By Stephan Schütze
By world standards Australia is a small country. Although we have the sixth largest landmass in the world our population is only 22.5 million. To put that into perspective this is a country three quarters of the size of the US with a population not much more than New York City. One of the consequences of a small population is that most of our industries are far smaller than in other countries and the games industry is no exception. Size, however, does not always equate to quality or ability and Australia has developed a diverse game industry. The key difference is that here the industry is not solely defined by the large studios. The more you look, the more you will find an industry that is defining itself in a range of ways.
My own journey through the games industry in Australia has allowed me to observe its growth and more importantly work with some of the amazing talent we have hiding down here on all this land. Like many developers, I grew up playing games and developed a great love for the genre. It did not even occur to me that creating video games was something you could actually do as a career. There were no university courses and the industry in Australia was still young. As is often the case, I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
You need to get into a studio to move beyond it.
My break came with the opportunity to work on a project for a small company called Bluetongue Software. I was tasked with creating all the sound and music for their second project Starship Troopers: Terran Ascendancy. Over the years as Bluetongue grew, I had the kind of opportunities that you could only get with a large studio. Jurassic Park Operation Genesis was the first Australian produced game to include a fully orchestral score and I was fortunate enough to work with Melbourne Symphony to record the music I had composed. Bluetongue, like many other Australian studios produced titles for American publishers, and over the years worked with Universal Interactive, Hasbro, THQ and others. During my tenure there, the company grew from a studio of around 15 to a large production house of over 100 people and is now owned by THQ. Bluetongue is famous for many titles, most recently de Blob.
While working at Bluetongue I took the opportunity to present talks at conferences such as AGDC and lecture at various Australian institutions that were just starting to investigate games as a legitimate subject of study. At the time it was not obvious to me that these elements were all further developments of a growing industry. The education and training of game development skills would soon become a major segment of the industry worldwide as well as in Australia.
There is a world outside the Big Studio.
As a composer and sound designer I was a rare category of creature, especially in the Australian industry. Because of the small nature of the industry and the limited number of studios, there were quite literally only a handful of positions for audio personnel in the country. Most studios had a single “jack of all trades” sound person, and I think we all held onto our positions quite protectively. But we also had the ability to work on other smaller projects as audio was, and still is, one of the elements of game development that is outsourced. I found myself producing simple midi tracks as music to accompany the first generation of mobile phones. It was quite surreal to produce a midi music track limited to 100 kilobytes in the same week you have just finished orchestrating a score for 70 musicians, but it opened my eyes to yet another development in the industry. Games were going mobile and Australia was going to jump on that enthusiastically.
Like the major platform games, mobile games initially were produced by established studios, although the team size, budget and production time for a mobile game was far smaller. This allowed a number of smaller studios to start up and get into game production. My first mobile game was a simple soccer game called Ryan Giggs International. This was for a very small studio working out of an apartment in Melbourne. They had a talented team and the desire to make games. Initially many of these small studios struggled to be recognised, not because they weren’t creating good products, but because mobile gaming was seen as a bit of a fad, and not taken very seriously. This attitude has changed, partly because of the popularity of devices like the iPhone, but more because of the quality of the products produced by the studios. That little studio that created the little soccer game is Firemint and they now have a reputation worldwide for producing some of the best games released on iOS, including Flight Control and Real Racing.
The evolution of mobile gaming through phones and other platforms has provided opportunities for smaller developers around the worldand Australia has really embraced these platforms. Australian titles are becoming common residents on the top of mobile game charts and our studios continue to produce noteworthy titles. Here are some more examples.
Produced Fruit Ninja which is still riding high on the app charts
Sims 2 & Sims3 for iOS as well as Deadspace and others
Train conductor and Train Conductor 2 are doing well
has produced a great series of “choose your own adventure” style gamebook apps
Many of the developers who created or work for these companies started working in larger established studios. The evolving nature of the industry has allowed the growth of smaller studios, independent developers and really anyone with a passion to create games.
Going it alone and other adventures.
Leaving the big studio network after several years is a fairly daunting prospect. As my old teacher used to say if you are going to do something go all out. For me, going all out involved living in Japan for three years and working for an Anime studio in Tokyo for a year, but there has already been a focus on Japan recently so I won’t go into that here.
