Steve Fawkner On The Future Of Aussie Studios

It's easy to be fooled by Steve Fawkner's honest, straightforward charm. It's easy to forget that he is, in fact, the mastermind of what is fast becoming an epidemic of bleary eyes, decreased productivity, and a symptom known as "involuntary gem-matching hallucinations".

However, despite his insidious plans, he does have some interesting insights about the way forward for Australian development. And he answers more of your questions. So maybe he's not all bad.

How did the idea for Puzzle Quest come about?

Right! I was very addicted to Bejewelled, as evidenced by the fact that I was playing Bejewelled when you called me today...

What? No! I don’t see any influence at all...

Haha, and I’m also a very big RPG and MMO gamer so I love my RPGs filled with stats. I just love manipulating those stats. So it was kind of a way for me to take two things I loved and stick them together. It just occured to me one night when I was sitting there playing Bejewelled. It was 1am in the morning, I should’ve been working. I was working on Battle Cry 3, I think it was.

And I was like, “Wow, I’m sitting here playing this game, I should be doing my work, why don’t I just work on a game like this? Why don’t I just add RPG-like stuff into it? That’d be really cool! It’d be like what we did with RTS games, like Battlecry, we added RPG stats into it. We could do it to a puzzle game!”

And so I tried it out. It took about a month to prototype it, and we kind of knew after a month it’d be pretty cool.

From memory, there was a bit of a thing where you had resistance?

It was a very hard concept to sell to people. I remember pitching it to publishers, and a lot of them saying, “We like playing it, but we can’t figure out how many it’s gunna sell, so we can’t really buy it off you, or commit any money to it.” We went through a dozen publishers with that.

And finally hooked up with the D3 guys, who were really good. The guys who were doing the licencing for D3 had been in the industry since the Interplay days, so they really knew they were looking at something pretty good, so they signed off pretty quickly.

Initially, [the studio]were very sceptical, and when I told the idea to people, they were not so sure. But once they sat and played it, they changed their mind. It’s one of those games where it’s just, you have to sit and play it to appreciate it. It doesn’t sound like fun. “Hey, we’re gunna fight these monsters and tell an epic story, by matching gems on a puzzle board!” It sounds lame!

Why change the overworld view to isometric?

One of the things we thought was missing from Puzzle Quest 1 was a sense of wonder and connecting yourself to the environment, something you’d get from a game like Diablo. You’d find interesting new rooms, and you see monsters up close and connect to the monsters and they look horrific, and monstrous! They fill up the entire screen. And we wanted the player to get that sense of danger from the size of things.

I’m pretty glad we did it, because it changes up the graphics and it makes it very rich graphically.

How does it feel to, in a way, be representing Australia when it comes to A-grade games?

I’m very proud to have been in the Aussie dev scene for the last 20 years, and I’ll be here for the next 20 years I hope. I love representing Australia, I love it down here. There’s a lot of creative talent, a lot of technical talent. And just because of our geographical position, it’s doubly, triply, quadrouply hard for us to actually get noticed sometimes and win big projects. So I love being able to help champion the cause for Aussie developers, it’s really good to be representing and work with such a great bunch of people.

The industry is very tough right now. If you decided to try the indie route, how would you go about it?

It is very tough, and it’s a mixture of two things. About every five years, in the middle of the console cycle, a bit of work tends to dry up, publishers have acquired studios, and a few of the smaller studios tend to go bust and vanish.

And mix that with the GFC this time, and we have this absolutely awful situation. The studios who’ve survived since the past, we knew how to hang around. So it is pretty bleak, but it’ll come good in a year or two, it always does. And it’ll happen again in another five years’ time. But hopefully not as bad.

Going the indie route, yeah, if anyone wants to get into the games industry right now, I’d recommend the indie route. There are so many platforms to get published on right now, and these opportunities didn’t exist 10 years ago. So this is the time to be an indie. You’ve got like an open book out there.

But this iPhone is kind of almost full. It’s so busy and noisy out there at the moment. And Facebook has already had its first verve, its first wave of applications. I think there’s another one coming on Facebook, with better quality games. The games on there at the moment are lacking in terms of basic game design principles.

But they’re good enough to make a lot of money, so when the second wave of good games hits Facebook, there’s going to be a huge opportunity for indies there. But what’s great is these new platforms just seem to keep popping up at the moment, and they’re all great platforms for indies.

Has the worst of the GFC passed?

I think the worst of the GFC has passed for now. But the problem with the games industry is we’ve got this 12 month lag where we need investors to make our games. The games industry wasn’t too bad towards the end of last year even though the first wave of the GFC was over, because those games were funded using money that came from the year before. It’s just now that we’re seeing the money’s dried up, and not enough games are being made for 2010. It’s crazy, because people are buying games, but investors aren’t paying for games. So 2010 is proving a really rough year. I think 2011 is gunna get better. I’m certain it is, and 2012 better beyond that.

One of the biggest we’ve problems we’ve got, not from the GFC at the moment, is that we’re a long way from the US. That’s always been a problem, but the games makers in Asia are able to make games cheaper than we are. That’s been true for a little while, and what has also been true is we can do better. We can make games that are better designed, we have a better eye for Western quality in our games, a level of quality that the games makers in Asia haven’t been able to do. But these guys are really fast, and a really quick study, and give it two or three years, and they’re going to design games as well as we are.

And then we’ve got a really big problem, because not only are we a long way away, but we’re going to get outbid by other people who are a long way away. So I think the only way forward for Australian companies is to own our own properties. That’s the way we’ve been going with Warlords, and Puzzle Quest. We want to make sure if someone wants to make a Warlords or Puzzle Quest game, they have to come to us, because we own the property.

That, to me, is the way forward for Aussie companies. And hopefully enough of us do it so the industry is healthy in two or three years’ time. I know the Halfbrick guys in Queensland are doing it - they’re creating a lot of their own IP. Raskulls, for example, which is great to see.


    "So I think the only way forward for Australian companies is to own our own properties."

    I whole-heartedly agree with this sentiment. Its a slower route, and harder, but makes a lasting impression. You bring in more creativity and innovation, and aren't seen as a factory for assembling parts. You don't have to wait around for the scraps if you are writing your own stories/characters/concepts.

    great article, good to see.

    What happened to Infinite Interactive though? The site, forums, email, blogs - are all down: now they are showing Site Suspended pages. Has the company sunk?

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