Defiant Development has been around for five years. Formed after the closure of Pandemic, it represents something grander than the video games it creates. For the Australian games industry, it represents a transition. For the people who work there? A safe haven in an world that is constantly in flux.
Morgan Jaffit, founder of Defiant Development, is finding it hard to contain his excitement.
“I need to show you something,” he says.
He takes me into a room -- more like a glorified cupboard really. He closes the door behind us.
Then, the last thing I was expecting, from a pile of god knows what, a sheathed sword. A solemn look of reverence. I can’t tell if he’s being ironic or not. He hands me the sword; it’s way heavier than I expect. I unsheathe it slightly, like a samurai. This is a real sword. It’s heavy. Expensive heavy.
If you sharpened this sword, Morgan informs me, you could probably kill a man with it.
Why is a studio founder like Morgan Jaffit casually hiding a sword like this in his very own studio? Why is he so excited? Simply put, this sword is a gift and it’s one of many. This May just past Defiant Development turned five years old and Morgan bought one of these swords for every single member of the studio who had been there for two years or longer. It’s a surprise.
Swords are cool, that’s the main reason, says Morgan. The second? Morgan is kinda starting to get a little bit excited and nerdy about LARPing.
The third reason is more compelling. Once upon a time Morgan Jaffit worked for EA. EA owned Pandemic, one of the earliest of Australia’s major studios to crumble beneath the weight of the Global Financial Crisis. According to Morgan, EA had a long service rewards system. It was as corporate as you might expect and he hated it. It functioned like Frequent Flyer points or a perverse form of labour-related gamification. Accumulate enough points and you could spend those points on ‘things’. Morgan remembers one of his friends: he had been at EA for about five years. The only thing worth spending his points on was a slightly rubbish telescope.
Morgan doesn’t like telescopes. Morgan likes swords.
Morgan Jaffit is very proud of his swords.
He’s also very proud of Defiant Development.
The story of Defiant Development is the story of the Australian games industry in a microcosm.
Speaking to the head of Microsoft’s [email protected] program a year back, he was very vocal, very impressed with the state of games development in Australia. It was ahead of the curve, he said. As we move towards a future where independent development is helping shape and influence the direction video games are currently headed, Australia is leading the charge.
Part of the reason was survival. Defiant Development was, in a very real sense, an attempt to survive.
Morgan Jaffit remembers two specific moments during his time at Pandemic. First, a meeting. Morgan was told the value of the studios Pandemic was grouped with and the value of the people in those studios. That left an impression. It was a big number. $843 million to be precise.
He remembers when the studio was being closed down. He remembers thinking: are you just going to leave all that value sitting here? Are you just going to throw it all away?
“That seemed like a real waste,” says Morgan.
So Morgan, alongside Dan Treble, set up the bones of Defiant Development in the wreckage of Pandemic and set about putting that inherent value to good use. That was almost five years ago.
Today, a Ski Safari, Heroes Call and Hand of Fate later, Defiant Development is still standing. It’s a stable, secure company and it employs roughly 15 talented game developers.
Kim Allom literally bounces from desk to desk, peering over her glasses, taking notes. She’s in constant motion, perpetually smiling. Kim Allom is someone who enjoys her work.
Kim is a producer. She manages the details of projects and in general is up in everyone’s business. As of May this year Kim will have been at Defiant Development for two years. Kim will get a sword.
Kim already knows about the swords. She helped organise the swords.
Organising is something she is very good at.
Before coming to Defiant Development Kim worked for the Council. She organised things for the Council too, but with a degree in game design and a lifelong passion for video games, she wanted to work in the games industry. She wanted to work as a producer, managing tasks that played to her strengths. She didn’t think that sort of job would ever be made available to her, not in Australia at least.
But a chance meeting at a networking event at The Mana Bar resulted in Kim landing an interview for the job she thought she’d never get. Defiant Development was looking for a producer. Kim wasn’t sure she’d have a chance, but applied regardless.
She remembers the interview. Kim, straight from a council meeting. Corporate. Trouser suit. Morgan and Dan, straight from the gym. Sweaty. Ill-fitting shorts.
Much to Kim’s surprise, she ended up getting the job. And she loves that job, but one of her favourite parts of life at Defiant Development might surprise you.
“The studio is so stable,” says Kim. “At the time I didn’t know that.”
A producer role was Kim’s dream job, but one of her few concerns about taking her position at Defiant Development was the transient nature of the games industry itself.
“You hear stories, studios closing down,” explains Kim. “Defiant is one of the first studios that’s saying, no we’re really stable.”
Defiant Development has been around for five years. Kim has been there for two. Defiant Development isn’t going anywhere. Kim is getting a sword.
Five years ago the Australian games industry was in the process of collapse. That was the story. That was the narrative. Shortly afterwards it was the story of how that industry could be rebuilt: a resurgence story. Phoenix from the flames: small teams of two or three finding new ways to do what they loved in the face of adversity.
