Australian Game Developers Matt Trobbiani and Chris Johnson are best friends. They do everything together. They grew up in Adelaide together. They did a Computer Science degree together. They made video games together, released video games together. But when Matt released Hacknet and Chris Johnson released Expand, everything changed. One game made its creator rich, the other sent its creator broke. Both have to live with the consequences.
PAX Australia 2014. Chris Johnson is a whirlwind of nervous energy and uncombed hair. His video game, Expand, is on the PAX Indie Showcase. He gets to demo his game for free to an enormous audience and the reception has been out of control. Everywhere I go people ask me about Expand. A conversation that usually starts with “have you seen Expand?
“You have to play Expand.”
I arrive at the Expand booth and it is packed. In order for me to play Chris Johnson has to kick some poor straggler from a computer he’s been playing for close to an hour. This seems to be a common problem: when people start playing Expand they generally don’t want to stop.
Expand is a special video game.
Predictably, I’m blown away. Expand is beautiful. It’s elegant. These are the words one uses when describing a video game like Expand.
At the back of the booth I notice a board, decorated in layer after layer of post-it notes. Chris explains: he’s been asking Expand players to describe — in one word — their experience with the game on a post-it note, before sticking that note at the back of the booth.
Beautiful. Surprising. Polished. Seamless. Gorgeous. Elegant – yes, elegant. These are the words one uses when describing a video game like Expand. These are the post-it notes stuck on a board in a booth, buried in the maelstrom of flesh, sweat, plastic and video games that is PAX Australia.
But here’s what I don’t notice. In the crowd, behind the scenes: a short, wiry, red-headed boy taking the post-it notes and doing his fair share of the sticking; a boy helping ferry the boatloads of players desperate to play Expand.
In roughly one year’s time, at PAX Australia 2015, I will be re-introduced to that wiry, red-headed boy. In the time between plastering post-its and shaking my hand for the first time, that boy will have made himself very rich indeed.
Yes, This Is Good
Matt Trobbiani didn’t really know how much video games are supposed to sell. He still doesn’t.
Matt’s game, Hacknet, is based around the mechanics of real world hacking; a hacking game about actual hacking. It was released on Steam at 3.30am on 13 August 2015. Matt’s reasoning: he didn’t want to spend the first hours of Hacknet’s release anxiously refreshing the Steam page. He didn’t want to be working on a patch or stressing about bugs, sales or the prospect of failure. He wanted to go to sleep for the first six hours of release and wake up to a message from Surprise Attack — his publisher — that said, “we’re on track.”
When Matt woke up there was no text message, but Hacknet had already sold close to 2000 copies on Steam. He sipped a coffee nervously and tried to do the numbers. “Is that $10,000? $15,000?” He sent a text message to his publisher. “Is this good?”
In one day Hacknet had sold more copies than Surprise Attack’s previous best-seller had sold in a month. “Yes,” came the reply, “this is good.”
To this day, Matt Trobbiani seems oblivious to his own success; oblivious to the reasons why Hacknet was successful; oblivious despite all signs pointing to Hacknet becoming the type of phenomenon it eventually became.
In 2012, three years before its final launch, Matt uploaded a free, largely unfinished version of Hacknet onto IndieDB. The end result: the highest traffic day in the history of the site. Still, Matt was unsure, unconfident. That result wasn’t enough to convince Matt he was onto something. “Well of course they want it,” he told himself. “It’s free.”
No-one would pay for a game like Hacknet, he insisted.
Years later, in the lead up to Hacknet’s final release Matt uploaded a launch trailer for Hacknet. Within days that trailer was everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. It exploded, racking up hundreds of thousands of views, an incredible amount of attention for a small one-man indie game. Still, Matt didn’t get it. Just because people like the trailer doesn’t mean they’re gonna like the game, he told himself.
“I was going into release fully prepared for Hacknet to sell absolutely nothing,” Matt says.
Just over four months later, Hacknet has sold close to 100,000 copies.
Returning The Favour
PAX Australia 2015. Chris Johnson is once again a whirlwind of energy and uncombed hair. But this year the crowds aren’t playing Expand, they are here for his friend’s video game. They are here for Hacknet. This is part of the deal. Last year Matt helped Chris with his booth at PAX Australia, this year Chris is returning the favour. He spends the majority of his time managing crowds as ferryloads of fans approach Matt Trobbiani to tell him how much they loved his video game. Matt is shocked to find people unironically asking for his autograph.
