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The Arcade: a capitalist commune of indie game development

Playing host to 19 different companies, the Arcade in Melbourne, Australia is dedicated to changing the face of indie game development. Just don't call it an incubator.

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The Arcade is many things: a collaborative working environment, a business development space, a community. What it is not, I am assured, is an incubator.

"I want to be really clear about that. I hate the Arcade being called an incubator." This is Tony Reed, president of the Game Developer's Association of Australia speaking.

Tony Reed. Dave Cheng/CNET

Based in Melbourne's Southbank area, in the Australian state of Victoria, the Arcade is home to 19 different Australian gaming development studios, and Reed is the driving force behind the Arcade. And it's clearly important to him that people know everyone involved in the space are part of productive businesses, who are paying their fair share. There are no free rides.

As I talk to Reed about how the Arcade -- now a year into operation -- got its start, I get a deeper sense of where this animosity to the dreaded "I" word might come from.

"I first had the kernel for the idea of the Arcade back in 2010 when I saw the indie scene growing," says Reed. "I presented it to the [Victorian State] Government at the time and they kind of liked it but knocked me back. But over the years, I kept up conversations about the idea going with a few of the independent devs.

"Then last year we really kicked into gear -- we went back to the Government and asked for money to get started. Now the Government has certainly funded a lot of incubator spaces that haven't worked out and they knocked me back again. But this time they told us to prove it can work. So those same developers and I got together and said let's just do this thing."

Press Start

With a small bit of seed funding from the GDAA, Reed started cobbling together the space, with donated furniture and scrounged equipment -- running it "lean and mean," in his own words.

Developers arrived and, as the Arcade grew, the Victorian Government saw the merit behind Reed's vision, finally kicking in some cash via Film Victoria, a government agency that provides assistance to the film, television and digital media sectors of the state.

These days the Arcade looks exactly how you imagine a building full of games studios would look: office areas alternate between 'loud and rambunctious' and 'quiet and studious', depending, I assume, on where in the development cycle the different teams are. Consoles and PCs are liberally scattered around the office, as are tablets and smartphones.

Testing rigs of all types -- including a few Oculus kits -- abound. Collectibles fill shelves, side by side with award statues. Posters cover the walls. (Including, amusingly, a poster for Crawl. I comment to one Arcadian that I didn't know Powerhoof, the team behind Crawl, were part of the group. "Oh they're not," I'm informed. "We just love that game.")

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But it wasn't always quite like this. Chris Wright is the managing director of Surprise Attack, a PR, marketing and indie label publishing company that specialises in the games industry. Surprise Attack was one of the first groups to join the Arcade. Wright has previously worked as director of marketing for the Australian arm of game studio THQ -- one of gaming's most high-profile bankruptcies. After that, he worked for Film Victoria as part of the assessment panel for the digital media fund. In short, Wright really knows the Aussie industry.

"We put our hands up to come in to the Arcade the moment we heard about it -- which was a couple of years ago because these things really do take some time to get up and running," says Wright.

"When we moved in it was pretty empty, even some of the meeting rooms hadn't been set up, the desks weren't in place, we didn't even have blinds in the office. We were hanging pieces of paper over the windows trying to block out the sun -- we'd moved in during summer and it was baking hot."

Wright waxes lyrical about the sense of community that people feel about the Arcade -- it's a theme that comes up again and again as I talk to various people throughout the day.

"What we bring is a knowledge about marketing -- and just a good knowledge of the industry in general," he says. "But we get a lot from the developers as well. Everybody shares stories, everybody helps each other out, everyone is always testing someone else's games. Having that breadth of experience in different types of development here really helps."

Tin Man, Gold Statue

Ben Britten Smith from Tin Man Games couldn't agree more. While the Arcade doesn't have anything like defined 'mentors' -- after all, it's not an incubator -- he's is one of a couple of people mentioned to me as coming close to fulfilling that sort of role. It's not surprising either -- Smith moved to gaming a few years back from the film industry, where he won an Academy Award for his work on the Spydercam suspended 3D camera system. (He does not, I am saddened to learn, keep his Oscar on a shelf at work so he can quietly point at it whenever anyone disagrees with him.)

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Ben Britten Smith

Tin Man Games is another of the first run of Arcadians who've been in since the beginning. Tin Man's oeuvre is its 'gamebook adventures' -- digital adaptations of old-school interactive RPG adventure books, like the classic "Fighting Fantasy" series from Ian Livingstone.

While it's easy to see what Smith brings to the Arcade, I can't help but wonder what someone with his experience gets in return. The answer, I'm assured, is quite a lot.

