The issue of prototype funding at the Melbourne Interactive Games Fund forum

News: 

The Australian Centre for the Moving Image was host yesterday to the Melbourne leg of the public forum for the Interactive Games Fund. It was the first of many to be organised by Screen Australia in a nation-wide open discussion on how to best utilise the new $20 million Interactive Games Fund so that it has a meaningful impact for the local games industry.

Registrations were completely filled for a packed out Melbourne audience at ACMI, and from the numerous topics that were brought up yesterday, the most prominent of them turned out to be the issue of "prototype funding". Two opposing camps clashed on the idea of allocating funds towards prototype funding, where funding goes into the early stages of a games project, from a proof of concept to the more complete vertical slice. Those who were for prototype funding were games students and smaller companies, and the idea gained additional support for the benefit of helping up-skill film/tv industry in their foray into games development...

(Jazrozz) More meanderings. The prototype funding concept was more favoured amongst the students and smaller companies. #gamesfund

(Alex Farrar) Love the idea if using prototype funding to up-skill creatives from the film/tv industry in games devt #gamesfund

However, prototype funding was staunchly opposed by Grant Davies from Endgame Studios, as well as Trent Kusters (previously from Torus Games and now heading up his own indie studio, League of Geeks). Both developers with decades of experience in the games industry had some strong words on Twitter against prototype funding...

(GrantTheAnt) Can we call prototyping funding what it actually is? Black hole expenditure. #gamesfund

Trent followed the same sentiment with a tweet which gained support from other experienced games developers, Tony Albrecht (previously from Ratbag Games, Pandemic Studios etc), and Paul Turbett (Interzone Games, Spinfast, and his indie studio Black Lab Games)

(Trent) Re; prototype funding. Complete waste of money/time. Do it yourself. Really, is there any instance where it should be gov funded? #GamesFund

Tony Albrecht ‏@TonyAlbrecht

@TrentKusters I agree. If you are not willing to invest your own time and money into a prototype, then why should anyone else?

Paul Turbett ‏@blacklabgames

@TrentKusters agreed.funding should help cre8 finished products, not experiment with ideas.If an idea is not worth yr resources don't do it

Due to the limitations of twitter, the issue on prototype funding has prompted both Grant and Trent to expand on their thoughts against it through their blogs. A highly informative post from Grant explained the different types of prototype funding (proof of concept, vertical slice, enterprise funding, production funding), and explains why most of these types do not warrant being funded by the games fund. Production funding, however, is where Grant believes we have the best chance of success. From Grant's post...

(Grant) Finally, there’s production funding, or funding a good game idea to completion from whatever stage it’s currently in. I think this is a great idea, and in my view where most if not all the money should go. The only thing that will drive the recovery of our local industry is strong original IP, Australian manufactured and Australian owned. It creates jobs, it trains workers, it brings in export revenue.

Grant also provides some compelling arguments against projects that target specific game platforms which he believes the Interactive Games Fund should not be supporting, and I think many would be inclined to agree with him. Considering the intense competition in markets such as the smartphones, tablets, and Social/Facebook, it makes much more sense to support projects that are multi-sku and aim for many platforms and markets...

(Grant) One caveat to the production funding is that I strongly believe smartphone/tablet/Facebook-only games should be prohibited. The reason is that these markets are far too fickle and hit-driven. I’m not saying iOS should be prohibited entirely, but that any project with iOS should be a multi-sku project, also targeting PC/eShop/XBLA/PSN, to mitigate the risks involved in smartphone.

It's hard to argue with Grant's points, and with the public forum kicking off in Adelaide today and then Brisbane, Sydney, and the Webinar next week, we are most definitely looking forward to further discussions that expand on this particular topic. Keep your eye out on the #GamesFund hashtag on twitter, follow the public discussions on the Australian Interactive Games Fund options paper, or RSVP to the public forum in your state or the online Webinar.

Comments

Simon Joslin's picture

I'm surprised you couldn't find a single argument against it... Could you expand on that?

souri's picture

Yeh, I don't think there's anything I can really add to the funding model conversation that hasn't already been said on Grant's blog but I'm guessing Grant's other stance on funding smartphone/facebook games is what's causing a few raised eyebrows - not surprisingly from yourself (Voxel Agents), Ben (Tin Man Games), Morgan (Defiant)... all of whom have had well deserved success on smartphones. What we haven't heard from are the local iOS/Android app devs who did not find the same success that you guys have found, despite doing just as equally great quality games as you guys have, to balance things out. Two developers come to mind right away, but I'm sure there are plenty more that can attest to the extreme difficulty of that marketplace.

Pixel Elephant - the stats and numbers from their game Monstaaa are quite sobering. And despite doing everything right, receiving great reviews and even getting featured on the App Store, their 7 months of development only returned under $1k in iOS sales, and 22 sales on Android.

