All funds and games as arts gets $20m shot in arm

Matt Clark (left), Simon Joslin and Tom Killen, partners in The Voxel Agents studio, demonstrate their Train Conductor game at Collingwood rail station.
Matt Clark (left), Simon Joslin and Tom Killen, partners in The Voxel Agents studio, demonstrate their Train Conductor game at Collingwood rail station.

THE computer game industry will pick up some much-needed ''health'' on Thursday as Arts Minister Simon Crean announces a three-year $20 million fund to assist a sector that has struggled to reinvent itself in the post-GFC era.

''Australian studios are recognised internationally for their skill and originality in developing interactive games played all over the world, but the local industry is coming under increased pressure in the midst of a major market shift,'' Mr Crean told the Screen Producers Association of Australia conference at Docklands on Thursday. ''This fund will assist the sector to reclaim its competitive advantage and support the development of games in Australia, investing in the intellectual property of our creative businesses to give them a stronger position internationally.''

The fund will be run through Screen Australia and is expected to be operating by March, after a period of industry consultation.

Gaming is worth $1.5 billion in Australia and is tipped to be worth more than $90 billion globally by 2015, almost three times as much as worldwide cinema box office in 2011.

That has led some in the industry to call for funding equivalent to that enjoyed by the local film production sector, which last year received about $220 million in state and federal support.

But Antony Reed, chief executive of the Game Developers' Association of Australia, believes the funding to be announced is appropriate at this stage of the industry's development.

''It's important that we take small steps in growing,'' he said. ''We don't want to be in a situation where we have a great deal of money that we don't know what to do with.''

Before 2008, the Australian gaming industry was growing on contract work for the major games studios overseas. But the crash and the increasing strength of the Australian dollar have largely killed that market. In the years since, growth has largely been driven by small studios - there are about 160 in Australia - developing cheap arcade-style games, many for the rapidly growing mobile and tablet market.

''The industry was effectively forced into the indie position by the GFC as the contract work dried up, and then by the industry restructure driven by digital distribution,'' said Mr Reed. ''It's a sector we're expanding into and seeing a lot of success in.''

But success is a relative term, as Simon Joslin of Collingwood-based studio The Voxel Agents knows all too well.

The company's mobile game Train Conductor has been downloaded more than 5 million times since its launch in December 2009. Many of those downloads were free, but more than 800,000 copies of the game's two versions have been bought at 99¢ a pop.

But while many of the 28-year-old developer's friends imagine he and his two partners in the business must be rolling in cash, the truth is quite different. ''The day we launched Train Conductor we had $200 in the bank, we had spent $12,000 on development, and we had just been kicked out of our office,'' he said.

''The company had almost died by the time it came out. Then we got back on our feet and did the second release. But by the time that came out we were almost dead again.''

He said they had invested about $300,000 in their next game, to be released in February, by which time he expects the company to again be on the brink of collapse, a situation federal government support in the development phase might have eased.

Mr Joslin said he took home ''about $500 a week, a significantly lower income than when I had a regular job''.

The upside is that the modern game industry is now developing its own intellectual property rather than working on contract for the foreign majors. And that could pay off down the track.

''We want to be in the top 5 per cent of makers of mobile games worldwide,'' said Mr Joslin. ''Surviving and being happy running our own studio and producing titles that people will still be talking about in 10 years' time is really our goal.''

Will the government's newfound enthusiasm for the sector help? ''I think it's a good starting point.''

This story All funds and games as arts gets $20m shot in arm first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.