The 2011 demise of Melbourne-based games developer Blue Tongue Entertainment made for concerning rhetoric about the shape of game development in Australia. For an industry worth so much -- it generates double the amount of revenue earned at the cinema box office, and is 40 per cent larger than the Australian movie disc industry -- it appeared to be crumbling in the midst of global financial strain and a high Aussie dollar.
Yet, while the closure of the de Blob developer was especially disheartening for those involved in the local scene, it represented a shifting attitude towards development and business models, something that is particularly evident in the continued growth of small and independent game making.
That growth relies on creativity and originality, things that can certainly go missing while working in the midst of a corporate restructuring. When the studio closed, many people were out of a job, which led to a lot of talented people with uncertain futures.
Watch The Trailer For 'Stunt Star'
“It was a big mix of everybody wanting to do their own thing after Blue Tongue fell to pieces,” explains Drew Morrow, a designer for Melbourne-based developer Three Phase Interactive. The three-man team of ex-Blue Tongue employees includes Drew, programmer Paul Baker and animator Chris Burns, forming an experienced and talented group that knows of the stresses of developing, shipping and marketing a game.
With the three now on their own, they have the capacity to work on projects that couldn’t otherwise be completed while at Blue Tongue. “Now we do whatever we like,” quips Paul. His rhetoric represents one subtly displayed throughout the industry, one that has an understandable distaste for big publishers dictating how a game is made. “No one’s telling us, ‘we need a game for 9-12 year olds,’” he says, explaining that the freedom to create a game around their own interests has allowed them to excel during development.
“There have been roles that we’ve had to do that we didn’t normally think about while we were at a big studio,” says Drew. The aspects away from development, like market research, promotion and distribution, are things independant developers have to consider before starting their own game, but these new tasks have allowed the team to become “more job sufficient”, as Drew puts it.
Still, while these aspects share similar importance at big publishers, priorities are shifted in indie development, and Three Phase Interactive represents a ‘design first, market later’ mentality.
“I think that with the advantage of being an indie, there’s none of that to worry about. You just do what you’re interested in and you make it fit the market afterwards,” Drew explains.
The team’s first game, a vehicle stunt game for iOS platforms called ‘Stunt Star’, incorporates passions and ideas the team feels will have a strong following once it launches in early October.
“Chris and I are really into cars and bikes,” begins Paul. “We were kicking around some ideas and meeting up every now and then. Then Chris came up with the idea for a stunt game, and then I added the idea of adding a swipe to create the ramps. And it made sense because we both love the vehicles, so why don’t we do this?”
Paul’s views of game development certainly seem to differ from the profiteering of publishers, who appear cautious to invest in new game franchises when established brands still do so well on the sales front. His passion for cars and bikes is enough to push development, so the team can focus on marketing and pricing structures after they’ve nailed the core gameplay experience.
That experience is something dictated by the platform, according to Chris, who explains how the game’s touch-screen mechanics evolved throughout development.
“We originally started with just a simple swipe and it was all automated, but then we made the levels more complicated, added more features, and kept in mind about what we were making it for. We just always keep the platform in mind and use the hardware as we can,” he says.
The team can’t help but reminisce about its time at Blue Tongue. Drew compares development on the iPad to the restrictions of working on a console game while with the studio.
“Back when we were working at Blue Tongue, it was mainly just traditional console development, so we barely put any thought into how you interact with it. So there were basically just rules, and everyone has them and you use them,” he explains. “But this time, when you move over to a new thing, you have to think from a ground up. What is the player doing while they’re playing the game? You have to think outside the box a bit.”
Three Phase Interactive’s passion for the iOS platforms is shared with many other independent developers. The cost of working on dedicated game devices like the PlayStation Vita brings with it high costs, according to Drew, and with high costs comes cautious investment.
Paul believes there’s “a big cost to get into console development”, although, as Drew mentioned, there is far less competition on a platform like Vita, so a game is more likely to be noticed. “You’re in a much smaller pool than you would be on iOS,” he notes.
So at a time when big developers like Blue Tongue are going under, and publishers like THQ struggle to make ends meet, how can a small developer like Three Phase Interactive make money amid a constant bombardment of cheap games for a casual audience?
“The problem is app discovery,” Paul begins. “You can have the best game in the world, but if people can’t find it, they won’t be able to buy it.”
There’s also the complexities of pricing structure, something the industry didn’t really have to deal with in a pre-App Store world. Charging gamers a premium price for a casual experience won’t work, while in-game purchases have received a mixed reaction from gamers, journalists and industry figures alike.
“It’s interesting that people are quite happy to play something without paying for it,” says Paul, referring to the free-to-play model. He thinks gamers that don’t pay in some way “are basically freeloaders” that aren’t invested in the game. For a team as small as them, it’s important to have a strong community of players. “I think it’s good to have a smaller number of more invested players, as opposed to a large number that aren’t invested,” he says.
The reach and marketing capabilities of independent developers determines if a game gets noticed, whether it’s any good or not. Drew believes that, as long as you have a game that looks and plays cool, people will buy it, but "you’ve still got a marketing hump to get over for someone to notice you.”
Three Phase Interactive appears to be at the forefront of establishing a secure development industry in Australia, even in the face of studio closures. With passion and creativity driving their designs, and with a sound understanding of pricing models and marketing needs, they represent an industry open to change and continually growing.
Check out the team at the Three Phase Interaction website, Subscribe to them on Facebook, and Follow them on Twitter.
By Gaetano Prestia