Thinking Big: Blue Tongue And The State Of Australian Game Development

Shortly before the release of de Blob 2, Kotaku Australia headed down to Melbourne for a tour of Blue Tongue studio. That tour included an interview with Nick Haggar, Project Director at Blue Tongue – an interview that lasted for an hour and a half. If you have any interest in the Australian game industry and where it’s headed, this is a must read.

This is our second time interviewing Nick Haggar, and he’s a difficult man to pin down. Simply put – he’s never where he says he is. Ever. That’s twice we’ve spoken to him, and twice we’ve been walked down to his desk at Blue Tongue studio to find it empty. As we’re directed down the corridor for a third time, we quietly wonder to ourself – does a man who clearly refuses to sit still, even for a second, really need a desk to begin with?

We get our answer. Yes. It’s third time lucky, and yes Nick Haggar does actually use his desk. Finally our interview begins. Auspiciously.

“Making games in Australia is a tough gig on many levels,” begins Haggar. “There’s a culture here that’s not in favour of geek culture, we’re all meat pies, mining.

“The reality is, for most people here gaming is a couple of steps up from wanking. It’s seen as being this barely socially acceptable thing.”

We came to Blue Tongue with the intention of writing something positive about Australian games. In an industry that’s often plagued by news of redundancies, Blue Tongue is a rare success story – a developer that is still kicking, creating compelling, original content when we’re suffering a dearth of it. We wanted to celebrate that. We weren’t expecting a ‘games as wanking’ discourse.

But when you’re talking to Nick Haggar, you can never be sure what you’re going to get.

“I think the Australian industry is healthy for what it is,” claims Nick, back on topic. “You have iOS environment, Halfbrick sold 6 million units of Fruit Ninja – that’s fucking awesome. And those guys are smart.

“There have been Darwinian shifts in the local market and for those that haven’t been able to change, it’s really hard. So I look at those smaller like Halfbrick and Firemint who are now super competitive – there are some smart players there. They’re careful not to overreach.”

The overarching trend, when discussing local Australian development, is to celebrate the small successes. The little guys done good – the Halfbricks, the Firemints – but according to Haggar, there is a real danger in focusing exclusively on the iOS/Android market.

“I think the iOS thing is good at the moment,” claims Nick, “but you’re even starting to see that transform. Look at games like Infinity Blade. That landscape is shifting, once it becomes cheaper to produce games of that quality all those disposable games – Dave Perry calls them Kleenex games – may not be as successful in the future. I mean how many Angry Birds can there be? Digital handheld content is seen as the place to be for aspiring developers, but I’m not sure how long that will last.

“Look at the games that have come out and been successful from this country – they’ve come from really longstanding studios with longstanding reputations. It’s not as if it was someone who had a great idea in the last year of their design course and – bang – he’s knocked it out.

“There is still this false belief that the industry is just waiting for that new idea. Gamers have a much more closed mindset. We’ve all entered this industry because we believe there are new ideas, new experiences on the horizon, but consumption patterns show that the majority of consumers aren’t like that. Tragically they’re more likely to want more of the same.”

The overwhelming optimism of iOS and Mobile development has seemingly sprung from that mythical return to the days of bedroom coding – the auteur locked in their bedroom, working on the game that will transform the medium. It’s a myth reinforced by the success of creators like Markus ‘Notch’ Peterson and Jonathan Blow, who have gained notoriety and success through small, innovative game concepts – but according to Nick Haggar, the reality is far less forgiving.

“People want to believe they can be auteurs and create the next amazing thing by themselves,” claims Nick, “but realistically – how many Braids can there be? It’s a niche industry within a niche industry. There is a commercial reality here – you have to market your game to the wider audience. That doesn’t mean you have to sell your soul, or become some shrivelled cultureless monkey, but it does mean that you have to design within the constraints and compromises that anyone who has ever worked in the games industry is familiar with.

“If your goal is to make a game and get it on the app store then, yes, you can get there. But if your goal is to succeed as a developer, to create a studio and a resource base that allows you to capitalise and make more games – and build from that – then, in my mind, the only way is up. You’re trying to build your studio so that you can continue to stay in business with multiple revenue streams. If you look at those guys who are successful in the iOS space, they are seasoned developers. They did not start by creating iOS games – they moved here because they have the experience and they know how to make games.”

In a market dominated by big budget, AAA franchise games, the advice most young developers are being given is to experiment with small/zero budget developments on iOS or Android. In an sense you Australians are being encouraged to think small, think pragmatically. This is not an approach that Nick Haggar endorses, he’s thinking big.

“There’s two ways to go,” begins Nick. “To me it’s looking up to companies I admire. We get the chance to visit our sibling studios and they have very big teams working with very sophisticated production processes – but they started small. You have to start from somewhere. They’re all about stepping up, and trying out big ideas and that’s where I see us heading.

“We want to use the achievement of succeeding with de Blob and move on and make bigger titles. How do we scale up? How do we take our lessons as a smaller developer, how do we take that magic then build on it.”

So – simply put – start small, but think big.

“I guess to me the challenge is piss or get off the pot,” says Haggar, with an air of finality. “It’s our time to step up. Each game we make is an exercise in risk, but with experience a lot of those risks can be mitigated – experience is really the thing that transforms everything. And this ties in with some of the problems I see in the local development community – I’m not sure if we’re seeing the right fragmentation with seeds breaking off from larger groups and being the genesis for experienced developers.”

To Haggar the concept of vision is important – the ability to visualise and then deliver on a large scale project. You can see this kind of thinking with de Blob. Here is a franchise that was fully intended to be a brand tailor made for convergence – a cartoon in the works, a strong focus on music, iPhone game, handheld game, a flash game. To extend the analogy – Nick Haggar and Blue Tongue are using the pot to its fullest potential. They’re taking risks and attempting to push forward.

“I really respect the kind of people who have this massive vision,” continues Nick, “and then really bring it to life. The cynic can say it’s just that convergent media thing of an explosion of stuff around one single idea, but it all comes back to this idea of how do you not get lost in the wave of games that are constantly being released month after month. Extraneous media serves as a piece of marketing in addition to standing on its own two feet.

“You need to go big in order to get people’s attention and as long as you know what you’re doing, then you have to take that risk. I don’t mind spending a lot of money on games, because if you have cool ideas and it’s something of value that embodies that rebellious spirit that people seem to value in gaming culture, then you can really make something good, something interesting. That’s what we like about games, that something that gets you talking – it’s the glue that binds us together. That’s what good art does.”

Our interview ends. The timer on my recording reads one hour and 20 minutes. In that time I remember asking what, maybe… five questions? At most.

It feels like I’ve been on the receiving end of a verbose hurricane – something I was never fully in control of, but simply had to ride out. What I’ve learned during the past 80 minutes may seem pithy on paper, but in hindsight it’s simple and profound – from tiny Acorns mighty oaks grow. In order to think big you have to start small.

And there’s no substitute for experience.

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