One of the other aspects of the Game Industry worldwide has been the growing development of creative and support businesses outside of direct game studio production. Third party engine technology, animation, motion capture and sound tools have grown from a few examples to a massive support network for the main industry. This was where I was going to find a focus for my own passion as well as discover what others were up to. Over a 5 year period, starting in Japan I developed and created an expanding sound library. My initial focus was on simply collecting many sounds, but as it developed I focused on collecting and creating material suited specifically for the games industry.
Upon returning to Australia and establishing my contacts I continued to work on the library, but also to work with other industry groups including the team at FMOD (www.FMOD.org). FMOD is a company that produces a Sound Engine that works on just about every platform in existence. Over the years FMOD has developed from a code only solution to a series of applications that allow for design, creation and implementation of complex sound environments with tools for both sound designers and programmers. You may not have heard of FMOD, but you are likely to have heard of some of the titles that have used FMOD over the years. StarCraft II, Little Big Planet 2, Crysis2, Dragon Age, Bioshock 2, I could go on, but I think you get the point.
I have been using FMOD since my first project over ten years ago and over time taught myself how to produce some interesting results using the tool set. I have shared this knowledge in conference presentations and lectures. This also coincidentally qualified me to rewrite the manual for FMOD designer and create some new examples included with the download. FMOD is a tool that allows for complete removal of repetition in game audio. FMOD enables the creation of generative music and sound design while optimising the use of resources on all platforms. This enhances the creation of effective and dynamic sound environments.. Because of the limitless possibilities for creating audio in FMOD, I am always learning new ways to use this program.
The methods of creating audio in FMOD were the focus for much of the material I was collecting and creating for the Sound Library project. This was not a deliberate collaboration, but rather the method I used to create audio FMOD was foremost in my mind while creating the library. Generating sound effects in real time by assembling sound building blocks when the sound is triggered, creates a unique sound. Much of my library became groups of building blocks designed to support this method.
The next generation of developers.
By the time I had returned from Japan, the teaching of game courses had become widespread worldwide and Australia was no different. We now have several dedicated specialist game institutions as well as game courses in most of our major technological Universities. I have presented various lectures and short courses at several of these institutions, so when I was approached to teach a full course on Sound Design I felt comfortable with the idea and excited about passing on my experience to the next generation of developers. What started as teaching a single class on sound design very quickly grew to teaching over eight class groups in three separate courses. I found this very encouraging not only because it was an indication of game industry growth, but it highlighted for the first time the importance of audio. For anyone who has never taught I will say right now that you will learn as much from your students as they will learn from you.
The current generation of developer “hopefuls” is in an unusual situation. The global financial crisis has left an obvious effect on the industry worldwide as many studios downsized or shutdown completely. This rather bleak environment however is offset by the possibilities presented by the mobile development forms of iOS, Android and similar as well as the rapid rise of casual gaming that have seen XBOX live and PSN develop. For the first time since PC games were made by a “guy” in a garage, individuals can again create their own titles and become successful without the need to run a massive studio. This is something I focus on with my students as I feel strongly that the industry is at a turning point.
The entertainment industry worldwide, for film, TV, theatre and music production works on a method of hiring contractors for the period of production. They draw from a pool of talent and individuals often work from contract to contract. I think the games industry will inevitably move towards this model and already in Australia this is being done on a small scale with independent developers. Many of the small mobile developers mentioned earlier, hire in contractors and in turn hire out their abilities as part of their regular work cycle. Initially many followed this process out of a need to survive, but the landscape is changing as this becomes more common. My own experience doing contract work goes way back, but as an audio creator this was not unusual. Now I know of artists, designers, writers and programmers who all do a great mix of different work for different projects. This is not about surviving as much as maximising your skills, the opportunities to work on great projects and developing creative networks. I certainly do not claim that Australia is alone in this change, but we are definitely riding the crest of a wave of change.
Stephan Schütze has been a composer and sound designer in the games industry for over ten years. In the last few years he has created the first Australian produced sound library in over 50 years , which is being distributed world-wide. Stephan recently launched an iOS app of the largest sound effect ringtone library in the world. He loves chasing after things with microphones, creating audio environments and playing some of the outstanding examples of games produced in the world today.