And that was a valuable story, a necessary story -- but if you asked anyone in the know? That story was only supposed to be a transition. The desired endgame: can these small teams grow? Can they evolve? Is it possible to create an environment where smaller teams become mid-sized teams? Is there potential for the games industry to be a place where people are hired, to the point where it sustains itself in a very real way?
In Brisbane, Defiant Development is the answer to that question.
“We’re not really a traditional indie, but not quite a AAA studio,” explains Kim. “We’re kinda like an in-between, like a mid-indie. Like a Mindie!
“That’s so lame. Oh my god. Take that out!”
Sorry Kim. I just can’t do that.
Defiant Development is the mid-sized indie studio that people like Tony Reed, the CEO of the Games Development Association of Australia, dreamed about when the Australian games industry was in a truly bad place -- the kind of studio that’s shifting the narrative. The Australian industry is stable. It makes money. It’s comfortable in its own skin and it’s not dependent on hand-outs from major publishers. It’s not dependent on a fluctuating Australian dollar. It’s independent in the proper sense of the word.
Morgan Jaffit tells the story of a cycle. A crushing cycle so brutal it almost ground the Australian games industry into dust. It goes something like this: you sell a publisher on a game. Congratulations, you get a $20 million advance. You use this money to make the game. You make the game. You no longer have any money.
The game starts to sell in stores. It sells well enough. But your studio doesn’t see a single cent until that game has recouped the $20 million the publisher gave you in advance at a 10% royalty rate. The game could make $180 million at retail and you make nothing. Your studio has no money and can’t make another game until it signs another deal giving it another advance.
Now you’re trapped in the cycle.
But there’s more. Some contracts have a clause. A ‘Right Of Last Offer’ clause. You go to publisher Y with an idea. Publisher Y offers you another $20 million advance. But publisher X, who helped with your last game, has the legal right to offer $21 million and snatch that game from publisher Y, so publisher Y doesn’t bother making an offer in the first place.
You’ve already lost -- and in an environment where the publishers control distribution, marketing, everything really, you have no choice but to fall in line.
But that’s all in the past. Morgan Jaffit doesn’t have to worry about that anymore. Defiant Development has escaped the cycle.
Self publishing changed everything. It put Defiant in control of the games they made. It put Defiant in control of their own destiny. Games on iOS, games on Android, games on Steam – Defiant no longer depends on hand outs and is free to make whatever game it chooses.
“Would EA have greenlit Hand of Fate,” wonders Morgan Jaffit. “Not a chance.”
The timing was perfect. Morgan moved from one broken system in Pandemic to a system that made perfect sense for that specific time. When big wigs talk about Australia being ahead of the curve, they’re talking specifically about studios like Defiant, and developers like Morgan Jaffit who were forced into a new way of thinking long before that way of thinking was normalised.
What the team is currently working on: a number of things, but prime among them -- a console release for its now flagship title Hand of Fate.
The team is excited. Morgan is excited. Here: a studio founded by creatives who made console games in a distant, terrifying past. People for whom console development damn near killed them. Now, thanks to self-publishing, Defiant Development is back on consoles -- on its own terms. It’s a beautiful thing.
In early June, Microsoft is launching a brand new Xbox One bundle. Once upon a time that bundle would feature Gears of War or Halo, but this bundle? It’s a little different. This bundle features games released through the [email protected] self-publishing service. This is a console bundle using independent games to sell consoles. In a weird sense, it’s a sign of how far we’ve come.
Hand of Fate is among those games featured in the bundle. The team is pretty proud of that.
“It’s surreal,” says Kim. “It’s absolutely surreal.”
One of the last people we speak to at the studio is Ryan-John Keates. Ryan-John is young and this is his first job out of university. We try to talk to him about Defiant Development -- about what it represents, about its transition from two-man team to fully-fledged ‘Mindie’ – but all Ryan-John wants to talk about is his work. He is so very passionate about his work.
Ryan-John is an artist, but heavily specialised. Probably more specialised than anyone else who works in this office. Five years ago, when Defiant Development was born, you suspect Ryan-John would have found it extremely difficult to find work in the games industry. Australian development was fragmented then, and had little need for someone like Ryan-John, who does a phenomenal job of creating incredibly detailed character models for Hand of Fate and its upcoming sequel.
But Defiant needs Ryan-John. It needs people like Ryan-John. It’s built around people like Ryan-John. Morgan Jaffit admits it: Defiant’s games are vetted and built around the precise skillset of the people who make up its bones. If it wasn’t for Ryan-John Hand of Fate would be a drastically different game. It might not exist at all.
Ryan-John is extremely excited about the render he’s currently working on. He has a hi-res image of a human thumb on a second screen for reference, to make sure he gets it just right. I’ve never met anyone so passionate about thumbs. Where else in Australia would a person like Ryan-John be indulged in his passion for thumbs?
Ryan-John has been working at Defiant Development for over two years. He loves it here. “I have ownership over what I do,” he says. “That’s a really cool thing”.
And in May, on the day of Defiant's fifth anniversary, Ryan-John was given a sword.
Disclosure: Mark Serrels travelled to Defiant Development as a guest of Microsoft.