John de Margheriti likes to joke that there’s no quick way to describe what he does.
He’s a fast-talking Italian who looks nothing like the stereotypical video-game king he once was. These days, his descriptor is so filled with hyphens that it might be best to simply describe him as an entrepreneur.
“I’m a ‘parallel entrepreneur’, though, not a ‘serial entrepreneur’,” he says. This is shorthand for someone who is doing a great many things at once, heading up a family empire made up of the Academy of Interactive Entertainment, visual effects and video game development, feature film production, co-working spaces and real estate, all from his base in Canberra.
The Roman migrant first arrived here in 1962 with his family, at the age of eight. By the time he was a teenager, he was seriously into electronics, and as a student at Hawker College, he made a Super-8 science fiction film, inspired, naturally, by Star Wars. Working with his friend Steve Wang, he remembers spending “most of my life for two years” making this film. And, like pretty much everything he’s done ever since, the project had a long-term vision behind it.
After school, he and Wang began studying engineering at the University of New South Wales, only to drop out after a couple of years to set up a games company. Micro Forte started with its first game, Americas Cup Sailing Simulation, in 1986, for a start-up company called Electronic Arts.
In the ensuing years, Micro Forte designed, developed, coded and exported dozens of games, the highlight of which was Fallout Tactics, which made it Number 2 in the American gaming charts.
“We made a lot of people a lot of money. We never got paid much, but we made a business out of it. That's how things started,” he says.
By the mid-1990s, de Margheriti decided that he needed to build “an entire industry from scratch”.
He began by inventing and patenting a system of middleware technology, Massively Multiplayer Online Games, which he later commercialised, setting up another company called BigWorld. It was a precursor to what we now know as large numbers of people - often in different parts of the world - all playing video games together.
“BigWorld went on to make this middleware platform which created many billionaires,” he says.
“We took out about 60 per cent of the Chinese market for online games. Most of the games in China that needed a technology platform, and didn't have their own, would use BigWorld.”
The company was eventually sold, in 2012, to another called wargaming.net, and went on to create a game called World of Tanks.
“It became this monster,” he says.
Hearing him talk about war games and tanks and vikings is jarring, at least in his current setting, deep in the large warren of offices and workshops that make up the Canberra Technology Park in Watson - which he also runs as a hub for a much larger empire, involving film production, special effects, and co-working spaces.
In amongst all his gaming enterprises, in 1996 De Margheriti also founded the Academy of Interactive Entertainment, which now runs as a not-for-profit, with campuses in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Seattle Washington and Lafayette, Louisiana, as well as online.
Originally, he says, it was the first school in the world for video games, and began with 10 students in one room in the Watson Centre.
“It just kept on expanding, and it became packed to the rafters - we couldn't keep up with it,” he says.
In 1996, he also took it upon himself to kickstart the gaming industry in Australia, creating the Game Developers Association of Australia, funded through the academy and the Victorian government, which was more keen at the time on establishing a gaming sector than NSW.
“By creating the association, creating the yearly conference, creating an industry, we were pumping out so much talent,” he says.
He remembers one famous year when someone called to ask him where all the students from a particular class were, as they were nowhere to be found in the building.
“We found out that an employer had come in, hired them all in one hit, the entire classroom,” he says.
The academy also runs as a talent incubator, by helping graduates create their own companies with a cash grant and free rent.
"Over the last six years, we've created 114 companies, with a 76 per
cent success rate," he says.
"We don't get anything from it. We take the 100-year view."
The idea is that one day, those who’ve made their millions off the back of the academy's training and assistance will give some of their money back to it.
That could well be decades away, so in the meantime, de Margheriti and his team have plans to create a university, the AIE Institute, which would be in the same location, but with extra facilities and student accommodation.
To this end, the academy put in an unsolicited bid for the large Watson site, currently owned by the Canberra Institute of Technology and run as the Canberra Technology Park under a 20-year lease, which is due to expire in the next two years.
The plan is to transform Watson into a major education precinct over 20 years, and to spend around $111 million on refurbishing the site in the process.
The bid was made back in 2014, and late last year, the ACT government put the site up for community consultation. If the site goes to public tender, and another educational institution makes a successful bid, de Margheriti says he will simply move his operation outside Canberra.
“We will still have a small school, but the shift and focus will be in another state. We're planning that already. I think at that point we will have got the message that we're not welcome in Canberra,” he says.
There’s disappointment in his resolve. Although he visits Italy every year, he and his family have deep ties to Canberra: he and Vicky, another Canberran, met and married in Sydney, but chose to move back here and make it their base.
He says he and his family have spent many years contributing to Canberra, both financially through donations to public colleges, and through investments in the city’s innovation network.
But he says he has stopped feeling angry about how long it has taken for his grand plans to eventuate. Rather than stay in a holding pattern, he has set up a production studio for visual effects, and two film production companies, Dems, based here and in Los Angeles, and the Film Distillery, for smaller film projects developing young talent in Canberra.
Dems will focus on big-budget feature films, among them a thriller set on a jumbo jet, due to begin shooting next year, and a First World War epic, The Rats of Tobruk, to be directed by Australian Phillip Noyce.
With Canberra as its base, the mini-film industry he’s setting up will bring hundreds of jobs to the capital. Or maybe not, depending on how the bid for the site goes.
“I used to worry about it, but now I just keep going,” he says.