The Death of Triple A Studios in Australia and Where To Now?

Sighs of disappointment, the surprised looks and the feeling of loss as news spreads, invoking feelings all too often felt. Media scrambling, news feeds exploding, fans dismissive and veterans eroding.   Offices emptied, people moved, promises broken and finally, doors closed. The result of an all too familiar event occurring earlier this year, as the final major triple AAA video game development studio in Australia, shut its doors.

2K Australia, the Canberra based studio, which had worked on and brought such well renowned video games, as the Bioshock series and Borderlands: The Presequel, was no more. Although it came as a surprise, it was accepted as just another publisher understanding the time and effort to support an Australian based studio was simply not worth it.

Another blow to the Australian video game industry, an industry which despite its best efforts, continues to receive setback after setback. In the years leading up to 2015, all other major studios besides 2K had shut up shop. Including ‘Destroy All Humans’ developer Pandemic, and ‘LA Noire’ developers Team Bondi, with many others following suit. Leaving 2K Australia as the only AAA developer left in the land down under. In a statement released by 2K, the publishing owner, we heard an all too familiar story about why the studio was closing.

We can confirm we have taken steps to begin the studio closure process for 2K Australia in order to better manage on-going development costs while improving the working proximity of our creative teams.

It was not financially beneficial for 2K to keep the studio running, a symptom of many studios being closed in Australia. At the time of the closure, it seemed as if the Australian video game industry was failing and declining. However, while more major developers are shutting their doors with major publishers pulling funding back from Australia; the Australian games industry has seen a greater profit and more people throughout Australia playing video games than ever before.

LA Noire was a big hit in the video game industry when it came out, but unfortunately, the developer behind it wouldn't be sticking around for long.
LA Noire was a big hit in the video game industry when it came out, but unfortunately, the developer behind it wouldn’t be sticking around for long.

In a report released from the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association earlier this year, annual sales across the industry in Australia had increased dramatically at 20%, with a total profit of $2.46 billion. Traditional retail and online sales had both risen, with digital subscriptions and mobile software the biggest improvers. The study not only analysed the financial side of the industry, but contained a focus on demographics, playing habits, attitudes and behaviours of people who play video games in Australia too. These studies showed more people than ever are playing video games, with attitudes towards the medium having improved dramatically along with sales.

The reality of this situation is the industry, although seeing increased profits and engagement, is shifting away from traditional models and forms of game development. A trend which has being occurring across the world, but more dramatically in Australia. The type of studios we are seeing now, are smaller, more independent studios which often are only comprised of a few professionals, compared to AAA studios which often have hundreds of employees. These new studios are often referred to as ‘Indie’ developers, and are springing up faster than they can be counted.

In a study conducted in 2013 by Debi Taylor, a student from the University of Technology in Sydney, she found the amount of indie developers had increased sharply and are now the dominant type of video game development studio in Australia. Of the 209 developers she found in Australia, 180 of them regarded themselves as indie development studios. Not only was there an increase in the number of studios in Australia, but an increase in the amount of staff too. Therefore it would seem the Australian video game industry is thriving, with more sales, people playing and more studios in operation than previously shown in the Australian Bureau of Statistics own research studies. However, the are important details which need to be mentioned here to see the full picture.

Screen Australia were the government body which handled the Australian Interactive Games Fund, but no longer since the federal budget cuts in 2014.
Screen Australia were the government body which handled the Australian Interactive Games Fund, but no longer since the federal budget cuts in 2014.

A large amount of these indie developers are a far cry from being full-time professionals. Many are creating games independently for the first time, working part-time or living off savings in order to fund development. With no major or AAA studios in Australia, it is hard for professionals to find full-time work, and they often form indie studios in response. Indie development studios have been seen as a positive change to the global industry, bringing diversity and niche products to the marketplace. However, creating large projects in a small team, with incredibly limited funds, can be frustrating and nearly impossible feat for many.

Recognition and support of an industry and small businesses by the government can be vital for providing a stable platform for success and development. Until last year, the Australian government had been providing financial support to developers throughout Australia, through the Australian Interactive Games Fund. It supported developers by providing funds for development costs, so small businesses could get off the ground. The scheme had seen significant progress and success, supporting several developers throughout Australia, before it was cut by the current federal government, in last year’s budget. Many professionals and veterans of the industry we dumbfounded by the move, which left many developers in the dark. Another blow to an industry, which had already seen its major studios shut down, year after year.

It is obvious that although the industry as a whole is growing and the attitudes towards gaming has improved in mainstream culture and society, the circumstances for developers finding employment, making an income and creating games, is harder than ever in Australia. However, it is not all doom and gloom.

Speaking to developers based in Adelaide after the recent cuts to the AIGF last year, it turned out some did not seek to gain funds from the government during the funding period, as they preferred having full control over their project and finances. These developers are able to create games by themselves, without any federal funding or support.

Assault Cactus Android is a crazy action packed twinstick shooter, currently in development by Australian independent developers 'Witch Beam', who are based in Brisbane.
Assault Cactus Android is a crazy action packed twinstick shooter, currently in development by Australian independent developers ‘Witch Beam’, who are based in Brisbane.

John De Margheriti, an industry veteran who has helped establish an incubator program, aiming to assist young developers in creating start-ups, said in an interview with Kotaku last year,  he believes the cuts would not have a significant effect on the local industry. Many developers would be sure to agree with him, as although there have been some developers who succeeded through funding from the government and AIGF, many more have been successful on their own, and have been able to obtain funds through other channels such as Kickstarter.  However, on a whole, it is a hard industry to crack into. With many developers finding it hard to survive and struggling in an economy which is dominated by overseas publishers and their annual releases and highly recognised brands such as Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed.

So what are the prospects for students who are aiming to become a game developer, and work in Australia? Is it a viable market and is it even possible to gain employment unless you start your own indie studio from the ground up, and face continuous financial issues? After speaking to one student, in their final year of studying Information Technology, Games and Entertainment Design at the University of South Australia, this student looking to break into the industry appeared to be quite aware of the issues the industry has, and the challenges they will face in the work force.

The State of the Australian game industry is quite poor. Australia at the moment does not have the push it needs to compete with high-end American companies.

It is extremely competitive, with there being so few companies in Australia, yet a very large number of people studying game development, there is a massive number of people going for the same job and most of the time only the very best will stand a chance.

They understand that it is not going to be easy by any means, and with fewer developers in Australia, the industry will become more and more competitive. However, they were still positive about the future of video game development in Australia, and believe with the proper funding and organisation, the industry can thrive.

Australia has some of the best IT schools in the world and I believe it has a large amount of potential to grow with proper funding. I think it is worthwhile to try and get a career in game development, but people should always have a backup plan.

Submerged is another game created by an indie Australian developer, called Uppercut Games.
Submerged is another game created by an indie Australian developer, called Uppercut Games.

There seems to be so many obstacles in the way of the Australian video game industry, as native developers seek greener pastures overseas, and a lack of support or recognition for the value of the industry by government officials leads to an industry which seems all against local developers. But there is potential, with a number of very talented smaller studios creating niche games throughout Australia, studios which are even sometimes made up of ex-employees of now defunct AAA studios. The potential is there, but whether these small developers can make the difference is yet to be seen in Australia, just yet.

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