Ee-Leng Chang and Chen-Po Sun. Murray Lorden.
Working from their Carlton flat, husband-and-wife team Chen-Po Sun and Ee-Leng Chang are running a global business with a potential market in the hundreds of millions. All it takes is a great idea for an app and the Melbourne couple’s fortunes could be made.
Their unique selling point: felt. Sun and Chang are both software developers with a background in writing computer games, but Chang has another passion – handcrafted design, which they are using to give their quirky games a distinctive charm. If you’ve got an iPhone handy, you can download their first two releases, Cow Abduct! and Shuriken Chicken, right now from the Apple App Store (Shuriken Chicken includes a warning of ”Frequent/Intense Cartoon or Fantasy Violence”).
Since the end of last year, Murray Lorden has been working from his bedroom on the mezzanine level of a converted warehouse in Collingwood. As an indie developer, he has released his first game for the iPhone, Rad Skater Apocalypse, as a homage to the games he enjoyed while growing up in the 1980s. He’s now working on his second game – a detective-style ”thinking game” rather than an action game.
A decade ago, nobody had heard of ”apps”, the programs that for the price of a cup of coffee – or less – do useful or amusing things on your mobile phone or tablet.
Last year, Apple announced that the iTunes App Store had notched up its 10 billionth download; by March, that figure had hit 25 billion, with top titles including Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja and Doodle Jump.
The Finnish creators of Angry Birds, Rovio, announced in May that downloads of all the Angry Birds titles across different platforms had topped 1 billion, with half of those in the past six months.
Now people with the passion, ideas and skills are trying to get a piece of the action, sometimes setting up with as little as a laptop in a cafe. Science and art combine, and even computer qualifications are not compulsory.
Last year Tiny Wings, by self-taught German Andreas Illiger, became one of Apple’s top-10 paid apps.
Melburnians such as Sun are playing their part in the app revolution, although he says the decision for he and Chang to quit their IT jobs and launch their own apps business, Games for Gummie, was a tough one.
”It takes discipline, time and will power,” Sun says. ”If you go into it with an ‘I’m going to make the next Angry Birds’ mentality, you’ll probably fail. The early gold rush is definitely over. We knew we were setting ourselves up for a long grind. We now have to be much more frugal with our money and cut back on things.
”Previously, all I had to concentrate on was trying to be an awesome programmer; now there’s a whole lot of business stuff to deal with. It’s about time management and we find it hard to work regular hours.”
Working from home means spending ”an insane amount of time together”, Chang says, but they also face the difficulty of making headway in a saturated market. ”You’re constantly fighting to get people to hear about your product,” she says.
The ability to sell games to the owners of Apple, Android and Windows smartphones with the tap of a button, however, has revitalised the indie games industry.
Lorden’s decision to quit his day job was driven by a desire to explore his own creative vision rather than earn a wage working on someone else’s ideas. He learnt the ropes working for local gaming success stories Blue Tongue Entertainment and Firemint, where he worked on the smash-hit iPhone car-racing game Real Racing. Both Melbourne start-ups found success during the app gold rush and were later acquired by international gaming giants.
Blue Tongue has since been swallowed up by parent company THQ, while Electronic Arts recently merged Firemint with fellow Melbourne studio Iron Monkey to form Firemonkeys.
Lorden doesn’t expect to match the success of Real Racing, which featured prominently in Steve Jobs’ presentation when the iPad was launched two years ago, but instead relishes the opportunity to work on his own ideas.
”My job is to be a creative game designer, but at the big studios, I wasn’t always doing the sort of new and creative work I wanted to be doing,” Lorden says.
”The other side of the coin is that now I can’t rely on some great artist or programmer sitting next to me to do their thing. Nor can I rely on a marketing and business development team. I have to wear all those hats.”
Access to Apple’s developer program costs Lorden just $99 a year, unlike the thousands of dollars required to develop for some gaming platforms. As for the challenges of running his own business, Lorden has completed the government’s New Enterprise Incentive Scheme business course, which covered areas such as writing a business plan, understanding cash-flow and tackling marketing.
Despite the success of an app such as Tiny Wings, it’s becoming much harder for indie developers to find success without experience under their belt, says Brad Giblin, the digital media manager with Film Victoria, which has been supporting the local games industry for 15 years.
Many exciting new projects are coming from independent lone developers and small teams, but Giblin says people tend to underestimate how difficult and competitive it is.
”The barrier to entry to the mobile app stores is incredibly low, but the likelihood of a complete amateur making an app that sells a million copies is almost zero these days,” he says. ”Most of the apps that tend to top charts are from experienced people. Even so, I believe the figures are somewhere around 95 per cent of titles make less than $1000.”
