Making the games people play now

Video game entrepreneurs aim to transform a childhood passion into a career. Nicholas Gleeson reports.

After devotedly playing the Japanese game Pokémon for 17 years, Aeron Skidmore decided to begin work on her own video game project.

Weeks of intricate conceptualizing followed, with Skidmore developing every sight, sound and interaction that awaited the player.

Finally the game was ready to be tested. Skidmore excitedly pressed play, only to find there were multiple problems.

Welcome to the unforgiving reality of amateur video game development – this stuff is complicated.

“I think I must have spent about two days trying to get the script right and making sure the characters were in the right place for the first town. When the time came to test it out, I was met with glitched speech, characters out of place and not looking as I wanted them to.”

The money-making potential of video game design has attracted lots of wannabe creators. But to succeed the beginner must be original and persistent.

According to the 2015 Global Games Market Report, video games earned more than $91.5 billion. By comparison, the Motion Picture Association of America reported Hollywood’s box office earnings for that same year to be $39.1 billion.

Like most video game entrepreneurs, Australian Academy of Interactive Entertainment (AIE) graduate Ryan McMahon started small, transforming his childhood passion for gaming into a career.

“I first started showing interest in the games industry when I was around 13 or 14. I knew I wanted to be an artist and liked video games so I basically just put those two things together.”

Specialising in building, painting and bringing to life the environments that the player inhabits when playing a video game, Ryan spends most of his time creating worlds.

“Generally all my free time is put into this. I don’t currently work in a studio, but it would usually be 9am to 5pm in the studio and then personal projects in all the free time you have.”

The video game development scene comprises two divisions – Triple-A and independent or indie as it’s commonly referred to.

Triple-A games are the video games that the public is most commonly exposed to, consisting of teams of hundreds and creation budgets in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. A commonly example would be Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto V.

Indie games are smaller, much tighter knit teams, predominantly made up of one to 10 people, creating smaller and more surreal, artistic games. By definition, an independent developer does not seek to release content under the guide of a publisher, but works under the same set of principles. An example of a recent indie success would be Toby Fox’s Undertale.

Initially McMahon says he wanted to be involved with AAA projects due to the respect gained from producing well-made projects. However he is now more interested in indie games due to their smaller teams and the artistic freedom.

In a similar vein, student designer Bethany McWha adapted her desire to work in animated film to create environments in games.

“Initially when I started studying, I wanted to go into the film industry and work on big Disney and Pixar films. Though as the course progressed, I realised I enjoyed the workflow of making games much better and switched to the games industry.”

In recent months, 13 notable developers, artists and creative talents have separated from their acclaimed triple-A studios to branch into smaller studios to work on projects that, comparatively, are considered to be bordering on avant-garde.

Ken Levine, the creative director and co-founder of Irrational Games, who is famous for Bioshock, Bioshock 2 and Bioshock: Infinite, announced in 2014 that he was leaving his studio to pursue “smaller, more entrepreneurial endeavors’’.

“To meet the challenge ahead, I need to refocus my energy on a smaller team with a flatter structure and a more direct relationship with gamers,’’ he said publicly.

Other developers began to explore alternatives, sparking what is widely considered to be a modern renaissance of independent work that has had great commercial success.

This shift has allowed up-and-coming developers to also give the industry their best shot.