The recent closure of game studios around Australia has led to much uncertainty about the future of game development in the country, with fears that we might lose local talent to overseas studios. But if this year’s Freeplay Independent Games Festival was anything to go by, the future of Aussie game development looks promising, especially if Freeplay award-winners, Brawsome, stick around.
The year is 2008, it’s 5am and Andrew Goulding is tapping away at his computer as the bits and pieces of a game come together. At some point he will switch computers and continue tapping away as he helps build another game. More than 13 hours later, he might stop working, and come the weekend he’ll be back at it again. But it isn’t crunch time at the studio he works for, nor are the work conditions particularly slavish. Rather, Goulding is juggling his full-time job as an assistant producer on Krome Studio’s Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Wii while also planting the seeds for a studio that will make award-winning games: Brawsome.
“After four months of this, something had to give, so I took the riskier (at the time) step of quitting Krome to concentrate on Brawsome,” says Goulding, who had spent years working his way up the game development ladder, from programming Game Boy Advance titles, to working on Codemaster’s Colin McRae: DiRT.
“After working on my first 100+ team title, Colin McRae: DiRT, at Codemasters, I felt a strong inclination to get back to the smaller teams I started with while working on GBA titles,” he says.
“I don’t know how you can work on a team that size and not feel like a bit of a cog, especially if you’re near the bottom of the pyramid. On Colin McRae, I was on a team within the programming team, within the larger game team in a company of more than 400 people.”
With a growing desire to create his own IP and focus on projects he was passionate about, Goulding found himself with a resignation letter in hand and an idea for a pirate game under his hat, and from there things began to take off. Development on his game, which we now know as the 2010 PC and Mac point-and-click adventure Jolly Rover, began after funding was secured from Film Victoria and the art house Viskatoons. With his wife looking after the financial side of the studio, Goulding hired contractors to fulfil the roles that he could not. Fellow game developer, Ben Kosmina, stayed on the longest and became an integral part of the team, working with Goulding to see the game through to completion. But as both developers soon found out, being independent was not going to be easy.
“Brawsome's second game, which was being developed in parallel with Jolly Rover, was a third-person Hidden Object/Adventure hybrid for the casual market being funded by a casual publisher,” says Goulding.
“The first thing we had to do was give up our IP, the second thing we had to do was agree on a small percentage of revenue, of which we'd only see once our initial advance to develop the game was paid back by 3x revenues. Essentially the best we could hope for was to be paid to work on the game.” “But a little thing called the GFC hit and the title was cancelled while still in the prototype phase, which left Brawsome in limbo. I could no longer afford to pay Ben and had to scramble myself to finish Jolly Rover three months early just so we could have enough money to do so; it was the first time Brawsome, and Jolly Rover, nearly disappeared.”
During this whole time Goulding was funding Brawsome through his own contract work. Kosmina jokes that poverty is the biggest downside to being an indie developer; Goulding also echoes the sentiment.
“I suppose capital would be the biggest challenge. It can be exceedingly difficult to get any new projects off the ground unless you can find people that will work for free… and if you approach an investor to invest in your title you’ve got to make some pretty significant promises, whether it be a big share of your company, all your IP and/or the lion’s share of revenue.”
But despite the challenges that they faced without the financial support of a large publisher, neither Goulding nor Kosmina were ready to give up. Jolly Rover shipped in June of 2010 and sold more than 60,000 copies through Steam. The point-and-click adventure that they’d poured themselves into turned out to be a clever, charming and comedic tale of canines sailing the seven seas that drew inspiration from the Monkey Island games. Brawsome are now working on their upcoming title, MacGuffin’s Curse, a werewolf comedy puzzle adventure for PC, MAC, iPhone and iPad, which won the Best Writing award at this year’s Freeplay Independent Games Festival in Melbourne. Kosmina speaks enthusiastically about the game, and it’s clear that the bumpy road to getting Jolly Rover out the door has not made either developer any less passionate about indie development.
“With MacGuffin’s Curse, [we’ve taken]a break from a straight point-and-click adventure for a change of pace,” Kosmina says.
“We’ve still got elements of point-and-click adventure in there – inventory trading, a nice cast of characters, branching conversations, and silly pestering of people – but we also thought it might be nice to apply these elements to a different style of game, similar to what DeathSpank did with a Diablo-style RPG.”
“It’s also been a while since either of us have seen a nice top-down puzzle game, and seeing as I couldn’t find anything, I thought we should make one instead!”
Brawsome have learned a lot since they started making games, and Goulding has definitely picked up a few lessons on timing along the way, especially after remakes of Monkey Island were announced just after he received funding for Jolly Rover.
“It’s a misconception that indies have the creative freedom to release something that is totally experimental and will never sell; but it’s not like people go indie to NOT make money.”
A challenge or not, both Kosmina and Goulding agree that the creative freedom has been worth it.
“I’d say the BEST advantage of being indie is that you’re free to make your own choices,” says Kosmina.
“You can choose an art style that looks different and no-one can tell you ‘It won't appeal to market [x] .’ You can decide not to have voice acting as a stylistic choice and it'll be okay to do that. Ultimately, you can make your own decisions, and it doesn't matter if that's not ‘the done thing’, because if you think it'll make your game a better game for it, then you can damn well do it.”
Brawsome won the award for Best Game Writing at the Freeplay Independent Games Festival this year. You can follow the development of MacGuffin’s Curse at their website. Jolly Rover is currently available on Steam.