When I was in my final year at university (way back in 1995), I decided I wanted to work for a computer games company. I posted a message on a newsgroup (this was pre-Google) asking if there were any games company in Melbourne looking for computer programmers. One of the programmers who had worked on the computer game version of The Hobbit (1982, Commodore 64 and other versions) replied and told me about Beam Software.
Beam was founded in 1980 and for many years was the biggest computer game developer in Australia. While I was still at university, I got a part-time job there playtesting games once a week. Getting paid to play computer games is not the worst way to earn a little extra money. When I finished university, I started full-time as a computer programmer. Working at Beam was a lot like being at university – a very casual workplace where lots of people spent their time playing games and then a mad panic as the deadline approached. Software projects are notorious for going over-budget and missing deadlines. And computer games are even worse.
(Duke Nukem Forever is perhaps the most infamous example. It was over 10 years late before the company developing it eventually collapsed).
I worked as a programmer on a platform game (a conversion of Lost Viking 2 from Nintendo to PC), a role-playing game (Alien Earth – it started off as a great project with lots of beautiful artwork but had a cumbersome interface. Due to time constraints more than half of the plot and missions were cut away, leaving the end product a bit of a mess), a combat racing car game (Dethkarz), a game that never got released (Urban Assault – a multi-player tank game) and did some design work for a Command & Conquer style strategy game (KKND 2 – it went to number one in Germany!) and a role-playing game that never got approved for development.
I quit Beam at the start of 1999 to go backpacking in Europe for 6 months. Less than a month after I left, Beam was bought out by French publisher Infogrames. (Whether the company fell apart without me or whether it suddenly became a lot more attractive purchase, I leave you to decide). The real reason was that the company had tried to act as a publisher as well as a developer and overextended itself. It changed names and owners over the next 10 years until it was bought by Krome, a Brisbane-based company and became Krome’s Melbourne studio.
Sadly, Krome folded a couple of weeks ago.
Some Australian games companies had survived by getting contracts from publishers by underbidding American developers, the weak Australian dollar gave them an edge. But there is always going to be someone cheaper and the dollar’s rise has eroded any pricing advantage compared to American companies.
There are still some Australian game developer success stories. Firemint is based in Melbourne and their flight simulator was the #1 selling application on the iPhone.