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Games industry evolving not shrinking

There has been a lot of talk over the past few weeks among industry observers here and overseas concerning a recent article which appeared in GameSpot about the size of the Australian Games Industry. “Aussie dev industry shrinks 50% in 3 years” was the headline – but was the headline justified? The fact that the article in question came out (and got picked up on games news websites around the planet) one week prior to the GDC caused a right royal stir in some circles and some believe it did nothing to help the image of the Australian Games Industry on an international level. Which itself is a pity, because as I see it, the local industry is in very promising shape, a sentiment shared by other industry stakeholders including Yug Bloomberg (as per his recent - and timely! - featured article on Australian Gamer “10 reasons why the future of the Australian Game Development industry is looking awesome”).

Being someone who has devoted himself to help the local industry thrive (and being the guy who did the 60Sox Games Industry Head Count which is mis-used in the article), I felt it might be a good idea to briefly review the article and present at least my own perspective on some of the discussion points.

So what is the big issue? From my perspective, it basically boils down to two main things:

1) Not comparing apples with apples
2) Not considering the evolution of the industry over the past 3 years

That’s not an apple! GameSpot came up with their headline by comparing two figures which, like oranges and apples (or indeed, rambutan and lego), should not have been compared. I know where the author of the article drew her incorrect calculations. With the help of spaces such as Tsumea and industry contacts across the country, I recently undertook a Head Count of the Australian Games Industry as part of a broader research exercise in relation to a couple of interactive media-related programs I’m working on for Australian Federal and State Governments.

My parameters for this Head Count were deliberately very clear and very narrow: I was putting together a count of people who were creating ‘commercial entertainment’ games in a fulltime capacity.

I spoke to every studio in the country as well as nearly 100 independents to arrive the figure which was subsequently displayed in the insightful graphic presented on Tsumea a month ago. It was made really clear when this material was released that the count did *not* include people creating advergames, branded content, serious games, infotainment etc and only counted fulltime employees. (NB: I spoke to many, many more individuals who are working in this space, but if they could not identify themselves as devoted 100% to the development of commercial entertainment games - ie. they were doing other commercial work as well - they were not included in this particular Head Count).

The figure I presented through Tsumea was 931. While I worked hard to make this count as accurate as possible, I stated clearly that I didn’t regard it as water-tight. (For instance, I have since found an anomaly with one org which has been corrected and the org in question apologised to). There are undoubtedly indies I have not yet counted and there are possibly numbers of fulltime games designers, programmers, producers working within larger organisations who are not included in the count either. But I am trying to establish a reasonable picture of Full Time Employees (FTEs) in the Australian Games Industry today. If the figures are out, they’re out my 10s, not 100s (and I once again strongly encourage anyone who can help the accuracy of the count get in contact with me and thank those who have to date).

So, I therefore presented a figure based on a very narrow target. To arrive at the headline in question, this figure is compared directly with a figure released by ACMI in 2008 stating that the “Australian games development industry employs over 2,000 people”. The issue here is where these ACMI figures came from, what they include, and, most importantly whether they can be effectively compared to the figure I myself arrived at. Having discussed the issue with Bond Uni’s Dr. Jeff Brand (he and colleague Scott Knight were commissioned to create the 2008 ACMI report: “History of Game Development in Australia”), he explained this figure was provided, in part, from a report conducted by Insight Economics in November 2006 which was, in turn, commissioned by the Games Developers Association of Australia. After a reasonable degree of investigation, the parameters used to calculate the 2000+ figure are unclear and therefore given this somewhat cloudy definition, I’d suggest it really should not have been used as a direct comparison with that of my own research. A clever Ninja would not compare an apple with an undefined piece of Fruit.

It is a shame this brief degree of due diligence was not employed by the author of the article before it presented a number of local practitioners undue grief.

Games design and interactive media is far more part of our everyday lives now than ever before and the development and production of media in these fields only continues to grow. It is perhaps by virtue of the spread (or bleed) of interactive media skills into so many other facets of our lives (ie. not just entertainment games) that makes an effective quantitative HR measurement of this growing (and increasingly ‘embedded’) employment sector almost impossible to achieve. This is the main reason why comparison of employment figures in this space is rife with sensitivity and speculation and this is the exact reason this incorrect headline was reached.

Show us your evolution! The face-paced and quickly changing world of digital technologies, inherently demands an on-going reassessment of industry sector parameters. This is no more true than in almost any other industry sector than the games industry. It is a constantly evolving beast. A 50% shrink in 3 years? Forget about it... Sure there’s been a significant shift in the landscape of the Australian Games Industry over the past 18 months in particular, but to suggest that there’s half the people today making games in Australia than there were in 2008 is simply nuts.

