The history of government funding for video games is sketchy at best. Late last year the Federal Government put a red line through the Interactive Media Fund, taking $10 million out of the hands of local developers. Considering that Film Victoria does a far better job of funding local development in Melbourne and beyond, it was the Sydney game development scene that was arguably hit hardest.
But curiously, a video game by a Sydney Studio did just received state government funding, via a finance program few would link to video games at all.
Screen NSW has announced it is distributing $1.2 million on 19 new film, TV and online productions. Among them: a family show called 'Dance Academy', a documentary title 'The Shadowland' and a video game called 'Objects In Space'.
'Object in Space' is the latest game by Sydney-based studio Flat Earth Games. It's a stealth space trading simulator. We saw it running at PAX Australia and it looked fantastic. It's not only open-ended from a narrative and design perspective, but also allows players to literally build their own control interface. If you wanted, you could probably build yourself a Steel Battalion-esque space station and trade stealthily to your heart's content. Or you could just play the game like regular people. Your choice. Very cool either way.
Objects in Space has received $25,000 in funding from the Screen NSW Production Finance program and Regional Filmmaking Fund. That may not seem like a lot in the grand scheme of things, but it is a unique tangent in the troubled narrative of government funded video games.
Recently Screen Australia teamed up with the Canadian Media Fund to create funding for "interactive digital content" and then, in the same statement, refused to accept video game applications for the fund.
In this context the fact that Flat Earth Games felt the need to apply for funds usually allocated for television and film projects is interesting. The harsh reality: if you are a games studio and you want government funding for your video game, you have to think outside the box. And in a weird sense you have to play up the 'non-game' aspects of your video game in order to do so.
Leigh Harris, co-founder of Flat Earth Games and designer on Objects In Space, did the intelligent thing: he called up Screen NSW and politely asked which funds would suit their project and which funds they'd have have the best chance of securing support from.
He was very complimentary of Screen NSW.
"Film and television is undoubtedly their primary focus, but they were more than helpful in getting us through the hoops to be able to apply," said Leigh.
But Leigh was also happy to admit that he focused heavily on the narrative of the game to help get his application through.
The $25,000 in funding Flat Earth Games received is primarily going to be spent on the 'non-game' aspects of Objects in Space. And by that we mean very little of it will be spent on design or coding. The money will mostly be used to hire seven writers to create unique, interactive narratives for the player to interact with in the game. Some of the funds will also be used for the game's soundtrack.
"I don't think Screen NSW have any issue with funding games," said Leigh, and he's right. Screen NSW has funded video games in the past, and will almost certainly continue to do so in the future, but it is interesting: in order to secure government funding, video games have to seek out and adapt projects to non-gaming funds and scrape up the dregs. Of the 19 projects being funded by Screen NSW, only one of them relates to video games. Of the $1.2 million being divvied up, only $25,000 is devoted to video games. It's a drop in the ocean.
Particularly in the context of broader issues: a $10 million federal funding program scrapped without industry consultation; a second fund that explicitly forbids game developers from applying. It's a grim situation, and one that has you wondering if the government wants any part of the games industry at all.
It's a strange one. Yesterday our Prime Minster spoke to the nation and called for an 'ideas boom'. Why not an industry that continually brings overseas dollars to Australia, that rattles off success story after success story?
Why not video games?