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Funding success? What the industry thinks of the federal government’s $20m Games Fund

From this year, Screen Australia will have $20m to fund Australia’s videogames. At the end of public consultation on the fund, we ask key developers and commentators what impact the Federal Government’s money can have.

In November of last year, Federal Arts Minister Simon Crean announced a $20m fund for Australia’s videogame industry. The fund, called the Australian Interactive Games Fund (AIGF), is to be delivered over three years.

Since then, Screen Australia (the fund’s organising body) has been in a consultation stage, releasing an options paper for public comment, and holding a number of seminars around the country. Consultation closes today, Friday 25 January.

To sketch an overview of how the fund is being received, I spoke to some key figures in Australia’s videogame culture, and drew on the publicly available submissions to Screen Australia.

Funding games in Australia

The $20m for the AIGF is not the first time that governments (state or federal) have intervened in the funding of Australia’s videogames industry.

Christian McCrea, Program Director for the Bachelor of Design (Games) at RMIT University, in a chapter in the recently-published Gaming Globally, describes previous Australian government funding for games as “piecemeal and disorganized.”

I asked him whether the same applied to the AIGF. “Australia does not have a set of guiding principles about culture or cultural production,” said McCrea.

“When I say this, I don’t mean to say we don’t have a National Cultural Policy, because I think that’s the tip of a very different iceberg. Governments do not have a serious, embedded apparatus for the expenditure of public funds for cultural purposes.

“Each organisation has a set of outcomes it’s looking for, since so many overlap when the time for recognition comes along, it is often a case of which organisation makes a compelling case to put their logo on a creative work as much as who funded it,” argued McCrea.

“Games, to many arts organisations, just means ‘the digital’, all interactive things, all new technologies—however broad you can make it. You can see precisely what I mean in the submissions from some of these institutions. Experimenta’s submission suggests that ‘public exhibition, media art projects, online creative content, locative media and hybrid projects all belong within the Interactive Games arena.’ Terms such as ‘screen culture’ are thrown around liberally.

“So it’s not that the outcome is piecemeal; it’s the idea of games that’s piecemeal. Games are everything digital and nothing in particular. They’re entertainment (we think), so they’re definitely a ‘creative industry’ (we think). It begins with good intentions and with consultation and if the money goes to people who can actually develop games of worth, then as vague and disjointed as the process is, it will do some good.”

Concerns for the AIGF

More than anything, Screen Australia’s public consultation process has revealed the diversity of what stakeholders and interested parties in Australia’s games community want for the future—and the fund.

“I think one of the things that [Screen Australia’s] options paper doesn’t address is why people—programmers, artists, musicians, writers—choose to make games a part of their lives and their career,” Paul Callaghan, former director and current board member of the Freeplay Independent Games Festival, told me.

“The paper has a very long prelude where it discusses the local and international markets for games, how many people own consoles, how much the whole thing is worth in dollars before then going on to talk about what can be done to get a piece of that. In effect it’s saying: a market exists, therefore we should make games for it,” continued Callaghan.

“[It] doesn’t reflect the contemporary reality of how many people engage with games,” he said. “In 2013 games form a part of our broad collective experience, both for good and bad, and supporting cultural infrastructure creates spaces to explore what that collective experience means as players and makers in as many contexts as possible.

“Festivals, awards, exhibitions, collectives, communities, and other events and activities showcase the things that we have made, and for anyone who has been inspired to make things, it’s that thing which is of fundamental importance,” argued Callaghan.

A snapshot of the publicly-available submissions also reveals a range of concerns with the proposed fund.

“Of potential concern is that the approach proposed for the Interactive Games Fund is modeled off how the Film & TV Funds are run, which is not always appropriate for games,” says Luci Temple, a Sydney-based marketing and communications strategist, in her submission.

Let’s for a minute throw out this idea of ‘enterprise’ funding and project-by-project ‘pre-production/production’ funding (a funding model essentially borrowed from the film and TV funds),” Temple continues.

“Would a think tank propose this funding model if they approached it from scratch? Everybody wants ‘funding,’ but what do they really need?”

One theme that emerges from the public submissions is avoiding a return to the ‘work for hire’ model that dominated Australia’s videogame industry in the early 2000s. Craig Duturbure, industry veteran and Creative Director of Grapple Gun Games, argues in his submission that “Licensed games sank our industry … If the Screen Australia funding goes towards subsidising costs to attract publishers back for more licensed work, then it will work—for a time. When the funding runs out, so will the publishers.