To date, no-one has asked Chris for his autograph.
After PAX Australia 2014, Expand received a generous smattering of local press, all of it universally positive. Buoyed by the early enthusiasm for his video game Chris holed up and worked on Expand.
At one games convention Chris ran into Alexander Bruce, creator of Antichamber. Antichamber: as big a success story you can find in Australian games development — the Hacknet of its time — selling 250,000 units in little over six months. Chris saw parallels. Antichamber was a model for what Chris hoped Expand could achieve.
“I wanted to pick his brain,” remembers Chris.
Matt Trobbiani remembers the meeting. He also remembers watching a time-lapse video of the event, taken over a period of hours. Human beings darting rapidly like ants. In one corner of the room, Chris and Alexander Bruce in one spot, vibrating for what appeared to be six hours in real time. They had a lot in common. They had a lot to talk about.
Predictably Alexander Bruce loved Expand, but had one piece of advice for Chris: reach out to overseas press.
Expand had already received a large amount of coverage locally in Australia. Every journalist who played the game at PAX Australia fell in love. But the harsh reality: Australia is a tiny market and Steam is a global marketplace. If Expand was to be successful Chris would need to talk to journalists outside of Australia.
“We never really broke through to the US press,” admits Chris.
Chris sent emails, but it wasn’t enough. Later: a realisation. If press wouldn’t come to him, maybe he should go to the press. Chris wanted to go to the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) in San Francisco — make connections, meet journalists, possibly speak to publishers. He didn’t have enough money to afford the trip, but his partner insisted he attend, and volunteered to pay.
In addition to flights, accommodation and a GDC pass, Chris paid $300 to attend an event called the ‘Media Indie Exchange’.
“I didn’t particularly like it,” says Chris.
“Essentially you paid for access to journalists. It was like $300 for a night in the IGN offices and a whole bunch of journalists would come in and have drinks and food and stuff.”
It was a frustrating night. Chris had sent out emails in advance, did his research, tried to get an idea of which journalists to approach, the journalists most likely to cover a game like Expand. It wasn’t enough.
“There were people there and I could have told them, look I’ll take you out back, I’ll give you the most amazing blow job of your life and they wouldn’t have cared.
“I get it — no journalist has time to check out all those games. And people have filtering systems, but it was really frustrating on my end.
“And on top of that, talking to some friends who were journalists at the party, people didn’t realise we had actually paid to be at that party. It was just a really gross experience.
“I came away from GDC really cynical.”
On 30 September 2015, Chris Johnson released Expand on Steam. In Chris’s own words there wasn’t much of a response. A smattering of stories, a positive review from IGN Australia. That was the size of it.
To date Expand has sold less than 1000 copies.
A Truth In Every Joke
Matt: “I thought he was cynical as hell.”
Chris: “I was like, this guy’s such a fraud.”
Both attended the Games Development club at the university, argued about everything. (To date, they still argue about everything.) Should games be fun? Was that important? If not, what was important?
“Our ideologies didn’t match at all,” remembers Matt.
Expand came into being first, in 2010, the end result of the very first Game Jam Chris and Matt attended together.
Matt played Expand, thought it was pretty cool. A novelty. “A nice five minute flash game” were his exact words. When Chris told him he planned to work on Expand and transform it into a full game Matt rolled his eyes — he had no idea what that would look like, or how it was even possible.
He wouldn’t play Expand again for two years.
In those two years Chris had transformed Expand into the kind of video game that Matt couldn’t imagine when he first played at a game jam all those years ago.
“It was so unexpected. I was blown away. After playing it I knew: I couldn’t have made that. It was amazing.”
Hacknet was also conceived during a Game Jam. Matt calls it “the most productive 48 hours” of his life. Chris didn’t attend that event, but played the end result.
“Do you remember it?” asks Matt.
“Yeah,” replies Chris.
“I thought it was… okay.”
Laughter. But a truth in every joke.
From the beginning Hacknet and Expand were polar opposites. Expand: an experiential, meditative experience that’s actually difficult to describe. Hacknet: a video game with a clean high concept, a solid elevator pitch; a video game about real life hacking.
“The thing about Hacknet for me was,” explains Chris, “as a game designer and a player I like system heavy games. Hacknet felt like Papers Please for hacking. The base thing you’re doing is quite repetitive. I don’t mean that in a bad way.
“My impression for a long time is that this game was a lot of work. It was very ambitious.”
A lot of what we now know as Hacknet came together in the remaining few months before launch. Matt is happy to admit the incredible influence Chris had on the final product. Three months before release Chris played the entire game start to finish, recorded the whole thing, added a voiceover of his moment-to-moment experience and uploaded it to a private YouTube account. He essentially ripped Hacknet to shreds.
Matt believes it was one of the most valuable things that ever happened to Hacknet.
“There’s like six hours of footage,” says Matt. “I spent the next week going through it and I would just watch three seconds, pause it, fix the problems and watch again! The feedback was so good.”
It’s easy to lose focus, explains Matt, particularly towards the end of development. Difficult to rise above the minutiae of a solitary project and understand the broader perspective — the bigger picture. The way Matt words it: “you’re not seeing the solution to a lot of your problems in context.” Developers often find themselves with an overwhelming amount of work to do, but no real way to parse or prioritise what that work should be.
“Being able to watch this video and say, well I’ll just check this footage and see what needs to be fixed. That was amazing.”
Hacknet wouldn’t have been Hacknet without the help of Chris Johnson.
No Democracy Without Failure
“One person has had their life changed and the other didn’t.”
Chris Wright is the Director of Surprise Attack, the Australian publisher that helped Matt Trobbiani launch Hacknet. He doesn’t have a simple answer to the obvious question: of these two wonderfully made Australian games, why did one succeed so spectacularly? Why did the other fail?
I mention that word, the elephant in the room. That hollowed out Voldemort: the “indiepocalapse”.
“The truth is,” he says, “we’re living in the post-apocalypse.”
The indiepocalypse isn’t about to happen, it isn’t a threat, it’s a promise fulfilled.
Chris’s reasoning: the bomb was dropped the moment video games went digital. The more open the platform, the more democratic the process. The more democratic the process the higher the risk. And in this ruthless free market economy there are bound to be casualties.
“You can’t have a democracy without failure,” says Chris. “The reality is 99 per cent of games will fail. People keep saying, well this will all change. It’s not going to change.”
In a not-so-distant past the process of releasing a video game was heavily curated — or in Chris’s terms, less democratic. Platform holders – be they console/phone manufacturers or Steam itself – were far pickier about the kind of games available on their services. But in that universe a game like Hacknet might never see the light of day. In that universe Expand wouldn’t even have a chance at success.
The problem, obviously, is curation and according to Chris it’s a problem that exists across every medium providing content. Amazon, Apple, Spotify and Steam: they’re all working on ways to streamline that process.
“Say Steam gets your new game in front of a million people,” explains Chris, “Steam needs to get better at making sure the right million people see that game, the people with the most chance of buying that game. It’s a problem everyone is working on.”
It wasn’t a problem for Hacknet.
During a dinner event in Seattle, Matt was lucky enough to be seated next to a Valve employee – someone partly responsible for the background algorithms that determine the games you see and don’t see when first logging-on to Steam. Matt: “I was sitting there like, ‘I need to tread carefully but I also need to get as much info out of this guy as possible during this dinner!’”
Most developers, believes Matt, think along these lines: drive as many people to the Steam page as possible, attract millions to your Steam page, hope thousands follow through with the purchase. Hope those people tell their friends.
“That’s kind of broken and wrong,” says Matt.
The reality: the success of your video game on Steam is tied to numbers that record conversion rates. According to Matt, every game released is given 100,000 views on Steam’s ‘popular new releases’. You are given that exposure for free. After that? You need to earn your spot. If you’re not getting as many sales per impression as the next game, you’re not going to be on that list.
Simply put: developers don’t necessarily need to worry about driving people to the Steam page. Steam gets millions and millions of views per day by default. Developers need to be worrying about conversion.
“Part of me thinks you want to get the right people through,” says Chris. “People who are like, ‘I’ve heard of this’. Getting those clicks helps maximise your conversion rate.”
