No, really -- despite its reputation as an ultra-conservative, mature-rating hating government, "the reality is that many more games that are restricted to 17-year-olds in the U.S. or 18-year-olds in Europe are available without edit for 15-year-olds in Australia," said Chris Wright, former marketing head for THQ's two Australian studios, Blue Tongue and Studio Australia. "On balance, Australia is probably the most lenient country in the world for access to mature games."
No, really -- Wright was the man who presented Saints Row to the Australian classification board and he prepared plenty of ratings submissions in the country, both as head of THQ Asia Pacific and its two Australian studios. He knows the system, meaning he knows what it has and what it doesn't, such as an R18+ rating.
"I believe passionately that Australia needs an R18+ rating," Wright said. "But for me the R18+ rating is not about access to games, but parity with other entertainment forms and the acknowledgement of gaming as an adult pursuit. The R18+ rating will have a net effect of greater overall restrictions on access to games -- many games that would have previously been available to 15-year-olds will now only be available for 18-year-olds and above -- but will mean that a few games at the top end of the maturity scale are allowed to be released."
Legislation in Australia recently approved the R18+ rating (though it may take a few years to be enacted) and its Law Reform Commission is attempting to revamp the country's video-game rating system to acknowledge its adult audience. But recently, Australia has had more than ratings to worry about.
As the economic system has spiraled into a flailing freefall, game studios worldwide are facing closures, layoffs and cutbacks just like any other industry, but it seems Australia has been hit especially hard. Seven studios have closed in Australia in the past six years. Wright may know why.
"I would say rising game-development costs is the biggest factor behind most of the studio closures worldwide at the moment -- it's simply very expensive to make games these days and harder to make them profitable," Wright said. "Australia is doubly challenged on this front due to the huge increase in the value of the Australian dollar vs the U.S. dollar, and because government offsets for game development have not been as competitive as other territories, such as Canada."
It's not that Australian developers are less talented or incapable of making quality blockbuster titles, Wright said, citing L.A. Noire, Destory All Humans and the deBlob series. The Australian development scene's response to this turmoil is a testament to this very confidence and skill: Australia is going indie.
Already several teams have formed from recent closures, Wright said, and there are around 100 small studios and solo developers in Melbourne, with even more across the country. Wright joined the revolution, too, founding Surprise Attack, a marketing company for independent developers. He now reps such indie studios as Bane Games and The Voxel Agents (pictured -- kind of -- above), both based in Australia.
"There is a lot of fresh energy here and local developers have some great examples to look up to .... We have some of the absolute stars of indie development here in Australia."
- Chris Wright, Surprise Attack
"There is a lot of fresh energy here and local developers have some great examples to look up to, such as Half Brick and Firemint," Wright said. "Having a lot of small indie studios is a big benefit to the local gaming community. There are so many more avenues for games to be created here now and ways for gamers to connect with local developers and get involved. There's also more opportunity for games that have a specific Australian voice or speak to Australian culture, because the indie scene can support games focused on a single market. We have some of the absolute stars of indie development here in Australia."
Developers aren't giving up without a fight in Australia, and Wright is optimistic about the future of its video-game industry -- the government is offering new Research and Development grants to locally owned developers and the possibility for these new indies to grow into larger studios is very real, he said.
"There's an incredible amount of talent here and also many, many talented Australians currently working in game development around the world," Wright said. "The whole games industry worldwide is going through a massive shake-up right now. It's not such a bad thing that the Australian development community is having to rebuild itself at this time; we have the opportunity to build for the industry's future, not the past."