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Want to be Surrounded By a Thriving Local Games Industry? Grow Yours

In this article, Sydney developer and instructor Epona Schweer writes how she and others pushed forward a plan to grow the indie scene in the city -- devastated by layoffs and with a growing number of new developers with no work -- and made it sustainable.

This is how an optimistic girl on a teacher's salary helped grow her local industry from a handful of development studios to nearly 30 making and releasing games. In two years, the Sydney Chapter of the IGDA grew from 300-something to a membership of nearly 1000 -- and all this cost less to pull off than an overseas trip to GDC.

With only a few cities in the world known for a culture of great game development, it's easy to imagine towns where the conversation just never comes up. Places where, instead of saying "How can we make better games?" they watch football or arrange matchsticks or something.

In the three years I've been coaching game developers, I have yet to meet one that starts out saying "You know, I don't want to be known for original games and genre-defining discoveries -- no, I think I'll just copy what's already out there, but spend more money and more time to produce something half as good!"

Folks don't go into this wanting to set up unsustainable businesses around crap games. All of us, from triple-A to Indie, got into this wanting to work on awesome stuff. So where does it go wrong?

What looks like a people problem is usually an environment problem. It isn't something wrong with the people making games; it's something wrong with the environment they're making games in. Tweak the environment, and behaviors change (Try it yourself: go throw all the snack food in your kitchen away and replace it with fresh fruit and veg all washed and chopped and ready to munch. By the end of the week, you'll be eating healthier and feeling better about yourself. Nifty, huh?)

We'll go into more detail about how we changed the culture of game development in Sydney throughout the article, but here's the key points if you're in a hurry:

Step-by-Step Community Development

  • Step 1: Clearly define what's motivating you
  • Step 2: Pick the right metrics to measure success by
  • Step 3: Volunteer first, identify which problems need solving
  • Step 4: Study what folks are already doing to solve those problems
  • Step 5: Prototype, Playtest and Iterate on Everything
  • Step 6: Keep an Eye out for Emerging Solutions
  • Step 7: Experience Design (Every Detail Matters)
  • Step 8: Replace yourself in the pipeline as soon as you can

Our Critical Change Factor: Regular, community-wide, peer-to-peer playtesting and feedback.

If there's one thing I can point to and say "this had the biggest impact on our games and the health of local industry" it's introducing regular playtesting, open to all devs, from commercial to indie. We now have better games getting made, finished, and released here in Sydney. Creating a culture around experimentation and feedback has been fundamental to that.

"I had no idea Sydney had such a healthy game development scene!"

We hear this a lot now. It's totally fair. Because up until recently, we didn't.

My part of this story starts back in 2009. I had turned down a producer role at L.A. Noire developer Team Bondi to take a teaching gig with a $20k pay cut. Why? I was sick to death of crunch. After crunching on projects seven days a week for years, I needed a break. You've been there too. It's exhausting. A steady 9-to-5 job helping folks learn how to make games was well worth dropping salary for.

Fast forward to 2010, and I'm working with this group of inspiring artists and programmers making games way cooler than anything I'd been contracted to do so far (something about them being young and naïve, maybe!) This was their last year with me, and naturally I wanted to see them do well in the industry (I'm just maternal like that) so I started looking for local studios to recommend the best of my guys to...

...and found next to nothing in Sydney! The combination of the 2008 writer's strike and the global financial crisis had devastated games and film industries in Australia, and Sydney was still a wasteland.

The few studios we had at the time weren't hiring -- and if they were, they'd snap up one of many veteran developers recently dumped into unemployment by publishers making liquidation decisions by spreadsheet ("Oh, sorry, you're in the red this month. We've got to close your studio. Sucks I know, but that's corporate policy.")

Here I was with these talented creatives about to step from my class into a nearly non-existent local industry -- and the next group due to join me was twice as big and equally awesome! Shit! Where were my guys going to go!?


All videos were done by Rhys Votano of Upstair Studios - who just showed up with a camera at one of the events and asked if he could film stuff! Here's a video from the second playtesting event I ran at the Arthouse hotel towards the end of 2011.

