The Prodigal Son: One Developer's Journey From THQ Studio Australia To Montreal

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..."

Exodus

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."

WATCH MORE: Gaming News


Comments

    This guy has an inspiring story, but I feel that he's overly optimistic about the Australian games industry.

    Sure, indies can thrive... but that isn't an "industry", that's a few people getting together for a project. Unfortunately, the big players don't see the worth in Australia, and the Australian industry is suffering because of it.

    Still, best of luck to the guy, it looks like he's doing well!

    These articles are just so awesome. Really glad that both you and Tracey can split up the workload to produce stuff like this and the Evony article.

    good read, somewhat insightful. it sux that the games industry in australia is somewhat lacking.. :(

    Wow, what an absolutely fantastic story Mark. Lots of information and it really spoke to me on another level. Keep up the good work, I love reading your stories!

    Good read Mark :)
    According to DA12
    "The Australian games industry is forecast to reach $2.5 billion by 2015, a compound annual growth rate of 9.5%. Globally the interactive game market is expected to reach
    $90.1 billion by 2015, a compound annual growth rate of 8.2% according to the PwC report, Australian Entertainment & Media Outlook, 2011-2015"
    How can this be possible if all the studios are closing down????

      thats includes retail spending, its not all the studios are producing in revenue, that number would be much lower, <50 million.

    My friend who worked at KMM Games.

    I share his sentiment, said to me after another similar article appeared in the press:

    Maybe I will feel good about the direction of Australian's gaming industry when indie / mobile studios are employing 100 guys instead of 3...

      To be fair, you're not going to see 100+ person studios crop back up overnight. However, between 3 Blokes, Voxel Agents, Defiant (all around 10 people, I believe) and Half-Brick (a bunch more across two offices) it's actually not as grim as you might think. All that growth has taken place in a pretty short timeframe, as well.

    Inspiring and a little depressing at the same time, especially for someone who wants to break in to the industry :(

    Great article, Interesting read, yea it is sad with all these closures and people leaving. But hopefully all these indies start growing because thats how any industry starts, its starts small and grows. And we have a heap of small studios headed up by some experienced people embracing all the new ways and technologies like IOS/Mobile and browser platforms and producing innovative games of the highest of quality of most games. They say we learn from our mistakes, and the mistakes have been written on the wall quite a few times and hopefully these mistakes dont get repeated and we come back better than ever.

    I enjoyed reading that. Reminded me of my days as a games programming student, where I had lofty idealistic goals of getting into the games industry. If only I worked as hard as these people did.. Oh well...!

    One of my relatives worked on Space Marine for thq. They spent 3 years coding the engine - then thq gave all their work to Relic. I don't actually like this person so I laughed. Relevance = none.

    Excellent article, makes me nervous though being a Film/Animation Student.

    Great article. I'm studying gamedev full-time next year so it's a topic I've been thinking about recently - if it'll be a necessity for me to move overseas in the future to find work.

    However, hopefully the rising local indie scene will continue to grow so there'll be more opportunities in Australia in the near future.

      Indie scene is all well and good, and we do hear a lot of Cinderella stories... But those aren't the big employers. The very fact that small mobile game devs are run by companies with employees by the dozen (if that), not hundreds. Nor do they ever receive the same amount of exposure or prestige.

      It seems the only real route here is to make your own start-up company and get the ball rolling. But then you'd encounter the same problems when you throw a bunch of 20 year olds into a garage with no direction.

      The simplistic/minimalist nature of indie gaming works against the very people trying to make a name for themselves. There are only so many micro-genres you can move into. Move into 2D physics? Oh well. Angry Birds/Cut The Roap already have that locked down.

    Really nice article about the local industry, thanks Mark.

    Action journalisms are paying off!

    “We had Matt Ditton and Morgan Jaffit from Pandemic, and Scott West from THQ."

    That name is... uncomfortably similar to Matt Dillon.

    I'm moving to Canada in January in the hopes of landing an entry-level position in video game animation. I'll be going over with nothing but my reel. I don't know what I expect to land but I do expect it'll be considerably less difficult then trying to find a job in Aus. Wish me luck!

    Fantastic read Mark, thank you for putting this together.

    Great read Mark, thanks for that.

    Completely random, but why is there a picture of Southbank in the article? lol

      Because Krome and Halfbrick are Qld based maybe?

    Love this article! Great insight into what some of these guys have been through.

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