Thoughts and notes from GCAP

At the tail end of last year’s GCAP the news of trouble at Krome hummed through the crowd during the final session – a panel with Shaniel Deo, Bob Loya, Greg Short, and chaired by me. In it, as people discovered what was happening to Australia’s largest studio, we tried our best not to focus on that but to frame the learning of a conference that felt unlike previous GCAPs in that it actually had a personality and something to say about the changing shape of studio and industrial development – changes thrown into relief by the sad news.

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We are not legion

On Friday, the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General (SCAG) met to discuss the introduction of an R18+ rating. This has been a longstanding discussion in Australia and the discussion happens against the backdrop of a wider classification review of all forms of media. Only NSW declined to vote in favour of the rating – citing the recent formation of a new government in that state – but committed to consulting with them on the topic as soon as possible. These events pave the way for the introduction of an R18+ rating for videogames in Australia.

On Saturday, A Norwegian man let off a bomb in Oslo that killed seven people and shot and killed another 80 at an island retreat.

These events have nothing in common.

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The thin measure of success

I’ve been thinking about some of the implications of my previous post about Screen Australia‘s All Media Fund and in doing so have clarified something that has been on my mind for quite some time.

In particular, this quote in the original piece from an unnamed executive has rattled around my head:

“Strong story-telling elements are found in AAA titles – like the recent LA Noire by Team Bondi – (but) the budgets for these projects are beyond what most independent games developers can expect to secure,” the source says.

“It’s no accident that Australia’s recent success has been on the iPhone platform – Flight Control and Fruit Ninja are examples, and there’s been a shift towards developing games for social media networks like Facebook.”

I’ve come across this thinking a lot and have started to wonder: are these our only measures of success – LA Noire or Flight Control? AAA or iPhone? I think we do ourselves a serious disservice when we put barriers up about what we can create before we even create it or when we fail to consider the other options that might work from a mechanical and storytelling perspective – options that might not have examples in Australia but which certainly exist as part of the wider worldwide gaming community. Just off the top of my head, what about Stacking or Sword and Sworcery or World of Goo (stretching it a little, but it certainly has a story) or Machinarium or Costume Quest or Limbo?

Not AAA, and not Flight Control either, but interesting and successful titles with a narrative bent. Would Screen Australia fund these? I don’t know, but they certainly won’t if nobody applies. To damn a project or an idea before it has even been born because it doesn’t fit into the thin measure of success of being either a mechanically driven iPhone game or a multimillion dollar title seems to me to be economic & creative folly.

And anyway, someone has already done Flight Control, Fruit Ninja, and LA Noire. Maybe there’s room for something that’s different.

Screenplay and Screen Australia

Over on the Age’s Screenplay blog, there are some comments from me about Screen Australia‘s new All Media Fund in a piece about how “Australian game developers may not be able to access critical government funding because of requirements for their games to have significant storytelling elements and cultural significance.”

I think the piece focuses a little too much on what are seen to be restrictions of the fund rather than on its possible opportunities for game developers as well as what it’s actually designed to support. I’d urge everyone interested to read the full guidelines which pretty explicitly outline what they’re looking for and to take a look at decisions from the old innovation program to see the types of project Screen Australia have traditionally funded – some of which are games, and many of which I’d expect would still be eligible under the new guidelines.

As my comments in the piece were mostly about the cultural question, I’ve put my full answers below to hopefully expand some aspects of the broader discussion. And in the interests of full disclosure: I’ve done assessments for Screen Australia in the past & have also worked on projects which have received funding through the old innovation program.

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Sexy Spanking Games and Murder Simulators

From The Age online dated March 11, 2011

Not long before it banned Mortal Kombat, the Board let a sexy spanking game, We Dare, through as PG, despite the game’s own publisher, Ubisoft, recommending it be rated M.

This follows on from Sex game to hit Australian stores and A Wii bit kinky: sexy spanking game rated PG but Mortal Kombat banned.

The decision to ban Mortal Kombat while giving the risqué We Dare a PG rating has revealed some interesting details about the federal government’s morality on censorship. Judging by the decisions, it appears that games promoting spanking, stripping and sexual partner swapping are acceptable for children while hardcore simulated on-screen violence is strictly off-limits.

