These are my mixed bag of experiences from the 2nd Annual Australian Game Developers' Conference, something which has received little attention from international media. I hope they provide you with amusement and maybe some clues as of where to go for those in Australia who don't want to go overseas looking for a job in game development.
I was quite surprised when a co-worker suggested I go along to the AGDC this year. I countered,
"What's the point, these conferences always cost ridiculous amounts of money."
"Ah, but it's free for students."
At that very moment, I was enlightened and my life attained true purpose; I knew I must seek it out. Having been a solid supporter of Gamasutra since 1997, I have received spiffy brochures advertising the CGDC, and lamenting how I could never go because of its exorbitant entry fee and flight costs coupled with the poor state of the Australian dollar. Now, to have an event that was practically in my own backyard, and was free for students. Naturally, I was gushing.
I travelled to Melbourne by coach, from Adelaide. Coach trips always end up being wasted time... you can never get any work done on them and you can never sleep; every second of the 12 hours or so it took to get to Melbourne was excruciatingly mind-numbing. Strange events that occurred on the way: I watched a paddock full of cows munching away, and couldn't help but imagine them as Quarter Pounders on legs. I was really hungry.
I timed my arrival to Melbourne to roughly the same time my ISP billed me, consequently leaving me with ten dollars for a total of two days. Joy. However, I got my timing right when I arrived at the venue, as I pretty much walked into a throbbing party. Things were getting a little better now.
The set up for the parties scattered around the centre were like CGDC: companies sponsoring the event paid a one-off fee to get a room and booze, and at the end, everyone votes for the best party and the company gets their name engraved on a trophy. Hailing from Adelaide, and knowing a couple of people who worked at Ratbag Games, I went to their party first. Several beers, Jim Beam and Cokes and munchies later, most of us were playing hackeysack and chatting with such talented people as David King from Nvidia party. I expected engineers to be passed out on the floor, but the Nvidia team must've solely consisted of marketroids and their ilk. I could've dozed off right then and there. The only thing I did before I left was give the rudimentary "Are you ever going to open source your drivers for Linux?" mouth-off to someone who I can only assume was Sim Dietrich, to which I got a sarcastic "No."
Another party noteworthy of its mediocrity was Intel. A few guys watching a rat run around a room in an effort to display what gigahertz-plus processing power does for your physics engine. Mind you, the rat was oblivious to the fact that it was sending armchairs and desks sailing across the room, which made for limited laughs, but if I wanted to watch a computer do that kind of pointless crap, I can do it in the comfort of my own home (sure, not with a gigahertz processor or 3D card or 21-inch, high resolution, flatscreen LCD monitor, but hypothetically, if I had those things... I could).
By far the best parties were hosted by Infogrames and Blue Tongue. Infogrames methodology was to offer Dreamcast stations to play their latest game and the chance to win a Dreamcast system. It seems the only way they can sell Dreamcasts is to give them away in raffles. Blue Tongue went a step further: they pasted up massive advertisements for their current game, Starship Troopers, had computer set ups to play the it, free copies of the and T-shirts (with a spelling mistake even), a DVD of the movie looping over the night and (the cruncher) 3 or 4 models dressed in skimpy eveningwear, chatting up all the developers. I watched in glee as hordes of developers made their (desperate) moves. They all smiled and nodded (like when you see a crazy person), but I'm sure they couldn't have given a fat rat's clacker about any of them.
They should've just taken a leaf from the Lackadaisiac's Manual and said, "why bother?"
I got thoroughly tanked, and it was worth it, and it just goes to show that geeks and game developers really can party. There were many funny and touching moments... one old guy taking a slash into the Yarra River in gusty conditions, trying to stay perched on a ledge while inebriated; stealing some white wine (!) for a couple of 16 year old kids (brings the memories flooding back, except I did it with beer, not white wine); a lot of anti-Microsoft sentiment, and funny comments about Seamus Blackley masturbating over his beloved X-box.
Unfortunately, the night drew to an end, and I realised I still only had ten dollars, which let me tell you now, is not a good idea in a big city where the only people you know are comfortably resting in their hotel suites. I hung around outside the lobby for at least half an hour, watching people progressively leave and my chances for traipsing around Melbourne alone in the cold increased. I even tried my patented "look-at-me-I'm-all-alone-and-helpless-in-the-big-city" expression, but to no avail. As one group of guys prepared to leave, I hastily got over my timid nature and asked them if I could tag along. "No worries," came the call and I was for, at least this night, not going to be alone.
