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Digital games industry in Australia

Digital games: a rapidly developing industry

Image of a landing pad in the game Citizen Zero

Landing pad, Citizen Zero. Image courtesy of Micro Forte.

Digital games have come a long way since the days of Pong - and Australian games companies are helping them go even further.

In recent years Australian developers have notched up a host of successes ranging from the innovation of Auran's epic world-beating strategy game Dark Reign to Blue Tongue's high-profile Jurassic Park. This has led to the Australian games industry earning a reputation for quality in a vast worldwide market hungry for new content.

The high growth rate in the worldwide games market means there are many opportunities for the local industry to keep growing and developing. But to stay on top of the game in this notoriously fast-moving industry, local companies need to be lean, flexible and innovative. The changing nature of games means that local developers are facing some big challenges, but also some unique possibilities to move into new and exciting types of computer games. In fact, new and exciting career paths are already opening up for Australian game enthusiasts with the right mix of skills.

How games are changing

These days, a player in Sydney can engage in real-time virtual kung fu with someone in Seoul or Santiago by logging into a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG). Or sit online and swap clues with a mobile phone-equipped team-mate trying to find an object somewhere in a real city block. Or construct entire social worlds within The Sims. Never have the real and the virtual been so interconnected.

The console game has also changed dramatically. Games, music and movies are starting to merge together, often under the umbrella of the big entertainment companies. For instance, the team that made the blockbuster Enter the Matrix game spent months on the set of The Matrix Reloaded film, taking in set details and shooting scenes that only appear in the game. On the other side of the fence, animated films are now beginning to be made entirely with the software engines that power games. Boundaries are blurring everywhere.

Then there are the new game possibilities emerging within developing forms of media such as interactive TV and wireless-connected handheld devices.

The business of games

At the same time that computer games are evolving, they are also generating very big business. In fact some $A40.9 billion dollars of interactive video games were sold in 2002 according to the Game Developers Association of Australia (GDAA). That's more than the worldwide box office takings for the film industry in the same year. In Australia the story is similar: Australians spent $825 million in 2002 on games software and hardware, and this figure is ramping up yearly.

Where the Australian industry fits in

Most of the world's commercial computer games are made by big international games publishers such as Electronic Arts, Sony and Vivendi Universal. Some Australian companies work with these publishers to produce games, while others are carving out their own independent niches. Australia's games production companies produce $100 million worth of games a year according to the GDAA. Analysts say this figure is growing bigger every year.

With these kinds of figures, Australian governments have realised there is a real opportunity to develop a large and thriving 'high-tech' sector. So lately they have been funding strategies to grow the local industry and grab a bigger share of the market.

What is the Australian industry like?

The Australian games industry is made up of over 40 companies employing some 700 people. Around half of the Australian games industry is centred in Melbourne, in Victoria, with another major centre of activity in Queensland and a smattering of companies in other states.

The industry, says the Game Developers Association of Australia, encompasses local branches of large international publishers, some established larger local companies, plus smaller, newer companies that only have a few employees. Almost three quarters of these companies are in the business of developing games.

Then there are the spin-off industries. The Jurassic Park game, for instance, created work not only for Blue Tongue Software but also for local sound experts Soundfirm, animation house Act III Animation and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

A long history in Australian game development

Australian companies have been developing games for a long time. Melbourne, for instance, has a 20-year history in computer game development, largely due to Beam Software, a company bought in 1999 by France's Infogrames and now part of Atari. Another selling point is the cost of production: it's cheap to make games in Australia in comparison to the USA and Europe.

Over the years, Australians have developed hundreds of games with many becoming international critical and/or commercial hits. Some of the successes include:

  • Atari - PS2 Grand Prix Challenge
  • Auran - Dark Reign
  • Blue Tongue - Jurassic Park - the game
  • Krome Studios - Ty the Tasmanian Tiger
  • Ratbag - Dirt Track Racing
  • Tantalus - Top Gear Rally
  • Torus Games - a range of Gameboy titles including Lion King, Doom II, Minority Report and Jackie Chan

What does the future hold for the local industry?

Image of a screenshot from Top Gear Rally

Screenshot from Top Gear Rally for Game Boy Advance by Nintendo. Image courtesy of Tantalus Interactive

As the processing power of our computers increases and commercial publishers try to retain their place in an increasingly sophisticated marketplace, the average console game is becoming more and more complex - and that means expensive.

This trend has been in place for some time. In 2001, Adam Lancman, Managing Director of Infogrames Melbourne House and President of the Game Developers Association of Australia, stated at a conference that typical console games budgets were already in the millions of dollars. Things have since accelerated. Enter the Matrix , for instance, is said to have cost over $100 million.

Lancman went on to say that small developers couldn't afford those kinds of budgets. But he said the future for the Australian industry was looking bright because Australians are technically savvy, well connected to the web, and its developers are able to offer quality games to a content-hungry industry at comparatively good prices. This is evident in the level of international excitement about locally-produced games such as 2004's Destroy All Humans , made by the Brisbane branch of international publisher Pandemic Studios.

There are other opportunities too. While the trends towards consolidation and bigger budgets make the console games industry very hard to break into for smaller local companies, there are other areas that experts say are growing very fast and that are opening up new markets for local producers. These include:

  • Online games
  • Multiplayer computer games
  • Interactive TV
  • Games using mobile devices such as phones and PDAs

As well as these areas, steady markets remain for games made for PCs and small devices such as the Gameboy.

What kinds of careers are there in the games industry?

The local games industry hires more than just computer programmers. People working in the industry include animators, technical designers, writers, 3D specialists and project managers. Skills in film development, 3D, writing, animation, documentation and character design are in demand, as well as 'generic' skills such as communication skills, teamwork, problem solving and lateral thinking. More and more, companies are looking for people with a combination of these skills and the ability to adapt quickly to new circumstances. Of course, it helps a lot if you're incredibly keen on games too!

A growing number of tertiary institutions now offer Diploma and Degree courses in games development. Some focus on the design aspects of games while others take an IT and programming-based approach. The Related Links section of this article includes a list of links to Games-related courses around Australia.

How is government helping?

Photo of Australian games on show at the 2004 E3 games conference in Los Angeles

Australian games on show at the 2004 E3 games conference in Los Angeles.
Image courtesy of Multimedia Victoria

In recent years, governments have realised that digital games create growth and generate jobs for many people including developers, hardware manufacturers, publishers and retailers.

This has helped fund the creation of the Game Developers Association of Australia, an organisation that aims to raise the profile of the local industry and attract more investment and capital, as well as finding ways to keep Australian games content owned by Australians rather than being sold to overseas publishers.

The Victorian and Queensland Governments have invested to promote their local games industries. The Victorian Government's Game Plan strategy includes providing Sony PlayStation 2 and Xbox Development Kits to local companies that would usually not be able to afford them, and funding local game content through Film Victoria's digital media scoping and prototyping programs.

In 2003, the Queensland Government took a similar line by offering development kits and other incentives to Queensland developers.

Other funded initiatives are also helping to develop the local industry such as:

  • the participation of Australian companies in the 2004 E3 Games Conference in Los Angeles, USA
  • the annual Australian Games Developers' Conference
  • the creation of the first Independent Games Development Conference in 2004 by the Next Wave Festival
  • the setting up of new games development courses by a range of educational institutions including Victoria University, QANTM and The Academy of Interactive Entertainment

Useful links

Games industry information

Games developers

Development resources

Games development courses

Victoria

Queensland

New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory

Western Australia

Interesting Australian games projects:

Last updated: 31st October 2007

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