It also found its way into this rather muddled opinion piece.

We Dare has caused a bit of an uproar generally, but most of it seems to have come from watching the promotional video for the game rather than playing it, a fact that hasn’t been lost on PEGI over in Europe who recently had this to say to eurogamer about the game and its advertising.

“The Committee concludes that the advertisement does NOT accurately reflect the nature and content of the product and it MISLEADS consumers as to its true nature.”

“It was correct to give the game a 12 rating,” PEGI said. “The content of the game and the interaction that the game itself implies do not warrant a higher rating.

“Marketing may have implied something else, but PEGI does not rate advertising, it rates game content. If people play the game, they will see that there is nothing inappropriate for ages 12 and older.”

There’s a conversation to be had about ratings, classification, sexual content, and their place in videogames, but We Dare is no more a ‘sexy spanking game’ than Call of Duty is a ‘murder simulator’ and maybe, just maybe, the classification board are doing their job.

And maybe, just maybe, employing the same sort of moral outrage tactics as critics of videogames do is perhaps not the smartest tack to take.

[Edit- clarified ‘game critics’]

Some thoughts on analysis and insight…and a proposal

Anyone who follows me on Twitter will have seen me post this recently:

Thinking out loud: if someone started a smart, adult, critical site for writing about local gaming, would anyone write for it? Read it?

While I was only thinking out loud in response to this reactionary article from The Age (and yes, I know I shouldn’t read mainstream games coverage), I think it’s worth exploring, as much for my benefit as anything else, what I meant.

So, what did I mean?

Other creative sectors have a plurality of voices that run the gamut from news, reviews, criticism, and analysis, but for whatever reason (and I might not be looking in the right places), there seems to be a dearth of critical analysis and insight in the games space.

To illustrate, some of what I’d like to see in response to various events / articles are:

  • A deconstruction of the recent 60Sox / ISIS numbers and whether or not they’re truly reflective of the state of things and whether or not a meaningful comparison can be drawn with previous studies
  • A deeper look at state and federal funding decisions and the subsequent trajectories of both the projects and the studios
  • An examination of the recent Australia Council Arts and Creative Industries report from a games perspective
  • A breakdown of Canada’s development infrastructure before the tax breaks were introduced and whether or not the same conditions exist here
  • Something like this 2010 summary of the games sector in Scotland

Some of these I’d like to write, others I’d like to hear other perspectives on, and others I know I’m not qualified to do, but I’d like to read all of them as part of picking apart some of the long held beliefs about local game development – industrial, indie, and cultural – and seeing whether or not they hold water as well as responding with a greater degree of insight when new issues arise.

Is there enough there? And is there an audience?

I don’t know, and I have questions around whether there are enough people interested in writing or reading content like this or would those sorts of articles actually find a constructive audience or would it degenerate into comment flame-wars.

Where does it belong?

Somebody on twitter suggested that this might be the place for that and I should ask guests along. I don’t think that model works  because I (occasionally) like talking about other things here, deconstructing games, posting half-formed thoughts, sometimes about my writing, so I think it should be a completely new space. There’s also the question of responsibility – if someone says something contentious, I’d rather not be held entirely responsible for that. Happy to take the lumps for my own thoughts; others not so much.

Funding…?

This doesn’t feel like the sort of thing that would bring in vast amounts of wealth for contributors, but I also know having written some fairly substantial pieces that the ability to be paid for them makes a huge difference to their quality. I’d suggest a mix of short pieces that were unpaid, punctuated with far longer and more in-depth pieces that would be paid.

Raising the money is trickier, but I’m really interested in the Pozible model that New Matilda used to relaunch. I’m not sure how much would be needed, but it’s worth thinking about as a way of proving not only that there’s an audience out there, but that it’s an engaged and interested audience.

The question of time.

Freeplay is my main focus, but I’d like to see something like this happen perhaps as a contributor or as part of an editorial team, but I suspect if I tried to drive it I would burn myself out more than I already do with trying to build and grow a festival.

What next…?

These are really just thoughts of something I’d like to see rather than a manifesto or a detailed structure. The first step in building something new is to figure out what the hell it is and this provides us with a bit more space than Twitter to talk about that.

