Melbourne Esports Open 2019

Judging by Public Transport Victoria calculations, my trip to the Melbourne Esports Open this weekend was to take about 1 hour and 40 minutes. As part of ‘Victoria’s Big Build’, the city of Melbourne is currently undergoing quite a few disruptions at the moment, up-to-and-including train replacements and complete line shut-downs, meaning that in order to take the public transport option into the city for the Open, I would have to take a bus into the city, then navigate to Flinders Street where I could then get a tram, or – worse – walk to Rod Laver Arena in time to be able to catch an event.

If it sounds like I’m whinging, imagine what doing the above with two kids under six would be like.

So, with that in mind – we did what any sensible human being would do: we drove to the MEO this weekend, and thanks to some well-planned pre-paid parking, scored a park right near the entrance.

Last year’s MEO was very much a social experiment, and while it seemed, at face value, to be relatively successful, I was keen to see how the event had grown or adapted based on this success. After all, there was a notable difference in PAX Australia 2013 to 2014, so if MEO was to gain traction, then this would be the event where we would be able to see some success.

The first thing I noticed was the layout had changed – considerably. Originally MEO 2018 was structured in a way that the main competition and the ‘JB Hi-Fi Game Zone’ were fairly evenly contained between and within the Rod Laver and Margaret Court Arenas. Most of the ‘outside’ activity was concentrated on the entrance to Rod Laver, whereas this year much of that content – and I feel like there was considerably less – had shifted into the open space between the two main arenas, and Melbourne Arena off Olympic Boulevard. As it turns out, this was supposed to be the ‘Main Entrance’ I later found out, and the rear entry where I had come in was actually designated the ‘Secondary Entry’, but the net result was that we got-in.

Last year, I made the assessment that I don’t think the Rod Laver Arena is the best sort of venue for the MEO. While I think the organisers have ‘made do’ with the layout, there is undoubtedly a sense that the whole event is spread too thin – something that was exacerbated this year considering it went across multiple venues. It reminded me a touch of the ESL Masters I attended in Sydney, where the Qudos Arena was simply unsuitable for a major gaming event – in the middle of nowhere and laid out in an erratic fashion. In some regards, I think these smaller stadiums are great for what they were built for: sporting matches, and by all accounts, the stadiums were perfect for the main events on the weekend, but considering that esport now has to offer competition between travelling to the venue or – like I did for the non-kid-friendly events – simply opening up a Twitch stream, then I’d expect a little more polish on my venue design.

While I didn’t get in to the main events themselves, I think it’s fair to say that MEO has matured in a good way. OPL has generally gone from strength-to-strength in the last 12-24 months, and so seeing its high production values land in Melbourne to put on a great show is certainly something to write-home about. I watched as eager fans went trawling through the venue to find ‘skin codes’ for their League of Legends accounts, and the images by brilliant esport photographer Sarah Cooper (@aquahaze) showed just how far esport has come in Australia. I only saw the highlights of the Overwatch Contenders match-up, which is surprising considering I was rapidly getting into Overwatch as an esport, but when matched up against a game like Rainbow Six, it’s hard not to have your attention slightly diverted towards that more ‘meaty’ competitive scene.

Still, it’s no fix for the otherwise toxic R6 community.

In terms of games on offer, both Xbox and PlayStation put in an appearance in the Game Zone, which is wonderful to see. PlayStation, per usual, had large ‘no photography’ signs up everywhere – which is a bit strange considering that they weren’t really showing anything ‘new’ or ‘secret’. Last year, there was Spider-Man on offer a few days or weeks before launch, and so keeping things under wraps made sense, but most of the time my kids played Crash Team Racing … something that was released in June.

The Xbox team were far better-equipped for a public-facing show like MEO, offering up Minecraft for the kids, I was able to take a photo of them playing together, and the marketing team there even had little basketballs (stress balls) with ‘Windows 10’ on the side. Dad may or may not have borrowed one of them for his own collection. There was also a behind-closed-doors demo of Gears 5 which I only have a loose interest in, but considering it is coming to Xbox Game Pass, I’m not too concerned about milking every last drop of content out of it before it drops. I mean … if I need a fix, I have four preceding titles to get through first.

Other big players on the day were Nintendo, who had a great variety of consoles setup, and my kids played Mario Maker 2 for quite some time before etiquette dictated that they get off and let someone else play. Likewise, the kids managed to score themselves some lanyards and a tote bag off the show floor, but nothing quite as cool as the Activision-offered Call of Duty 4 gift bag that my eldest managed to grab last year. I still have my COD4 hat in the cupboard, ready to be broken out again come PAX time.

