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A $40 billion fibre optic network, the Australian games industry and a political axe

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In a AU$44 billion ($40 billion) government initiative to vastly improve bandwidth internet speeds in Australia, the National Broadband Network (NBN) is a controversial national fibre optic network currently being rolled out across the landmass, replacing the country's embarrassing hundred year old copper infrastructure. Various members of the Australian games industry spoke to Polygon recently, weighing in on the debate whether the NBN will have a viable impact on Australian industries; specifically the nation's games industry. Will the NBN help bleed Australia's influence into the international games industry? And if it is retired, will it be missed by game devs?

Creative director of game development studio Nnnoo, Nic Watt, believes the NBN is vital to growth of the Australian games industry on an international scale; on both the development and the consumer sides of the industries. The Global Financial Crisis shuttered a lot of the "big players" in the Australian game development scene due to the chasm in exchange rates between Australia and the global economy. The crises caused a "burgeoning indie scene" to rise up, a scene that needs solid infrastructure in order to compete on the global stage.

"In many ways this has set Australia up for the future but in others it has set Australia back several years as much of the AAA talent has moved out of Australia for jobs overseas," he said. "If Australia fails to secure internet capabilities to keep it up to speed with the rest of the world the sector will again suffer and more talent will have to move overseas.

"If Australian companies cannot create as compelling connected experiences as their counterparts in the U.S., U.K., Europe or Japan then Australian companies will not be able to compete on a level playing field and we will again be seen as second tier content creators."

"If Australia fails to secure internet capabilities to keep it up to speed with the rest of the world the sector will again suffer and more talent will have to move overseas."

The importance of having a good internet connection depends on the type of game in development and the location of the team, according to Rebecca Fernandez, Sydney chapter leader at Independent Gaming Development Association and programming lecturer at Academy of Interactive Entertainment.

"A completely local team working on a small game will not be crippled by a sub-standard internet connection," she explained. "However, a team made up of developers from around the world will need a good internet connection in order to have meetings and share data. And a team working on an online only game — such as Bubblegum Interactive — will most definitely need a reliable and fast internet connection."

Being rolled out in Australia under the Australian Labor Party, the political party currently in power in the country, the network is initially estimated to cost Australian taxpayers a peak of $44 billion and is slated to finish in 2021.

The initiative was often dubbed a "white elephant" by the nation's opposing political party; the Liberal Party of Australia. If the opposition comes out on top, future roll-outs of the NBN will be scrapped and replaced with its own, fragmented broadband initiative. As Australia heads to the polls to vote in the national election this weekend, the fate of the NBN is in their hands.

If the NBN survives until its expected completion date of 2021, more than 93 percent of homes Australia-wide will be connected through fibre directly to the home (FTTH), receiving up to 1Gbps download speeds and 400Mbps maximum upload. Homes in remote regions will receive speeds of up to 25Mbps via a patchwork of satellite and wireless broadband services. As of June 30, the NBN has passed more than 207,000 homes and businesses across the country.

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If the opposition comes into power, it will introduce the first stage of its own broadband policy by 2016 that consists of 22 percent of homes being connected through FTTH. Fibre to the node (FTTN), where homes are connected to neighbourhood fibre nodes via a century old copper network, will be introduced to 71 percent of Australian premises with regional areas serviced with satellite and wireless. By this method, the party expects to deliver download speeds between 25Mbps and 100Mbps to Australian premises.

"As we move towards games and interactive entertainment that are richer in content, the proposed NBN plan is most valuable in terms of what it does for productivity," said co-founder of Loveshack Entertainment, Joshua Boggs. "Being able to pull down new assets, upload media assets, press kits, or a fresh build of a project in a matter of seconds as opposed to hours is an obvious boost to productivity, especially when you're pushing and pulling all your code and assets, throughout the day."

"I think that the proposed NBN is a particular strength for the many teams who work remotely, both nationally and internationally, or teams that work on AAA and large projects."

"This may lead to more diversity in the games being created, which is a great thing."

As for a direct influence in the local development scene, the NBN's roll-out to regional areas, bringing fat bandwidth and fast connection to speeds to remote and isolated regions — which there are many in the country — will make game development easier for those in who do not live in major cities. This in turn will delocalize the nexus of game development centers, possible creating a broader spectrum of games.

"It will enable developers living in remote and rural areas to work from their home town." Fernadez said, "this will mean that we will have less of a talent drain from smaller towns and rural areas. Which would mean that city communities of game developers would shrink a little. But this may lead to more diversity in the games being created, which is a great thing."

The biggest challenges that Australian game developers face is the high Australian dollar, Fernandez said, explaining that publishers balk at investing in Australian companies because if the expense.

"It is difficult for independent developers to make a profit on overseas sales given the conversion rate, " she explained. "It is also challenging for students to break into the industry — with so many studios closing down, all the entry level jobs are being taken by senior developers desperate for work."

Whether the fibre broadband will improve Australia's standing within the international game development scene, Fernandez doesn't believe it will "have enough of an impact in this respect."

"I don't know of any developers who have lost out on opportunities due to the internet speeds/connectivity issues in Australia," Fernandez said, explaining that the high Australian dollar will continue to stand in the way. On top of that, she points out, because NBN plans are more expensive than ADSL connections, the network will incur added costs for developers.

With the perceived higher productivity possibly afforded by the NBN, Chris Wright
managing director of Australia's first independent publisher, Surprise Attack, says it won't give Australian game devs a "substantial" advantage over its international counterparts.