It’s a sobering statistic, but Melbourne’s games scene is nevertheless thriving – as shown by events such as the Freeplay Independent Games Festival taking place around Melbourne including at the State Library of Victoria, Federation Square, and Australian Centre for the Moving Image. ACMI is also hosting the Game Masters exhibition celebrating the world’s most influential game designers.
One of the hubs of the local indie games scene is the Melbourne chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), which runs monthly social events and information nights with guest speakers. Independent game developers are finding more success thanks to the app-store model, which empowers them to go it alone, the event co-ordinator of IGDA Melbourne, Giselle Rosman, says.
The flow of developers away from the major games studios is not an indictment on the industry, but rather a reflection of creative people’s need to see their own ideas through to completion, she says.
”If you can achieve financial independence, that’s fantastic, but if it’s your primary motivation, you’re probably setting yourself up for disappointment,” Rosman says. ”Most people don’t make good money selling mobile games. You have to sell a lot of apps at 99¢, remembering that Apple takes a slice of the action. Trying to go it alone can be tough.”
Carlton-based Tin Man Games is one independent Melbourne app developer finding success. It’s looking to expand beyond the bedroom of technical director Ben Britten Smith into its own office space.
Smith is an Academy Award-winning special-effects artist who met his Australian wife while working in Melbourne on the Nicolas Cage blockbuster Ghost Rider. He started developing games as a hobby while waiting for his Australian work visa and later teamed up with Tin Man Games founder Neil Rennison.
With Rennison now living in Britain, Smith is the local head of the company, which has expanded to offer work to about 30 ”minions”.
”I was working in the film industry as a tiny little cog in a giant machine,” he says. ”That was fun for a while but it really grinds you down, just like my friends who were working for Electronic Arts or those other big games companies. So I left my job for a lot of the same reasons game developers do: I didn’t want to work on other people’s giant projects that I didn’t care about.”
Tin Man Games creates digital Gamebooks, similar to the Choose Your Own Adventure concept. Titles such as Gamebook Adventures 2: The Siege of the Necromancer and Gamebook Adventures 7: Temple of the Spider God are expensive for iPhone games at $6.49, but their success comes from targeting a niche audience.
Tin Man Games is ready to tackle the next level but Smith says the move to a separate office is not just a matter of space.
”I’m in a creative industry but you can’t be creative in a vacuum,” he says. ”You have to be around other people, so I try to go to a lot of industry events. Some of the reasons to move to this office space are just to be exposed to other people, to get the creative juices flowing.”
Back in Collingwood, Murray Lorden is realising that living the indie dream comes at a price. Without the safety net of a job, he’s discovering being his own boss can be a long and lonely road.
”I found that I’ve been asking the bigger questions about life because there’s no protection between me and life’s big challenges,” Lorden says.
”I’m confronting the challenges of seeing a successful game through from start to end, but I’m also asking where I want to be in five years. What am I trying to achieve here? What are my monetary goals and my lifestyle goals?
”I’ve been trying to figure out how to reach an equilibrium, a happy balance in my life. That’s probably the biggest challenge that I face, even though I’m doing what I love.”
Getting off to a flying start
Firemonkeys’ executive producer, Robert Murray, knows the lure of going it alone to follow your creative dreams. When his first Melbourne games company folded, he returned to a deferred engineering degree. He deferred again to work at Bayswater’s Torus Games, before going solo to subcontract games work.
Firemint was born as Murray picked up more work and began subcontracting work to others. Firemint’s own title, Real Racing, was in development when Apple opened up access to the app store.
To gain experience with the app store, Murray wrote Flight Control over the summer holidays. It went on to become one of Apple’s top-10 paid apps of all time. Its success helped fund the completion of Real Racing, which was also a hit and helped win Firemint an Australian export award.
”Starting today, you’ve got some tremendous advantages, but it’s hyper-competitive and much harder to meet people’s expectations of quality,” Murray says. ”You’d have to be an incredibly cross-talented individual with a lot of free time to invest. Even then, if you took too long, you’d probably fall behind the trends.
”If you view going out on your own as a lifestyle move, you’ve got it in reasonable perspective. Most of us got started because we wanted to make games. You’re going to have some hard times, so you’ve got to really want it.”
Last year, Firemint acquired the Melbourne game developer Infinite Interactive. Not long after, Firemint was itself acquired by US games giant Electronic Arts, which this year merged Firemint with fellow Melbourne studio IronMonkey to form Firemonkeys.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.