Mark Morrison gives us the lowdown on the Australian multimedia world. Despite government support and eager talent, distance and distribution remain two challenges.
The problem with Australia has always been distance. It's a fair whack from one side of the country to the other, and an even further whack to the rest of the world. No wonder it was the ideal place for the English to send their convicts in the 18th century; the probability of seeing them back in England to steal another loaf of bread (aghast!) was next to nil.
The problem remains to this day (the distance, not the convicts). As a consequence, Australians are, by and large, communication junkies. We are world leaders in per capita ownership of fax machines, and not far behind with mobile phones. The world is just as far away as it was in 1788, but at least now we can fax 'em.
The latest solution could be multimedia. Multimedia applications offer smart methods of bridging geographical isolation, and also offer possibilities for taking Australian technology to the rest of the world (the 'clever country' is a phrase that gets a fair work-out here). Laudably, Federal and State governments have hitched themselves firmly to the interactive bandwagon, and created a unique infrastructure which offers support both in terms of finances and resources. Australian multimedia creators have the option of assistance from several funding bodies. Principal among these are the Australian Multimedia Enterprise (AME), the Australian Film Commission (AFC), and the Multimedia 21 Fund.
One of the many difficulties in discussing multimedia is that it's so damn broad; the word covers anything from touch screen information kiosks to intelligent toasters. To narrow the focus, I'll use examples from my favorite form: computer games. Don't make that face. Some of them are darn educational.
The Australian Multimedia Enterprise
In 1994 the then Prime Minister Paul Keating threw $84 million Aust. into the multimedia bucket with his Creative Nation policy. Creative Nation was designed to foster multimedia in Australia over a three-year period, and provided for the creation of the Australian Multimedia Enterprise (AME), a body which would oversee the investment of the lion's share of money provided by the scheme.
Under the byword of "finance for the multimedia content industry," the AME has since its inception invested $15.8 million in 38 projects with total budgets of $31.7 million, and funded 70 concepts to a total of $3.3 million. AME investment is on a buy-back basis; the organization provides funds to assist in development, on the understanding that a sum equal to double the advance will be repaid when the project attracts a publisher or other investors. Until then, the AME owns its share.
Alfred Milgrom is on the board of the AME. As manager of Beam International, a company with a 15-year history of producing computer games, he is one of Australia's longest-serving multimedia professionals. Milgrom says, "There has been a history of pork barreling with funding schemes for the arts in Australia. At its worst, projects would be launched purely with a mind to attract funding, with no real job at a multimedia company. ME forced people to look at commercial realities, and to have a proper business plan."
The strong commercial models advocated by the AME have ultimately led to a conflict of purpose: its industrial development brief, versus its role as a venture capital investment fund. This has resulted in some degree of compromise. "Sometimes I think we should have planned to spend all the money in the first three years," says Milgrom.
It is now 1997. Government has changed hands since Keating announced Creative Nation, and these days it's even a bit of a faux pas in political circles to use the words "nation" and "creative" in the same sentence. The AME was formed as a private company. The government of the day subscribed $45 million into the AME, and took ownership of all the shares. Now the new government is looking to sell. Martin Cooper, chair of the AME, is adamant that there will be no changes in the running of the organization when it is privatized. A more pessimistic view is that the AME will continue, but will be more stringent in placing venture capital into multimedia development, if it does at all. The point for now is moot, as a new owner is yet to appear.
The Australian Film Commission
The Australian Film Commission (AFC) was established in 1975 to encourage the making, promotion, distribution and broadcasting of Australian programs. The AFC was quick to add New Media to the roster when the form emerged, with the brief to assist "people exploring the creative uses of multimedia."
As such, the AFC has been bold in supporting artistic projects. This diversity can be seen in the AFC's on-line New Media Gallery, which showcases projects such as Jon Cormack's unsettling but undeniably beautiful Turbulence, "an interactive museum of unnatural history." The AFC is also more than willing to back commercial projects, which has led to the odd demarcation dispute between the it and the AME.
Kathy Mueller, director of Gameplay 21, was in the enviable position of being offered funds by both organizations to produce a prototype of her game Galax-Arena, an empowering adventure game for adolescents set in an oppressive futuristic circus. "The AFC was very supportive, very innovative, and very understanding of the amount of time it takes," says Mueller. "The AME saw that the project could be very commercial, but the financial complexity didn't allow as much creative time. For me, the AFC was a better initial investment, but if I can get overseas interest for part of it, I can go back to the AME." The AFC has also been pro-active in promoting Australian multimedia productions at MILIA and other markets, and maintains an online database listing more than 500 current projects underway in the country.
