Melbourne Capital Of Game Industry

Over the past few years Melbourne has become the hub of the Australian game industry. Some pof the world’s premier game developers live and work in Victoria.

Names synonymous with games, app, development are:

  • Iron Monkey
  • Firemint
  • Firemonkeys Studio
  • Crossy Road
  • Fruit Ninja
  • Halfbrick
  • Hipster Whale
  • KlickTock
  • Mighty Games
  • Prettygreat Games
  • Pac Man 256
  • Phil Larsen

This article appeared in TheAge.

Dishing up a big slice of apps pie

Gaming We might not be able to play cricket any more, but Aussie geeks with laptops are becoming multimillionaires .

‘I think what we’ve always tried to do is make something remarkable . . . I mean, literally, something worth remarking on.’

If you maintain a stubbornly utilitarian approach to smartphone apps, you may well have missed the advent this year of a cute little tapto-play game called Crossy Road.

In one sense, that doesn’t matter. Many people dismiss phone games as trivial pursuits requiring far less application than actual Trivial Pursuit.

Consider this, however. Crossy Road – in which it is possible to play as a cockatoo – was developed by two blokes, one from Melbourne and the other from the central Victorian town of Creswick. So far it has been downloaded by more than 100 million people. In the first couple of months alone after its release, the boys – known collectively as Hipster Whale – netted $10 million.

These are far from trivial numbers. Neither are they particularly unusual. Over the past couple of years Australia has become a leading player in the global video game business, despite a lack of federal government support and being a hemisphere away from the major markets.

Another Australian smartphone favourite, Fruit Ninja, has been downloaded by more than one billion people, becoming the second most popular app in history.

We might not be able to play cricket any more, but Aussie geeks with laptops are becoming multimillionaires. To teenagers, names like Hipster Whale and Fruit Ninja’s developer, Halfbrick, are as instantly familiar as those of Kylie Minogue and Angus Young were to their parents.

The defining characteristic of games such as Crossy Road and Fruit Ninja is that they are simple to learn, addictive to play, and have no ultimate goal. With the former you pilot a cuboidal animal across roads, rivers and train tracks. With the latter you use your finger to slash flying watermelons.

‘‘ These are not necessarily the games I play,’’ said Matthew Hall, 40, one half of Hipster Whale. ‘‘ I’ve been playing games my entire life. I can get around some pretty complicated stuff.

‘‘ When I started in 2008 I didn’t have any other income. The reason my games are so accessible is because I want to get as many people playing as possible so that I can keep doing what I’m doing financially . I have a wife and two kids – and it’s important that they have food. So, you know, there’s a practical reason why I went down that road.’’

And, indeed, crossed it. As well as jointly running Hipster Whale, Hall has two solo game businesses, KlickTock and Mighty Games, and advises a start-up called Prettygreat Games. Last week, he released Pac Man 256, a reboot of the famous franchise. Five million people downloaded it within the first couple of days. Kylie should be so lucky.

Hall has enjoyed five charttopping successes, either on his own or with his Hipster Whale partner, Andy Sum. These days he lives in Ballarat, employs no staff and won’t ever have to work again unless he wants to.

Success stories in Australian gaming are easy to find . In 2011, for instance, US giant EA Games established a presence in Melbourne by buying two local developers – Iron Monkey and Firemint – and creating Firemonkeys Studio. The company is responsible for global hits such as Real Racing and The Sims FreePlay.

Over the past few years Melbourne has become the hub of the Australian game industry, taking the crown from Brisbane. About half of all developers work in Victoria.

Brisbane keeps on kicking, though. A recent success story is Hand of Fate, by Defiant Development. The multi-platform game was funded from several sources, including Kickstarter and the Australian Interactive Games Fund – a 2013 federal government initiative axed in 2014.

But what will be the next big Australian gaming phenomenon? Quite possibly, it will be another Brisbane outfit , Prettygreat. It was formed by three former Halfbrick employees, and seeded with half a million from Hall and Sum.

