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Australian to a fault: games week celebrates ‘Raising the Bar’

Melbourne International Games Week wrapped up last month, having provided a distinctly Australian celebration of the evolution of a growing local video game industry.

Curated by Creative Victoria, Melbourne International Games Week (MIGW or “Migwa” as it is affectionately known) is held every year to commemorate the local industry and act as a touchstone for both casual fans and industry workers alike.

Michelle Shepherd, a senior project officer with Creative Victoria, says it is “nine days of networking, learning, showcasing talent and socialising that the industry looks forward to all year”.

For the second year in a row, all of MIGW’s events were held online.

This made MIGW much more accessible to those who may not be able to physically attend, giving attendees from across the globe a front row seat for the annual spotlight on homegrown gaming talent and development.

“Two consecutive years of MIGW and PAX Aus online mean our conferences, seminars, workshops and social gatherings have been experienced by thousands across the world,” Ms Shepherd says.

Games have been a lifeline for so many during the pandemic.

“Despite the challenges we all faced, it was vital that we still retained this opportunity in the global games calendar. MIGW is for the games industry and, as always, we wanted everyone who attended to feel appreciated and connected.

“We just never expected to do this from the dining room table.”

Focus on a local audience

Even though MIGW is known internationally, it has never strayed from being an Australian event.

Summerfall Studios managing director Liam Esler says Australia will always be the focus of MIGW, and he doesn’t see that changing in the near future.

“MIGW, from a commercial consumer perspective, is primarily for Australians,” he says. “MIGW itself is useful when speaking to international game developers as a reference point.”

Australian to a fault: games week celebrates 'Raising the Bar'

Fruit Ninja is a highly popular mobile game released in 2010. Image Credit: Halfbrick Studios

While this means that Australian developers are able to showcase their games to thousands of Australian gamers, the downside is that they might not get the international audience they are hoping for.

“Should a developer who wants to sell their game internationally show their game at PAX Australia? My answer to that would be no,” Mr Esler says.

He says game developers are sacrificing international coverage if they choose to focus entirely on presenting their game at MIGW.

“Unless you can secure coverage that is going to be from an overseas outlet like Kotaku US or Gamespot US, you’re only showing it to an Australian audience.”

However, he says that that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as showcasing a game during MIGW shows that the game has Australians in mind.

Growth and maturation

GCAP’s theme this year was “Raising the Bar”, signifying the maturation of Melbourne’s games industry, which has been around for more than 40 years.

One of Australia’s first game development studios was Beam Software in 1980, which later became Krome Studios Melbourne.

The studio was founded by Alfred Milgrom and Naomi Besen as the video game publishing arm of their book publishing company, Melbourne House.

They achieved global recognition for their text adventure game based on JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit for the ZX Spectrum in 1982, which was made with only six other employees.

Australian to a fault: games week celebrates 'Raising the Bar'

The Hobbit was a 1982 text adventure made in Melbourne. Image Credit: Beam Studios

Krome Studios went on to develop the 2002 title Ty the Tasmanian Tiger, published by EA Games.

From there, many more developers opened their doors on Australian soil.

Triple-A publishers like Rockstar, THQ and 2K Games all opened up game development studios in Australia in the early to mid 2000s and made critically acclaimed games such as LA Noire (by Team Bondi), De Blob (by Blue Tongue Entertainment) and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (by 2K Australia).

These studios have all since closed down, with publishers citing reasons such as development costs and Australia’s isolation from the rest of the world.

However, this helped to give rise to Australia’s indie game development scene, which has been recognised globally.

Other local games that have reached global popularity include Crossy Road in 2014, and Fruit Ninja in 2010.

Today, according to the Interactive Games & Entertainment Association, Australia’s game development scene has risen to 1245 full-time employees and generated over $184 million in income in 2020 alone.

In the last few years, thanks to state and federal funding initiatives and the recent tax incentive, even more local small studios have been thriving, with games like Frog Detective, Unpacking and Untitled Goose Game all receiving rave reviews from fans far and wide.

Australian to a fault: games week celebrates 'Raising the Bar'

Ty the Tasmanian Tiger is as distinctly Aussie as it looks. Image Credit: Krome Studios

The composer for Untitled Goose Game and co-author of Game Changers, Dr Dan Golding, says Australia’s game development scene struggled to carve out an identity in the early 2000s because large publishers used Australia as a place to create games much more cheaply than America.

However, Dr Golding says there is a silver lining to the closure of those studios, as it means Australian developers can fully embrace the culture of their homeland.

He sees “Raising the Bar” to mean that Australian games are starting to move away from their “culturally odourless” past of making games that feel like they could come from anywhere, to creating a unique voice which is one of the ways that the industry is maturing.

“I think [making games that could come from anywhere] is kind of baked into the Australian game industry at some level,” he says.

But I think we are getting a little bit better at making it clear which games are Australian.

Games such as the critically acclaimed Hollow Knight and Hand of Fate were made in Australia using government funding.

Both games were supported by Screen Australia, and have achieved global popularity, with the Hollow Knight sequel Silksong currently in the works.

Larger publishers are again starting to see Australia as an attractive option for development studios.

Sledgehammer Games recently opened a development studio based in Melbourne, however, with how much the industry has grown during the absence of these publishers, the unique voice that Australian developers provide will never be lost.

While they may always not get international coverage, many developers are using MIGW to celebrate the fact that their games are made in Australia.

“I think what we’re seeing is people releasing things earlier in the year and using MIGW as a celebration of something that’s already happened or is a developing story,” says Dr Golding.

As for where the Games Week is headed next, it’s hard to tell when the world is as unpredictable as it is isolating.

Ms Shepherd is excited to see where the next 12 months takes the local games industry, and what next year’s events will be able to showcase to an ever-growing audience.

“MIGW will always be a celebration of games and the developers, producers, artists, musicians and writers who create them. We will continue to showcase our talented industry through new and exciting ways and draw game enthusiasts from around the world to our city for nine incredible days of events.”

“We can’t wait.”

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