After the closure of THQ's Australian studios, we follow the progress of ex-THQ Studio Australia Game Programmer Anthony Reddan, a young developer who recently left Australia to work overseas in Canada. Is his journey representative of a brain drain in the Australian games industry, or is the local indie development scene on the verge of a glorious rebirth?
August 10. Just two months ago. THQ ‘right-sizes’ three of their studios, leaving 200 men and women redundant. Anthony Reddan is among that 200 — a programmer who had spent his entire professional life working at THQ Studio Australia in Brisbane.
October 5. Anthony Reddan sells almost all of his belongings. He says goodbye to his friends and family. He packs his clothes; he packs the remainder of his gear, and despite the fact that his flight disembarks in Montreal, he packs his surfboard.
Now, in the wake of the THQ closures, Anthony Reddan is about to join the contingent of Australian game developers working overseas, part of a skills migration that could hamper the Australian industry as it attempts to recover from the recent closures plaguing local development.
We spoke to him about the move and the strange circumstances that led to the closure of THQ Studio Australia and Blue Tongue.
The best years of my life
October 19. Today Anthony turns 25 and celebrates his birthday in Montreal, Quebec, having just finished his first week working with Ubisoft on an unnamed project.
It wasn't always this way. Once upon a time Anthony was putting his skills to use in an Australian studio, recruited straight from University.
“I studied a double bachelor of IT/Multimedia at Griffith University,” says Anthony. “As with most degrees, we were offered the opportunity to intern somewhere in the industry during final year. The Uni has a whole bunch of existing partners you can choose from, or you could find your own. It was mid-way through third year and I didn't really know what I wanted to do at that point.
“I loved games, but all I'd heard about the games industry was that the barrier to entry was ridiculous, so I guess I kinda wrote it off as a career choice in the back of my mind.”
A chance lecture at Griffith by Scott West from THQ, however, gave Anthony the opportunity he was looking for.
"In my final semester we had this rad lecturer who organised for guys from the games industry to come talk to us," explains Anthony. "We had Matt Ditton and Morgan Jaffit from Pandemic, and Scott West from THQ. These guys were super inspiring, I was blown away.
"I recorded each talk, and at the end I asked if they had any internships going. Scott said he thought the THQ Technical Director might be looking for some interns. We wasted no time. Three of us from that class ended up working at THQ as Intern Programmers."
Eventually, THQ offered Anthony a permanent job.
"After the intern year I was offered a full time position as an Associate Programmer," says Anthony. "I moved onto general programming for Megamind and did a bit of everything.
"I was shifted onto our final project — The Avengers — early and was one of two gameplay programmers in the pre-production team, which was an amazing experience. In production I was part of the combat strike team, working with the most talented people around. I was responsible for writing our attack framework, projectile behaviours, cameras, interactive finishers, among other things.
"It was an epic journey — some of the best years of my life."
Stupid decisions do get made
Then Anthony's circumstances began to change.
"I think a lot of us sensed something was wrong at THQ," says Anthony. "In the days before the closure I definitely felt like something big was going to happen — but I never thought we'd get closed. People outside the studio walls knew it was going to happen before we did."
Some employees were put in the awkward position of knowing about THQ Studio Australia's closure before others, which made for some tricky conversations.
"Two days before the closure I was walking home with one of my friends. He kept dropping hints, talking about how low THQ's stocks were and how it was odd we were making an internal pitch video," says Anthony.
"I didn't get that, at the time, he was trying to tell me what was happening. I reacted by trying to reassure him, he must've been laughing — or dying — on the inside.
As the tension continued to build, relief came — in the form of an Outlook appointment.
"That afternoon we received an Outlook appointment from the GM telling us to be in the studio at 9am for an announcement," says Anthony. I stayed back later than usual and saw HR had flown in from Melbourne. I relayed my fears to a friend who sat beside me. When I told him I'd seen HR you could see his heart hit the bottom of his boots.
"Ever the optimist, I reassured him we'd be fine. It would be absurd for THQ to shut us down after putting so much money into the project and with us so close to shipping. He responded with the words 'stupid decisions do get made'.
"I'm fairly new to the industry, but these guys are veterans. They know the signs. So by this point I realised closure was a possibility. I just didn't want to admit it."
Finally, that morning, the General Manager of THQ Studio Australia broke the news.
