Saturday, August 13, 2011

A failure, of sorts (personal commentary on the Brisbane collapse)

So, with the recent shutdown of THQ Australia in Brisbane and Bluetongue in Melbourne, I find myself at a loss. I worked with THQ as a freelance writer for several years, before they closed their handheld gaming department. The loss of some 200 staff at the beginning of 2009 saw most of my friends and colleagues moving to new jobs, but the trouble didn't begin there. The collapse of the Brisbane game industry has been a slow, but not inevitable, tumble toward the ground. It could have been halted, but it wasn't. There are two reasons for this - neither of them faults. They are simply the way things are.

I have to admit, I've taken this pretty personally. I've watched every company I've loved break down into separate pieces, have a hope of building back up, then slide once more down the rocky slope of financial ruin. The only company I've worked with that's still alive and kicking in Brisbane is Halfbrick. My friend is working on Fruit Ninja Kinect. Have what opinion of that you will. I'm just glad he still has a job.

But things began back in 2007, with the closure of Auran. All of their staff were let go, two weeks before Christmas and, from varying third-person accounts, without severance pay. I don't know what the games industry is like in other cities - in general, the developers seem to be a bunch of really nice, down-to-earth guys and girls - but Brisbane was like one little furry critter - wound one leg and the rest would react. Pandemic, THQ and Krome all took on Auran employees to help them get through this tough patch, and to save the talent Auran had acquired from drifting away, either to other capital cities, or back overseas.

Now, when I was working at Pandemic, a lot of people were brought in from around Australia, and from overseas, especially Canada. So this fear that all of the talented people would evaporate and leave our industry stifled under its own ideas was actually pretty relevant. Again, this is my outsider's perspective. I was working at Qantm and EB Games at the time, while also freelancing with THQ. I got the educational, retail and developer perspectives, but none from ground zero. What this makes me is very good at repeating hearsay and drawing my own conclusions, so I just want to reiterate this is my opinion. There have been enough articles about all of this for you to form your own, much more informed opinion. This is mine. Okay? Okay.

See, I had friends and even my brother working at Pandemic. I heard a couple of stories, but the news that they were going under was actually broken to me by a reporter friend of mine. She called me up to ask if the collapse was real. What a way to find out. I'd also been told, only a couple of months previously that I was expected back to work on their upcoming title - the ill-fated Batman - but whether that was ever going to happen or not, I'll never know. Let's suffice to say work as a games writer is hard to come by. I'd just lost what I then saw as my one way back into full-time games industry work. I was in complete shock.

My brother wasn't let go in that first round, but most of my friends were. Krome and THQ began collecting Pandemic employees. No one wanted to see friendly, talented, dedicated people out on the street. It didn't feel right. And so, when Pandemic finally went belly-up in another couple of months, Krome and THQ were already pretty full-up. But, again, the games industry in Brisbane just doesn't want to leave people in trouble. More hiring followed.

Things were reasonably quiet for the next 8 or 9 months. I worked with THQ on Avatar: The Last Airbender: Into the Inferno, and things looked good. That was released at the end of 2008, and I left the studio at the end of the project feeling reasonably confident that things were going to turn themselves around. Then, in January 2009, my producer friend from THQ asked to meet up to discuss a new idea he had for a game. When I asked if I would be working with the people I'd already come to know, he told me they'd all been let go that morning. He and one other person were the only people I knew who still worked there. He had tears in his eyes, and I did too. Those were good people, are still very talented people. So many of them had gotten their big breaks there, and they were utterly dedicated to the company and their jobs. It didn't make any sense, but I guess it does now.

Krome followed with layoffs, then more layoffs, then more. My brother was let go and re-hired two or three times, from memory. Then Krome shut down and KMM rose up in its ashes, but quietly, and with a reduced staff size. I don't blame them. By now there were more unemployed game developers in Brisbane than there were employed, but it must have been hard to be one of those who got picked to stay on. I was only watching from the outside, and it was breaking my heart. I couldn't imagine how things could get any worse.

Well. Here we are. 2 years later, a year after THQ Aus shut down their handheld gaming department for good, I'm halfway across the world and more than halfway to another broken heart. I've cherished the times I've spent working on every game, and each time one of those companies collapses, it feels like someone has died. I loved Pandemic. It was my dream come true. I thought, and still do think, that I must be one of the luckiest people in the world to ever have landed a job there as a writer. I cannot be grateful enough to the people who made that possible. And, for that reason, it's also so hard to let go.

I know a company is its people, not an entity of itself. I also know that the devs I met in Brisbane are some of the nicest people I've met anywhere, and their collective caring for each other is so strong that it catapulted the industry to ruin. I can't say I'd prefer to work in an industry where one company collapses and the others just let its employees fade away. It certainly wasn't a talent-grabbing frenzy, as some thought. It was dinghys and yachts gathering around a sinking cruise ship, trying to save everyone. They failed.

So my two faults for this collapse, as I perceive them, are this : the state government, for trying too little too late and for giving it to the wrong people, and our Australian games industry, for caring too damn much. I love you for it, at the same time as I hate you. If you were a little more selfish, I wouldn't be so close to tears. But then I wouldn't be so proud, either. I can't tell what I would prefer, but I can say this :

Brisbane has lost one of the most vibrant and friendly communities it has ever had in losing all of our game devs. I hope many of them go indie, but I also know from too many friends that it's not an economically viable option. They have houses, families, living costs. An iPhone app a month, even two, isn't going to make a dint. Maybe some of the dispossessed can get together and start a new company, but with what? And this is where the government fails us. Unless you want to be making educational games - the definition of which is so loose that it changes monthly - or projects that record local history, you're out of luck. You can apply for a NIS grant, but that's, what, $15,000? Get everyone together to all apply for grants and you could scrape together maybe $300,000, over the course of a year. And you still have to eat.

Victoria's state government has a better idea - the Film Victoria grants in particular say that you just have to prove a product will be economically viable, and promise to repay the money as soon as you start making a profit - but I've still seen too much money go to people who have no idea what they're doing. I've worked with too many of them. Luckily, my current project doesn't suffer from such inadequacies, but there are far too many that do. Qualifications don't seem to have any bearing on the grant approval process. You can write a grant application to make a video game if you're a novelist, and they won't check if you've got the team or knowledge to back it up. Or, more distressingly, I've had my name put to projects that should never have been approved, and had my 'presence' count toward people getting grant money that they then choose to piss into the wind because they know nothing about game development and don't even have a design document for a two-year turnaround to ship a AAA title. Then the government sees all their failures, and decides not to invest in the game industry anymore. It's a stupid cycle of failure.

Stricter regulations for grants, and more specific grants targeted at bolstering the video games industry specifically would go a long way to getting all those Brisbane devs back on their feet. I know we had a state-wide disaster at the beginning of the year, and all that money has to come from somewhere. I just wish there had been processes in place earlier to stop this slow slide from happening. I'm hurting, and it makes me angry. The Brisbane games industry didn't deserve this. But maybe nothing could have been done, and in any case, it's moot now.

So here's a salute to the industry I loved, in the place where I lived. To all the wonderful people I worked with, and who I hope I get to work with again at some point, to the talented artists and inventive programmers, the erudite designers and the kind-hearted producers :

The Brisbane industry will return. Next time, we'll do it better. We'll take care of each other without losing our own battles, and we'll still have the compassion I've come to love so well. If anyone can do it, I know you can. Chin up, Brisbane. It's a long road ahead, but you know what to do, now. Start with one foot in front of the other, and I'll see you in a couple of years.

xoxo L~

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