And speaking of merchandise – we need to have a chat to the organisers about buying in some better hoodies, or at least some more variety in terms of clothing options. One $70 hoodie that was in plain white as the only clothing memento from the weekend? No thanks. At least I managed to walk away with a metallic keep-cup, but for $20, I’m not sure if that was entirely worth it, or I was just clinging to the hope that I’d leave with ‘some’ keepsake.

MEO is not flawless. Nor is it flawed. It is an event in its infancy, that has already shown how much it can improve on in a twelve-month period. Being able to arrange for major teams like Washington to travel to Melbourne for the Open, as well as seeing some great talent in OPL, Overwatch and Rainbow Six means that I’ll be back again next year, if only to keep an eye on what else is new and emerging on the esport scene.

I can hardly wait.

Gears POP!

I am a sucker for a mobile game with Xbox achievements. It’s one of the main reasons why I play Microsoft Solitaire so much, and I have no qualms in touting the virtues of Wordament to any-and-all who will listen. Sadly, people don’t really take to my warped sense of digital justice like I do, and so they just end up heading back to their match-three game or scrolling through their Instagram.

Not me though. I think it took me all of fifteen seconds from when I got the notification that the pre-order for Gears POP! was ready to having the game downloaded and starting it up.

Then the connectivity issues happened.

I’m not going to labour the point because I don’t mind a few teething errors, and thankfully they corrected themselves fairly soon thereafter, which meant that after an hour of gameplay, I had already earned myself two or three achievements, and by the end of the day yesterday, I was at 9% completion.

Not bad for a very brief afternoon’s work.

The game itself is essentially just a Clash of Clans clone, though with POP! characters based on the Gears of War franchise. It just seems like a whole bunch of licensing agreements were prepared by some junior lawyers that got too convoluted and something had to be done with them, but, strangely, it works. Considering I’m really only on level two and working with characters that are, essentially, just upgraded versions of the starting set, I’m not sure how much the game will open up as I get new characters, or, more likely, I go up against stronger opponents.

Progress from here-on out will be slow, because some of the achievements require you to play into the hundreds of games, which is not insurmountable, but it will take time. Each game I played against a human tended to run down the timer, rather than being the one-sided battle that I had anticipated, with some of the games only conquering one base, or going to sudden death. If you can get some time away from the world so that you can play this unencumbered, then you are absolutely in the best position to win, though I’ll see whether that holds true as I continue playing, or whether my own inability is just waiting to shine through.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep working towards those delicious, delicious achievements.

Robocraft Infinity

This title from the Xbox Game Pass library is an interesting blend between a mech combat game and some sort of Minecraft-lite crafting mashup. The premise surrounds simply building, or modifying, a mech made up of small blocks and weapons and then taking them into battle.

For the few games that I played, I elected to go with a T-Rex variant of the mech, which seemed to be a fairly solid all-rounder, though I was able to see how handy, for instance, a wheeled mech would be able to capture points quicker, or an aerial mech was able to navigate to enemies easier.

The load times on this title are terrible for something with low fidelity visuals and otherwise basic concept, but it’s not a bad title, and otherwise ‘safe’ for younger gamers to play – with some supervision (it does, after all, have lasers and other weaponry in it).

Anthem for the Year 2018

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There’s not much to love about a studio closure. As I talked about in my assessment of the Australian Gaming Industry, it’s an itinerant, project-driven industry, that means a closure is ending a collection of permanent jobs. The biggest closure in recent years locally has probably been 2K, of Borderlands fame, with the local development scene now preoccupied with a glut of mobile and free-to-play games that are as hit-and-miss on iTunes and Google Play as they compete with a market over-supply.

The reason for my lament is that I suspect a new closure is coming soon. Kotaku are reporting today on the general feeling among Bioware that their future hinges on the success or failure of their upcoming IP, Anthem. Whatever you think of the game – and I happen to think it looks pretty darn good – it is still being compared to the games as a service stalwarts such as Diablo III and Destiny. Neither of which have had seamless launches, and the latter of which still draws criticism after failing to learn from the mistakes of Christmas Past.

