the return of the videogame outsiders

paul callaghan: innovation & the australian videogame industry

Captain Successor from the Captain Forever series by Farbs

Captain Successor from the Captain Forever series by Farbs


Australia has always been part of that change, with the arc of local evolution reflecting and responding to the international eddies of the entertainment industries, technology and culture in its own particular way.

innovative beginnings

In the early years of videogame development, Australia was home to experimental developers and publishers who created influential and genre-defining games like The Hobbit or Way of the Exploding Fist. This became the foundation for the 90s when the texture of local development settled into a mix of original games such as Dark Reign or Powerslide and those based on movies or comics, a mix which reflected wider trends—do the license work to bring in money, use the money to make something original. It was a model that worked well creating a stable industry, but during the first decade of this century the focus of developers tipped in favour of the licensed titles and the mainstream of Australian development became defined by work-for-hire movie or cartoon titles.

crisis time

This local focus made Australian development particularly vulnerable in the early years of the new decade as seismic shifts in development priorities and audience interest—catalysed by the GFC—changed the shape of mainstream game development around the world as publishers began to focus on known big budget blockbusters and smaller digitally distributed titles becoming less interested in mid-tier licensed titles. A shock wave went through studios, closing some and shrinking others, leaving many people wondering what to do next.

a new australian mainstream

Those best placed to ride this change out had adapted or were in the process of adapting to the rising ubiquity of smartphones and digital distribution platforms like the App Store and, in doing so, they created a new Australian mainstream—one focused on mobile, digital distribution, bite-sized arcade gameplay, and in recent years the possibilities of freemium and in-app purchases. Mythologies grew up around companies like Firemint (now Firemonkeys through a purchase from behemoth publisher EA and merger with another local company, Iron Monkey), creators of Flight Control, and Halfbrick, whose Fruit Ninja has had 300 million downloads. Many people, new to games or answering their own questions of what to do next, followed their lead, hewing to the mobile, arcade, freemium lines that seemed to indicate the best chance for success.

But this is only one story of the creation of videogames, and a particularly industrial one. These same changes in technology, in culture, in audiences, and in distribution that all moved games to a wider audience also left a gap, and in that gap, what was once the province of all videogame makers—space for the outsider—shifted and changed. A new mainstream was created, but so too was an evolving fringe of new voices, new makers and new ideas.

Expand, Christopher Johnson, Christopher Larkin, Best Audio in Game runner up, Freeplay 2012

Expand, Christopher Johnson, Christopher Larkin, Best Audio in Game runner up, Freeplay 2012

reclaim the game

In her book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You are Taking Back an Art Form, author and game developer Anna Anthropy calls for people to embrace the potential of games and take them back from this industrial mainstream, likening the possibilities of videogames now to the easy creation and distribution of zines. Anthropy writes about her own creations, like Calamity Annie and Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars, along with the work of others like Stephen Lavelle, whose website increpare includes a multitude of experimental games and mechanics; Christine Love whose period piece Digital: A Love Story explores young love mediated via technology; and Bennet Foddy, creator of GIRP, QWOP and Pole Fighters.

australian outsiders

Similar outsiders exist much closer-to-home, and each, in their own way, tell unique stories which are defined by the international story of game development, but also the closer to home changes which have directly impacted on them.

Game developer Farbs used to be part of the mainstream, working in the Australian arm of international publishers/developers 2K before quitting, famously, through the unique means of creating a playable game. His work is vibrant, potent and compelling in its focus on a pared-back ideal. Running the range from the arcade mash-up ROM CHECK FAIL, which fuses classic games, mechanics and glitches in a strangely functional, emergent experience to the austere exploring, crafting, shooting of Captain Forever or the bleep-happy rainbow explosion of Cumulo Nimblers, these are games which feel like they’re designed for an audience of one, but which through their sheer force of personality connect with many more people than that.

Glenn Forester says on his website that the only thing he does is make games, and looking at his output, it’s easy to believe that to be the case. A mix of mashup, jam, and rapid experiments, they’re sometimes unpolished, frequently very strange, but in all cases interesting and personal, drawing from the mainstream by co-opting games like Mario, Doom, Minecraft or Tetris and turning them into something new.

Finally, Harry Lee is representative of a new generation of developers who have never been part of the Australian studio system, and whose projects seem more interested in the exploration of ideas through systems, interactions and technology. His notable project, Midas, takes the story of a king whose touch turns everything into gold and converts it into a clear and compelling set of mechanics, which is a hallmark of his other titles Stickets and Impasse.

The emergence of these new makers—both here and overseas—shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Other creative forms have their independents, their outsiders, evolving as greater numbers engage with the mainstream and as the means of production and distribution become democratised. Not everything these makers do will be great, not all of it will even be good, but it will be unique, and it will be personal, and it will add to the volume of the voices of artists who make games, telling new stories which have far more to say and will resonate in ways that the mainstream—whether globally or locally— simply isn’t interested in.

RealTime issue #112 Dec-Jan 2012 pg. 25

© Paul Callaghan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

11 December 2012