Step 1: Clearly Define What's Motivating You. Know what you're going into this to achieve. You won't get paid for this, and the established industry won't want to get involved -- at least not until after you're successful. And that's fair; they have their own businesses to worry about. But if you're doing this because it's something you're deeply passionate about, and you're willing to sacrifice to make it happen, then none of that matters so much. Money and recognition is only motivating when you don't have something deeply personal at stake. You know how you can lose all track of time doing something you're passionate about? Yeah. It's like that.

My motivation: At first it was "make sure my guys can make a living doing awesome creative stuff... instead of getting sucked up into advertising or have to leave Sydney to find work." Later this evolved into "help people go indie, live well, and make better games."


Working Out What We Needed

There had to be more opportunities for my guys. And if we weren't going to find them in the commercial scene maybe the budding indie community needed artists and programmers.

Our local IGDA chapter in Sydney was a small haven for indies, artists, and engineers interested in making games for players instead of shareholders. Founders Dan Graf, Malcolm Ryan, and Chris Lee introduced us to Game Jam and created a support network of creatives all keen to donate their time to improving the discussion of game development.

But these designers weren't starting companies of their own yet. What studios we did have in Australia were struggling to stay afloat in a post-financial crisis economy, abandoned by overseas publishers, and confronted with all the disruptive effects of digital distribution. No one was in a position to hire anyone.

We needed people creating sustainable companies in Sydney and developing their own original IP. As much as third party publishers and investors can help some studios take on bigger projects -- it was exactly that kind of artificial growth that leads to overextended budgets and mass layoffs around Australia. No, we had to be making games on our own if we were going to have any hope for long-term sustainability.

Step 2: Pick the Right Metrics to Measure Success By. It's so tempting to say "we'll have a bigger game development scene when we have more game developers!" Just because people are making games doesn't mean that a) they're bringing in enough cash flow to hire anyone (let alone pay rent) or b) they're going to be around next year to keep making games! What will it look like when you're successful? The metrics you use to track your progress needs to match the result you're after.

Our Metrics: We didn't need more game designers; we had those in spades. We needed more folks going indie. We'd know we were succeeding when more developers were self-publishing, getting their first paying customers (without investor/publisher help!) and growing sustainably (i.e. only when they need to, and can afford to).

Getting to Know the Community

Oh man, I had no idea where to even start! Managing people, developing pipelines, and coaching creatives -- that's what I was good at. But helping people go indie? I'd never done that before. I didn't know what resources people needed, or if they even wanted help!

These were some pretty big assumptions I needed to test: first, that folks wanted help at all (maybe Sydney just wasn't interested in going indie? Who knows!) Second, that this was a problem we could solve AT ALL. Third, that we could find a way to solve that problem in a scalable way (not dependent on any one person or group of people for it to be effective).

The only way to figure this stuff out was to get involved and start volunteering my time to help folks in all the little ways I could. This would give me an opportunity to get to know the wider community in Sydney, and the environment they were making games in, and get a feel for what needed changing.

Step 3: Volunteer first; identify which problems need solving. Before waltzing in to right wrongs and change the world, you need to help out with the day-to-day stuff. Work with folks who are already donating time and money into organizing events for the community. They'll appreciate the help; you'll get to know the community better and develop a much better understanding of what's missing.

What I did: The first event I volunteered for was Game Jam 2011, and I did everything I could to help folks that weekend. From laying cable, interviewing teams, updating the website, playing artist/coder matchmaker, to making sure people took breaks and had water -- you name it, I did it.

In addition to that, I started doing pro bono coaching with designers all around Sydney, helping with anything from consulting on game ideas to identifying opportunities for startups. I got to know a good chunk of the development scene this way, and it became very clear that our game designers had all the passion and dedication to start studios of their own -- they just had no idea where to start, and didn't have confidence that folks wanted to play their games. Those were the problems I needed to solve before any change was going to happen.

Solving the First Problem: How to Go Indie?