"Australian developers make most of their money from overseas so those markets are actually much more important than the local one," Wright said. "U.S. developers have so many other advantages such as a much bigger pool of developers to network with, greater proximity to the major games industry events such as GDC, E3, PAX and greater access to developer relations teams from the various platforms and just all the other players in the industry."

However, as a publisher within Australia, infrastructure that "accelerates society towards a more digital future" is ideal for an independent publisher such as Surprise Attack, who focuses purely on digitally delivered games.

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As the NBN opens up more bandwidth and faster download speeds it will change the way Australians consume games, it will help push the trend towards consuming games digitally rather than retail boxed.

"Although probably more at the AAA than the indie end," he explained. "Some games on console are over 35GB to download and something like the NBN is really needed for downloads of that size to be viable as a regular thing. The more the market moves to digital channels the better.

"From a practical point of view we also work with a lot of teams around Australia and people overseas so greater connectivity is always useful when we're doing most of our communication digitally," the publisher said.

So rather than having a direct influence on game development, Wright reiterated that the NBN's major impact will be within the industry's retail sector.

"The average fibre connections in other parts of the world can be 10 to 40 times higher."

"The NBN will make it more and more viable to buy big AAA games digitally," Wright explained. "That in turn will impact on the types of operations major publishers have in Australia and probably see more companies such as Riot or Wargaming setting up local operations as players move to online experiences over boxed products."

Watt pointed out that as Sony's and Microsoft's next-generation consoles are about to launch this year, bringing with them a tsunami of data and entertainment services. Announcing their respective consoles, neither Microsoft nor Sony were bashful about their desire to shift the entertainment consumption landscape towards a digital one. Both competing consoles will expect internet connections in one way or another in order to operate, play games and update.

"On the consumer side of things without the super fast broadband many of the new devices and next generation consoles will not be able to utilise their full feature set," Watt said. "This will leave Australian consumers at a significant disadvantage to their overseas counterparts and increase the monopolistic hegemony already in force by the big media conglomerates who already control the News and TV sectors in Australia."

The country currently doesn't have access to popular video streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu, partially due to its poor streaming capabilities. Australia also missed out on receiving OnLive, a streaming video game service that the country's poor infrastructure and capped internet plans may have been unable to support.

When it comes to pure competitive gaming, according to head of the Australian Cyber League, Nick Vanzetti, latency is the biggest issue. The lower a player's ping, the faster the information from the server is received and the quicker they can react. What is most important to a competitive gamer in Australia is accessibility to a decent connection combined with a great ping.

"Australians typically get pings of 200 milliseconds and upwards to North America, since that's where the majority of servers are hosted. Americans get between 10ms and 60ms," he said. "An average reaction speed is anywhere between 150ms to 300ms, so adding another 200ms or more on top of that makes it exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to stay competitive."

According to Vanzetti, Australians currently get roughly 10 to 40ms to servers in local and neighbouring states, while east coast get pings to New Zealand are generally 40ms to 60ms to New Zealand, and east to west coast amounts is roughly 80 to 100ms.

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"The NBN can indeed help with connections, as more Australians will have access to high speed broadband," he explained. "Also, by having a stronger network internally within Australia this will help to make competitive matches across the country more even/on par with one another. I.e. gamers in Perth at present are similarly disadvantaged playing the East Coast comparatively as we are to the US (obviously on a smaller scale)."

As an organizer of major competitive events in Australia, bandwidth is the most important technical aspect to Vanzetti and a fibre network trumps that over an ADSL network.

"With the rise of live streaming to broadcast our games online around the globe, something that is a necessity for event organisers to bring value to sponsors, then a higher upload speed is essential," Vanzetti said. "The average ADSL 2+ copper line will reach an upload limit of approximately 0.8mb to 1mb up, whereas the average fibre connections in other parts of the world can be 10 to 40 times higher."

Vanzetti said while the NBN won't directly improve Australia's position in the international gaming scene in a competitive sense, but in terms of content, it will assist in elevating country to the international scene in increased production value.

"An internet connection isn't responsible for making a great game."

"More bandwidth will result in better quality live streams and an increase in people's ability to create this content," he said. "With more content being created, while in some cases there will obviously be more clutter, but the overall quality of production should increase not only physically due to the bandwidth but also due to the increased competition amongst broadcasters to improve their shows."

"The NBN is vital to secure Australia's future both for business and consumers and to allow us to have a diverse selection of media sources to consume and avenues for businesses to explore," Watt shared. "Failure to modernize our internet infrastructure will leave us in the dark ages comparatively and irreparably harm Australia's ability to compete on a global playing field."

But as Boggs points out, while the NBN is an important tool for the Australian game development landscape, it isn't the sole pillar of quality game development.

"While improving the workflow on projects can be a major boost to productivity and morale; it doesn't make a major difference to the quality of games that will be produced here in Australia, because an internet connection isn't responsible for making a great game," Boggs says. "For us working on Framed, and I'm sure other independent developers in Australia, the core of the game exists outside of computers and technology.

"So in that sense, the NBN is a very welcome, and much needed tool that has been missing from Australia's game development shed, but it's not going to dramatically change the games that come out of Australia; only we can do that."

Polygon reached out to the Shadow Minister for Communications and Broadband, Malcolm Turnbull, for comment but did not receive a response at the time of writing.