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Australia's indie evolution on 'an island far away'

Weird and wonderful, Australia embraces indie

Both needles slowly tick to the left of their dials, dipping from green deeply into the red.

"Your battery is almost dead."

"I know, I know," I think to myself.

To my left, a bank of lights glows blue under a silenced fan and an oversized red master alarm.

On the far right of the console, an array of lights illuminates the core systems of the Ceres, showing the current status of each. All green for now.

I watch silently on the center screen as my ship, its reactor and communications switched off, drifts dead in space through a nebula. The main display traces the route of my recently fired missile as it plots its way toward an unsuspecting pirate spaceship.

On the far left bank of controls and lights, the switch that released the missile remains forgotten, still uncovered. My hand hovers over a button, waiting to spin the reactor back on, waiting for the missile to make contact.

"He won't know what hit him," Jennifer Scheurle says gleefully.

Scheurle is responsible for the handmade panels of lights, switches, fans and speakers that frame the single screen of the Australian-developed computer game Objects in Space.

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Objects in Space running with a handmade console.

Flat Earth Games' concept artist, designer and ship engineer, Scheurle is an enthusiastic fan of the title, which she describes as a micromanagement stealth trading space game.

Objects in Space doesn't need Scheurle's panels of glowing lights, switches and blaring alarms to work — the handmade consoles are simply working recreations of the controls built into the game — but they add a level of physicality and creativity to an already fascinating title. They also dive deeper into the narrow niche the game is created to satisfy.

That game and its creative controls were just one of the many emerging titles that packed a bar in Sydney earlier this month as part of a regular meetup of the country's next wave of creative, bizarre, weird and wonderful titles. The gathering is a sign of an Australian game development scene that isn't just surviving without the support of big-name publishers, it's thriving.

Beer and Pixels

The early evening air is thick with a cool humidity, the calls of magpies and the scent of eucalyptus. Here, miles from the chitin carapace of the Sydney Opera House, the escarpments of Bondi Beach and rich history of The Rocks, the city shows its more natural self. Students from nearby Sydney University wander the sidewalks; the swell of laughter and chatter spills from a nearby pub.

Inside, Beer and Pixels, a monthly gathering of Sydney game developers, fills the space with an assortment of computer games, console titles, mobile games, and even card and board games. Most of these titles are made by teams of three or four, sometimes less, rarely more.

This is the state of Australian game development in 2016.

Krister Collin helps run this monthly meetup. The idea, he says, is to give local game developers a chance to share their work with one another in a laid-back environment.

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Australian developers gather at a Sydney pub for Beer and Pixels.

"Beer and Pixels is where game developers get together at a bar and drink, play some games and talk," Collin says.

Typically, Collin says, the event draws 150 to 200 people, but tonight there are a bit fewer than 100, a crowd likely depleted by the recent release of Dark Souls 3.

Collin says the monthly event, and the matching events that occur on the same night in Melbourne and Adelaide, have three central goals: Give developers a chance to soft-test their games, get the creators comfortable talking about their title, and build a community.

"We're all in this together, and it's nice to know we have other people who have our backs and help out," Collin said.

In some ways, the Australian game development community was torn apart about 15 years ago as big game publisher after big game publisher shut down their Australian studios, leaving the country packed with talent but few established places to work.

The first wave of big closures seemed to wrap up in 2011, when studios like Team Bondi, which along with Rockstar Games made L.A. Noire, closed up shop. But those big shutdowns still sporadically hit Australia, continuing to shake up the game industry. Last year, it was 2K Australia, a studio that worked on BioShock Infinite but was shuttered because of "high operating costs," according to the parent company.

BioShock Infinite
BioShock Infinite

"People came from working on BioShock Infinite saying they couldn't find a job and needed help," said Collin, who was getting his bachelor's in game design when the closures starting hitting.

"We had our teachers telling us that we weren't going to get a job at a big studio," he said. "They said, 'You're probably going to want to start your own studio, so get good quick.'"

And so that's what those graduates — and, it seems, the entire country — did.

"It created a big indie studio scene," Collin said. "That's OK, because now there's a lot of great studios and we have the room to get weird."

Space Pirate

I showed up at Beer and Pixels at about 7 p.m. on the second Tuesday of April, intrigued by an invitation from Scheurle to come check out the games and drink some beer.

Inside the Off Broadway Hotel, I found an expanse of tables and chairs packed with developers drinking, demoing games and talking about design.

The biggest display in the room, though, was the result of Scheurle's work on creating physical controls for a deliberately complex spaceship game. The game wasn't just the biggest on-site; it was also the best example of how an Australian game industry untethered from corporate game development can and does take big risks to make highly unusual titles.

Scheurle, a game design transplant from Germany, first tried her hand at making physical controls for Objects in Space to help show the game off at PAX Australia last year, she said.