We needed examples -- folks sustainably making great games to inspire us and give us an idea of what actually matters (and what really doesn't). I started researching the development and business models behind games like Super Meat Boy, Braid, Minecraft, Limbo and more recently Bastion and Spelunky. I wanted to know what those developers were doing right, and what core principles we could adopt.

Follow the threads of their stories back far enough and you'll find that a) there's no "went to uni, got a degree, got a job and lived happily ever after" mythos happening there and b) they only have two real things in common:

  1. They all explored something completely new in terms of game development. From design to tech to business model -- it all grew from and supported a totally original idea.
  2. They were actively contributing to and engaging with their communities -- openly sharing methods, techniques and ideas with other developers and players alike.

This theory emerged: if we can create a culture fully focused on developing and fleshing out original ideas (as opposed to regurgitating the same old game mechanics and genre tropes) as well as encourage an open exchange of knowledge and techniques between developers, then maybe it'll be easier for folks to go indie and make better games sustainably.


This was the second of Rhy's videos showcasing the event, done shortly after GDC 2012.

Step 4. Study what folks are already doing to solve that problem. Look for bright spots -- places where people are already achieving the results you're after. What are they doing? What do they have in common? Most problems are already being addressed somewhere effectively. Your job isn't to design a totally new solution; it's to start with what already works well and improve the experience for your community.

My Research Methods: I knew finding these bright spots would be a bigger job than I could do on my own, so I hired a couple of awesome research assistants (thank you Sunu and Navin!) and between us we started mining the internet for data on all successful indie games published since 2008 (post-GFC world). After reading through everything we found, I emailed people directly with the questions I hadn't been able to answer in previous interviews and articles. Finally, over many cups of coffee and late nights sifting through all that data, patterns of success started to emerge -- commonalities we could use as a guide in our startups. I started indiebits.com to collect, collate and distribute what I'd learned and then began work on the next major hurdle.


Solving the Second Problem: Creating a Supportive Community for Startups

Look at the thriving game development scene in cities like Melbourne, Seattle, and San Francisco, and a few things become quickly apparent:

  1. They have REALLY good coffee
  2. Folks from industry are constantly delivering workshops and speaking at events
  3. The community openly celebrates success, whether that success is indie or triple-A

I wasn't going to have any kind of effect on the coffee situation anytime soon (hell, as an American expat, my taste in coffee is somewhat suspect anyways) but we could start experimenting with workshops and open discussion. If one of the major barriers to people going indie was having no idea where to start and feeling insecure in their ability to make good game design decisions, then that was the first thing our workshops had to address.

And for community growth to be self-sufficient, these workshops would need to be deeply ingrained in the culture of the city, and not dependent on any one person or group to keep running. Any pipeline dependent on just a few individuals is doomed to fail, and we needed something more sustainable if we were going to survive the next major economic upheaval (whatever that turns out to be).

Step 5. Prototype, Playtest, and Iterate on Everything. Before getting to this point, you've clearly defined your motivations and set out metrics to measure success by. Iteration won't take you off track so long as you keep checking your progress against those.

The first few times you run an event, just like the first few times you playtest a game, you'll be testing a lot of assumptions about how to achieve the experience you're after. In the same way that involving players fundamentally alters all the design ideas that looked so good on paper, running an event live will make it starkly clear what works and what doesn't. After every iteration ask yourself, 'How can we do this better?"

How we did it: Our first experiment was a "Game Day" run out of the common room of a local games college, AIE. We arranged industry speakers, created a schedule of game design challenges, sorted prizes, and catered lunch. Entry was $25 for the day, to cover costs. But as good as lunch was, folks showed up just to learn and network with their peers; they didn't need special perks like catered meals to attract them to the event.

So for the next iteration (iFest 2011) we cut out catering and found sponsors for prizes, which let us run the event for free. This time, 200 people showed up to listen to talks on indie game development, and a number of studios started in Sydney shortly after, including Throw the Looking Glass (now See Through Studios), Convict Interactive, and INKids. That event was still too big and flashy to run regularly (and heavily dependent on the college we partnered with) and we still didn't have enough folks self-publishing games, but this was the closest we'd come so far to our metrics for success!

