How Adelaide developers are taking on the gaming world

A set of game development companies in Adelaide are entertaining customers around the world, reaching millions with their weightless export.

The global market for games played on digital platforms is sizeable. In 2018, the market hit $140 billion USD while new consoles, such as the Nintendo Switch, prove that consumers love fresh formats to buy in to and play on. And if you haven’t heard of Fortnite… well, you’d be one of the very few. It’s a billion-dollar-plus IP with a $100 million prize pool for their eSports competition. It is a juggernaut.

The industry creating games like Fortnite is referred to as the game development industry. It is the technical and creative craft of creating video games and was once highly specialised, requiring a small army of programmers to bolt together complex software that would be boxed up as cartridges and disks, and sold at brick and mortar retail outlets. It was a hard market to get into 10 years ago but several notable Australian studios did, including Adelaide’s own Ratbag Games.

Over the years, the obstacles to creating content for that market have diminished markedly. Distribution has shifted to downloads rather than boxed retail. Development software such as Unity, Maya and Unreal are making the development process accessible to a much broader talent pool. And distribution platforms like Steam, the App Store and Google Play are offering robust distribution platforms with generous revenue splits.

It’s an accessible market and a very crowded one. Yet, here on Pirie Street, Adelaide is making its mark with a string of small-scale developers bringing in big numbers.

Team Fractal Alligator, a tongue-in cheek name for what is essentially a solo outfit, shipped Hacknet to more than two-million customers, and scored 82/100 on Metacritic.

Team Cherry’s Hollow Knight was a Kickstarter-funded project that went on to sell more than a million units as a PC game, and when it was released on Nintendo’s Switch console, snapped up a quarter-million customers in two weeks, and a score of 90/100 on Metacritic.

My own organisation, Mighty Kingdom, has dozens of games in distribution, a partnership with LEGO and more than six million players a month across our portfolio of games. Mighty Kingdom employs 50 creatives, all of them permanent hires.

Thorsland at Mighty Kingdom

These are grass-roots creative teams taking on the world and winning. All from Adelaide’s city centre.

Growth in these areas is clearly in the offering. So how about the main operating resource we need to scale: skilled and talented digital creatives?

The universities and training organisations are gearing up because students are demanding it. University of South Australia’s upcoming School for Creative Industries program, for example, has an A-list of industry partners, and is sure to deliver job-ready game development graduates in the next five years. The Academy of Interactive Entertainment, a national training organisation with a substantial Adelaide presence, is already handing me great hires.

In the past year, Mighty Kingdom has already vetted more than 480 applicants from around Australia; all for jobs in our Graduate Program aimed at young professionals looking to start their careers here in Adelaide. Now, 18 of them are calling South Australia home, with many more to come.

We are heading into a fertile period for commercially-minded and -scalable game development teams. I operate out of a co-working space on Pirie Street called Game Plus, which is now a year old, and filled with more than a dozen teams. It’s where I first met Dineth Abeynayake, founder of Foxie Games. After seven years as an aerospace engineer, Abeynayake and a team of three took a punt on developing a game. Two years later, they have 10 staff and four games in their portfolio.

Myself, I’ve worked in half-a-dozen medium over the decades. Print, film, TV, music, web development, visual effects, advertising, etc. Digital games are where it all connects. It is the focal point of technology and human experience. The most demanding and most rewarding creative enterprise I have ever worked in.

Giving a player something to do on a computing device that is so entertaining that they come back for more is absolutely high art. It combines complex problem solving with player empathy and collaboration in ways no other entertainment medium does. The most successful creatives in my industry form a relationship with their audience through data analysis – the emerging art of observing how people are interacting with your game via inbuilt data systems. Daily, chunks of data are pored over by these future-facing creatives, and that overview of behaviour from audiences in the millions will inform design changes to their games. All aimed at increasing engagement and revenue.

The upper limit of the revenue, and the rapid growth of that audience, is demonstrated by a game like Fortnite. Here in Adelaide, across our growing number of development teams, the odds are getting better with each new game that we will bring that billion-dollar market to our door.

Dan Thorsland is Mighty Kingdom’s general manager mightykingdom.com

This is the first in a series of articles from creative industry leaders presented in collaboration with Arts Industry Council of SA

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