"The announcement came; lots of solemn faces on the directors and studio leaders," says Anthony. "Our GM fumbled over his words trying to deliver the news to us. All of us were out of a job, including him. It was devastating for everyone. We walked back upstairs, I was angry and upset, but that didn't last long because a mate came over, threw his arm around my shoulders and said how great it was working with me.
"The atmosphere from then on was just awesome. There was so much camaraderie! Everyone was running around saying their goodbyes, getting phone numbers and emails, hugging, laughing, discussing future plans, planning piss-ups..."
In the coming weeks that camaraderie managed to sustain itself, but slowly, numbers began to dwindle.
"For weeks afterwards we had BBQs to catch up," explains Anthony. "But as time passed fewer and fewer people were showing up as one by one we got jobs or moved away. It was really sad.
"You spend more time with your co-workers than you do your partners, day in day out, for years. At THQ we were more than friends, we were a family. To have that connection severed so suddenly is devastating."
It was at this point that Anthony began to seriously consider moving abroad to find work.
"I'd been contemplating moving overseas ever since THQ opened up a studio in Montreal years ago," says Anthony, "but now it was all coming to a head. When the closure went down, it was just the kick in the arse I needed to do something about it. Obviously, I felt betrayed by THQ. It wasn't the first time I'd been disappointed in a decision they've made either. In the end I didn't even look at transferring to THQ Montreal."
Anthony didn't have to wait long — he barely had to chase. In fact, as a direct result of media interest in THQ's studio closures, Anthony had recruiters contacting him.
"Here's the great thing about you guys," he explains. "Two minutes after we were told the studio was being closed, the news was up on Kotaku Australia, and obviously from there it spread like wildfire.
"Because of this, game development recruiters from all over the world searched for 'THQ Studio Australia' on LinkedIn. I had recruiters contacting me on the day we were shut down."
It was a discussion that occurred the day after the closure, however, that piqued Anthony's interest.
"The Ubisoft programming recruiter contacted me the next day and asked if I'd be interested in 'challenging opportunities in Montreal'," says Anthony. "It was exactly where I wanted to go and — it's Ubisoft! I didn't respond straight away because I was still conflicted, but ultimately I just dived in with both feet.
"We organised a time to chat on the phone. I didn't even have my resume up to date at this stage, he just asked me what I'd worked on in the last year or so. I told him, and he relayed it to the different teams. Soon after he sent me the programming tests and after I did those I had an interview with the Splinter Cell team.
"I guess I rocked it because I got an offer a week later."
Should I stay or should I go?
But everyone's circumstances are different and, sadly, not everyone is able to travel overseas for "challenging opportunities in Montreal". Lewis Mitchell was an Artist at Blue Tongue, and also among the 200 made redundant as a result of the THQ closures. As a husband, completely settled in Melbourne, moving overseas simply wasn't an option.
"Anyone choosing to move overseas for work, I would say good luck to them," says Lewis. "If you want to stay working in big studios, on AAA titles, I don't see that you have many alternatives given the lack of studios producing that type of work in Australia now."
And Lewis should know. Post-graduation, in a difficult job market, he too was forced overseas to find work in the games industry.
"After I graduated, which was a while ago now, I found it really difficult to get work in Australia, so I moved over to England and worked with Climax London for a few years. It was a great experience, not only in terms of the work but also living in a different country for a while."
But despite this experience, Lewis is adamant that he wants to remain in Australia.
"Moving back overseas wasn't an option I seriously considered after Blue Tongue closed," he explains. "I've always had an idea that I'd like to try indie development, so when the studio closed it seemed like the perfect time. Also, I'm married now; we own an apartment in Melbourne. I like living in this city and I don't particularly want to leave it."
Indie game dev story
In a job market swamped with graduates, attempting to set up an independent studio has been the logical next step for experienced developers, giving those used to the bureaucracy of a large studio room to flex their creative muscles in a less stressful environment.
More importantly, it gives developers control over their own destiny. This is precisely why Lewis Mitchell started SmallGreenHill.
"The main appeal of indie development for me is being involved and in control of every aspect of a game's creation, the art, design and code," says Lewis. "My training was as an artist, but I really like coding as well, so creating small indie projects gives me the opportunity to do both.
"As studios become bigger, the roles become increasingly specialised and your involvement becomes narrowly focused on specific areas of the game. Working as a lead, like I was at Blue Tongue, a lot of your time is taken up in meetings and team management, which in some ways is great –- you get enormous influence over the project, but it doesn't leave a lot of time for doing anything creative. I've always found work most stimulating if I'm moving around onto different assignments and problems, so indie development really suits me."
