How Queensland’s Games Industry Is Quietly Thriving

How Queensland’s Games Industry Is Quietly Thriving
Image: Unpacking, developed by Witch Beam

Queensland’s games development scene often goes unheralded when it comes to talking about the best of Australian games. It hasn’t traditionally offered the same funding and scope as others, but the state’s endlessly talented creatives, coupled with growing support from the state government, are pushing Queensland back into the gaming spotlight.

Like many other Australian states, local games development is backed by the support of a government funding body — in this case, Screen Queensland, the government-owned organisation enabling the growth of Queensland’s Arts sector. Unlike federal programs, it offers ongoing funding for local developers. This fund has led to a boon of unique gaming ideas and projects worth following.

“As of this financial year, our funding for games is a rolling fund, which means a game developer can apply any time for a maximum of $50,000 towards development,” Jo Dillon, EVP Content at Screen Queensland told Kotaku Australia. “Games are a large and important part of the creative screen storytelling medium as a whole, providing jobs and significant economic return for our state.”

“Since the game development fund was officially separated from our film and TV investment stream in 2018, we have funded 20 games, contributing over $4.4 million ($4,457,009.07 QPE) into our local economy and creating job opportunities for 92 Queenslanders.”

Not even coronavirus has stopped the ongoing game developments in Queensland. “Australians are creative and innovative, and nothing demonstrates this quite like the game development community in our state and across the nation,” Dillon said of Screen Queensland’s funding initiatives and its impact on local culture.

“We invest in games … that explore innovative, moving and immersive experiences to offer to global audiences, taking Queensland, Australia to the world,” Dillon added.

Cultural diversity plays a core part in funding, with Dillon explaining how games can amplify marginal voices. “Increasing the volume of marginalised Australian voices in the industry means we can more accurately reflect Australian culture and creativity. Moreover, in this current climate where more people than ever are at home consuming screen stories, the value of games in our society has been enormously highlighted, in terms of how its uniquely immersive qualities benefit our sense of social connection, entertainment and overall wellbeing.”

queensland games funding
Image: Speaking Simulator

Previous games funded by Screen Queensland include the hilarious physics game Speaking Simulator, and the vampire-hunting platformer Damsel. More recently, the government body backed Witch Beam’s puzzler Foolproof, and potion-brewing simulator Potions Express.

Kotaku Australia talked with both teams to discuss how Queensland games are evolving, and the importance of government funding in sharing Australia’s creativity and talent with the world.

Potions Express, Ellie Samson and Rose Wolfe

The team behind Potions Express is a tight ship, with Samson and Wolfe sharing production and development responsibilities. The game is still in the prototyping phase but its fun, core concept of gathering potions, cross-referencing data and building knowledge caught the attention of Screen Queensland.

The grant the team received is going towards building out the technical aspects of the game, as well as providing a living wage for lead developer, Ellie Samson.

“[Potions Express] started out with this little nugget of an idea in my head,” Samson explained to Kotaku Australia over the phone. “It’s been going for me since early last year, but only ramped up at the beginning of this year, when me and Rose kind of went, ‘we can do this’.”

potions express
Image: Ellie Samson and Rose Wolfe

After their application was accepted, both Samson and Wolfe gained new confidence in their project.

“I don’t know if there was a single moment [where everything came together],” producer Rose Wolfe said. “In the process of putting together the pitch and our application, we went from being unsure to realising it was a solid application and it was something that’s viable … [Funding] lets us build out the areas [of the game] we don’t have the skillset for. We wouldn’t be able to hire contractors otherwise, so it’s really helpful.”

Potions Express is still in early development and funding will be a core factor in how the game thrives. For such a small and unique team, this type of support is essential for stability.

Foolproof, Witch Beam

In the same funding round, the state backed Witch Beam’s Foolproof, a puzzler game where players must build a ‘foolproof’ plan to save a garden from destruction. It’s partially inspired by Choo Choo Rocket and Lemmings, sporting a cute, nature-themed aesthetic.

“Essentially, you’re trying to guide these garden sprites through sky islands to help save and rebuilt this garden that’s been blown apart,” said design and production lead Sanatana Mishra over the phone. “To do that, you’re placing commands for telling them where to go, avoiding hazards and setting up a plan for the stage.”

screen queensland games funding
Image: Foolproof, from Witch Beam

Like Potions Express, Screen Queensland’s funding will open doors for Foolproof‘s development.