The three guys who I ended up tagging along with were Andrew "AS" Scott, Chris "Hanky" Hancock and Daniel "DC" Collins, respectively a producer and coders working at Torus Games, working on Carmageddon 2000. This I found extremely cool, but I was totally unprepared for their attitude; I expected them to regard me with arrogance and disdain because they worked in the computer games industry. However, they were definitely some of the greatest people I've yet to meet anywhere. That night we had good talking, I was shouted two beers, and I enjoyed their hospitality that night so I wasn't a zombie when I arrived for talks the next morning. Here's to them!
After a night of drinking, you always wake up late. I asked if anyone was awake; I received a solitary groaning, "Nooo..." Fortunately, Hanky was already up and we left for the lectures to arrive in time for morning tea.
The schedule lectures definitely had it's good and bad points. Microsoft and Sony were both sponsoring the conference, and had plenty of talks devoted to flogging their respective contraptions, but I found their content to be mostly overblown marketroid crud. Keynotes like "Unlocking the Secrets of the X-box" (well if there are secrets, do you think M$ are going to tell us about them? No) and topics like "So You Want to Be an X-box Developer?" (No, not really) and "Rethinking Software Design to Exploit the Cutting-edge Technology of PS2" (Software design has NEVER had anything to do with games development. Just take a look at the Q3A source code) just don't do it for me. So I went to the game design and business lectures, and subsequently found it to be a riveting experience.
Let me say now, Brian Reynolds is a game design legend, even if he has left Firaxis to start up Big Huge Games. He, along with Mark Morrison from Infogrames and Louis Castle from Westwood Studios were supposed to chair "Game Design Techniques". Fortunately, Louis Castle couldn't make it to Australia (I would've encouraged everyone to throw rotten food at him... Westwood is the M$ of games development: dressing up Dune 2 every couple of years or so, packaging it and selling it as a completely new game is not what game development should be about). Instead, Louis was replaced by a veteran New Zealand born game designer, whose name escapes me completely. I just laughed at his accent most of the time. They talked of play balancing, getting ideas, looking at boardgames for inspiration; general quality of design. That was one of the best sessions.
The vote for best session, however, goes to Alex Garden and "Starting Up Your Own Development House." Alex and his company, Relic Entertainment, created Homeworld, definitely a cool game. However, beyond that, Alex himself is one funny and sarcastic bastard, and that is something I respect. He also has a healthy disregard for the like of all publishers and game designers cum rock stars (yes, we all know who I'm referring to: John Romero, possessor of the infamous Romero Touch... everything he touches turns to shit, no wonder id got him out of there so fast). For all of you who want to start your own games development house: establish the tenets upon which you found your company (his motto was "People, Products, Profits"); don't sign multiple title deals; make sure you get a wholesale price protection clause in your publisher deal; corporate structure for a big company is important; don't lie to the publishers about how far you're behind schedule; if you make a "B" grade title to make a little bit of money, you'll end up being typecast (a lot like Adam Sandler is now, cast as a immature moron who ends up getting the girl, but he's most likely a moron anyway); and my own personal contribution, be an indie developer and consequently don't make any money (which is what I'm doing at the moment).
"Who Can You Turn To In Australia?" was next. Unfortunately, listening to CEOs talking about how they got their first deal was rather slow, not to mention hearing the CEO of Tantalus Interactive espouting game design rhetoric I found rather offensive, considering his company created South Park Rally, ranking as one of the top 10 Worst Games of the Year. If they were offering jobs, I may have paid more attention. Oh well, this is Australia, you have to expect half-assed topics like this. God knows our universities do it all the time. "Post Mortem of a Large RTS" could've gone a little faster too from a couple of the guys from SSG on their RTS, Warlords Battlecry, much like this story could've (but didn't).
The day finished off with a gem of a lecture from Mark Morrison, on "The Life of a Game Designer." One very funny man, he gave us a fake schedule of what he did in a day, and God knows it sounds like my dream job. Getting up at noon, playing Counter Strike, having pizza for lunch, going home, playing EverQuest, and falling asleep at the keyboard. Sound familiar? Sure rings a bell in my head. In passing, he also mentioned setting up a cage match between Microsoft and Sony, with their respective consoles along for the ride. I would've paid just to see that. Now here was someone I could respect, someone after my own heart as he recited what I've already known for years (and things I didn't). Here was an unabashed idealist trying to promote a bit of inspiration into a a small group of followers. Game designers have one of the most misunderstood occupations in the world, so I was glad to find a bit of clarity in this rather fuzzy area.
As I left on the coach that night, after saying my farewells to all the neat people who I had met along the way, I reflected on the state of Australian games and our small, unnoticed industry. I met a lot of talented people here, it's just a pity that they're stuck doing mediocre licences to stay afloat. That, and I doubt any of them are coding games for Freenix. Get with the times, man. The Australian game industry is small, and underpopulated, but we still have a scene, and I'm proud to be part of that scene. I just hope I can remain independent.