Free Play

Australias Independant Game Developers Conference.

"Gabe Newell is a prick" exclaims one game designer at Free Play 2005, one of the most obscure events in the international gaming calendar.

The Australian Independent Game Developers Conference (GDC), over the last few years has become increasingly important as video games become mainstream, evident from the growing numbers of tanned muscular people or trendy Emo’s appearing in Electronic Boutique. As a result, these conferences are the last bastion of hope to get meaningful, honest discourse with people who actually have an impact on the games industry. GDCs get limited exposure in the press, so developers can afford to be brutally honest, and I emphasize brutal.

E3, and similar events, have grown less important in the gaming world, because of their focus on marketing and Hollywood style glamour, starring CEO's instead of celebrities. Honestly, I don’t know which one is worse, too much glitz or too much hype. It’s hardly new though, designers have been appearing less and less at E3 replaced by marketers of Electronic Arts (EA) and Sony. Both of which trying very hard to convince everyone that playing their games is equivalent to being let into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. However, they fail to mention the GDC's, the Slugworths to their Wonkas. Game developers conferences skim off that top layer of sparkle and expose the heart of the industry; the people that slave over a keyboard to increase the stock value of some publisher half a point. Everyone’s heard of the tortured artist.

Free Play 2005, the world’s largest Independent GDC, is held in Melbourne, Australia. I arrive to find the venue stocked with the usual assortment of attendees; journalists, wannabe game designers, university lecturers and a handful of actual game developers. Various conversations littered the floor: pseudo-intellectuals in black square glasses and turtle necks discussing the "dramatic aesthetic" and the advantage of Machinima over traditional cinema, opposite bearded George Lucas-esque men discussing problems about debugging expired platforms like the Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum; and inevitably the 20-somethings boasting how the next generation Nintendo/Sony/Microsoft console is going to "own" (or should I say ‘pwn’?).

Over the course of Free Play, events were offered in the form of technical workshops where people from within the industry educate the audience on some of the finer points of creating games. Some of the highlights of these included:

  • An enlightening introduction to biofeedback devices for gaming
  • A workshop on creating scripted cut scenes and/or Machinima, using the Sims 2 and the Unreal engine, lectured by Thuyen Nguyen and Travis Draper from one of Australia’s oldest and largest developers: Melbourne House
  • A breakdown and demonstration of some of development issues when working on the Nintendo: DS versus the PlayStation Portable (PSP) (with no clear winner being named)
  • An elementary introduction to AI in gaming
  • A detailed demonstration on graphics programming and tips for tidier code
  • And finally, a humorous workshop on hacking hardware and homebrew PSP games.

Thuyen Nguyen providing a demonstration on Machinima using the Sims 2.

Despite the quality of many of the technical presentations they felt more like classroom, (albeit an entertaining one) in comparison to the more theoretical presentations.

The first presentation I attended was a casual open forum discussion about the impact, and role, of reviewers and the media in the industry - "Everyone’s a critic: game reviewing vs film reviewing". The panel consisted of: university lecturer Christian McCrea, of Ludonauts fame; Jason Hill, Games Editor of the Australian broadsheet The Age; and the irreverent Kieron Gillen, of the UK's PC Gamer and author of the Scratchware Manifesto under the pseudonym "Designer X"

The three began by charging the video game connoisseur with being dogmatic, and somewhat gullible when it comes to game reviews, more so, in fact, than audiences in every other industry. They cited that because of the higher price tag attached to video games over films, audiences tended to use game reviews more seriously than they would for a film or book. Together, the panellists discussed how best to make the most of game reviews.

Hill suggested to search far and wide for good quality write-ups you agreed with and to notice the name, to stop this "blind spiral" of believing everything you read. McCrea added that people should take particular note of the review itself and stop placing so much emphasis on the final score, because "in truth it doesn’t really matter". Gillen warned that the DVD industry had risked lowering itself to the same standards of the Video Games industry noting that several magazines he had worked for put low rated films, like Star Wars Episode 1, as DVD of the month, solely for the amount of extra content.

From left: Christian McCrea, Kieron Gillen and Jason Hill.

They continued to explain how the general quality of game reviewers was poorer than any other industry implying that there were no significant figures like Roger Ebert to set the standard. Gillen joked that most reviewers just wake up one day and decide to review games for a living, stating that most have almost no background in journalism and simply have not played enough games. After a quick summation of all the above points and some basic questions from the audience, the first seminar of the day was over. I found myself agreeing with most of it. As of late I have been on a quest to find the ultimate reviewer, some magical doppelganger that mirrors my exact gaming taste, and sadly I have become painfully aware of the poor writing skills possessed by most game journalists.