The resulting attention didn't just reaffirm the interest hardcore gamers had in a technical, unforgiving space game; it also helped to bring in a broader audience.

The Beer and Pixels showing was her chance to see how well the controls worked before taking them halfway around the world.

"It's very easy to build your own consoles," she insists several times as I marvel at the controls. "We will release the code and all of the instructions so people can build their own spaceships if they want to.

"If it gets a good reception in the U.S. we might think of manufacturing it as a special edition, but no promises, really."

Dig past those marvelous, eye-catching controls and you're left with a fun game made more engaging by its complexity.

The game will ship on Windows and Mac via Steam and, initially, will feature three different ships. Objects in Space plays a bit like old-school trading games such as Taipan!, blended with a classic submarine game like Silent Hunter.

"Imagine you are micromanaging your ship and you're flying it around space," Scheurle said. "You have an entire universe to explore and there's a story, but it's not one that revolves around you.

"You can fly around, trade, go to space stations, pick up quests. You can go and hunt pirates, you can be a pirate. There is a lot to do."

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Jennifer Scheurle (left) sits by as players use her console to play Objects in Space

Scheurle sits me down in front of the monitor. Beneath it is a wooden box painted a gray-black that holds an Apple keyboard between two mounted speakers. On either side of the monitor are large wooden consoles, each taller than the monitor itself. The consoles are packed with switches, lights, buttons and meters. Each one does something; each is a replica of a control you'll find in digital form in the game.

Playing the game without the controls requires clicking into and out of subsystems quickly to manage power consumption, weapons, movement — basically everything.

The game is played as if you're in a spaceship, one that doesn't have a view of outside, but instead uses all of its space to show you the controls and monitors.

It's very doable without the console, but there's something about toggling switches and pressing buttons that makes the whole thing seem more real.

As we get started in my first play session, Scheurle looks over at the two meters that display power and frowns. One is redlining, but it shouldn't be.

"Let me fix that for you," she says, and thwacks the meter, making the needle bounce and quickly swing into the green.

It feels like I'm in a real ship, one that isn't quite at 100 percent.

First, Scheurle walks me through the process of movement in the game. I can simply click on the map and, with autopilot enabled, watch as my ship maneuvers itself to the correct spot in space. But if I want to, I can also manually power my ship around, spinning it around to face where I want it to go before firing off a blast of the rockets and hoping that the push of power and momentum will get me where I want to go.

A big part of succeeding in this game is not being seen. To avoid contact you need to go dark, shutting down your engine and communications and drifting until you need to change things up.

This makes for precarious movement, and requires you to constantly monitor your depleting battery. Power up your engine to recharge your battery, and you pop up on everyone's screen in the area.

While the core of the game is about the constant need to tweak and control everything about your ship and its movements, that's not all there is to it.

You can repair damage and upgrade your ship, for instance. To do that, Scheurle clicks over to a different screen that shows the components of a portion of your ship behind a metal screen. Next she clicks on the screws in the corner of each screen to remove them, slides off the panel with another click, and then points out the different components. Mixing and matching components can result in power-ups, she says. Sort of like creating a recipe.

The game also has its own sort of fiction, all delivered through conversations and communications found in different sectors. All of it is text.

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Objects in Space will be on display at PAX East

Scheurle says the team of four working on the game has another seven freelance writers creating the stories that help build out the universe. There are also a dozen musicians who write the game's songs, which can only be heard on the radio and vary depending on where you are in the universe.

The game is set for a release sometime this year.

"You know that one project that everyone has?" Scheurle says. "That one heartfelt thing? This is theirs.

"If anything happens to us, before we die this has to happen. You know what I mean? This is something that is very dear to us."

The physical controls created to help demo the game at events didn't just broaden the game's audience to more gamers; they also attracted some attention from the Australia Powerhouse Museum, said studio director Leigh Harris.

"They wanted to know how we built all of this, so they sponsored these for us," he says pointing to the two power meters on the console. "They're talking about letting us have the game as a permanent exhibit in the museum once we're done with it."

Growing in the right direction

Geoffrey Hill, chapter leader for the International Game Developers Association Sydney Chapter, says the Australian game industry is rebuilding and evolving.

"The industry went from being predominantly work-for-hire to now an industry that is making games with their own IP," he said. "We're seeing some of our studios getting up on the world stage with mobile titles like Crossy Road, and other studios making successful PC / Console games like Hand of Fate."

Those games, he says, are the product of studios like Epiphany Games, Nnooo, SMG, Wargaming Sydney and an emerging indie industry.

"We have this spread of indies, students, entrepreneurs through to employers," Hill said. "We've got developers setting up their own teams or joining ones working on games that are finding success. We're still small compared to many big game dev cities, but we're growing in the right direction of a sustainable future."

