The State of the Game – Mark Angeli

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Why the Australian Computer game industry should avoid following the film industry’s lead. At all costs.

1. Look Ma, It’s a New Art!

Film and games, why compare the two at all? Obviously they’re both visual mediums that use primarily linear structure. The principle audience is demographically similar in terms of socio-economic level and age. Both make a considerable portion of sales from works within the action genre. Both use the floating window of a screen to present visual information. But these are all surface similarities, and we’re not going to learn much from them. The important parallel is that both are the first new art-forms (or craft, if you prefer) in thous ands of years. Literature, poetry, music, dance, sculpture, painting, even comics have all existed for millennia. Film is only just one hundred years old and interactive media, specifically computer games, are thirty at the time of this article. So the two forms are the youngest children in the crotchety old art family.

And in Australia, both have within them the potential for greatness.

2. The Film’s A Success But The Audience Was A Disaster

Like all national film industries, early Australian cinema was obscure, imitative and largely irrelevant to both native and international audiences, except as a passing diversion. It was a nascent art form and, without denigrating the efforts of those pioneers, the world was still excited about the fact that the train looked like it was going to burst out of the screen, or that a dissolve between two images usually (but not always!) meant time had elapsed, or that the pretty lady was 30 feet tall. After this awkward childhood, local cinema, like its overseas counterparts, progressed into surety, confidence and a distinctive and worthwhile identity. Unfortunately, it was right after this promising adolescence that our path diverged from that of more successful indigenous cinemas, setting off on an youthful paddle up S**t Creek.

Let’s use France as our yardstick, just because. In the 50s and 60s French cinema began carving out a successful international niche that it still occupies today. It is characterized by a distinctive and globally recognizable approach and consists of high quality output that includes spectacularly successful international releases and equally healthy local attendances. Of the total cinema box office in France last year, local productions accounted for 30%.

But wait! You cry, our cinema is incredibly popular overseas, we’ve been flavour of the month ever since the 1980s. This is a difficult assertion to deal with, so I will resort to the truth. Bullshit. It’s time our self-image caught up with reality; despite the mainstream media, specialist film commentators and government body assertions to the contrary, we are not and have never been more than a blip on any box office or critical radar.

3. Australia Who?

On the Internet Movie Data Base’s top 250, which offers a true Bayesian estimate of popularity, Australia can boast involvement in one film; Moulin Rouge (a co-production with the U.S) at number 104. This doesn’t sound so bad when you consider the population differences between Oz and say America or the UK. A quick look at Denmark (a country without the benefit of world cinema’s Lingua Franca, a population just over 1/4 that of Australia and an extremely cold place) with a tally of 3 and things seem sort of.crap. In fact using the population of English speaking countries as a guide, with the UK’s score of 14 we should have 4.5 films in the top 250.

Well we’ve got the .5, so drinks are on me (figures relevant at the time of this writing).

In the top 200 list of international box office successes, Australia has one film, the 14 year old (but still as fresh and insightful as ever.ahem.) Crocodile Dundee (1986) at number 77.   Babe (1995) at 135 and Crocodile Dundee II (1988) at 146 are U.S. co-productions and all three are “quirky Aussie comedies” (Quirky – patent pending).  The most recent of these is cleverly non-specific in its setting, featuring an exaggerated English-style “green and pleasant land” and an American male lead.  But that’s why it worked, when all the other Aussie-flavoured comedies over the past 15 years have failed to garner much of an audience at all.

It should be noted that the majority of Crocodile Dundee‘s international takings (174.5 million of 328 million USD) were at the U.S. box office.  This is because that film was specifically (and cleverly) designed to appeal to Americans, offering them the popular (and newly emerging) Akubra-clad, croc-hugging Aussie bushman stereotype in strong contrast with their own local archetypes.  The film’s local appeal came from the same source. This is a one off, once you’ve played the chord of “look at the simple but noble Aussie struggling and eventually triumphing while dealing with a series of cultural misunderstandings and fish-out-of-water riffs”, YOU CAN NEVER DO IT AGAIN. Or if you do, don’t expect anyone to pay money.

4. No Really.Australia Who?

Just to round off the doom and gloom I’ll share a personal story. While in New York a couple of years ago, I was talking with a group of young up and comers from NYU’s film school.  These people are film-literate and theoretically the cream of the crop.  There were students from all over the U.S. as well as the U.K. and elsewhere.  The conversation eventually turned to Australian film.  Now although everyone claimed to love it, no-one was actually sure why.  They all remembered The Road Warrior (1981) (as Mad Max 2 is known in the U.S.), which isn’t too bad for a film made before some of them were born. Most of them had heard of Muriel’s Wedding (1994), although many had not actually seen it, and one professed love for The Piano (1993).