Last week, Prettygreat announced its first game, Land Sliders. The announcement generated a storm of interest in the global gaming press, but little in domestic news media.

‘‘ You have people who still don’t understand what games can do, and what the games industry affords everyone,’’ said the company’s managing director, Phil Larsen, 30.

‘‘ Australia punches well above its weight internationally. Today’s market is crazy-busy . The market moves quickly, so you really need to be agile. Land Sliders is completely different to Crossy Road or Fruit Ninja. It’s what we think is right for this next six-month period.’’

Halfbrick’s CEO Shainiel Deo also nominated a half-year time frame as the optimum for producing a new game.

By the time Fruit Ninja arrived, Deo, 40, had been running Halfbrick for almost a decade. In 2014, he hit number 28 on the BRW Young Rich List, worth $78 million. He admits to being surprised by Fruit Ninja’s success – but not completely so.

‘‘ Really, I think we had a degree of confidence around this game before the launch,’’ he said.

‘‘ All our internal and external procedures had produced great results, and I found myself playing it a lot more than I played some of our other games. Also, we had a pretty clear strategy.’’ Some of Deo’s confidence stemmed from the game’s mechanics. ‘‘ No one had ever released a game that required you to swipe the screen to slice fruit,’’ he said. ‘‘ No one had ever released a game that was so simple.’’

Yet in gaming, as in pop music, there is a certain X-factor . The market is hectic. Rising above the rabble is neither easy, nor guaranteed. The qualities that propel games into the download stratosphere are not entirely opaque. Matthew Hall rates ‘‘ accessibility’ ’ very highly. The ability to post in-game images, scores, and clips on social media is also critical. But brute functionality isn’t enough.

‘‘ I think what we’ve always tried to do is make something remarkable,’’ said Larsen. ‘‘ People talk about social media and virality, and that’s all well and good, but what does it really mean? That’s why I use the word ‘remarkable’ because I mean, literally, something worth remarking on. It’s about creating the space in the user’s brain that makes it memorable.’’

A third factor is the influence of gaming reviewers on YouTube. The fourth is the tricky one.

‘‘ With each successful game there is an element of luck,’’ said Hall. ‘‘ But you have to have a good game in the first place. No bad games ever get good luck.’’

He has the perfect example. The first game he made was for home computers. Called Little Things, it bombed. A fortnight later iPads hit the market. Hall, with nothing to lose, adjusted his coding. The game went bananas. ‘‘ No one could possibly have predicted that I would have had the perfect game for iPad two weeks after the iPad launched,’’ he said. ‘‘ That’s luck. But it’s still a good game.’’

Generating profit from phone games is a difficult task because most are free to acquire. Revenue is generated by ‘‘ in-app’ ’ purchases of items such as new characters. Getting the balance right is critical. Many a ‘‘ free’ ’ game has failed because it demanded money to complete even basic levels.

With Crossy Road and Fruit Ninja, happy gameplay is possible without spending – a quality Hall said was very important. Total Crossy Road sales figures remain private but on 50 million downloads, the $US10 million income averages just 20 cents per user. ‘‘ We took a fairly light approach with monetisation,’’ he said. ‘‘ We were essentially trading money for love, giving away so much for free. You can have a great experience with Crossy Road even if you don’t throw any money at it. That’s one of the big reasons why people were talking about it so much.’’ Like Fruit Ninja, Crossy Road will be around for years. Updates are frequent, the latest adding Pac Man characters in a clever cross promotion. For Hipster Whale, Halfbrick and Prettygreat, however, there are always new games planned. Secrecy is paramount. Deo had just one piece of advice for anyone aspiring to match his success: ‘‘ You just need to get in there, evaluate the market, and do it,’’ he said. ‘‘ Most of the barriers to success have disappeared. Build your game as quickly as you can.’’

Phil Larsen

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