The Screen Australia #gamesfund workshop stopped by in Melbourne yesterday, and a whole bunch of interested folks had a chance to make their voices heard in how the fund should be allocated.
In truth, it was probably more of a brainstorming session than anything else, often veering off topic – sometimes slightly, sometimes into bizarre territories. This is of course what brainstorming is all about, and it was great to see such enthusiasm and hear a raft of different ideas, and to see such a wide spectrum of the industry represented.
The question that the workshop seemed to be trying to address was – “What is best for the Australian games development industry long-term? How can this fund make a meaningful contribution to achieving that?”
The front-runner answers seem to be prototype funding, production funding, and enterprise funding. Nice buzzwords, but what do they actually mean, and how appropriate is each for this industry?
Let’s start with prototype funding. What puzzled me at the #gamesfund forum was that no one questioned what prototype funding means, nor was it ever really defined. Prototype can mean anything from “proof of concept” to “vertical slice” – and these two ideas are extremely different.
A vertical slice of a game is a small chunk of the game, fully complete. In other words, exactly what the final product will be, but much smaller (maybe a couple of levels). Building a vertical slice requires most of the tech code for a game to be fully complete, the gameplay mechanic to be fully fleshed out, and a fair amount of game code and art. As you might imagine, this adds up to a decent percentage of the overall time and budget of the game – probably anywhere from 30% – 80%. The goal of a vertical slice is almost always to secure interest – whether from financiers or the press and general public. Five or ten years ago, it was an appealing model to build a project to the point where a publisher could take over its funding and promotion. These days, however, publishers prefer not to fund development, and instead act as distributors, buying the rights to the final product. So vertical slice funding is not enough any more, and indeed the net result is likely to be sending the poor developer off to end up in years of publisher hell.
A proof of concept is much simpler. This can be a demo of entirely placeholder art, possibly no sound, which only shows the gameplay itself. It proves that the game idea is fun, and worth pursuing further. Proofs of concept are an essential part of game development. But they do not warrant being funded by the #gamesfund. A proof of concept costs virtually nothing to produce, other than a little bit of time, and has no guarantee of any concrete result at the end. It is pure speculation. It is extremely high risk. The #gamesfund has no place funding high risk ventures. Frankly, if a developer is unwilling or unable to spend the time and minimal effort internally vetting unsatisfactory game concepts, it is not mature enough for the #gamesfund. The core business of a good game developer (and good game designer) is being able to sift through the dirt to find the gold.
Enterprise funding seems to potentially have a broad definition. One aspect of it is “slate funding” – where the company would be funded for a certain period of time to work on a number of projects at various stages of completion – kind of like many production funds in one. If any of these projects are at a stage prior to proof of concept, I would have the same reservations as with prototype funding. However, there may be merit in freeing a developer to work on several projects should they be at the right stage and have the capacity to bring them to market. I would temper this by agreeing with what Steve Fawkner said in yesterday’s forum – “(smaller) developers should not be developing more than one project at a time, as this is when the quality drops”.
In its more traditional form, enterprise funding is broadly about putting money into a company over a period of time to help it through a transitional growth period. To use it for this genuine purpose, there are not too many Australian companies that I think would legitimately benefit from this – maybe a handful. My concern around enterprise funding is that a more cynical person may view it as a way to prop up a company in the midst of a tailspin.
Selfishly, I like the idea of enterprise funding – both slate and the more general version – for Endgame. It could certainly help us achieve our goals for the next few years faster. But this is about what’s best for the industry, and the reality is that almost every single developer could benefit from having funds injected to steady their cash flow. Therefore, I think it would be difficult to choose a candidate for enterprise funding and have it be transparent to the industry why this company was selected above all others. It is also likely to represent a significant chunk of the fund – and I think I’d prefer to see at least 10 – 15 companies funded per year.
Finally, there’s production funding, or funding a good game idea to completion from whatever stage it’s currently in. I think this is a great idea, and in my view where most if not all the money should go. The only thing that will drive the recovery of our local industry is strong original IP, Australian manufactured and Australian owned. It creates jobs, it trains workers, it brings in export revenue. At the end of every project, there’s a tangible benefit to the country and to the fund – a game that is ready for retail. That is a huge benefit to the company itself and the broader industry. Even if the game is not a hit it should still generate decent revenue and, as long as it’s critically well-received, will significantly advance the profile of the company and the Australian game development industry. And who knows, maybe the game will be a hit.
One caveat to the production funding is that I strongly believe smartphone/tablet/Facebook-only games should be prohibited. The reason is that these markets are far too fickle and hit-driven. To generate sustainable revenue from an iOS game, with few exceptions it needs to be in the top 20 for months – a virtually impossible feat these days. In traditional game markets – PC, console, handhelds, even a moderately successful game is likely to generate similar revenue to an extremely successful iOS game. I’m not saying iOS should be prohibited entirely, but that any project with iOS should be a multi-sku project, also targeting PC/eShop/XBLA/PSN, to mitigate the risks involved in smartphone.
To me, risk is the key word for the #gamesfund, and specifically how to minimise it while still producing tangible outcomes for developers and the industry. High risk ventures such as proof of concept funding and smartphone/tablet/Facebook only funding should be avoided in favour of funding strong games that have parallel objectives of not only funding the game itself but advancing the studio along its strategic path. The #gamesfund is a wonderful opportunity for our industry to drive its own recovery – let’s do what is best for our industry at large and not allow ourselves to repeat the mistakes of the previous years.
What do you think? Which option is most likely to better the entire Australian industry? Tweet #gamesfund or directly to me at @GrantTheAnt.