Unexpected Solutions

After wrapping up iFest, I settled down to helping my students finish and publish their games in time to submit to IGF and show off at Game Connect Asia Pacific 2011. The challenge here was managing 60-something people, all of whom were working in teams of six to 12 on totally different games that needed to be self-published online at exactly the same time (they didn't need to do that to graduate; they needed to do that so they could call themselves game developers). Any approvals on art, code, or design that had to go through me, our creative director Matt Barker, or our technical director Conan Bourke would have slowed the entire process down, making it impossible to reach our milestones. And that's just silly.

So we stripped the management layer away and operated more like support staff, crowdsourcing the feedback and approval process to the group at large: every week each team would compile all their work (art/code/sound/etc.) and we'd review everything in context of the latest build. We'd take that feedback on board, Scrum around "how can we improve the experience next week?" and then start the whole cycle over again on Monday.

Results were immediate: games were getting better every week, teams were operating independently, and the whole process was self-sufficient. All I had to do was set the day and time for playtesting and ask for next week's goals. If we could extend this out to the entire Sydney community, then that could be one key to the puzzle of folks making, finishing and self-publishing better games.

The other "ah ha!" moment came after attending one of Giselle Rosman's famous IGDA Melbourne events, "Money, Marketing and You" -- think GDC meets Broadway. There was something intoxicatingly magical about the effect of running game development workshops in an art gallery with a full cinema surround sound system and attended by the best dressed of Melbourne's most successful development studios (and Melbourne has some seriously well-dressed game developers!)

Folks in Melbourne were proud to call themselves game developers, totally unapologetic about being indie, and supportive as hell -- sharing what they'd learned openly and being as respectful of newbies as they were of established veterans. The whole vibe of Giselle's community managed to strike a balance between sustainable and revolutionary!

If we could combine that feel of techno-aristocracy and artistic entrepreneurship with the progressive effects of regular playtesting and feedback, then maybe we could create a movement in Sydney that would take on a life of its own -- and completely change our culture of game development.


Here's one from Bryan Ma, a Producer and Game Designer from 2k China, talking about making games for different markets.

Step 6. Keep an Eye out for Emerging Solutions. We would have missed that critical combination of elements entirely (community playtesting and feedback + GDC meets Broadway) if we were wholly focused on just improving the Game Day / iFest workshop model. Let yourself be surprised! A beautiful solution can be sparked by something totally unexpected. Your greatest moments of creativity won't strike if you're constantly locked into "get shit done" mode. You have to give your mind a chance to wander before the light bulb will go off.

Courting Creativity: In his talk on creativity John Cleese goes into this concept of the mind needing to be in an open or closed state for your best work to happen. His point being that getting into an open state of mind means getting away from those things that lock your brain into task-driven problem solving mode. Take a walk. Go on a holiday. For me, that meant taking a trip down to Melbourne to see Ben and Neil from Tin Man Games present at Giselle's IGDA event. For you that could be going camping, booking a retreat, or just leaving your iPad at home to stare out the window while taking the tram around town. Turn off all distractions, go AFK, and give your brain a chance to solve the problem without giving in to the temptation to work.


Creating a New Culture in Sydney

Experience changes you -- it changes your perception of yourself and the environment you live in. It shapes us, defines us and creates the opportunity to develop new habits. Change is freaking difficult (ever try to convince someone to quit smoking or eat better? Yeah. It's that kind of difficult). If we wanted regular peer-to-peer playtesting and open game design debate to become a community-wide habit, we had to completely change the environment associated with game development in Sydney. As easy as it is to organize, meeting up at a pub to talk about games wasn't going to inspire anyone to change.

Previously the culture in Sydney had been divided along this line of "You're either making triple-A games or you're not in the industry". You could sit down next to an indie developer who had made $15,000 in sales a few months after releasing his first Flash game and folks involved in big industry, from media to other studios, wouldn't bother to remember his name (his name is Sash McKinnon, he's brilliant, and he had to move to San Francisco to find work).