 

Transmedia Victoria and the Global Game Jam

Transmedia Victoria and the Global Game Jam are not necessarily connected by anything more than time, both taking place as they did during the same week at the end of January, but because of their proximity, I found my thoughts on both connecting with the general uncertainty that grew out of the end of last year – and going a long way to solidifying both what the spectrum between art and business looks like for me and where on that continuum I want to be.

Here, in no particular order, are some of those thoughts.

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Arts and creative industries

The Australia Council for the Arts late last month published a report on Arts and creative industries. I’m only part way through reading it, but it’s worth reading because games are a fairly significant part of the first section and it continues what feels to me like is a broader conversation which is going on just outside of the games establishment and which could be easily missed.

What this raises for me in particular in a half-formed sort of way is: where do game developers fit into this conversation? Is it an industrial issue? Is it an audience issue? Is it the weird space in between those two?  Or is it something new entirely?

I don’t know, but I was struck by a comment from Miranda Sawyer over on The Guardian’s piece Is the age of the critic over?

The point is that most people – especially those outside the high-culture capital of London – are involved in culture of their own choice, often of their own making. Professional critics spend their time whizzing between private screenings and secret gigs, opening nights and exclusive playbacks. Everyone else just does stuff they like, with people who like it too.

In my half-formed world, it seems to me it should be the people who just do the stuff they like. I suspect though that they’re a bit like I’m learning to become and are focused on just making the things they want to make. I do wonder though what value could be gained from injecting some of their voices into this discussion.

Classification Review – Terms of Reference

The government is currently inviting submissions on the Terms of Reference for the Australian Law Reform Commission to conduct their review of the whole classification system. This has obvious impacts on the R18+ discussion – and I suspect they’ll be getting rather a lot of submissions on that – but what I realised from reading their proposed terms of reference was that the impact of some of these changes on say a small festival trying to develop an iPhone app hadn’t really been addressed. There’s talk of media and children and industry but not an awful lot on the practice of just making things, so as someone who runs a small festival – and encourages people to just make things – I figured it was worth supplying something.

This is my very first draft, and I’ve never written anything like this, so I figured it would be useful to a) crowdsource it and b) provide a template for anyone else who runs a festival or small organisation to make a submission too.  Please comment if you think there’s something I should add or take out, and feel free to copy & paste whatever you want. I’ll update it as we go and submit my version on Friday.

To whom it may concern,

In looking at the review of the classification system, in particular the potential introduction of new classification structures for application software distributed via mobile phones, it is important to consider not only the impact on “a strong content and distribution industry in Australia” and “the size of the industries that generate potentially classifiable content and potential for growth”, but the wider cultural sector who have already been using these new technologies in innovative ways and who could be seriously affected by increased regulatory burden.  For some small-scale developers, there may be an option to simply not distribute their content in Australia, but for some applications such as not-for-profits or festivals, location is incredibly significant. In particular, I would point to the following as being potentially affected:

  • Independent publishers using applications to distribute locally created or relevant content
  • Festivals developing applications that support and extend their experience
  • Independent game developers
  • Art galleries or museums developing interactive tours or delivering supplemental material through a phone application
  • Musicians building an online community accessed through their audience’s mobile phone
  • Artists extending both their work and the connection to their audience through interactive projects

Any classification system that increases the regulatory or financial burden on these areas would significantly alter the cultural sector’s ability and willingness to engage and develop new technology. In developing the terms of reference and the subsequent changes to the classification system, I would encourage the commission to consider the impact on not only the scale of “a strong content and distribution industry” but on the wider creative uses and potential applications of these technologies as well.

Regards,

Paul Callaghan

Co-director, Freeplay Independent Games Festival.

Amnesia month & Nanowrimo

Well.  November has come and gone, and with it the deadline of writing 50,000 words as part of NaNoWriMo.  A deadline which I hit, but without finishing the story itself.  50,000 words has barely taken us out of the first act, so I’m going to continue (after a short break, and at a slightly calmer and less regimented pace) until its done – which I suspect will be mid-late January.

November was also Amnesia Month, in which I took a step back from all of the games and culture nonsense and tried to put the events of the past year, and in particular the events of September / October, into perspective.

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