It's not just Sledgehammer Games that's taking root in Australia. This morning we can reveal that the creative genius behind Knights of the Old Republic's HK-47, the lead writer on Dragon Age: Origins and the author behind Dragon Age's prequel books, David Gaider, is opening up a new studio in Melbourne with the help of GX Australia co-director and Beamdog alumni Liam Esler.
The studio will be called Summerfall Studios and will be creating an "illustrated character-driven adventure", which will be officially unveiled during Melbourne International Games Week during the Friday of PAX Australia (October 11-13).
"We’d actually each been thinking of starting a new studio independently," Gaider, who is also giving PAX Australia's keynote speech this year, said to Kotaku Australia over email. "I’d spoken about it a bit to friends, talking about what sorts of projects I’d want to make and the kind of studio I’d want to run, but I felt like it was something I couldn’t do alone."
After getting in touch with Esler, the pair realised they were on the same wavelength, and they began thinking about the practical steps to get the studio off the ground. One of those was choosing where to base the studio, and both founders wanted to have the studio in Melbourne, despite Gaider's long history in Canada at Bioware and, later, Beamdog.
"From my perspective I’d really come to love how tightly-knit and supportive that community was over several visits," Gaider said. "There could certainly have been advantages to starting the studio in Canada instead, but both of us really wanted to have it based here, where we know the people and the depth of the talent pool. I’ll still be based in Canada for a while, so technically it’ll be a cross-Pacific production even if most of the work will be getting done here in Melbourne."
The pair couldn't say much about their narrative adventure, given it'd spoil the PAX reveal, although anyone who signs up to Summerfall's mailing list through their website will get a preview of the game next week. They were happy to outline more about how the studio would function — David would be building up the creative and development team, while Liam's background will be put to use on the marketing, day-to-day management of the studio and keeping the lights on.
"I work with David to craft compelling experiences that you just can’t forget about, and make sure we can create those experiences in a sustainable, caring way," Esler said. For his part, Gaider said the studio would be concentrating on character-driven stories with a focus on the quality of writing, something instilled in him from his time at Bioware when the studio was building its narrative reputation.
I asked the pair how they chose the name, and Esler explained that Summerfall came from things they liked about the summer and autumn — or, in this case, fall. It wasn't a short process, with the pair taking months and cycling through multiple work-in-progress names before settling on Summerfall.
"Summer is about warmth and growth, excitement and having fun. Fall is a time for self-reflection and maturity, colour, and even romance," Esler said. "There’s a joke reason, too, about David and I being of different ages and in different stages of our lives - combining our powers like some kind of gamedev Voltron - but we really liked the sentiment."
It's a good time to found a studio in Australia. The environment is much healthier than it was across the country, with increased interest and investment from state governments and a better general understanding of the positives video game development adds to the local economy. Esler, who was the event manager for the Game Developers Association of Australia, added that the current environment for indie games was especially promising.
"The competition between platforms, the need for fresh new ideas and exciting mechanics, and a desire to build new IP means there is a lot of potential money out there for those able to find it," Esler said. "The advent of streaming services means platforms are prepared to pay for lots of original content, following the Netflix model, and that’s an exciting reality for indies if it continues."
We already knew that some of Australia's more prominent studios were contributing to Apple's new gaming subscription — most Aussie developers are mobile-focused, and Aussie games have done very well on iOS over the years — but the real surprise from today's Apple Arcade news was just how many of those highlighted developers were local.
I asked whether Australia would one day see the return of the AAA-sized studios that were once based in Australia — although Wargaming has a substantial number of employees based out of Sydney now, and EA's Firemonkeys studio is still a major presence in Melbourne despite layoffs this year.
"The increase of government support in almost all states has been a big sign of confidence, and hopefully means we’ll see more and more investment in Australia," Esler said. "A healthy ecosystem would have everything from small indies to a couple of bigger studios, we just need to make sure everything is sustainable along the way."
Australia and New Zealand's strength right now lies in a lot of those smaller teams, creating fresh IPs that break through the mould, like Hollow Knight, The Gardens Between, and more recently Void Bastards. Summerfall wants to follow a similar trend, although we won't know precisely what that journey looks like until the first updates on the game go out next week.
"We also want to do something that’s a little different from the norm," Gaider said. "Speaking for myself, if I don’t feel like I’m almost out of my depth and challenging my capabilities, I’m just not very happy."