The Multimedia 21 Fund
It is no coincidence that the head office of the AME was established in Melbourne, the capital of Victoria. Of the State Governments, the Victorian Government has been the most pro-active in supporting multimedia. Alan Stockdale holds the portfolio of Minister for Multimedia, a unique position in western politics. His interest guarantees strong media coverage of any new development in multimedia or information technology. Stockdale is no lightweight; his other portfolio is State Treasurer. (He also sports the finest set of eyebrows in Australian politics.)
Beyond the photo ops and back at the coalface (office), the Victorian Government has committed $15 million to Multimedia Victoria 21. Cinemedia administers the Multimedia 21 Fund, and will continue to give creators $3 million a year for the next three years. This is a major accomplishment for a State government, and proof of a commitment to both multimedia and to transforming government through information technology.
The Creators Speak
Strong infrastructure, government sponsorship, and an all around brave new world vibe sounds like just the thing to breed a strong young industry. The vibe is there, but the successes are not necessarily in tow. Many companies get the help they need to get up and running, but fail at that old distance hurdle.
Overseas distribution is vital. Of Australia's 18 million inhabitants, 865,000 of them were watching their CD-ROM drives spin as of 1995. Once again, not a bad per capita effort, but a single CD-ROM product with a budget of $1 million needs to shift 100,000 copies for any hope of getting the money back. Getting your print run into one in ten of Australian homes is a bit of an ask, especially as Australians are not necessarily patriotic about their purchasing. When a computer game I worked on came out in 1995, a friend was dissuaded from buying it by a shop assistant. When asked why, the assistant replied, "Well, you know it's Australian."
Companies who are flinging themselves into the face of this adversity include Word Design Interactive, GZ-Interactive and SAI Media (formerly Show Ads Interactive - that "i" word sure gets around).
Animals, Myths & Legends Bob Smith and Mary Lancaster form Word Design Interactive, based in Melbourne. They are an ideal example of independent creators who have been attracted by the possibilities of the medium, and have benefited from the support structure.
Their projects are both games. Animals, Myths and Legends is an exploration fantasy for 7-12 year-olds. They have a research web site which introduces the characters and plot and also features some activities (www.ozemail.com.au/~oban). "We've been successful in capturing the attention of our target market. Kids love the three main characters and we've won several awards."
Their other game is Mystery at Ghost Mine, an adventure for 10-14 year-olds, with a story line that links the gold fields of Australia and California at the time of the U.S. Civil War. They have finished a promotional CD-ROM, and are looking for a publisher or distributor attachment. "Both projects received concept development funding from the Australian Multimedia Enterprise. We've found the Australian funding infrastructure supportive for new projects, but not really helpful in finding publishers or distribution deals. Our company has been in operation for about 5 years, but we're still 'unknown' in the global industry and this makes it difficult to get a project into full production."
Greg Zaritski is the GZ in GZ-Interactive (http://www.gz-interactive.com.au). His story is similar, save for the funding body involved. He is a Melbourne animator and designer with an eye for the absurd. Zaritski's first multimedia work was Totally REDiculous (1995), a collection of animated stories based on stereotypes about Russia, arranged in a simple game structure. Russian bears growl fearfully and cosmonauts look suitably lost in Zaritski's hilarious lumbering animated regime.
His follow-up is the adventure game Gott's Treasure, in which he turns his satiric eye on the rest of the world. His characters Gott, a goat, and Gunov, a minuscule Red Army soldier, roam the globe looking for Gott's family riches, a race before Gott's grandmother despairs and floods the world with her tears. Players guide the two through different countries, looking for the missing pieces of a map which shows the fabled location of the treasure. "I've found that if I had a lot of fun during the creation of the project, it is usually fun for the audience as well," he says. Both titles have received national and international awards. "But more importantly, both projects were very well received by the audience," he adds.
An extensive working prototype was funded by the Australian Film Commission who, Zaritski says, "have been great in supporting the project." Unfortunately, Gott and Gunov have since been stranded. "I am currently looking for a publisher, and it is not easy. A lot of my letters to the publishers are unanswered."
The distance gremlin may have kept Zaritski pegged back after his head start. He partially agrees. "I've met a lot of European multimedia artists who knew each other really well because they all live relatively close together. With today's communication structure it should be easy, but I imagine the ways of overseeing the work in progress would be a hurdle in the mind of a potential partner."
Until Gott finds that treasure, Zaritski is working as a designer at SAI Media, a South Australian company with offices in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney (http://www.saimedia.com.au). They have produced 150 multimedia applications in the last three years, in a range of corporate and educational fields.
Sometimes these goals converge in a game form. Consumer Power 2 was commissioned by the National Primary Schools Consumer Education Project as a tool to teach smart consumer skills to children aged 10-13. Government funds covered the production budget, so SAI were able to complete the whole game rather than just a prototype.
