League of Geek's Armello is now close to being fully playable. Photo: Supplied
It can take a lot of hard, thankless work to bring a dream project into reality, but the inherent challenges in video game development can add a further layer of difficulty.
Take Melbourne studio League of Geeks. Formed by a small group of video game professionals in 2011, they began work on their debut project without any kind of capital or investment. In order to keep the rent paid and food on the table, each of the four core team members worked day jobs in the industry while putting in unpaid overtime at night and on weekends.
That game, titled Armello, is now close to being fully playable, but there is still a huge amount of work to be done before it is fit to be released. In order to secure funding for this final stretch, the studio has turned to the public, in the form of a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.
Trent Kusters, creative director of Armello and founder of League of Geeks, explained that while the bulk of the work done so far has been unpaid, the $200,000 the studio is asking for will be invaluable for making the game as good as possible.
"It would give us a core team of three to five people on full-time," he said. "That will help solve a boatload of production and communication issues. Also, it will stabilise our production rate and allow us to schedule properly."
While the core team is located in Melbourne, Armello has had contributions from people all over the world. Its beautiful and distinctive art, for example, while stylistically driven by a member of the core team, has been put together by more than two dozen artists in several countries.
"Ty Carey is our art director," Kusters said. "He's been a big force in finding, mentoring and managing the incredible line-up of artists that we have. He'll select an artist that will fit a task or piece of work that we need. If we don't have someone on deck, he'll scour the globe looking for them."
This distributed approach, however, comes with its own drawbacks. "Communication is the big one. It's something that we struggle with constantly," Kusters admitted. "It's one of the things that we could be doing so much better and I feel guilty for not hitting that on the head on a day-to-day basis."
He added that having so many people spread across the globe also introduces issues of scale. "The production overhead is huge. It's just not possible to run a project of this scope out of hours and distributed without a dedicated production team. So we need a core team online full-time to drive that forward."
While small independent studios were once a rarity in Australia, changing conditions in the global market and Australia's place within it has forced some rapid and sometimes painful change.
The large Australian studios of the 1990s and early 2000s, most of which made few original games but instead performed work-for-hire for large overseas publishers, have all but vanished. They fell victim to a persistently high Australian dollar, increasing production costs for video games, and an international business community loath to invest in risky businesses in the wake of the global financial crisis.
Within just a few short years, most of Australia's large game studios, some of which had been operating since the 1980s, closed their doors for good.
Coincidently, this was also the period during which playing video games on mobile phones started to grow into a big business. This was precisely the type of project that could be built by small independent teams, and even solo creators. Suddenly, Australia had come full circle to the garage start-ups of the 1980s.
Some within the industry predicted a bright future. Speaking to Fairfax Media in 2011, Antony Reed of the industry peak body GDAA (Game Developers' Association of Australia) was bullish. "We now have some extraordinarily talented and experienced developers entering a marketplace desperate for new content," he said. "This is an opportunity for them to flex their creative muscle, starting their own operation or taking that experience into another Australian studio."
Here in the present day, there are some signs of a recovery, but local studios are still doing it tough. "We're recovering, but we've got a long way to go still. We need to start having the right conversations," Kusters said. "There are still major conversational and curatorial issues within Australia. That's something that a few of us locally are trying to solve, but it's an uphill battle."
Like Reed in 2011, however, Kusters is enthusiastic about local talent. "The local scene is large and strong and more and more developers are maturing with incredible games like Duet, Framed, and Antichamber coming out," he said. "Then you have young, completely inexperienced Melbourne developers dropping an insanely amazing game like Push Me Pull You, which was hailed as the best game at GDC [Game Developers Conference] this year."
One thing that developers such as Kusters are unanimous about, however, is the need for greater assistance from Australia's state and federal governments for the video games industry. Bodies such as Film Victoria and Screen Australia provide some funding for small independent creators, but those within the industry feel more is needed.
"I'd like to see better and more substantial assistance for getting overseas," Kusters said. "The benefit it provides both to the individual and the local scene is incredible. Multimedia Victoria offers assistance getting overseas but the paperwork is a nightmare. Worse still, New South Wales and Queensland don't have dedicated funds for getting devs overseas."
Getting Australian developers overseas, to large industry events such as the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, is an excellent way to increase their exposure and expand professional networks. It can be an expensive proposition, however, so Kusters and others are asking for more assistance to promote the local industry.
For now, putting together an eye-catching video and appealing for public support on Kickstarter is one of the few ways local developers can attract any kind of investment. Armello's campaign is doing well and is on track to hit its goal, but many struggling studios are not so lucky.