Same deal with Tony Takoushi on the App Store, great consistent reviews, small amount of sales to show for it.

Launching Pad Games made consistently quality, polished games - their last release was Monster Flip (an incredibly fun match-3 game which has a unique gameplay mechanic and I still play it often), but they had to go on hiatus due to poor sales, despite the backing of PikPok as publisher.

But I don't think you all disagree that much about this - the iOS/Android marketplace is a crowded and tough one to crack, and sure, there is a chance to find your niche, but you've got to admit, it's coming down to pot luck these days to even get noticed, especially during these holiday periods.

I don't want to seem like a downer that's dismissing iOS/Android completely, but I agree with Grant that making these games target as many platforms possible to give it a chance in other areas is a no brainer. Sure, for certain types of games, going multi-sku won't be easy or even make sense, but I guess developers will have to consider their projects carefully and wisely. Maybe making funded projects go multi-sku will push them into doing so.

Anonymous's picture

Didn't Endgame get Digital Media Prototype Funding for not one, but two projects from Film Victoria for iDJ and iFish in 2007/2008?

Just saying...

source: http://www.film.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/991/FV_2007-08_An...

Endgame Studios's picture

Not entirely true - we were approved for iFish but we turned the offer of funding down after another very similar game was released and we lost our first-to-market advantage on it (it wouldn't have been right to take funding on a project that we felt was compromised).

But yes, we certainly had a crack at the iOS market a few years ago, and this goes to the heart of what I'm driving at. Markets change, and smartphone is now very saturated. Most of the successful iOS studios established themselves in the 2007/2008 era - I'm not so sure the opportunities exist in this market that were around even a couple of years ago. David Edery did a great talk on the evolution of markets a few years ago at GCAP, worth chasing up if you can. Even in the time we spent developing iDJ, the market had changed drastically by the time we reached launch - and that's a common story in iOS unfortunately.

Like I said in the blog post, I don't think smartphone should be off the table, but what I do think is that we should be aiming to return as much money to this fund as we can to keep it sustainable. In my view, the last thing we want is a bunch of projects that might be great, but go nowhere due to the market they're in - then the govt will probably say "no more money for games, let's give it all to the automotive industry". This is why I'd like to see people come to the fund with a thought to where else their IP could go beyond smartphone (PC, handheld, digital console, etc.?) I think most people would agree that smartphone is a risky market, more so than many others at the moment. Frankly I don't understand why anyone would be negative about building a multi-sku IP.

I'm sure we've all seen mates in the industry with a lot of talent who have made a good game in iOS that just hasn't taken off. It's heartbreaking to watch, and in some cases I wonder if they'd have had more success if it had the potential to launch on another platform too. I believe people should be considering this when coming to the fund, that is my view. And if you're using something like Unity, it's not that difficult really.

Anyway, perhaps this paragraph in the post was worded clumsily, I wrote it all quite quickly and didn't expect it to be syndicated quite as much as it was. Obviously common sense needs to be applied in all this as well - of course if you have a track record or a name in a market you have a higher likelihood of success in the future, and in those cases it would obviously be fine for a game to be smartphone only. The emphasis is risk mitigation - lowering the risk of creating new IPs.

Ivan Beram's picture

I'm not going to jump right into this, just putting my toe in at the moment as we haven't had our forum yet.

Personally, I think that prototype funding is still a crucial piece of the development funding puzzle. However, I think it requires far more rigor as to who gets this funding. This also has an assessor component, as I think assessors need to really know their stuff on this front to limit how much of the funding ends up being wasted or given to those that really don't need it. They need to be held accountable for their decisions, with more transparency -- Screen Australia doesn't have much.

I kind of feel that the film/TV industry "up-skilling" is a waste of funding as well. There is a reason why it is called the "Interactive Games Fund" and not the "Interactive Transmedia Fund" ;).

Film has had a lot of help on the interactive media funding front and I think it is important that this funding be mainly for game development. It's about time we were recognized for our ability and expertise in interactive entertainment rather than treated as second class development citizens. To be frank, it is our pissing ground.

Anonymous's picture

I agree with Grant and others on prototype funding..it's money wasted.

However don't agree with the multiplatform view, what works on mobile may not work on XBLA / STteam / DS. Plus there are also accessibility factors of getting your games onto those markets. And that still doesn;t guarantee success, more failures than success on those stores too. especially when you are probably going to have to compromise your controls on one platform or the other.

The issue about mobile market is not about the games themselves or saturation, its about how to acquire users. This is where the biggest risk lies, even if you make a great game you still have to rely on being featured by the app stores to build initial traction.

