What is Australia’s Future in the Games Development Industry?

Earlier this month, I attended Xbox Academy’s games design workshop. The workshop, part of an initiative from the Sydney Microsoft Store to foster up-and-coming Australian games development talent, teaches students the basics of the industry, fundamentals of game dev and tips for getting a foot in the door. The class was led by Jennifer Scheurle, a multi-talented games designer working alongside AIE, one of the best educators for game development in Australia. Throughout the three-hour course, we explored a range of techniques for developing and creating game ideas, ultimately leading to each of us pitching our games to the whole group, of which there were about 15 people. What struck me most was the enthusiasm of the younger kids taking part in the workshop, who had clear passion for the industry and their future in games design. Their excitement had me thinking – what future are we leaving for budding games designs, and are we doing enough for the industry?

The games development industry is often treated as irrelevant by Australian politicians, particularly when considering it in comparison to our growing film and television industries. As such, it’s often not considered of equal value, despite the great work that smaller development teams are producing in Australia. Video games have long since passed into the mainstream, with over 68% of the Australian population playing some kind of game as of 2016 – whether that be mobile, PC or console gaming. The rising affordability of games and consoles, coupled with the increased popularity of mobile game apps has led to huge demand in an industry that lacks a lot of needed supported.

In 2014, the Australian government pulled its 3-year $20 million Interactive Media Fund, reducing funding significantly for a lot of independent Australia games studios. This led to the axing of several jobs, and put the balance of the industry on a knife’s edge. In response to this, Senator Scott Ludlum launched an inquiry in 2015 into the state of the games industry, which led to increased discussion about what the government could do to support the industry, which is worth around $2.5 billion in revenue in Australia. Despite this progress, the committee formed around this discussion seems to have done very little, with funding still close to non-existent for games developers, and a continued lack of support. With a lack of understanding surrounding games development, it seems that the industry has little future in Australia.

According to figures obtained by the Interactive Games & Entertainment Association, 81% of all video games revenue from Australian-developed games came from overseas markets, particularly the United States, Europe and Asia. Interest in Australian games has never been higher, yet opportunities continue to grow sparse as the industry suffers from a lack of support and funding. From 2012 to 2014, there was a 10% drop in new studios opening, largely because of the axed funding from the Interactive Media Fund.

Despite this, the industry has huge potential, particularly when considering the future of Australian exports, and the rising popularity of mobile games development. Games have also been effectively implemented in education, health and corporate sectors in an effort to increase learning and improve mental health. Recently, VR games have taken the spotlight as developers have utilised this software to monitor cognitive function in the aging population. The applications for games development are many, and several areas and uses are already being explored in Australia.

The death of AAA games development in Australia has left in its wake a smaller number of independent studios creating brilliant games despite the lack of support. Between 2009-2011, several popular and prestigious AAA Australian studios were forced to close their doors due to a lack of monetary support. It was during this time that THQ’s Brisbane and Melbourne studios closed, as well as EA’s Visceral Games, Krome Studios, and Rockstar’s Team Bondi, which was responsible for blockbuster title L.A. Noire.

In 2015, the massive 2K Australia studios were also shuttered, despite their stellar work on the Borderlands and Bioshock game franchises. This exodus of talent allowed AAA games development to slip overseas, taking much needed revenue away from the games industry in Australia, and leaving the industry in dire need of help. Games development soon shifted to mobile titles and smaller, indie games like Crossy Road developed by Melbourne-based studio, Hipster Whale, which has seemingly exploded in popularity. This case is rare, however, and many indie developers struggle to keep their doors open.

Australia has some of the best educators in video games development, and yet the industry is failing in many respects. Due to a lack of support, much development is often shifted overseas, leaving a widening gap between Australia and the rest of the world in terms of talent. In addition to this, the government has only recently complicated matters with the changes to the 457 visa process.

The Australian games industry provides great opportunities for talented developers from overseas to work collaboratively with Australia developers, and by abolishing these visas, Australians will have reduced access to much needed educators and multi-talented developers. Despite increasing demand for Australian developed games, the rising number of gamers in Australia and the growing need for new, technology-based exports, the government continues to ignore the viability of the Australia games industry.

This increasing apathy towards the arts has catastrophic consequences for the industry, and this must be rectified if there’s any hope for the future of games development in Australia. With an increase in young kids playing mobile titles and becoming interested in games development as a future career path, it’s becoming more important to foster and grow this interest, and to prove that there’s a future for the games development industry in Australia. The passion and enthusiasm that I saw taking part in the Xbox Academy games workshop must be harnessed before we allow this new talent to slip through our fingers.