That was it; a 20-year-old science-fiction film, one “quirky Aussie comedy” (Remember Mums; kids love Quirky!) which I believe at least some of them had confused with The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert (1994) and an Australian/New Zealand/French co-production. I suspect they had seen The Piano without being aware of it’s mixed pedigree, the U.S. ads showed Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel, and the film’s period timeframe, but completely failed to mention its setting. So much for flavor of the month.

By the way, remember France’s 30% attendance of local productions? In comparison Australian audiences only wanted to watch native films 7.4% of the time, which to my mind proves that not even Australian truck drivers, of romantic bent or otherwise, want to watch films about Australian truck drivers who write romance novels

This is not to say Australian cinema-goers don’t want to watch any Australian films.  They just don’t want to watch crap Australian films, drawn from one genre; quirky romantic comedy (Greetings humans; we come for your Quirkiness). Too bad, that’s all we make! Private jokes with an absent audience and no punchline.

5. Where Did Everyone Go?

How did Australian cinema end up in the situation where only one kind of film is made; the sun-drenched, “quirky comedy” (Quirky – © A.F.C.), with an ever-so-slight gritty edge, always in a local setting?

Why do all our films have to be set in Australia?  Why can’t they be set in outer space, or Italy, or an unnamed western city?  Other countries make films like that.

I’m glad you asked.here’s an answer I prepared earlier.  I think it’s because we had one massive success with Crocodile Dundee (see above) a “quirky Aussie comedy” (It’s fresh, it’s chewy and it tastes like chocolate. It’s Quirky!).  And suffering, as we still do, from a bad case of cultural cringe we believed we could never replicate that level (or any level) of success outside that same genre, we tried it again.  And again.  And again.

The situation is compounded by the non-creative people desperate to work in a creative industry who populate the funding bodies.  They’re not all like that, but around the world there’s a surprising incidence of confused, conflicted and just plain wrong headed people in arts grant organizations.  They make bad decisions about subjects they don’t understand to justify their existence and then spasm about in denial about those decisions, unwilling to change horses in mid-stream and unable to imagine diversifying because they have scared off anyone who might offer them an alternative to what they have insisted on producing for the past decade and a half.

Film-makers have no choice but to participate.  Production companies are in business to make money, to make money they must release films, to release films they must get funding, to get funding, (and there are not many other ways to make films in Australia) they must put together a package that the biased funding bodies will look at.

The only other option is for film-makers to stand around and wait to be offered participation in overseas production shooting locally. Certain crasser elements in Hollywood (where so many offensive but fascinating things come from) call Australia White Mexico. White Mexico is a place where the exchange rate is good, labour is cheap, the local industry is in a slump (otherwise they wouldn’t be quite as welcoming to American productions) and the extras look like Americans.  Hey, that’s us!  But guess what?  We weren’t the first.  Before us it was England, home to the first three Star Wars films (1977 – 1983), Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986).  Even presently, we’re not alone; there is also Canada, where numerous TV productions, including the X-Files are based.  Our successor is already shining on the horizon, boasting an exchange rate almost as good, locations that are more spectacular and an extreme eagerness to come to the party (by setting up cutting edge post-production facilities the likes of which the region has never seen, for example).  New Zealand has been home to Hercules, Xena, The Frighteners (1996) and the upcoming Lord Of The Rings trilogy.

6. Let The Games Begin

For an article about games, on a game site, by a game designer I sure am talking about movies a lot. 

There’s one major reason for this; the situation I’m presenting is merely my hypothesis.  I have no concrete proof to support my idea that two vaguely related media industries will share a final destination.  I believe it’s likely because I think many of the commercial motivations are similar, and I’ve already seen what has happened in one of the industries. So that’s the one I’m giving you a whole lot of details about.

In the end I’m just trying to convince you that this is possible and that, perhaps, we should be thinking about whether or not it’s a path we want to go down.

7. What’s The Connection, George? 

In Australia the production of computer games is not government funded, but the decisions that drive film production are the same for games; a desire to produce quality product while maintaining profit and corporate longevity.  In addition they share a business motivation that outweighs all other considerations. 

The cultural cringe. 

A conservatism based on a lack of belief in our own talent, in our ability to innovate and to prosper in a global market without the safety net of overseas impetus. 

This is the only reason I can think of to explain why the overwhelming majority of games made in Australia are licensed products initiated by overseas publishers. 

