Great Australian Bytes

Australia is steadily approaching a population of 26 million, and while people in the cities might complain about traffic and crowds, the reality is that we’ve a tiny population compared to the size our sun-blasted land.

It might come as some surprise, then, that Australia’s contribution to creative fields has been significantly higher than one might expect for such a small population. Australian music, art and films are world-renowned, and the same can be said for games.

The games industry in Australia has gone through ebbs and flows over the past four or five decades, but in that time, studios like Melbourne House, MicroForté, Team Bondi and Ratbag Games have made their mark. Here, I want to highlight developers, past and present, who have made important contributions to the Australian games industry legacy, and to highlight why investment in the Australian games industry isn’t just the smart thing to do — its the responsible thing to do.

Team Bondi

Team Bondi’s story is a tumultuous one, and though their existence was short-lived, they managed to leave their mark with the L.A. Confidential-inspired L.A. Noire. Released in 2011, this film noir-detective game featured incredible voice-acting and possibly the best facial animations ever seen in a videogame. Unfortunately, allegations of a vicious crunch culture and large-scale employee attrition have tainted L.A. Noire’s legacy, but what can’t be denied is that Australian developers are capable of producing triple-A quality games.

Ratbag Games

Ratbag Games was a scrappy little studio based in Adelaide that was founded in 1993. After an extensive search for financial backing and a long development cycle, Ratbag released what has since become a cult-classic racer, Powerslide.

Powerslide’s driving model is a slip-and-slide delight, and the tracks are some of the most imaginative I’ve seen. Ratbag Games went on to produce the Dirt Track Racing series, which is about as niche as the racing genre gets. The realities of the games industry eventually forced them to take on a licensed game in Dukes of Hazzard: Return of the General Lee. Unfortunately it received a lukewarm reception. Ratbag was subsequently acquired by Midway, and shut down in 2005.

Auran / N3V Games

Auran, now known as the somewhat less snappy N3V Games, is not a name that immediately conjures images of gaming brilliance. Many have probably never heard of them. But if you played real-time strategy games during the late 90s golden era, you would certainly be familiar with their claim to fame, the Activision-published Dark Reign.

Dark Reign is, without a doubt, one of my favourite RTS games ever. It was part of the 1997 triumvirate that really kicked the late 90s RTS boom into overdrive, the other two being Total Annihilation and Age of Empires.

Dark Reign stood out from its contemporaries because of the stark contrast between the two factions (an incredible feat of balancing), and the incredibly capable AI. With 3D polygons starting to gain popularity in games, Dark Reign took an aesthetic stand and showed that 2D sprites still had their place in the industry. It is one of the most intricately detailed and beautiful RTS games of the era.

Beam Software / Melbourne House

Officially known as Beam Software and subsequently several other names, the studio often referred to as Melbourne House is one of the great studios that Australia has produced. Beginning in the 1980s, Melbourne House was behind several titles in the 80s, such as the well-received 1982 text adventure The Hobbit for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, which remarkably sold over one million copies. Melbourne House also produced Way of the Exploding Fist, widely considered one of the early games that helped define the fighting game genre.

Melbourne House continued to consolidate their legacy in early 90s, most notably with the ambitious Super Nintendo RPG Shadowrun, based on the tabletop RPG of the same name. Shadowrun stood out from other RPGs on the SNES, which were predominantly in the Japanese style, like the Final Fantasy and Secret of Mana styles. For me, though, it was in 1997 that Melbourne House peaked, with their humourous take on the RTS genre, Krush, Kill 'n' Destroy. KKND and its sequel KKND2: Krossfire weren’t as revolutionary as their contemporaries, but gameplay was polished and frantic, and full of crass, irreverent humour that made them unforgettable.

Melbourne House continued with steady releases in the following years. 1999’s GP 500 is still considered one of the best Moto GP simulations ever produced, and Melbourne House miraculously survived the Dotcom Crash, producing relatively well received games in the early 2000s like Le Mans 24 Hours, DethKarz and the surprisingly great Transformers for the PlayStation 2.

Unfortunately, the realities of the increasingly competitive games industry began to sink in, and Melbourne House struggled to stay afloat. The high cost of operation in Australia combined with some rather average games and difficult times for parent company Infogrames eventually saw the closure of Melbourne House, including the departure from their iconic offices on Queens Road in Melbourne — the titular “Melbourne House".

Krome Studios

One studio closely tied to Melbourne House was Krome Studios. Krome, based in Brisbane, was the parent company of Melbourne House from 2006 to 2010, after acquiring the studio from Atari. Krome was more than just a corporate overlord, however, and since 1999 they have quietly developed their own reputation as a powerhouse of Australian game development across all platforms. The Ty the Tasmanian Tiger series has bee one of Australia’s most enduring contributions to the 3D platformer genre, but it is their recent remastering work that caught my eye — The Bard’s Tale Trilogy (in partnership with inXile Entertainment) and Wasteland Remastered are two fantastic refreshes of CRPG royalty.

BigWorld Technology / Micro Forté

BigWorld Technology is one of the most influential game developers you’ve never heard of. Also known as Wargaming Sydney, BigWorld aren’t known for making games themselves — rather, they develop what is known as middleware. Middleware is a type of software architecture that acts as a “middle-man” between two software layers. In the case of BigWorld, their development toolkit is what enabled the meteoric rise of the Wargaming series, World of Tanks, World of Warships and World of Warplanes.

The sort of expertise that leads to a massively successful engine doesn’t come from nowhere, however. BigWorld began its life as an offshoot of Canberra-based developer Micro Forté. Micro Forté is perhaps most famously known for a forgotten gem in the Fallout series — Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel. Fallout Tactics was like a combination of Jagged Alliance and the first two classic Fallout games.

The Future of Australian Games

The future of Australian game development is, unfortunately for 2021, still uncertain. Despite the Interactive Games & Entertainment Association’s annual Digital Australia reports that highlight the staggering financial contribution Australian games make every year (upwards of $180 million), we still lag behind in funding and supporting the industry. Much of our talent is moving overseas, particularly to our nearest neighbour, New Zealand, a country that has shown how even a small industry can make waves, with games like Path of Exile. Their small but well-supported industry has even drawn the attention of major overseas players, and early this year, Valve Software co-founder Gabe Newell was in discussions with the NZ Government to move some operations of Steam (the world’s largest videogame digital distribution platform) to the small island nation. The last thing Australia needs is for the Kiwis to be beating us at something else…

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At some point in about 1989 I played my first videogames on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. This was the beginning of a lifetime obsession with games...

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Gavin Annand

Gavin Annand

At some point in about 1989 I played my first videogames on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. This was the beginning of a lifetime obsession with games...

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