$20 million boost for Aussie game makers
Australia's troubled video game development sector is set to receive a badly-needed shot in the arm within six months, with Federal Arts Minister Simon Crean announcing a $20 million fund to assist local studios.
It's been a tough few years for local game creators, with major changes in the industry occurring alongside an unprecedented increase in the value of the Australian dollar, and of course the global financial crisis causing a slow-down in retail spending.
The first to suffer were the studios who had traditionally taken advantage of our low-value dollar to provide contract work for overseas publishers, typically working on film tie-ins, licensed family games, and ports to get the bills paid. Our greatly inflated dollar suddenly made Australia a less attractive place to get contract work done, so publishers went elsewhere.
For a while, the conventional wisdom was that Aussies needed to move away from contract work on licensed properties and create their own IPs, but those who followed this advice began to suffer too, and Australia lost many of its great old studios in quick succession.
The Australian games industry is now primarily made up of small independent studios making smaller, more casual games, most frequently for touch devices such as the iPhone and iPad. Hardly anyone is making so-called triple-A retail titles in this country any more.
Amidst all of this, many of the creatives and business people working in video games have been asking the Australian government for help. There have been requests for tax incentives to encourage long-term investment in technology and direct funding to assist with production, marketing, and expansion.
Yesterday, the government delivered. The new fund, officially titled the Australia Interactive Games Fund, will provide $20 million in direct financial assistance, and Mr Crean committed to having it up and running before the end of this financial year, a little over seven months away.
The precise form this fund will take is yet to be decided. Apart from the announced timeline, the only other element set into stone is that the fund will be administered by Screen Australia. As to how the funds will be divided up, what kind of things should be funded, and how decisions should be made, Mr Crean announced an upcoming consultation period that will allow the games industry itself to determine the exact nature of the fund.
Anthony Reed, head of the Game Developers Association of Australia, the peak body that represents those who create video games in Australia, was optimistic about the news. He drew particular attention to Mr Crean referring to the new fund as a "down payment", suggesting that this choice of language indicates that this is just the first fund of its type, a "proof of concept" perhaps, and should it be successful it may pave the way for similar funding models in future.
Speaking with Screen Play, Mr Crean drew attention to the unique challenges faced by game studios. "You see the amount of investment that's made, and it's an up-front cost," he said. "I think that's an issue we need to address, the start-up component."
Mr Crean also stressed the importance of the consultative period. While he said that he would like to see the fund "be rewarding of something that's innovative, something that's new, that sort of excellence criteria," he said he is "not going to impose that criteria; this is something we advise the sector in all of its forms to advise us on, how to measure excellence.
"I don't want to pre-empt that way this fund is spent, but at this stage I want some good input," he added, "but you will only get good input if people think you're serious, so that's why we're putting the money out there first."
Considering Australians spend $1.5 billion on video games last year, $20 million might not seem like a lot, but for a small studio, even a few hundred thousand could mean the difference between staying open or shutting down. I hope the government receives a large amount of positive feedback from Australia's game makers, and this helps to maximise the good this new fund will do.
- James "DexX" Dominguez
DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez