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Australian indie video game developers tap into growing Asian markets

A composite image of the loading screen for video game Crossy Road in English, Japanese and Korean.
Australian game Crossy Road as been localised in many different countries.

Supplied: Hipster Whale

Australia's indie games industry is booming. But with the domestic market offering limited returns, game studios are looking to overseas markets for growth.

Behind the walls of a nondescript grey office building in South Melbourne, some of Australia's most successful independent game developers and publishers can be found hard at work.

The building houses The Arcade — a collaborative workspace that has become the spiritual home of the Australian indie games industry.

It was established in 2013 as a response to the closure of several foreign games companies that had set up studios in Australia, which had resulted in hundreds of lay-offs.

"Australia used to be an awesome resource for big 'triple A' game companies to set up shop here, as it was cheaper to have companies build games here," game producer Lisy Kane said.

"During the [global financial crisis], unfortunately we started seeing those big companies shut down.

"We became really expensive to hire."

Ms Kane is a producer for the indie studio League of Geeks, the team behind the game Armello — a "digital board game" in which players vie to become king or queen of the kingdom.

She said that, out of the global financial crisis, a new independent games industry emerged, primarily based in Melbourne.

As out-of-work producers, coders and designers looked for opportunities to make games independently, The Arcade was a space where they could share the rent, share resources, and even share staff.

Lisy Kane portrait
Lisy Kane is the only Australian on Forbes' 30 Under 30 gaming list

Supplied: Lisy Kane

"The games scene in Melbourne is very collaborative," Blake Mizzi said, League of Geeks' co-founder and director.

"Instead of being very secretive, we work together a lot. We'll subcontract each other a lot, subcontract each other's employees and we do a lot of information sharing.

"I think the savviness and the candid conversations we have have helped propel our businesses forward."

Armello has been drawing fans and critical acclaim since its launch in 2015, but the true success of an Australian game is measured by its international reach.

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An international industry

"The market is all overseas," Mr Mizzi said. "If I look at [League of Geeks], Australia represents about three to four per cent of our market base.

"Our business is much better known [overseas]."

The figures are similar for Melbourne-based game publisher Surprise Attack, Managing Director Chris Wright said.

"For premium games on PC or console, North America is about 30 to 40 per cent of the market, Europe's about 30 to 40 percent of the market, and increasingly Asia is the other third of the market."

It's the Asian market — China, in particular — that is seeing the most growth.

"Japan and Korea are substantial markets, but essentially they're static.

"China [has] gone from being not on the radar at all three years ago, to now being the number two [single country] market for us."

A shelf full of small plush toys, which includes a whale and a chicken.
Hipster Whale merchandise in their Melbourne office at The Arcade.

ABC News: Kim Jirik

Clara Reeves is president of the game studio Hipster Whale, known for its hit game Crossy Road. In Crossy Road, players take control of a chicken making an ill-advised run across an endless series of busy streets.

Ms Reeves said that the Asian market is a key focus for the company's growth.

"Anyone who's not at least considering what their impact in Asia is and how they could make that better is cutting themselves off from a huge potential market.

"Even if you only get a small subset of the Chinese market, that's a huge market, so it's massively important for us."

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China now the world's largest consumer of games

Revenue from the video games industry exceeded $US100 billion in 2016. Reports indicate that China is now the single largest source of that revenue, overtaking the United States.

"According to a lot different reports ... China became the largest gaming market in the world last year," said Henry Fong, CEO of Beijing-based publisher Yodo1.

"To put that into perspective, right now ... China represents over 30 per cent [of games revenue in Apple's App Store]. Back five years ago, in 2012, it was only three per cent.

Australian developers are taking note.

"The key emerging market is absolutely China," League of Geeks' Blake Mizzi said.

"I [travelled] there recently ... and it boggled my mind just to see the sheer enormity of ... the market there and how quickly it's developing."

Blake Mizzi stands in front of a promotional poster for the video game Armello speaking to a group of people.
League of Geeks' co-founder Blake Mizzi in their office at The Arcade.

ABC News: Kim Jirik

For an Australian game to reach that market, it not only has to be translated, but must also adhere to Chinese regulations and be published by a local partner.

"Navigating that process is quite tricky," Mr Mizzi said. "It is [about] finding that local partner to work with."

In China, he said, their game Armello is only available on the digital distribution platform Steam, which is currently unregulated.

"At the moment, we haven't got our authorisation from the Chinese cultural ministry — we're going through that paperwork process."

Yodo1 is one of the Chinese publishers helping Australian developers to get their games approved and reach that market. Mr Fong said that in addition to navigating the regulations, Australian games need to be reworked to appeal to Chinese gamers.

"A lot of work [goes into] reimaging and redeveloping [a game], reproducing a lot of the artwork, [and rewriting] the storyline," Mr Fong said.

Henry Fong having a conversation with someone and laughing.
Yodo1 CEO Henry Fong (right) at The Arcade during their open day.

ABC News: Kim Jirik

When localising the Australian game Hand of Fate for the Chinese market, Mr Fong said they rewrote the narrative and recorded new dialogue with local voice actors.

"When Chinese players entered the game, it felt like the game itself was designed for the Chinese gamer, and not an afterthought.

"A lot of the context, the culture, the language, the nuances, the voice acting — the stuff that makes your game really immersive and enjoyable to a gamer — that requires a much deeper understanding of the gamer culture in different regions in order to do it well."

But Mr Fong emphasised that the first step towards international success was to make a great game.

"Everything starts with the game," he said. "I think a unique thing about Australian indie developers is the creativity. Chinese game developers do systems, do monetisation, do metagames extremely well, because that's their bread and butter — that's how they make money.

"But when it comes to creativity and gameplay, I think the Australian indie gaming industry is literally unrivalled."