Waiting for the “indiepocalypse”

Typical cramped office for programmers. source RedCraig
Australian independent video game developers are facing an event known as the "indiepocalypse", a term coined for the drastically reduced sales expected. Douglas Thompson reports.

Independent video game developers are facing an event known as the indiepocalypse“, a term coined for the drastically reduced sales expected. The Australian indie development scene is bracing itself for the impact.

The video game industry in recent years earned twice as much as Hollywood.

The Theatrical Market Statistics Report cited $35.4 billion in revenue in 2013 compared to $70.4 billion for the Global Games Market Report.

“We thought we were going to be instant millionaires,” said Winston Tang, programmer and one of the founders of Samurai Punk, a Melbourne based independent game developer. Samurai Punk’s latest game, Screencheat, was released in 2014, and according to the figures on Steam Spy (a datamining and user research site focused on the Steam digital distribution platform for PC), is one of Australia’s best-selling indie games with around 180,000 sales.

According to Steam Spy, the median sales for games is around 32,000. “Sales were less than expected but still it sold pretty well,” Tang said.

Laura Crawford, committee member for the Australia chapter of Digital Games Research Association, said: “The problem lies more in funding not being readily available, as many developers quickly become experts at writing applications, but there is a lot of competition for limited funds.”

“After our game’s release I really saw the hubris both in myself and other developers,” Tang said. “You make a game and release it thinking it is great and the community reacts differently, some of the comments I read about Screencheat brought me back to reality.”

“What got us noticed was going to the PAX convention in the US, we really needed that physical presence, it is what got us noticed by our publisher,” Tang said.

Australia’s game development industry mainly consists of iOS a mobile operating system created and developed by Apple and Android developed by Google game developers with “not a lot of non-mobile games being created in Australia,” Tang said.

“It is cheaper and easier for publishers to set AAA game studios up in America and Europe,” Crawford said.

Australia’s last major AAA studios were Pandemic, which closed in 2009, The Creative Assembly Australia, closed in 2013 and 2K Australia, closed in 2015. The future of Australia’s video game development industry report also notes the trend of overseas publishers buying up Australian companies only to shut them down, or create and run a studio for a short term.

“The most difficult aspects for developers in Australia is the distance and lack of government incentives, the latter is being slowly amended,” said Crawford. “The Australian government only offers a few thousand, while other governments such as Canada offers millions which makes a big difference when it comes to growth and sustainability,” said Tang.

In 2012 the Australian Interactive Games Fund was established with the aim to grow the Australian games industry and make it self-sustainable, as most Australian game studios were owned and subsequently shut down by overseas publishers. Currently there are no AAA, mainstream blockbuster, game studios in Australia, the last studio was 2K Australia that shut down in 2015.

The Australian Interactive Games Fund had a budget of $20 million over three years. The fund was discontinued in 2014, with no successor or replacement, and with half of its budget not provided before being discontinued.

Earlier this year, the Senate Standing Committees, Environment and Communications branch released their report into the future of Australia’s video game development industry. Eleven months ago the Senate Standing Committee made an inquiry into how the games industry in Australia can be improved, 111 submissions were made and three public hearings were carried out.

The report notes the Australia’s game industry is bleeding talent, with a “majority of experienced developers left Australia to find jobs overseas and have not returned.”

The report states classification issues. Australia only got its R18+ rating at the start of 2013. If a video game did not fit the classification of MA15+, then it was either refused classification (meaning it is illegal to sell, advertise and publicly or exhibit), or the developers needed to edit out, cut content and resubmit for classification.

The report also notes, “paying for the classification is too expensive for many small companies,” and that “developers just shrug their shoulders and go, ‘I will either route around it, or I just will not bother’”. Last year the Attorney-General’s Department released the refused classification figures, and the first four months of 2015 saw 220 games refused classification compared to 1994-2014, when only 50 games were refused classification.

Steam Spy details the three horsemen leading the “indiepocalypse”; disruptive technology, low barrier of entry and lack of differentiation. Many professional grade development tools are available for low cost with, some being free and others are available at a low cost or free.

Now that everyone has access to the necessary tools, education and documentation, everyone has the capacity to develop a game. This leads to an abundance of aspiring indie game developers trying to create games which flood the market with low budget low quality products.

Since indie developers have next to no budget or manpower, they cut down on graphical fidelity which results in cheap looking 2D 8-bit games, all within similar or the same genre. While some of these are good, even brilliant, they are lost in a sea of titles that all look the same, notes Steam Spy.

Robert Johnston, an aspiring video game developer in Sydney, knows hubris all too well. “I taught myself how to use game development software so I made some simple games that my friends liked. Then I put them online for more feedback, all the comments said they were garbage and boring. I deleted everything both online and on my computer out of shame. It was not until months later I realised my problem. I made them and they were my babies. My friends liked them because they were my friends and did not want to hurt my feelings,” Johnston said.