After attending some really interesting seminars on ‘Women game developers’ and ‘Games as a cultural satire’, I was present to the one event most people look forward to, while simultaneously rolling their eyes - GDCs ‘State of the Industry’ presentation. Something along the lines of a show case of negativity prophesising how the industry will go supernova and collapse in on itself.

The ‘State of the Industry’ panel consisted of: Gillen (once again), as well as world renowned adventure game author; market expert Greg Costikyan; and the very outspoken Mark Angeli, writer and designer of several pen and paper role playing games, along with a modest number of electronic games.

Needless to say, the main points were:

  • The doom of the games industry is nigh
  • The stagnation in the video game genres and design is the final sign of the apocalypse
  • Games are too expensive to produce.

Concluding, it’s the Anti-Christ-worshipping publishers who have too much control, and don’t want it to change. I wish I was joking, but yes, publishers like EA were often compared to Satan himself. I have no love for EA or for publishers in general either, but honestly, I don’t believe it’s entirely their fault. In my experience the only distribution model that historically works are the first 4 rows at Electronics Boutique. Outside of that it’s bargain bins, and a few smallish online projects which barely make ends meet.

Courtesy of Greg Costikyan.

Recently, the gaming media has not portrayed these particular presentations in a positive light; this is largely due to virtually the same speech being spoken every year, with nothing ever accomplished from it. I sympathize, (I really do) and generally agree with the issues raised, but every time it sounds more like emotional rhetoric than constructive criticism. Publishers, retailers and investors aren’t complaining and why should they? In 2004, 40% of Americans bought at least one video game, demonstrating the exponential growth of the industry as far as the eye can see. However, the one thing always glossed over at E3, but persistently emphasised at GDCs, is that most of the 40% are playing the same twenty games. Despite all the ‘hoo-harr’ about the games industry rivalling the movie industry, the truth is that individual titles are losing more revenue and developers are making less money on average every year.
Which brings me to another presentation, as a counter weight to the above: ‘Publishers: Who really needs them anyway?’. Here, independent Australian developers shared experiences and lessons learnt from their contact with publishers. A large concern of Australian developers seems to be that they’ll be viewed primarily as a cheap place to do ports, largely meaning that little original development will funded here. This is exacerbated further by experienced developers emerging in Asia and Eastern Europe offering to do ports cheaper. One of the new up-and-coming developers I spoke with privately, expressed his concern that the entire Australian developers community was at risk unless key companies become self-sustainable, and control their own intellectual property. It’s a sound concern since almost no Australian developers release titles based on their own work.

Ben Palmer, a veteran developer who worked along side the Gollop brothers was on the ‘Publishers: Who really needs them anyway?’ panel and shared his experiences. He has been based in Australia for the last 10 years, has organized private funding from friends and family, and is provided PS2 developer kits (dev kits) by the state of Victoria. Fuming, he states developing console games would not be possible without the support provided by the Victorian government, and that it is a "crime" that Sony expects upwards of $10,000AUD for dev kits just to develop something on their platforms. A note that was reiterated by Mark Angeli: "Sony thinks their PS2 dev kits are filled with magic; and worth what people pay for them. Pfft… I see companies that buy like 10 of them, why would a developer need 10 hat warmers?!". Palmer, in the last few years, has founded the development company - ‘That Game’ . He has been working on a mainstream flight simulator for PS2 and Xbox called Heroes of the Pacific, attempting to do what Call of Duty did to the first person shooter genre, and make it feel like you’re in a large-scale battle.

Greg Costikyan's keynote presentation.

Palmer said that he had got his project to a ‘demo-able’ stage and sought out all the major publishers, and here is where his real trouble began. After much pain and suffering, (and being forced to sign away his soul) the best deal they could get was from Acclaim… Needless to say, the project had rocky days ahead. Palmer, totally at wits end with all publishers, decided to take a new approach and gathered private investors to fund development for a share of the revenue. With Heroes of the Pacific fully financed, European publisher Codemasters, and North American publisher Encore were quick to get the rights for distribution. Palmer wryly concluded that the days of dictation from publishers are numbered, as private investors enabled him to get the upper hand on all negotiations, which allowed him to keep all his intellectual property.

Peter Jarret followed, an independent developer for his company Gridwerx, based in Queensland, Australia. Jarret's approach is to get a game developed by relying on no funding whatsoever. He currently moonlights at Gridwerx, while maintaining a full-time "real job" to pay the bills and has gathered a team of like minded individuals willing to dedicate their time for a cut of the profits. His original team consisted of over twenty people, from the UK, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Yugoslavia, but within a few short weeks it completely fell apart. The chief reason was a lack of direction, experience and unrealistic goals with everyone wanting to be "captain of the ship".

