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Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The State of the Nation

Last weekend was the Australian Game Developers Conference. It all went pretty well, I reckon. Most of the audience seemed to be awake by the end of my lecture, and a few of them even asked questions. I was worried that I didn’t have enough material, but in the end I actually ended up going over time, and not getting through everything I wanted to cover. Which is actually a positive result, I suppose.

I met some interesting people, including Bill Roper (who’s CEO and founder of Flagship Studios, but best known for his work at Blizzard). I listened to a lot of speeches and did a lot of business card swapping and hobnobbing. I actually seem to have crossed over to the stage where it’s now more common at these events for me to be bailed up by someone else as it is for me to bail someone else up. Which seems reassuring, on some level. I’m lead designer at a medium-sized and well established developer, and now founder/coordinator of the local IGDA chapter, so I guess it’s to be expected. Lord knows how it happened, though, and I have to admit: it feels a bit weird.

It’s always driven home to me at these events how weak, in some ways, the local industry really is. It’s nothing to do with the talent – quite the opposite, actually, as the feeling across the board is that we’ve got loads of potential here. That’s what you hear every year. “So much potential.” And yet we’re used for donkey work, mostly – filling out a publisher’s marketing sheet with sequels, licenses and general shovelware. We know how to develop a game they can ship on time, within budget and to spec, but we’re never given the creative leeway that’s needed to go about the process of making truly *great* games. Which stinks. As much as people respect our reliability, versatility and general ability to get things done in a satisfying, above-average way – there’s nothing we make that has genuine fans. When are we going to get the trust required to be allowed to make a truly great, AAA game? When we start producing hits. You can see where this is going, right?

Every year, I hear people from Valve, Bioware, Ensemble, Blizzard or wherever describe how they make their hit games. And the common threads are that they can innovate with confidence as they have the timeframe within which to make mistakes and correct them. Usually, we don’t. If something’s iffy on paper, we can’t develop it. If something brilliant occurs to us while putting a game together, we can’t go back and flesh it out – we’ve just got to ship what we’ve got. These guys get to prototype, test, scrap what they’ve got so far, learn from it and start over again. They’re trusted to do that, because they make hits. But they’re able to make hits, because they’re allowed to take risks.

So how do we break out of the cycle, and start making better games here? I think we’ve got to squeeze them in around the edges of work-for-hire projects, sadly. To a large extent, Australian developers have to live from contract to contract to stay alive. And such an existence, suckling at the teats of indifferent multinational publishers, isn’t a failure or a cop-out – it’s actually a constant struggle and a huge success, if you can pull it off. The business isn’t an easy one. So, most of your key people are going to be busy for most of the year. If they’re not, then the company’s not going to stay afloat long enough for all that creatively productive downtime between paid projects to actually be of any use to you. So you’ve got to keep all the plates spinning still, and somehow find the time and resources to develop something for which you’ll assume 100% of the risk, and which may never come to fruition. Can this sort of approach work? Well, I’ll let you know in a couple of years, but I’m not sure I’m aware of a hit game that was produced in this way. Who knows, perhaps we’ll start a trend.


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