The result is a fine example of that most sly of genres: education by stealth. The player gets so involved with the fun of a shopping spree in a virtua fantasy mall populated by both honest and shady vendors, that the solid tips on good shopping sense get straight through. Any game with money and talking rats at its heart is bound to be of interest. (Why CP2, you ask? The original Consumer Power was a board game. Oh, and the talking rat? He is one of your choices as a guide. Rats and malls; I can see the connection.)
The CD-ROM was completed and delivered to Australian schools, collected an award for Best Educational Multimedia Product in 1996, but has yet to have a commercial release. This is holding back Gabrielle Kelly of SAI, who is eager to do a sequel. "It is hard to find the production budget. The feedback from overseas is that there is a market for Consumer Education products and that a new title would be welcome, once the old one is released for sale." She is still waiting.
Outside the Infrastructure
The irony is that the Australian game companies kicking the most goals in overseas markets are doing it largely outside of the infrastructure. Their targets in sight are hard-core computer gamers, a proven market.
Brisbane company Auran has an international hit with Dark Reign, a real-time strategy game published worldwide by Activision. Dark Reign follows the formula of market leading games such as Command & Conquer and Warcraft 2, and also adds features. For example, opposing armies still wallop the tar out of each other as they are accustomed, but now they can do it up and down hills. This may not sound like much, but the elevation from a 2-D playing surface is a significant advance. Dark Reign is racking up a slew of 90% ratings in gaming reviews, and has firmly established the Queensland outfit on the world scene. Not bad for a company which, as founder Greg Lane expresses on the Auran web site, "began as a new year's resolution."
Another success story is Sydney outfit Strategic Studies Group (SSG). Warlords 3, the latest incarnation of their popular and devilishly addictive medieval strategy game, has been published by Broderbund. SSG have not been in the business of applying for grants or "media showboating," but have instead kept their heads down, producing great games.
Melbourne mob Tantalus have been squirreling away, producing straight conversions of overseas designs from one platform to another, such as Wipeout and Manx TT Superbike for the Sega Saturn home console machine. Perhaps not as exciting as original creation, but it has kept the lights working and the coders coding.
Emergent Software in South Australia are developing a cutting edge 3-D racing game which attracted great interest at E3, the principal trade show for electronic entertainment, held in Atlanta, last July.
One of the more interesting projects is Cyberswine, produced by Brilliant Digital Entertainment, in conjunction with Sega Australia. Cyberswine is the porcine hero of an Australian underground comic series. His electronic adventure will be delivered via the web as a "multipath movie," with future episodes available for downloading.
A Foot in Both Camps
The AME are by no means out of this rowdy picture. Garner McLennan in Sydney are developing two high end 3-D games, each with a different American partner, and each with AME backing. Fellow harbour-siders Energee Entertainment have been financed to produce a CD-ROM game based on their distinctly Australian animation series, Crocadoo. Stromlo Entertainment have also set up in Australia with an eye to AME funding, and have a publishing deal with Electronic Arts. It all looks as if the Australian barbarians are well and truly storming the international gates.
Another company that plays the game both ways is Milgrom's Beam International (http://www.beam.com.au). Beam have a 15-year history of independent computer game development for overseas publishers. Krush, Kill 'n' Destroy (KKND), the strategy game with the title that makes no bones about its primary purpose, was a worldwide hit distributed internationally by Electronic Arts in 1996. Beam have just published Cricket '97 Ashes Tour Edition, the latest in a popular series of sports sims. (Which is fairly appropriate, as cricket is not unlike a simulation of an actual sport. It's an English thing. Don't blame us, we inherited it when they shipped those damn convicts over here.)
The degree of diversity at Beam borders on the ludicrous. Other projects include Splash, a new HTML editor; Motion Capture Magic, the only commercial motion-capture studio in Australia; and a new facial motion-capture package called Famous Faces which ports straight into Softimage. Milgrom has high expectations for the film and television possibilities for Famous Faces. Judging by the interest shown by ILM staffers at SIGGRAPH this year, he could be right.
Beam has also spawned Smarty Pants, an educational multimedia division which received $900,000 from the AME to produce 11 CD-ROMS teaching language to 5-7 year-olds. Hang on. Wasn't Milgrom on the board of the AME? "Yes, but I did not sit on the decision to forward financing to Beam. Besides, we still have to pay it back."
As the AME's privatization deadline drags on, Milgrom is optimistic for the future of multimedia in Australia. "I think we have reached a critical mass of companies here now, and feel that the AME helped to bring about that awareness. If on-line growth performs as expected, the next three years should be even better."
For Mueller, Lancaster, Smith, Zaritski, Kelly and the hundreds of other multimedia workers in this country, let's hope so.
To his astonishment, Mark Morrison designs computer games for a living. He was the lead writer on The Dame Was Loaded, and script editor on the Galax-Arena prototype for Gameplay 21. He currently works at Beam Software, and is worried he might have gone too easy on them.