Jarret conceded that his passionate but unskilled team needed to be pruned, and was forced to keep only seven people on the project with a set chain of command. All accepted they would need to dedicate upwards of 100,000 hours of their time. With that core group, Jarret said the first thing to do was spend a month drinking beer and planning game concepts that were marketable. Now he describes them as his "rebellious developers" and is one of few to tackle tough genres like RPG’s. The team is working on their debut project; a first person action sci-fi RPG thriller set in London in the year 2097.

Concept art for Gridwerx's untitled sci-fi RPG.

This brings me to the final presentation I will cover; the keynote speech from seven year games veteran Damian Scott. One of the developers of the popular Half-Life mod, Team Fortress, he offered his very honest opinions on the ever controversial Gabe Newell.

After the runaway success of Team Fortress, Scott began work on another project, a futuristic sports mod using the Half-Life engine titled, Kanonball. The game when released was met with "mild enthusiasm". Scott, like all up and coming developers had the goal of making a living from his 'hobby'. So whilst working full-time at a 'real job', he formed the software development house, Primal Clarity Productions, consisting completely of volunteers (much like That Game). However what makes Scott’s experience unique is his plan to produce profitable games by modding existing ones, whilst simultaneously avoiding contact with those "Anti-Christ worshipping" publishers we heard about earlier.

Scott explained how Valve Software’s flagship title Half-life 2 on the Source engine, combined with their online distribution software Steam, is a powerful tool for independent developers. Valve enables anyone to create modifications for Half-Life 2 and sell their product via Steam, with both parties getting a share of the profits. As soon as I heard this, my spider-sense was tingling - could it really be that simple? Really? It seemed ideal; mod’s are able to be produced with a team of four or five people with a reasonable amount of quality. However, Scott soon made it clear that in order to do so, the developer has to make certain concessions, the most dubious of which sees Valve retain all IP rights, as well as the right to produce any derived works.

Concept art for Damian Scott's Kanonball 2137.

On several occasions Scott had met with Gabe Newell, managing director of Valve, when Scott was interested in developing a follow-up to Kanonball. Valve flew him from Australia to America to meet Newell himself. While Scott was hesitant to divulge too much, he did offer his personal thoughts on Newell: "Gabe Newell is a prick... He flew me over, and wouldn’t talk to me…" He added, with a grin, "Unless Gabe has some form of mind control over you, he’s not interested [in speaking with you]".

Scott felt he was lucky he had maintained contact with a friend from his Team Fortress days, who was now working for Epic Games, the creators of the Unreal series. After his "meeting" with Newell, it wasn’t long before a deal was made for the sequel to Kanonball, Kanonball 2137 to be released using the Unreal engine via Epic Games.

Scott offered a tip: the best way to avoid publishers was still the online distribution model, but he emphasised that Valves Steam and small-time private distribution aren’t the only alternatives. Scott heralded Game xStream as the "next big thing", and he may very well be right. Game xStream is an online gaming-on-demand service very similar to Steam, except it isn’t owned by a content provider like Valve, and is more accommodating for independent developers by having no set-up costs or sign-in fees. The profits are split 50:50 with the developer (which is extremely fair in comparison to the alternatives). This also provides a range of distribution options enabling developers to release games in episodic format (much like Ritual Entertainment’s SiN 2), or using the classic shareware model or a pay-per-play system.

I’m predicting that in the next several months debates will rage of epic proportions about Steam vs. Game xStream, as both services come to fruition (with a whole slew of companies on either side). It could very be a bloody fight to the death, but I say… a little healthy competition never hurt anyone.

Needless to say, Free Play is an important event; it certainly enables independent developers to have a voice, despite how clichéd that voice may be. More importantly though, it connects the foot soldiers (game players) to the developers (commanders in chief), and as a result, exposes many of the problems exclusive to the Australian gaming industry. Some examples of these issues include censorship, and communication limitations with Europe and America, both of which are at least fourteen hours away. But the greatest thing to be taken from the independent gaming community is the amount of passion the people have for gaming, despite minimal recognition and success. At the risk of sounding clichéd myself; passion fuels creativity and throughout the entire Free Play conference one thing became increasingly clear: more true innovation is coming from the independent sector than the fully financed mainstream sector. There is still hope.

Shane Sweeney

Edited by: Halibut

Further Reading:

Free Play 2005’s complete program.
If you’re after further reading then I highly recommend;