Hacknet had an unusually powerful conversion rate. Hacknet stayed on the Steam ‘popular new releases’ page. Hacknet sold a lot of copies. Expand didn’t.
The Prince And The Pauper
Chris and Matt are discussing a presentation at GCAP. Morgan Jaffit, co-founder of Defiant Development, the studio behind Hand of Fate, talked about the responsibilities of success: the need to give back to the broader Australian industry if you’re lucky enough to stumble onto incredible success like Hacknet or Antichamber.
Morgan was presenting to a large audience, but Matt felt he was being directly addressed. Like Morgan was talking to him, about him. To him. He was right. A later conversation between the two confirmed it.
“He told me I had a moral obligation to start a games studio if I want to keep making games,” said Matt.
“He asked me, ‘what do you really want to do with your life?’
“I said, ‘I want to make games I guess.’
“He said, ‘well you should make games and help build this industry.’
“Then he asked me my worst case scenario. I said ‘I put all my money into it, the studio crashes and burns and everyone in the industry hates me for what I’ve produced. Then I delete all my accounts and I’m left with literally nothing.’
“He was like, OK. Then you go and get a job at a good games studio and you live a pretty awesome life, right?”
Chris has a different viewpoint: what obligation does Matt have to grow the Australian industry? And who says the current status quo is something worth supporting?
And regardless — shouldn’t Matt be left to make his own decisions?
“If Matt figures it out by himself then ultimately I think it would be more successful and for the right reasons,” says Chris. “I’m putting my faith in Matt to figure it out.”
For Chris, it’s a debate that speaks to broader issues of video games and how they’re funded. This year at an awards ceremony in Australia, Hipster Whale, the creators of Crossy Road, were awarded Studio of the Year.
“One of the things they mentioned was that they gave back to the industry,” explains Chris. “Well, they gave money to their mates and stuff…”
“Yeah, mates who are in the games industry,” replies Matt.
The arguments begin anew.
“So are you saying I couldn’t give money to you if I want to support your project?” asks Matt.
“Well I wouldn’t want that money. I don’t want to be treated like…”
“Like someone who needs financial support to follow their dreams?”
A silence hovers in the room; an intangible distance.
“I’m not going to give you my money,” says Matt. It’s a joke.
They both burst into laughter. Relief. Tension diffused. Distance closed. Everything’s alright again. For now.
“I think he quietly hates me now,” says Matt, joking again. “I struggle with that every day.”
“Well, I’ll be the mean guy,” replies Chris, laughing. “There’s a truth in every joke.”
There’s a tension there; a power shift visible in every interaction. Chris and Matt bicker like brothers, but the mutual respect is self-evident. Still, despite his success, it’s clear Matt looks up to Chris, seeks his approval.
They probe friendly jabs at one another, like best friends do. But there’s a sense Matt is pulling his punches. That he recognises the wounds of failure have yet to heal. Chris’s pain is visible. It’s clear he is still mourning for Expand.
But it’s a position that allows Chris to punch up. He’s far more likely to call Matt on any fleeting delusions of grandeur — often brutally. And Matt is more content to absorb the blows, but believes it’s his responsibility to make sure Chris doesn’t get too bitter.
“I’ve been put in this position of power,” says Matt. “I don’t want those jokes to be more hurtful than I intend them to be.”
“We’re both very aware of the situation,” says Chris. “I know that Matt is going to make sure I don’t become bitter and cynical and vindictive. And I’m going to watch out for Matt becoming big headed.”
A truth in every joke. At this precise moment in time the Australian games industry is a strange place. There’s no real middle-ground. The opposing ends of the success spectrum are poles apart. How do game developers navigate that distance as it increases, whilst operating (sometimes literally) in the same space? The Australian development community is notoriously supportive, can that spirit of support transcend this difficult period of transition?
It’s a difficult question to answer. But as I leave Chris Johnson and Matt Trobbiani to their booth, crowds and unironic autograph requests I ask: have I missed anything — any last statements?
“Matt’s game is great,” replies Chris.
“Expand is incredible,” replies Matt.
Weeks later I get a message from Matt. He’d just finished catching up with Chris for coffee. Chris had been reading a book before Matt arrived: ‘How To Use Your Enemies’ by Baltasar Gracián.