Let’s go back 3 years (to a time before the term “App Store” was part of the common vernacular) now close your eyes and put a picture in your mind of a “Games Developer”. Chances are you’ve conjured someone sitting at a cubicle in an open-planned warehouse diligently working away on a AAA+ title. This is the ‘traditional’ notion of the Australian Games Industry - hundreds of staff busying themselves developing some international publisher’s IP. The quirky individuals who were developing mobile games were few and far between – this is, afterall, pre-Flight Control – Firemint, Iron Monkey, Viva La Mobile and Halfbrick being the standouts – and Moket was doing some interesting work with flash on Nokias. Back then, if you knew anyone making games for Facebook you wouldn’t invite them to your parties for fear of them boring your guests.

Now come forward 3 years again to early 2011.

Casual games and mobile games are the hottest ticket in town, App Stores and social networks allowing developers to essentially take their wares directly to a fertile and lucrative marketspace (100 million downloads of Angry Birds, anyone?), sidestepping controls from any faceless OS-based overlord. Several of the open-plan warehouse-based studios have shut up shop. Independent studios are cropping-up like mushrooms across the country and growing with astonishing rapidity. Halfbrick, Firemint and Iron Monkey – while certainly not new to the scene – are not only all in the top 10 studios is Australia (as far as employment figures go), but they’re also headed by some of the nicest and cleverest people I know. Original intellectual property is flourishing and there exists a near gold-rush like enthusiasm for teams eager to stake their claim in the swollen rivers of micro-payment gold.

Of course the larger games development studios will continue to play a very active part in the Australian Games Industry. It is within organisations such as Creative Assembly, THQ, Blue Tongue, Big Ant, 2K Marin & Team Bondi where, still, the large majority of local developers work and continue to create first rate material for an ever-hungry internationally distributed games public.

Beyond this, the same skills sets that were developed making games are now being incorporated into so many other areas of industry. Many (most?) advertising agencies now employ interactive media practitioners and scores of new-breed agencies place huge percentages of their communication strategies in the interactive media realm. Advergaming, infotainment, serious games, branded content – these are all very fertile employment spaces for Australians with games/interactive media development skills. Nowadays one of the more significant studios in the country is, first and foremost, a film production company and another is putting the finishing touches on possibly the most anticipated AAA+ title ever to come out of the country – best of all, both of these worldclass studios are locally owned.

Far from imploding, the ‘games’ industry is in a constant state of evolution and there is arguably more capacity and opportunity for innovation these days than ever before. As this ‘games-slash-interactive media’ industry continues to expand, so will its’ prevalence in all industry sectors and with it ever-growing opportunity for the professional workforce.

So, far from being halved, the games/interactive media industry in Australia (from where I’m sitting) is going great guns. It’s just a pity that certain journos are seeing the glass half empty.

(and, btw: the options for fields above did not able me to state: 'Company: 60Sox' and 'Position type: Expedition Leader' - but would you?) :)

Submitted by souri on Mon, 28/03/11 - 1:43 AM Permalink

I do have to sincerely apologise to Justin for whatever grief he's received over the infographic I made. That should all have been directed to me, and I'm happy to take it. It's no surprise that by viewing the infographic alone, anyone can be misled to believe that the industry shrunk by half.

However, the reason why I included those factoids at the end wasn't to mislead but rather to provide some points of interest. The actual news item I posted about the head count specified that this count covered only a specific slice of the games industry. In fact, an entire half of the news item was on that point.

To see Justin get misdirected flack over what was shown in the infographic is entirely unfair and sad to see since he put in a phenomenal effort for the survey.

Submitted by Expedition Leader on Mon, 28/03/11 - 4:16 PM Permalink

Mate - you helped me get this head count - the support you gave my census and the subsequent graphic you did were unreal. You were entirely within your right to compare commonly distributed industry figures and it wasn't yourself who made the alarmist (and misguided) comparison. It is kind of you to post the above, Souri, and I very much appreciate your support, not only of myself at times, but for the local industry as a whole - you're a legend, mate! :)

Submitted by NathanRunge on Mon, 28/03/11 - 2:12 PM Permalink

While it might not be the best idea, I feel I do have to make at least one clarifying point for new entrants that might read this:

It doesn't change employment prospects a great deal. Even if (sustainable, bill-paying) jobs had grown 50% since our 2008 unknown fruit (which they did not), we're looking at unreasonable job-seeker to job ratios until at least the end of the decade, and that's with thousands (upon thousands) of new entrants and unemployed professionals leaving the industry simply because it's unsustainable.

What Justin has said, among other things, is that 'interactive media' and the attached skills are becoming more common in a number of roles. In these peripheral fields, there may well be employment opportunities that are yet to be assessed. Additionally, independent development has become more popular and, some would say, more feasible. It's not all doom and gloom, but the fact remains that 'game development' will remain EXTREMELY difficult to enter for many years to come.