ACT News

Future Canberra: The game's afoot as ACT cyber artists take on the world

Creativity, education and innovation are the keys to Canberra's games and film revolution, says a hi-tech entrepreneur.

Art, education and technology have converged at a small campus at the Canberra Technology Park in Watson where a new generation of computer gamers is learning how to capture the world.

Graduate game developers Chris Haley, Thusus Jones, Jack Erskine and Trevor Clift who are now setting up their business ...
Graduate game developers Chris Haley, Thusus Jones, Jack Erskine and Trevor Clift who are now setting up their business writing games software with the director of the Academy of Interactive Entertainment John De Margheriti. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

John De Margheriti, a visionary, entrepreneur and educator, is the founder and chief executive of Canberra's Academy of Interactive Entertainment.

He said there was "absolutely no reason" the ACT couldn't become a significant player in the $91.5 billion per annum games sector.

Mr De Margheriti, who backs his former students with his own money, said there were 140 million gamers worldwide and the industry was expected to reach a turnover of $107 billion by 2017.

"It [gaming] is already bigger than Hollywood," Thusus Jones, an AIE graduate and the creative director of Canberra gaming startup, Siege Sloth, said.

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AIE is cited as an example of Canberra's emerging "creative industries" driven by the creative arts and technology in the ACT Government's 2015 "Confident and Business Ready" strategy.

According to the strategy document, a higher proportion of Canberrans are employed in the creative artsĀ  anywhere else in the country.

Siege Sloth, which received a $10,000 Innovation ACT grant in 2014, is well on the way to releasing its first commercial offering, Evergreen.

The game was greenlighted for development in just three weeks.

It is expected to be distributed on Steam, the games site that distributes Game of Thrones, Killing Floor 2, Civilization, Back to the Future, Reign of Kings and others, in 2016.

Mr Jones and his partners, Chris Haley, Trevor Clift and Jack Erskine, have been through AIE's incubator program.

Graduating students are mentored through setting up and operating games businesses with free use of office space, equipment and business development scholarships.

John De Margheriti, chief executive Academy of Interactive Entertainment

While they have yet to strike it rich, the four are not blind to the potential rewards.

"Minecraft [akin to digital lego but with monsters] is the poster child of indie gaming [development]," Mr Clift said. "It was sold for more than $2 billion."

All members of the Siege Sloth team said they were grateful to AIE's incubator program.

"Graduating students are mentored through setting up and operating games businesses with free use of office space, equipment and business development scholarships," Mr De Margheriti said.

Grants run to about $3,000 a person.

He said the academy was non-profit, "cheap and cheerful" and geared up to invest surpluses back into the students.

"We've had 60-odd startups in the last 3.5 years but because we are non profit we don't take shares or equity."

Mr De Margheriti is strongly influenced by an American-style innovation ethos that measures colleges on their ability to get graduates working.

"Education without job creation is immoral," he said. "In the U.S. where we [AIE] have colleges in Seattle and Louisiana if we don't find jobs for 70 per cent of our graduates, we lose our accreditation. In Australia this concept does not exist. But it should. It would scare the hell out of universities."

Innovative programs, intended to help people follow their dreams, are crucial to the future.

"This is why what Malcolm Turnbull is doing with the innovation statement is a really good thing. Finally, after many years of being behind, at least they are doing something."

AIE is negotiating with the ACT Government to purchase its Watson site with a view to investing more than $100 million into the ACT's independent film and gaming sector.

"[Under the plan] there will be a production entity that works with distributors to distribute films produced in Canberra," Mr De Margheriti said.

"AIE will be funding feature films, there will be green screen facilities and blue screen facilities for special effects for film and games, there will be new student accommodation allowing 400-odd beds on site, dog parks, a public toilet and also an outdoor gym and barbecue facilities for the community.

"You are going to have digital creatives, programmers and people in supporting technologies working with designers and scriptwriters and production experts."

He agreed this was all quite un-Canberra.

"Exactly. We're going to move Canberra from two things, which is prostitution and government, into a third area.

"There are not a lot of options for our youth, which is why I moved out of Canberra many years ago. [Back then] It was either the public service or go to Fyshwick."