The way to minimise risk on mobile is to 1) release as early as possible with a small amount of features viably possible 2) have budget to acquire small amount of users 3) implement analytics into your apps 4) track analytics daily and make adjustments to see how it affects uptake, retention and payment. once you've have a good result then you can up the funding to acquire more users safe in the knowledge you'll get a good return.

Most indie developers don't have the bandwidth, money or know how to do any of this stuff so mobile ends up being a huge risk as Grant mentioned.

I would suggest that some of the allocation of this money go towards a centralised unit that hires people who are skilled in these areas and can provide the daily feedback, analytics and to mobile devs as well as running their ad / acquisition campaigns, letting the devs focus on improving their games. Oh and btw these people should not be, or ever have been affiliated with any game studio in australia for the obvious reasons that have mired past govt funding initiatives.

Another idea is that the central vehicle (yes this is a lame name but i know how else to describe it) also starts a cross promoting games, so each dev should display banner ads in their games for other aussie dev's games and this way also helps to acquire users. This is frought with issues I know, particularly if one game is huge and drives traffic to other games which don't do as well. But if you're getting funded to make your game then its more than a fair tradeoff.

souri's picture

Screen Australia have release the notes from the Melbourne and Adelaide public forums that were held this week. Grab it from their website:

http://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/gamesoptions

Anonymous's picture

So we shouldn't fund prototypes because it makes much more sense to fund a complete game instead? Prototyping is fundamental - no one knows if something works unless it is tried and iterated - define "fun" anyone? Prototypes allow you to stop flogging dead horses early.

....and just because those above have not successfully been able to pitch and land deals off the back of a prototype does not mean it cannot be done - it might just mean that *they* can't do it. Ratbag were successful with prototypes of games and tech all the time. It was their bread and butter.

Indeed some of those above have had games funded 100% by the state and they still couldn't turn them into a sale, as if a mere prototype is ever going to work for them if a complete game didn't! I say lets not give them the money to complete a game until they can prove themselves with a competent prototype.

Endgame Studios's picture

We're in furious agreement of the worth of prototypes (at least proof of concepts). They are indeed important. The question is whether governments should be funding devs to experiment until they figure out what's fun or not. My view, and apparently the view of the others in this article, is that devs should be able to conduct their own prototyping to determine what is a compelling product - and come to the fund a bit further down the track when that groundwork has been done. It's not really a lot to ask, and it should be the bread and butter for game developers. There are always exceptions - would a game like Limbo work without a vertical slice for example - but in general this seems to be the consensus.

Oh, and we did actually sign publishing deals. I can assure you it's a lot easier with a finished product rather than a prototype. The further advanced your product is when you approach a publisher, the greater power you have in the negotiation. (Signing off a prototype took years; signing off a finished product took months). The point is not that deals cannot be signed off prototypes - it happens - the point is that the focus (in my view) should be to create sustainable Aussie owned IP with this fund, and finished games have a much better chance of achieving that.

Ivan Beram's picture

I think that people have differing ideas of what a prototype is exactly.

If you were to say that prototyping was essentially technology development, then I would agree that funding this was more than likely a waste of money and really should be up to the developers to flip the bill themselves. However if you were talking about a first playable, or put another way, playable prototype. Essentially seeing whether the whole concept of the game itself is feasible and has "legs." Then I would disagree and say that this is still a key part of the funding spectrum that should be supported, albeit, it should be a more stringent process to cull eligible projects to those with the most merit -- up-skilling for the film industry is not one of them. You need external assessors that really know their stuff, not self prescribed "experts." You need to have at least one person on the deciding committee that has a strong background in commercial games development to provide context, insight and grounding to the assessor's assessment of a project to the rest of the panel. With the rest having a film background, they will often need to champion and fight for projects in the face of ignorance and naivety.

Without this you can't effectively fund projects at a prototype stage without wasting a lot of funding and funding inappropriate projects.

Endgame Studios's picture

I touched on vertical slice vs proof of concept in the blog post. My general view is that finding out whether a game idea has legs or not is proof of concept and really should fall on the dev to evaluate before reaching the fund. We don't really want to be funding half-baked ideas I wouldn't have thought. There are exceptions to all of it of course - as I said in the last post, I'm not sure a game like Limbo would have worked without a costly vertical slice. But then that in itself would make it a high risk project.

I agree about the assessment panel. I think the difficulty in a place like Australia is that there is a relatively small number of people who have experience designing, making a business case, and taking to market an original game, and even fewer who wouldn't want to be involved in the fund as an applicant over the next few years. So how do you find people who have a proven track record of designing critically successful original IP and also don't violate the "arm's length" issue? It's a bit tricky - but it's probably the #1 issue that will make the difference as to whether the fund is a success or not.