Australian in Montreal
October 11. Anthony Reddan's first day at Ubisoft Montreal. In a bizarre coincidence he meets someone who worked on the original student project that ended up becoming De Blob. Small World. In game development at least.
He takes photos. He doesn't understand French. He gets confused by menus. Waiters get snooty. But still, despite minor bouts of homesickness, he's confident in his decision to move overseas.
"After I accepted the offer everything happened so fast," he says. "It's been a real roller coaster of emotions. At first I was completely stoked — then I'd hang out with my friends and I'd get sad, then I'd get excited again. Then I'd go surfing and get sad...
"About a week beforehand when I'd sold most of my stuff I started freaking out big time. It suddenly became very real. I was leaving behind my friends and family. By the time I actually left I was just so run down and tired I didn't feel much either way.
"I've been here for five days now," he continues. "French is the primary language here, even menus at most shops are in French and very few have an English translation. Most people speak both languages, but will generally open up in French. Sometimes they'll just shake their head at you and just walk away the moment you start speaking English. Most people are nice though. They dig the accent.
"It's a lot to take in, and can be intimidating at times," claims Anthony. "I've had moments where I've wanted to run screaming back to Australia."
The prodigal son
As the Chief Executive of the Game Developers’ Association of Australia, Tony Reed might like the idea of Anthony Reddan running back home to Brisbane. Reassuring the local development community, amidst the doom and gloom of multiple studio closures, is within his remit. Despite this, he completely understands Anthony's decision to further his career overseas.
"There's not much I can say right now to convince Anthony to come back," says Tony, "and I certainly would not discourage the move.
"But we are bleeding talent and no one, in any industry, likes to watch extraordinarily talented people get on a plane."
Still, Tony Reed is convinced we're on the brink of a real sea change.
"Part of my job is to create an environment that not only provides long-term stability for the Australian industry — in as much as that can happen in our industry — and the foundations for growth. There is a lot going on behind the scenes at the GDAA to do exactly that, and we are a lot further down the track than most people know.
"This situation is going to change, and it's going to change soon. In 2012 we are going to see clarity in the direction we are taking as an industry, the indie scene will likely change and publishers will have adapted to the new market conditions. There are a few tankers to turn, but the wheels have already started spinning."
In the meantime, it is Tony's belief, and hope, that Australians based overseas can learn from the best, and ultimately bring that experience back home - much like Lewis Mitchell did upon his return from London.
"You know, there is a wealth of experience to be gained from working overseas and it's that experience that will ultimately come back to Australia," claims Tony. "We have Australians working in some of the biggest studios in the world, many of whom I talk to and all are very keen to come back when the time is right."
Living the dream
As you might expect, Lewis Mitchell agrees with Tony's assessment. Australian game development may seem in bad shape — but there's scope for growth and a real enthusiasm amongst those left behind.
"I think it's only a mini exodus," he begins. "After Blue Tongue closed, for all the people I spoke to who were thinking about moving overseas, just as many seemed determined to try and find jobs at smaller studios or related industries.
"I think there's a tendency to see big studios like Blue Tongue and others closing down, and jump to the conclusion that the video game industry is collapsing in Australia. It certainly seems as if the big players are going through a period of consolidation and risk aversion.
"Fortunately though, there are more and more options available for smaller developers to publish less expensive games, through iOS, Steam, Facebook and XBLA, so not having enormous studios like they have in the US and Canada doesn't necessarily mean we can't have a thriving video game industry in Australia."
As for Anthony, despite packing up his surfboard and heading for pastures new, it is his belief that the local games industry will thrive, despite recent setbacks.
"I love Australia, and I will be back some day," he says. "I want the games industry to rise from the ashes! That's me being selfish — leave it up to everyone else to fix things and then just rock up like a blister after all the hard work!
"Big studios may be dying, but the indie scene in Australia is really starting to come into its own," continues Anthony. "You've got those who are already rocking it like Halfbrick, a bunch of promising start ups — Defiant, The Voxel Agents — as well as individuals doing their own thing. I think what we see come out of Australia in the next few years will be pretty incredible.
"I'll be happy when I manage to actually finish some AAA titles and do some more travelling. Then I'll come home," says Anthony, and we believe him.
"Living on the coast doing what I love is the dream."