Government Snub Leaves Australian Developers to Ponder Political Plays

Jeremy Ray
Games Indie Games
Games Indie Games

Australian game developers have been considering political options after receiving news that the industry won’t receive federal support for the foreseeable future.

Responding to a Senate inquiry that unanimously recommended the reinstating of the Australian Interactive Games Fund, the government has this week “noted” several points without any plan of action.

The $20 million AUD program, designed to accelerate job growth, required successful studios to pay back a certain amount of earnings — up to 50% in some cases — into the fund for reinvestment in the industry. Just as it was starting to see money returned to the program, it was cut short in 2014.

After the Australian dollar came close to parity with the US dollar a decade ago, many larger studios left the country. Modern Australian developers are mostly independent, and benefit massively from funding programs that allow them to bring on more labour and speed up projects.

Several studios such as Uppercut Games and League of Geeks have lauded the fund with helping them get off the ground and employ more people faster.

For developers hoping the government would reinstate the fund, it’s been a long and lonely wait of 642 days — exceeding the promised timeframe sixfold  — for an official response. Pressure from the Australian Greens on Senator Mitch Fifield (pictured above) eventually brought out a document which had been ready for six months before being shown.

After all that time, you can imagine how excited Australian developers are to have their concerns “noted.”

In the words of Defiant Development’s game runner Morgan Jaffit, who recently released Hand of Fate 2:

This has left many game makers wondering what they might achieve if they use their most powerful tool: Their art. Several developers have been discussing ideas from in-game splash screens to pamphlets at shows — though it would take a large, concerted effort to get an appropriate amount of attention.

Matt Hall of Hipster Whale is responsible for the largest Australian gaming success in recent times. Crossy Road achieved over 90 million downloads in its first six months.

“Movies and music have always had the celebrity angle up on us. Though our games are super famous and have had a massive impact, we as creators have largely been invisible.” says Hall.

“With Hipster Whale we’ve got a lot of eyes on Crossy Road. It would be possible (in theory) to have an awareness campaign inside the game itself targeted at all Australians. That’d be quite a bit more effective than a pamphlet at a game show. A lot more thought would have to go into it before we become the ‘Midnight Oil of games.'”

Tim Kaldor, co-founder of Featherweight Games, is no stranger to leveraging games for important issues. His entire share of revenue for the company’s first game, Skiing Yeti Mountain, was donated to Nepal’s earthquake relief efforts. He also acknowledges that while he was able to dip into his savings and rely on government and family support for his first few projects, not everyone is in that position.

“I’d be happy to see the government fund games with cultural or social value which aren’t financially viable otherwise,” says Kaldor, “or if they are wanting to kick-start the industry as a whole I’d like to see them focus on small promising start-ups rather than established companies. The government should provide a strong safety net that allows creative people to take the necessary time and risks to get going.”

You Can’t Spell Fund Without Fun

It all began with the cancellation of one of Australia’s most successful programs for job creation in the gaming space. The Liberal National Party (LNP) had just come into power on a platform of border protection and self-proclaimed fiscal responsibility.

Part of that responsibility turned out to be putting a red line through the Australian Interactive Games Fund, a program that was halfway through its three year cycle. This fund had already started to prove its worth with a few early successes beginning to pay money back into the system.

After the LNP’s election win, it was unceremoniously and immediately cancelled without any consultation.

Of course, this hasn’t stopped Australian indie success stories from happening. In the last few years, the wild success of Crossy Road has allowed developer Hipster Whale to perform the role of investing in game development in a way the government has neglected, putting $500,000 AUD back to Australian game development.

More recently, Featherweight Games’ Rodeo Stampede has take the App Store by storm. But without a jobs acceleration program in place, these stories play out in slow motion.

It’s the reason many developers in Australia feel that the country’s indie scene succeeds despite its government, rather than because of it. It’s the reason it wasn’t at all controversial when the makers of Satellite Reign put this image in its credits:

Satellite Reign credits

Save States and Crash States

While federal support has been dead for years, at the state level it’s more of a mixed bag.

Over half of Australian developers reside in Melbourne, and that’s no accident. The state of Victoria regularly commits money to supporting new IP projects, whereas other potential powerhouse states are dropping the ball. New South Wales, in particular, trains thousands of game makers every few years only to lose them.

“You can see what happens when Victoria steps up and does government funding,” says Matt Hall. “You then get a lot of net migration here and a super healthy community. Look at New South Wales for example, what would be the point of setting up a studio there when you could set one up in Victoria?”

For game producers looking for a leg up, the axing of the Australian Interactive Games Fund leaves few options. Screen Australia’s grant options include entertainment on device screens but bizarrely excludes video games.

Screen Australia production grant guidelines

Despite being the largest entertainment medium, games still don’t enjoy the support that TV or movie projects do. It’s a similar story on the tech side. Games are caught between being classified as tech product and art, yet neither side will fund them.

It goes without saying the state of Victoria can’t support all Australian game developers. This is one piece of a larger puzzle that is leading developer talent to pack up and head overseas.

This is completely at odds with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s stance of supporting innovation and digital, creative jobs. Game development not only ticks those boxes but has the potential to bring in a large slice of a global $100 billion industry, retaining IP rights on Australian shores in the process. Yet the government has found almost $4 billion to invest in the hopes of being in the top 10 arms exporters.

The issue of job creation stretches all the way back into the early days of a game maker’s career. At any given point, there are over 6,000 people being trained to make games in Australia, yet there are under 1,000 filled jobs. Many won’t find gainful employment. If they aren’t able to support themselves through a debut indie project, they’ll either leave the country, leave the industry, or fall prey to an ever-burgeoning gambling sector waiting to swoop on graduates.

Australians taxpayers are supporting the training of game developers, and then leaking skilled workers to the rest of the world. In sports terms, it’s a national own goal.

Objective-Based Play

There are other issues facing Australian developers, not least of which being a misguided national broadband strategy that has involved laying enough new copper wiring to stretch from Brisbane to Beijing and back. Rather than suffer the unworkable upload times, studios are resorting to hiring drivers to deliver USB sticks.

That’s a problem that isn’t likely to be solved anytime soon, and similarly, no one is holding their breath for the reinstatement of the Australian Interactive Games Fund. But there is one glimmer of hope.

While there doesn’t seem to be any accountability for the extraordinary amount of time it took for the government to respond to the Senate inquiry, Western Australia Senator Jordon Steele-John of the Greens has managed to get a motion passed in the Senate to make the government reconsider its response:

It’s been almost 4 years since this government cancelled the interactive games fund, and almost 2 years since the inquiry unanimously determined that this funding should be reinstated to support industry growth and innovation.

It’s entirely possible we’ll have to wait another few years just for the desire for reconsideration to be “noted.”

But it’s also possible this administration will experience more and more resistance on this issue, as it becomes about more than one fund. If a clear and comprehensive recommendation can be so casually ignored with no consequence, the Senate inquiry as a political tool loses potency.

While Australian developers contemplate what influence they can have through their releases, it’s worth noting that a cause needs someone to get behind, rather than just a very clear idea of who or what to vote against.

Currently the Australian Greens have been the gaming industry’s biggest allies — first through Scott Ludlam (who originally began the inquiry process), and now through Jordon Steele-John. Full credit goes to them. Just how much developers will be willing to wage this battle and/or pick a side remains to be seen.

Jeremy Ray
Managing Editor at FANDOM. Decade-long games critic and esports aficionado. Started in competitive Counter-Strike, then moved into broadcast, online, print and interpretative pantomime. You merely adopted the lag. I was born in it.
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