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.    

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