The Australian game industry sort of reset right before 2010, Hill says, thanks to what he calls the perfect storm of a strong Australian dollar and the global financial crisis.

"It hit the industry pretty hard, as that's where their business and jobs were coming from," he says. "The industry at the time was reliant on external parties coming in with projects. I believe this wasn't the best way to build an industry in any case, the profits were going offshore with the IP. The Australian games industry that has been emerging from the ashes of the previous one is set to be successful more on their own efforts and own IP, less so on completely uncontrollable factors like a shifting dollar or bankers."

This newer, stronger game industry in Australia is powered by original creations and in-house projects.

"There are amazing stories being told by indie developers about their personal experiences or experiments with cool game design," Hill says. "They're finding an audience of players and financial success along with it."

Events like Beer and Pixels, Hill says, have helped keep the community connected as it has evolved.

"It helps people network to find opportunities where they can contract on work," he says. "Or play-test their game ideas with other developers. Or catch up for a chat and a beer with people they've worked with in the past. It's important for us as humans to maintain connections online and in meatspace."

Twitter at light speed

Minutes after wandering off to buy a beer, Scheurle hunts me down and brings me over to another developer, Matthew Purchase.

Purchase, who is the lead artist on the Flat Earth team, is also creating his own game for iOS called Unstoppable.

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Unstoppable

The game has players controlling a weaponized big rig as it maneuvers its way through an apocalyptic highway packed with roaming enemy vehicles. After spending a few minutes playing the game, I'm brought over to John Kane, of Gritfish, who wants to show me Mallow Drops.

The gravity puzzle game is coming to Android, iOS and consoles. In it, players have to swivel around their mobile device (or click on the edge of the play area on console) to shift gravity and then swipe to maneuver Marsh and Mallow as they try to save their eggs. It's an easy-to-understand game that's hard to put down once you get started. It's already won the Australian Game Developer award for excellence in design, and is up for another award in New Zealand.

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Mallow Drops

Before I can leave, Kane quickly shifts me to another game: a text adventure of sorts called Killing Time at Light Speed. In it, you are reading through the Twitter accounts of a bunch of people back on Earth as your travel at light speed on a spaceship. The twist is that every time you refresh your feed of messages, a few years have passed by.

The game is the product of a game jam that Kane attended, and of Kane's perception of how Australians viewed what was going on in Ferguson, Missouri, after a police-involved shooting in August 2014.

"Ferguson was happening on all Australian social media, but we were totally at a distance from it," he said. "We had no possible agency."

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Killing Time at Light Speed

Months later, there was a terrorist attack in Sydney, just down the road from where Kane worked.

"Seeing that unfold in real time, you want to be able to help, but all you can do is send out messages," he said.

The game is coming to Steam "very soon," he said.

Finally, as the night wrapped up, Scheurle grabbed Dan Hindes just as he was walking out the door with the latest build of Wildfire, a game everyone at the event that night seemed to be talking about.

Unlike the other games I looked at that night, Wildfire is the product of a modest Kickstarter campaign. About 1,250 people pledged a bit more than AU$20,000 in total to help bring the game to life.

Inspired by the gameplay of Mark of the Ninja and elemental weaponry of Avatar, but created with stylistic retro graphics, Wildfire is a gorgeous 2D action title in development at Sneaker Bastards Game Design.

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Wildfire

Hindes said he wanted to help make a game that used at its core the mechanics of stealth seen in games like Mark of the Ninja. The developers landed on pixel art because they wanted to lean on the precision of control that the art style offers.

The platformer has you controlling different elements to stealth your way through a vast landscape on a journey to save your village.

The game makes clever use of the elemental abilities and the environment to let you take down enemies and even corral them in fear. For instance, you can set grass on fire or freeze enemies solid when they are in water.

Hindes says bringing the game to the monthly Beer and Pixels event gives him a chance to have new sorts of audiences try it out.

"It's great to get it in front of people who have no idea what it is," he said.

An island far away

As the night wraps up and the laptop- and iPad-loaded games slide back into bookbags and shoulder packs, the bar starts to empty out.

Collin says the gathering tends to be a healthy mix of students, hobbyists, amateurs and full-time professional developers.

He sees the Australian game industry growing again as the Aussie dollar loses its strength against the American dollar.

"We had The Lego Movie and Mad Max: Fury Road," he says. "When the film industry picks up in Australia, the game industry is never far behind. I'm hopeful it will come back."

Whether it does or doesn't, Collin is confident that the game development scene will continue to grow and remain healthy, especially if the sense of community sticks around.

"We got a game exchange," he says. "Where we'll bring games from Victoria to show off in Sydney. We try to move them around. We all get along.

"We are on an island far away from everyone. We better be nice to each other, for God's sake."Babykayak

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