Notes from Australia: Gamers being awesome in a challenging environment

Notes from Australia: Gamers being awesome in a challenging environment

It was amazing to be in Melbourne for our first international PAX, and realize that everyone in Australia seemed to already know how to… well, how to PAX. The people were amazing, the games were great, and everyone got along. I was talking to a group of readers when I remarked at how much it already felt like PAX East and Prime. There was no learning curve.

“You’ve been sending us instructional materials for years,” one of them responded. They already knew how to do the dance, and everyone seemed overjoyed that we brought the music.

Gaming in Australia

It was interesting to talk to gamers in the crowd and learn about the good and bad things about our hobby in Australia. They pay way too much for games, with new releases from the major chains costing $100 or more. Used copies of years-old titles go for $30 to $40. When EB Games has a sale in Melbourne, they kind of go crazy with the decorations. Frankly, I don’t know how Australians afford this hobby.

I learned that Australians are passionate about online gaming, but almost no company has servers in Australia, so ping can be an issue. At the moment the servers for World of Tanks in Australia, for instance, are located in Singapore. The United States has online infrastructure that is certainly flawed, but Australia is expensive, and often frustratingly slow when it comes to online gaming. The lack of local servers certainly doesn't help.

There seems to be a great potential for growth in online gaming in Australia, but no one is going to really be able to tap it until they bring some local servers to the country.

Riot recently opened Oceanic servers, and offered free transfers to players who wanted to move to servers closer to home. Judging by the size of Riot’s booth at PAX Australia, and the reaction of the crowd that showed up for the daily tournaments, the investment in the local community is going to be rewarded.

I visited a game shop in Melbourne called Mind Games that was two floors of board games, role-playing games, miniatures, and books, and it was amazing. Mind Games has been in operation for over 30 years, and would be there for at least 30 more, according to the gentleman working behind the counter.

We found a sort of trading card Fight Club in Chinatown that was a single room above a restaurant, where serious gamers sat focused on the game in front of them, and barely noticed our arrival. There was a sign saying you couldn’t trade cards for currency on the premises. Rare cards sat behind glass cases, price tags affixed on the corners. I had never seen anything like it, and I felt as if I were somehow trespassing.

I saw what it takes to show games with mature content in Australia, and it's an uncomfortable image. I've seen women in burkas before, but this was the first time I've seen one wrapped around a video game.

I met with Mathieu Marunczyn, who is using different gaming technologies in his work with children with special needs, and I gave him a few Oculus Rift demos with my development kit. Now he’s excited about the therapeutic possibilities of virtual reality.

I talked to a lot of Australian developers, and the community is dealing with a local industry that imploded, leaving many out of work and struggling to launch their own games. We’ll be discussing that story in a little more detail later in the week, but there is the beginnings of a vibrant, healthy independent gaming scene in Australia, but you can feel the growing pains.

We'll be focusing on Australian games from Australian developers this week, although there may be a slight burp in coverage as I come home on a very long flight with very little Internet.

I tried to spend the week talking to as many Australian gamers, developers, students, educators, and business people as possible, and I can't imagine what it must be like to be that passionate about this art form in an environment that offers so many challenges. Pings are high, prices are higher, developers have to take long, expensive trips to bring their games to E3 or GDC, and the industry is still dealing with the death of so many of the larger studios.

I also learned not to say prices for things in Melbourne seem high to someone who lives in Perth.

Australian gamers remain cheerful, enthusiastic, and inspiring. It was great to come here and talk about what it's like to pay $120 for a new release, to see the great ideas coming out of the smaller studios, and to figure out how to turn a Tim Tam into a straw while drinking coffee. I don't quite know how gaming became so big and so great here when geography and business often makes the hobby challenging, but I'm glad it did.

And I'll see you next year.