This is how an optimistic girl on a teacher's salary helped grow her local industry from a handful of development studios to nearly 30 making and releasing games. In two years, the Sydney Chapter of the IGDA grew from 300-something to a membership of nearly 1000 -- and all this cost less to pull off than an overseas trip to GDC.
With only a few cities in the world known for a culture of great game development, it's easy to imagine towns where the conversation just never comes up. Places where, instead of saying "How can we make better games?" they watch football or arrange matchsticks or something.
In the three years I've been coaching game developers, I have yet to meet one that starts out saying "You know, I don't want to be known for original games and genre-defining discoveries -- no, I think I'll just copy what's already out there, but spend more money and more time to produce something half as good!"
Folks don't go into this wanting to set up unsustainable businesses around crap games. All of us, from triple-A to Indie, got into this wanting to work on awesome stuff. So where does it go wrong?
What looks like a people problem is usually an environment problem. It isn't something wrong with the people making games; it's something wrong with the environment they're making games in. Tweak the environment, and behaviors change (Try it yourself: go throw all the snack food in your kitchen away and replace it with fresh fruit and veg all washed and chopped and ready to munch. By the end of the week, you'll be eating healthier and feeling better about yourself. Nifty, huh?)
We'll go into more detail about how we changed the culture of game development in Sydney throughout the article, but here's the key points if you're in a hurry:
Our Critical Change Factor: Regular, community-wide, peer-to-peer playtesting and feedback.
If there's one thing I can point to and say "this had the biggest impact on our games and the health of local industry" it's introducing regular playtesting, open to all devs, from commercial to indie. We now have better games getting made, finished, and released here in Sydney. Creating a culture around experimentation and feedback has been fundamental to that.
"I had no idea Sydney had such a healthy game development scene!"
We hear this a lot now. It's totally fair. Because up until recently, we didn't.
My part of this story starts back in 2009. I had turned down a producer role at L.A. Noire developer Team Bondi to take a teaching gig with a $20k pay cut. Why? I was sick to death of crunch. After crunching on projects seven days a week for years, I needed a break. You've been there too. It's exhausting. A steady 9-to-5 job helping folks learn how to make games was well worth dropping salary for.
Fast forward to 2010, and I'm working with this group of inspiring artists and programmers making games way cooler than anything I'd been contracted to do so far (something about them being young and naïve, maybe!) This was their last year with me, and naturally I wanted to see them do well in the industry (I'm just maternal like that) so I started looking for local studios to recommend the best of my guys to...
...and found next to nothing in Sydney! The combination of the 2008 writer's strike and the global financial crisis had devastated games and film industries in Australia, and Sydney was still a wasteland.
The few studios we had at the time weren't hiring -- and if they were, they'd snap up one of many veteran developers recently dumped into unemployment by publishers making liquidation decisions by spreadsheet ("Oh, sorry, you're in the red this month. We've got to close your studio. Sucks I know, but that's corporate policy.")
Here I was with these talented creatives about to step from my class into a nearly non-existent local industry -- and the next group due to join me was twice as big and equally awesome! Shit! Where were my guys going to go!?
All videos were done by Rhys Votano of Upstair Studios - who just showed up with a camera at one of the events and asked if he could film stuff! Here's a video from the second playtesting event I ran at the Arthouse hotel towards the end of 2011.
Step 1: Clearly Define What's Motivating You. Know what you're going into this to achieve. You won't get paid for this, and the established industry won't want to get involved -- at least not until after you're successful. And that's fair; they have their own businesses to worry about. But if you're doing this because it's something you're deeply passionate about, and you're willing to sacrifice to make it happen, then none of that matters so much. Money and recognition is only motivating when you don't have something deeply personal at stake. You know how you can lose all track of time doing something you're passionate about? Yeah. It's like that.
My motivation: At first it was "make sure my guys can make a living doing awesome creative stuff... instead of getting sucked up into advertising or have to leave Sydney to find work." Later this evolved into "help people go indie, live well, and make better games."