when you go over someone’s house and there is a great music video on tv, and they change the channel! We wanted to avoid that feeling of abrupt stopping that comes with game over, because it feels so violent when you’re playing along to a song. With that we knew that the experience of hazards that impact negatively on the player were at odds with the goal of creating a game that was an enhanced experience of the song.

Because of this, we knew that we had to create a sense of struggle and challenge in another way, and in response we explored the idea of the ‘flight’ that the player can achieve though a second press of the button mid jump. We created a jump by holding and releasing the button, which created a great sense of anticipation and helped you to plan your jumps in order to collect pick-ups. Sometimes however, as the level moves along, you realise you’re not quite where you need to be in your jump in order to get what you need. Through the double jump ‘flight’  the player can put in the extra effort and struggle to get to where they want to be. I put ‘flight’ in quotation because each of the characters in the game can only partially fly, they’re pushing themselves to resist gravity and win. In this way we hoped to create a sense of the struggle of the song without succumbing to the conceit of hazard objects or enemies that would have worked against the needs of a music video game.

The video underscored the ideas of evolution and development, by pulling together images from mid 20th Century archive material. Through a series of hard cuts and jumps in time, the video that sits behind the gameplay tells the story of an evolving world, from primordial floes to the biological detail of fauna to consumer America and finally to outer space. We found that by dropping shots in from the top of the screen we could maintain impact in the video without interrupting the gameplay.

There are silhouettes that sit between the video and the character, and also in the foreground. These were necessary to create a visual break between the character and the video, and to also ground the locations of the video in some sense of a landscape. We also found that through the design of the silhouettes we could suggest locations and ideas about each stage of the song.

These elements and concepts are the basic building blocks for our game. We also pushed for a strong 2D hand animated style, because we love it, but also because it allowed us to take the rhythm and bpm of the game and express it in fundamental movement of the character. Everything pulses with the beat of the song, so that we could deviate from that in play and still feel that connection expressed at some level.

Striking a balance between the play style and the visual treatment didn’t follow a thoroughly planned pre production script, but rather a constant process of iteration, whereby we produced a number of assets that would make up a section or scene, and then pushed to get them into a playable build as fast as possible. Only by getting our work into a build and playing could we make improvements to the implementation of each feature. For instance, the number of frames in a jump animation, or the density of the silhouettes, or the cutting style of the video. All these elements were iterated on through a process of getting something, however rough, into the game in order to make adjustments and work efficiently with the programmers.

We’re very happy with the game and are excited to see so many people playing. We hope you enjoy the game!

Monday, August 6, 2012

New Releases, New Collaborations

We've been up to a whole bunch of awesome stuff over the past couple of months. We moved into a great new office as part of the Northcote Digital Arts Incubator. There are several other games companies in the building, and we're collaborating with Ashton Brophy on several new projects. The location is brilliant, and I think we've found a great home for the foreseeable future.

We've kicked off a new relationship with Renegade Films, producers of hit TV show Wilfred and Rockwiz. We're going to be covering digital, animation and game client work together, and look forward to seeing how it rolls out. Working with Renegade, we produced a title sequence for a forthcoming ABC TV documentary about artist Adrian Brophy and the Melbourne street art scene.

We're finishing up a new music video game, that comes out on the 14th of August this year. We had an incredibly short schedule of 3.5 weeks to make the game, but think we've got something interesting to show. Watch this space and follow us on twitter to hear more about the project just after release day.

On another note, our iOS client game Lol-a-Coaster has been shortlisted for the QANTM Create Design Awards in association with Desktop Magazine. It's great to hear that the game has caught the eye of the jury, and look forward to seeing how it does on the night.  


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

New Project & New Studio!

All Nations Park 2012 by PachinkoPictures
All Nations Park 2012, a photo by PachinkoPictures on Flickr.
It's been a while since either of us posted to our blog; the usual story -- too busy to attend to the small things. The release of Lol-a-Coaster on iOS earlier this year went incredibly well, and the game has been really well received. I am going to do a post that captures all of the reviews and comments together in come place in the next few weeks. Download numbers and review scores have all been good, so we're feeling pretty upbeat about the prospect of doing more client games in the future.

We're in the final stages of signing a new game project at the moment -- a project that is quite a bit larger than Lol-a-Coaster. It's going to mean that we scale up from our small one room office to something that can accomodate 6 or so people. It's great to be in the position to collaborate with people and bring them into the Pachinko family on new projects. Hopefully, should everything go to plan, we will be kicking off things in the next week or so. We've been looking for offices in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, but since our awesome new coder lives in the south it's likely that we'll opt for somewhere more central.

In other news, we've submitted Lol-a-Coaster to the 2012 Desktop Create Awards here in Melbourne, as a tentative first push to see what people think about the game. Fingers crossed!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Lol-a-Coaster rides out!

Lol-a-Coaster hit the worldwide iTunes store on the 16th, and for the past few days we've been promoting the game and fielding questions about it. We're incredibly happy with the final result, and think that it fulfils the brief we were given by the client and agency. On a personal note, it was the first time that we had made a game together, and while it is a client project and not a personal one, I think we learned a lot about how we will go about making games in the future, and gained an appreciation for the personality and style of our work going forward.

The term "advergame" usually connotes a cheap and cheerful flash product that in some oblique way supports or drives traffic to a brand or product. Advergames are not generally objects of admiration, and so for a designer it can be a bit of a minefield to commit to making one. Our hope was to create an advergame for Chupa Chups that raised the bar. Throughout the process, we were conscious of the way in which highly commercial products of the past had been elevated by a designer or director investing a lot of love and care into their work. Take for instance music videos, which were despised by recording artists, until talented directors moved into the medium to raise the bar. At that point, musicians and recording artists' attitudes began to change and the potential of the medium opened up. We're sure that the advergame is here to stay, but that a it needs more talented designers working in the medium to show what it can do.

Lol-a-Coaster is our first effort to create, in a boutique independent way with a small team and big ideas, the kind of advergame that we'd like to see happening for many more brands.

There are huge benefits to small developers working for brands to make games. By having an advertising budget and a client, you have the monetary support to practice your craft, and a respondent to your design, pushing you for a result. After all, design is about fulfilling a communication goal through expressive means. For Chupa Chups, their motto of a 'Life Less Serious' manifested in the surreal playfulness of Lol-a-Coaster. At the same time, it showcased their character Chuck in a new way, leading to new imaginative possibilities for both the brand and the character. At a fundamental level, the game also functions as a platform for a consumer promotion -- other marketing and promotion channels feed through the game, and so multiple media are connected together. Ultimately, we're really happy to have created Lol-a-Coaster for iOS and look forward to our next client game project.

Download the game.

See the trailer on youtube.

Read about the project over at Desktop Magazine Online.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

We've been making a beautiful hand-made game

We're in the final two weeks of our first big game production since moving to Australia. It has been an incredibly fun process for us, and I've particularly enjoyed having the opportunity to do so much drawing. The game is entirely hand drawn and heavily animated, and we're going to be doing a big release of some of the art assets around the time that the game comes out. Here is a little sketch of Nathan Drake that I posted on twitter from this morning. I like to do sketches before embarking on commissioned work, to warm up and get my brain up to speed. -- Dave