“Supporting this type of spending will be throwing good money after bad and will result in a lack of growth for the industry,” continues Duturbure. “The model was tried for many, many years. The model failed.”

In contrast, Anthony Lawrence, Studio General Manager at 2K Australia, argues in his submission that “it is difficult to see where the fund will help a studio with the caliber of 2K Australia to continue developing console titles which are internationally competitive.”

2K Australia is one of the few remaining major console-oriented studios in the country. However, as Lawrence points out in his submission, as their central management is in the US, it appears unlikely that the AIGF will support 2K Australia. “The development of [BioShock Infinite, 2K Australia’s current project] will be completed in February 2013, and from that date the future of 2K Australia is uncertain,” Lawrence concludes.

Caswal Parker and Andrew Lamb, of Melbourne’s Camshaft Software, suggest in their submission that the AIGF may not nurture emerging studios and practitioners. “One of [our] main concerns [is] the eligibility for the funding, namely the credits, and senior role requirements on a commercial title, and how a successful new company like ourselves would not qualify,” said Parker and Lamb. “Instead the fund appears to be favouring ‘the old guard’ who have whittled away various previous government funds and achieved very little in the process.”

Yet there is also plenty of positivity about the structure of the fund from important quarters of Australia’s games industry. Morgan Jaffit, Founder of Brisbane’s Defiant Development, told me that he thinks “the fund is (at least as proposed) hitting the right areas.

“I’d personally love to see a little more resources available for bootstrapping new developers, but we’re already in an amazingly positive environment for first time devs in Australia,” said Jaffit. “The overall framework is very strong, and we’re seeing the fund sitting on top of that in a productive way.”

David Surman, of Melbourne’s Pachinko Pictures, agrees. “In the main, we welcome the proposed structure and can see how it offers a range of capital investment opportunities for companies of various sizes,” he told me.

Measures of success

But what would a successful Games Fund look like? What does the cultural space for Australian videogames look like in three years time if the Fund has performed well?

Paul Callaghan told me that, “A successful fund doesn’t chase accepted wisdom or current trends, it looks to the future and accepts that the games that will be successful in three years time don’t exist yet (just as Train Conductor and Fruit Ninja didn’t exist three years ago).

“Looking back, we should see the risks and experiments, the gambles that paid off and those that didn’t, and the ways in which those decisions created a uniquely local and interesting development scene,” added Callaghan.

“I can think of nothing worse than looking at everything that the fund has gone towards in 2016 and just shrugging my shoulders,” said Callaghan.

Morgan Jaffit argued that while funding is key to the industry at large, the goals for Defiant Development don’t hinge on the fund’s success. “If funding is available it will enable us to do more faster in terms of reaching our goals, for sure,” said Jaffit. “Our plan is to head there regardless, though.”

For David Surman, however, the fund could have a transformative effect on development culture beyond its financial impacts. “The most sustainable and transferable form of capital is confidence, and with more people in Australia creating original work we think the most noticeable impact will be one of increased confidence in our game development,” said Surman.

“Well resourced opportunities to show work domestically also help to build this confidence, and ultimately confidence feeds back into the quality of work-for-hire output and products.”

Christian McCrea offered a similar perspective on the non-tangible effects of the fund. “The process is the result, for me,” he said. “It would help people applying professionalise in the process. Let people put in rich applications of serious depth, of several stages. That refines and develops the game idea or prototype.”

McCrea also argued that reversing the search for a hit would skew the fund towards a different kind of success. “If the fund develops into something robust, current and genuinely driven by games-specific needs, it will help one or two games find a substantial audience—that’s great,” said McCrea.

“However, real success to me would be a game turning around and waking up the Fund organisers, the Government, the hundred hungry arts organisations looking to draw some blood, and showing them there’s so much more to be done, and there’s so much already happening.

McCrea is hoping for “a project or two that bring home the terrifying reality that videogames aren’t maturing or developing, but that they’re already culturally dominant. That they constitute Australian cultural life in a rudimentary, vernacular—but widespread—way.”

Feedback on Screen Australia’s Options Paper closes today. The full document, as well as public feedback, can be viewed here.

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