8. I Need You, I Love You, I Want You.

Games need publishers.  It’s hard to convince a publisher to come to the party on a new, unlicensed, untried game made by a development studio a long way away.  It’s much easier to have a publisher (or license holder, or another development house) initiate the project by outsourcing to you a game already on their release schedule.

Since all development houses know this and since there’s little point in throwing millions of dollars into a game without some kind of assurance that it will be published and distributed, most developers go with the second option. Sometimes it’s of high, world-class quality and sometimes it’s not.

9. We’re Only Small, Please Hold Our Hand

This is one of those statements that sound eminently reasonable on first hearing. “Well struth, we do pretty well in the movie/computer game/recreational zeppelin manufacturing business for a country our size.  We’re much smaller than America you know.”

In fact we’ve probably got one of the highest densities of game studios to population in the world.. And we have pretty much the same access to the resources (both human and technological) needed to start, maintain or grow a development studio as the U.S. for example.

So in fact the truth of the matter must be that Australians don’t make quality original games because we suck (or blow).    Of course, that’s not the case.  It’s because we don’t want to.  It’s an attitude.  We’re afraid. 

If you’ve successfully scraped together the venture capital to start a studio, found the staff to man it and got everything up to speed, the last thing you’d want to blow it on is something potentially disastrous.  Of course your original project could be the next Cossacks but what if it’s the next Battlecruiser 3000 AD instead?  It’s much better to take your shiny new studio and use it on a sure fire, pre-contracted overseas deal.  In the short term it makes infinite sense.  In the long term it’s dangerous as hell (as we’ll see).

You also miss out on the big money.

10. Seriously, There Really Is A Wolf Out Here

So what’s wrong with all this?

In the short term.nothing.  It makes financial sense and can even lead to acclaim.  Infogrames’ Australian studio is considered to be among the best, if not the best, in that group.

Remember our pals in the film industry?  They believed (and they were right for a couple of years) that it made perfect sense to keep making “quirky Aussie comedies” (Size; Medium. Qty; 100.  Style; Quirky.). The local film-industry, after 15 years of mid-level stability is now at a stage where local productions have no audience, in Australia or outside.

Increasingly the only two options for local film-makers (cast and crew) are either participation in cookie-cutter, funding merry-go-round, local productions aimed at an increasingly disinterested home market and a totally oblivious international one.  Or (the largest growth area currently) we can take other people’s money and do what they tell us, in foreign-money shows.

Increasingly the only option for local game developers is to secure a publishing deal for a game whose concept has originated overseas, build up a relationship with that publisher and work on whatever they throw your way. 

My Crystal Ball of Cynicism leads me to predict that our glory period as a viable White Mexico or alternative location for offshore American productions will not last out this decade.  In the meantime, we will wander further and further away from any real chance at a healthy indigenous film industry.  In the end all we’ll be left with are character actors with deft American accents standing in front of tattered blue-screens.

The honeymoon for computer games will last longer simply because the ever-hungry financial imperative will be balanced by the fact that anyone can make internationally successful computer games, no matter where or who they are, what they look like or even if they can’t speak American. If we use our skills and advantages and combine them with an original, unique and diverse approach then we can compete against anything. If we don’t, someone more talented or more affordable (or both!) will come along and eventually the next Dawson’s Creek Regatta Challenge for the PS2 will be made somewhere else.

When this happens Australian game developers will be forced to initiate projects, find publishing deals and create a unique and marketable “game manufacturing identity” all with very little idea of how to go about it.

If the industry waits until then, it will be too late.

11. Hit Continue, Hit Continue!

I imagine you (my imaginary reader) saying “but you’ve just explained it, you can’t make a game without distribution.” 

But people do. If a development studio can survive (without the milestone payments that come with a publishing deal) during the 1 or 2 years it takes to finish a game, and if the game can be completed to a high level, and if it can be brought to the attention of publishers and if the stars all come into alignment and a baby goat is sacrificed at midnight, then original product can be picked up for distribution. 

In fact the best model is to have other (licensed or outsourced) projects that use the majority of a studios resources and bring in capital, while putting a small team on an original project. With a concerted effort, any studio large enough can slowly but surely move their output of original content forward.

Overseas this has worked for Pop Top Software who worked on Railroad Tycoon II and III for PC and Mac and then with nothing on the horizon and some housekeeping money in their purses embarked on Tropico.  Somebody here will have to try it, someone will have to be the exception. The great thing about exceptions in the entertainment arts is that eventually they become the norm. 

We like to think of ourselves as the lucky country.  We relied on “she’ll be right mate” to sort out our films and it hasn’t happened.  If we don’t come up with a different approach for the computer game industry it will be. Game Over!

Comments

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