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And that is both a shame and a reality. The benchmarks set by the big players in the industry – Activision Blizzard and Electronic Arts (among others) means that lofty KPIs are often the death knell of once mid-tier studios. I spent a not-inconsiderable amount of time in Bioware’s worlds, Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights … and I know that Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect still draw considerable affection from the internet at large. But now everyone is in pursuit of the next Overwatch or Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds. They want the attention of streamers, of gamers, of the mainstream media. They want to be able to exploit revenue streams, and not just the usual additions of DLC and micro transactions, but now we’re talking merchandise and advertising. Big Business has finally woken up to the opportunities presented by gaming.

Perhaps a telling sign of the times is that IP is now the main commodity of the gaming industry. The death of THQ didn’t stop the sale of its popular series, Darksiders, with the launch of the third instalment due out this year. Atari are using their subsidy to crowdfund investors for a Nintendo Switch launch of gaming classic, Rollercoaster Tycoon. Theme Hospital is still invoked as the precursor to new development, Two Point Hospital. The love of titles and characters far surpasses the love of studios and publishers.

Ironically, it seems that it was the love for the Mass Effect brand which signalled the beginning of the end for BioWare. Impossibly high standards set for Anthem are likely to make for a sad ending on what was undoubtedly one of the best developers of the past few decades.

7.8 Billion Reasons

The Interactive Games and Entertainment Association published the results of its local industry survey this week, concluding that video games industry in Australia employs 928 people full time, and contributes $118 million to the economy “in spite of limited recognition and support”.

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Source: IGEA (2018)

The point of the survey is to communicate to Federal and State Governments exactly how little taxpayer support goes towards the industry in Australia, when compared with something like film and television, or fine arts, but – if I’m perfectly honest – I think this message falls flat.

For starters, it’s 2018 … I don’t know that FTE is really the right measure to gauge industry density. It’s still a market that has a lot of freelance, short term contract and even students contributing to that $118m. While I am almost certain that the idea of a stable, permanent job in the games industry is aspirational, the truth remains that it is fundamentally a project-driven environment. That means short-term contracts, lay-offs, scales up-and-down, and everything else that came out of the wash when the internet was up in arms about ‘crunch time.’

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but telling the good news stories is how you attract more good news. Overall employment numbers, or products shipped, or almost any other metric probably would tell a better story than total FTE, particularly when we’re talking less than 1,000.

Secondly, $118m is very, very low. We’re talking globally an $80 billion market. I always thought that Australia punched well above its weight, but this makes me think that there’s simply not enough clout there to peak the Government’s interest.

For comparison’s sake … let’s have a look at the numbers.

  • Americans spent US$21.53 billion on games and hardware in 2013. That’s one market, five years ago, and by the time you introduce Asia and Europe into the figures, you can start to see how we hit the magical $80 billion benchmark.
  • Esport is about a $700 million industry on its own, with the latest figures estimating over half of that revenue being generated out of China and North America. Australia generating the equivalent of a third of that revenue as the contribution from an entire industry means that it falls far behind its regional and philosophical allies. Far behind.

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Source: Starkn (2018) 

  • If you want to look at employment numbers, the story is even more gloom-and-doom. Mining, for instance, which has considerably scaled back its employment post-boom, still employed 163,000 people by the end of 2015-16. While I’m sure there is a reasonable level of competence and skill required to get a job in the mining industry, in my experience, it seems like a far lower barrier-to-entry than a role in game development.

These stats should either fill you with hope that there’s room in the domestic market to grow, or sadness with such a woeful industry footprint. While I’m leaning towards the latter, I suspect that the industries that rely on the optimism of Australian gaming will take the glass-half-full approach. There’s no money to be had in the schools that teach game development if they’re skilling people up for a fledgling industry.

Look, the IGEA is right – it is an industry that needs support. If anything the comparison with global figures shows that it’s a huge market that Australia has failed to exploit with any great success. We are on the front doorstep of one two great esport success stories in Korea and China, and we are simply not milking that for what it’s worth.

I spoke with representatives from the Victorian Government last year, represented by Creative Victoria, just before Melbourne Games Week, to broach the issue around what it would take for Government to support esports. The short answer: it wouldn’t. ‘Esport was something that should fundamentally be industry-led’, they decided. I am sure I can insert a rant about the funding traditional sport gets here, but I’ll save that for another time.

The point is, is that we are missing out on opportunities, and while I have a philosophical objection to much of conservative politics, giving them a slap on the nose isn’t how you go about winning favours. Showing them where Australia can benefit in the face of a shrinking economy does win support. You’re dealing with a bunch of old white men in suits – for the love of God, show them more numbers – good numbers – and less art.

The remaining $7.8 billion dollars we’re missing out on as an industry is a bloody good start.