Did you see My Year Without Sex? No? C’mon, it was shown at the Adelaide Film Festival. Funded by Screen Australia?
No, of course you didn’t. It was a complete commercial flop.
On the other hand, you might have seen Saw. I didn’t—too squeamish. But it’s a successful film franchise that was denied Australian funding. So it was made in LA.
Last week, the Federal Government announced the launch of a 20 million grant fund for Australian game developers. The guidelines for who gets these grants will be written by Screen Australia. Fortunately, Screen Australia has recognised that it mightn’t know a lot about funding successful games, and so has reached out to the games industry for input. So today, let’s look at how these grants should be awarded.
The games grants are meant to be part of the Government’s new National Culture Strategy. This raises some questions about how the grants will be awarded, because the film industry has been shackled to Australian ‘culture’ for decades. This is dictated by law—the Screen Australia Act says film funding is to:
“Ensure the development of a diverse range of Australian programs that deal with matters of national interest or importance to Australians, or that illustrate or interpret aspects of Australia or the life and activities of Australian people.”
Which explains My Year Without Sex. And also explains why most Australian films have a distinctly ‘Australian’ theme to them, instead of genres like science fiction or horror. It’s like the Government is funding war propaganda.
Is cultural relevance appropriate for games? Well, many successful games are about American soldiers saving the President, after all. I predict enthusiastic funding for games where you play Australian soldiers badass enough to save the Prime Minister.
Rhode Island is currently suing the pants off 38 Studios for the $75 million they allegedly scammed to try and make their failed Kingdoms of Amalur-themed, Copernicus MMO.
Closer to home, the Western Australian Government gave Chicago-based Interzone Studios $500,000 to develop their Interzone Futebol MMO. In a sordid tale that’s been documented well before, Interzone fled the country and ended up owing staggering amounts, to their employees in unpaid wages and to the Australian Taxation Office in unpaid tax.
Both these cases are similar in that the developers were allegedly hoping for new money to materialise out of thin air. The lawsuit against 38 Studios claims that the company knew it did not have the money to complete Copernicus, but lied and said they did anyway. Interzone somehow managed to dodge its financial obligations for years, waiting for… I don’t know. Maybe a lottery win.
It would be a shame if these cases made it harder for more honest developers to gain funding, as avoiding the problems is really quite easy. All developers need to do is give full disclosure about their proper financial position, and for the Government to investigate seriously before giving any grants.
The National Culture Strategy defines Australian culture as innovation. Simon Crean remarked that he’d like to see the fund be “rewarding of something that’s innovative, something that’s new, that sort of excellence criteria”. In other words, something like Fruit Ninja (which he also raved about).
Unfortunately, innovation is difficult. Games have huge up-front costs. By the time they hit market, thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars have already been spent. Unproven IPs have no real way to predict that they’ll recoup their costs, and publishers are wary of this, favouring established series instead. It’s why I’ve got to agree with Tobes—Mass Effect 4 will go ahead with the familiar Shepard (and hopefully Kelly).
This creates a problem for a fund based on innovation, as it might not match up to what publishers want. While it’s fantastic to promote innovation, the grants won’t build the industry if the games are commercial flops.
Not just games?
The best way to address this problem is to be truly innovative with what games are—go beyond entertainment to look at new markets. Currently, the Australian games industry is locked into phone games and contract work. We all know that AAA titles don’t get made here anymore, unless they’re licensed ports.
But the choice isn’t just between AAA titles and phone games. Earlier this month, a British psychologist proposed that games could help treat Alzheimer’s disease, by testing and exercising motor skills, attention, and memory. Currently, no games exist to do this, and yet the cost of treating Alzheimer’s in America alone is expected to hit a trillion dollars by 2050.
Another example is a game called Re-Mission. Made in 2005, it’s still being used to help young cancer patients understand the point of taking medication. It’s still being used because no competitors exist. The next indie hit won’t necessarily be another Minecraft, but rather a game that addresses real world issues.
When the games grants were announced, Melbourne talkback radio host Neil Mitchell described the grants as “Welfare for nerds”, and games in general as “go out and shoot people type games”. As Tony Reed, CEO of the Games Industry of Australia responded, we need to debunk that dated stereotype. The best way to do that will be for the Australian Interactive Games Fund to take the full range of gaming opportunities seriously.