With only one local studio, Team Bondi, working on a major triple-A title, the effect on developers new to the scene was poisonous. Confidence in their own abilities would be shot down before they even had the chance to pull their game out for review: "What, you're not triple-A? Why should I talk to you?"

Our culture had to change. The way we saw ourselves and the way we viewed indie game development needed to shift from something a few guys did in a pub once a month to a celebration of experimentation, sustainable entrepreneurship, and being unafraid to loudly and passionately debate issues facing our industry.

Step 7: Experience Design (Every Detail Matters) If your event is going to have any impact at all, you must remove any friction in how people engage with the experience. From environment layout to music volume to pacing -- every single detail matters and will either encourage or cost you engagement.

Atmosphere has to be perfect. We needed a space that felt intellectually artistic, sleekly professional, new age techno, and with just a hint of sex appeal (because we're making games -- and that's sexy, and that's cool, damnit!).

The Arthouse Hotel in the heart of Sydney's central business district would give us all that and more. It was associated with life drawing, burlesque and art cinema during the week -- and techno trance dance parties at night. PERFECT.

Price can't be a barrier. This had to be something I could afford to do on my own and could keep free for the community. Having run events for 50 to 200 people by that point, I felt pretty damn sure that I could at least guarantee a minimum spend of $1000 behind the bar.

With that guarantee, and committing myself to running that event with The Arthouse every other month, I was able to negotiate the venue hire from $500 down to $250, and completely knock off the minimum $1000 food spend. Negotiation is the fine art of solving problems.

Tuesdays are the slowest night in hospitality. They need folks regularly showing up on Tuesday nights and buying drinks. We could lock that in for them if they could help us by lowering the fees for venue hire and minimum spend (which I would have to make up if we didn't match it on the night).

People need to know what the deal is, with plenty of notice. As much as I believed that this event could be amazing, I wasn't about to ask anyone to take my word for it. So I sent out an email that made it extremely obvious what the appeal of this new event would be "meet other developers, get feedback on your game, learn from local industry experts".

This went to all attendees of my previous events, the Facebook group for our IGDA chapter, and everyone I'd met that I felt might get something valuable out of this event. Three weeks before the night I created a Facebook page with complete directions to the venue, all the FAQ on where/when/why and how much (free!) and shared that page around all my networks. Leading up to the event, I made sure to share it around again knowing that no one had a reason to keep it top of mind yet.


And another one from the same night featuring Tim Stobo, a game designer from Team Bondi's LA Noire, talking about taking criticism.

Folks need to feel that their time is respected and participation appreciated. As much as this was all volunteer effort on my part, I knew that the time and attention attendees would be volunteering that night was just as precious as mine. If I said the doors would open at 6 then they better damn well open at 6. If speakers were due at 8:30 then I made sure speakers were prepped by 8:20 and had alternative speakers ready to go in case anyone fell through. This was my event, so it was my responsibility to make sure people felt comfortable and had a good time: that includes helping people get introduced, break the ice, find comfortable spots to set up their games for playtesting, and encourage the flow of conversation and playtesting throughout the night.

You have to be ready to improvise. I had learned from running Game Day and iFest that rigidly sticking to what looked perfect on paper would only lead to stress and frustration. The moment you involve human beings, with all their wonderful foibles and unique personalities, all best laid plans are open to reinterpretation.

What was it Eisenhower said? "Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." I controlled everything I could leading up to the event, which was everything up to the moment I opened the doors, and after that I put myself on watch to take advantage of unexpected opportunities as they arose throughout the night. That's lead to some hilarious anecdotes and a brand new format for running game design debates: the Two Minute Design Slam (think Whose Line is it Anyway meets Crossfire!)


This Needs to Continue Without You

At some point you're going to have to leave. It may be a slow transition or it may have to happen suddenly; either way you want the work you've done to continue moving forward without your direct involvement. And if you want continued progress and new improvements, that means stepping back and letting someone else take over.

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