“It’s going to be excellent for this project in particular because, as I said, we are a very small team and now we’re split across two different projects. It can be difficult to reach the quality level we want to in different areas,” Mishra said. “Primarily, what we’re going to use the funding for is working with a Queensland-based 3D artist to bring the aesthetic of the game to life.”

The game is still in prototyping, so funding is essential for realising the game’s vision. “It’s going to help us build [the game] to a much higher quality level than we would have been able to otherwise.” Different creative areas like concept art and narrative will also receive a creative boost due to this funding.

When asked whether games funding should be available for everyone in Australia at a federal level, not just those in states with funding programs, Mishra strongly agreed. As a veteran of Australia’s modern games scene, his experiences in games have changed rapidly over the last decade.

“It’s absolutely essential to growing the games industry in Australia,” he told Kotaku Australia. “We’ve had so many setbacks and so many issues. When I joined the industry back in 2008 … [Queensland] was a thriving hub in Australia with EA through [to] Pandemic. You had Sega, and Krome [Studios] had three or four studios across the country … all of them except for Krome were foreign funded, and even Krome was basically doing work-for-hire projects primarily for Microsoft and LucasArts … The problem with that kind of industry we built is sure, it employed a lot of people, but ultimately none of these companies were self-sustaining or working on projects that were owned in Australia with the money coming back to Australian companies.”

“When they collapsed, we had this brain drain of talent leaving for overseas and other areas. You saw states like Victoria step up with their funding … all these initiatives that helped those immensely talented creatives coalesce and build these incredibly successful like League of Geeks, which are now enormous and bringing in tons of money back into the country for Australian-owned and operated businesses. I think that’s where the funding from local government and the federal government is really going to help us build these successful industries.”

Wren Brier, another member of Witch Beam and the creative lead on the studio’s Unpacking, agreed. “Without [Screen Queensland]’s funding, we wouldn’t be able to work on Unpacking,” she told Kotaku Australia over the phone. “Other companies probably wouldn’t be able to work on their games they’re getting assistance for.”

“These new grants are going to allow us to expand the scope of what we’re doing now,” Mishra added. “It’s really a support structure to enable bigger and better creations.”

Queensland games on the horizon

While Foolproof and Potions Express are the latest recipients of Screen Queensland’s funding program, they’re not the only exciting game projects currently brewing in Queensland. The highly-anticipated Switch game Sports Story (sequel to 2017’s Golf Story) also hails from the sunshine state.

queensland games industry
Image: Sports Story, from Sidebar Games

Developers Sidebar Games recently delayed the title due to its lofty ambitions, but the hype for the game has never been hotter. Golf Story was frequently highlighted as one of the best indie titles on the Switch when it released and reached a massive global audience because of its boundless fun and creativity.

Another exciting project on the way is the aforementioned Unpacking, in development alongside Foolproof. This zen puzzler is all about decorating your home and moving your possessions into new, more cosy rooms. It features a stunning pixel art style and looks set to be one of the most wholesome game releases of 2021.

Unpacking is a game about taking things out of boxes and finding places for them to go,” Unpacking’s Wren Brier told Kotaku Australia over the phone. “It’s also a game about following a character through the different moves of her life and learning about her through the items she owns — what she keeps and what she leaves behind.”

Unpacking began life as a side project for Brier and Witch Beam developer Tim Dawson but was soon folded into a studio-led project scope as the ambitions of the title grew. “[The idea] really took off, so we were like okay, this can be Witch Beam’s new project,” Brier explained. Everyone at the studio began chipping in to bring it to life, with music, art, narrative, design and development specialists playing essential roles in its creation.

It’s just one of many projects demonstrating just how talented and creative Australia’s games developers are — and there’s plenty of other games currently going unsung.

Australians make great games and there’s growing reasons for supporting the medium. Games have the same capacity to showcase Australian culture, passion and talent as television and films do. But with federal entertainment funding only being available to film and television projects, video games are being left in the dust. They’ve become one of the few cultural arts not receiving country-wide support, despite precedent existing for a federal games development fund and their increasing mainstream popularity.

Queensland’s games industry is thriving because of its tangible funding programs and government-led belief in the power of the medium. Games are an important part of Australia’s culture, demonstrating the breadth of local talent and creativity. It’s about time the federal government recognised Queensland’s successes and understood the power games hold not just for every state, but the national economy.

Comments

  • I played Unpacking at PAX and it is beautiful. Also spoke to some of the devs/artists and they were all lovely. I can’t wait to play through the whole game and I would be staggered if it isn’t huge around the world.

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