"The newer guys bring a lot of energy, but we bring a lot of experience," he says. "It all combines to create this really nice synergy. The new studios can learn from us, but we can still get fresh ideas from them."

Smith describes the atmosphere in the Arcade as "almost collegiate". This idea of people being able to share concepts and ask questions -- no matter who you're working for -- comes across as integral to the success of the Arcade.

Matt Ditton is the founder of Many Monkeys, one of the already-established studios that chose to move into the Arcade. He's another developer that brings a lot of experience, thanks to his previous work at the now-defunct Krome and Pandemic Studios. Many Monkeys is a little more experimental than most, trying to find the point where gaming meets interactive art. The studio has worked on projects for the Australian Open, the Museum of South Australia and even produced an art installation for the Australian music festival Splendour in the Grass.

Ditton echoes Smith, saying that there are plenty of benefits to the Arcade, even for studios with a few years under their belts. Like Smith, he's unabashedly sincere and effusive in his praise for the Arcade.

"You're not too far away from someone who can help you solve your problem," he says. "We've been solving problems for so long that we generally end up helping quite a lot, but the best part about working with all of these newer indie people is that they're often seeing things from a perspective that we haven't. And that's been incredibly valuable."

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Wanderlust

There are a lot of different types of games being made at the Arcade, but "Wander" is probably one of the more high profile projects currently going on. For anyone who thinks that indie games are all 8-bit retro platformers, "Wander" is the perfect antidote. A "non-combat, non-competitive, collaborative multiplayer game" where you play as a shapeshifting character exploring the world around you. (You begin as a tree and later get to be a griffon, and if you don't think that sounds cool, then you need to have a long think about your life choices.) The game is all about lush visuals, extremely detailed character models and engrossing writing -- everything about it screams AAA-level development.

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A griffin from Wander. Wander

In the course of my day chatting with the people working at the Arcade, the ongoing refrain is one of a truly collaborative environment. Wander's creative director Loki Davison in particular finds the differing skillsets on offer to be a key benefit.

People seem genuinely excited about being able to work in a space where cooperation is the default -- even though they may be entirely different companies working on projects that could be regarded competing with each other.

The atmosphere is relentlessly positive and utterly infectious. I find myself commenting to a co-worker that, even though I've never had the urge to be a game developer in my life, there's something about the Arcade that makes it seem like the perfect idea. ("Let's all quit our jobs and start a studio and make a game called Battle Trains!" I find myself suggesting after one drink too many. My pitch finds no takers.)

Of course, if I did take that strange path, I'd want to move to Melbourne. Victoria is a great state to be in if you're a games developer.

Victoria has always been the leading Australian state when it comes to investing in the arts. The State's 2014-15 budget allocated AU$488 million across the whole arts portfolio. Victoria likes to see itself as the cultural capital of Australia -- it does, after all, have the mystifyingly named National Gallery of Victoria. Jokes aside, it's hard to argue too much when you look at those investment figures. And luckily for the Arcade, Victoria sees gaming as a very artistic endeavour.

Since 2010 it has provided AU$2.6 million in investment and marketing support to more than 50 gaming projects via Film Victoria -- an outlay that has generated an estimated AU$9.6 million in production expenditure. By contrast, the Government of the neighbouring State of New South Wales -- where CNET has its Australian office -- chose not to renew the interactive media fund it used to supply through Screen NSW after its initial three year run had finished.

In 2006-2007 Queensland was home to 49 percent of all games industry workers according to Deloitte. These days, the tables have well and truly turned and just under half of all development studios are in Victoria, while only 22 percent have remained in Queensland.

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Future Play was an interactive installation made by Many Monkeys for the 2013 ANZ Australian Open. Many Monkeys

Levelling up

So with a year under its belt and an energy level that Silicon Valley can only dream of, what's next for the Arcade? Tony Reed definitely has plans for his project.

"I feel like the Arcade has an incredible opportunity to help students with the combined knowledge that we have and we could help refine the courses that are being taught," he says.

The Victorian Government agreed and has decided to fund the Arcade to do just that.

"We have all this amazing talent in the space -- so much knowledge, so much intelligence, so much creativity -- that we're going to extend the program out to students. We want to create almost a finishing school where we can take students out of the tertiary institutions and help them build their portfolios, help them understand how it is to genuinely be in game development. It's a lot of hard work and I don't think many people understand that."

Reed wants the Arcade to become a place where students learn some real-world skills, so that when they graduate, they're ready to hit the gaming industry at a flat out run.

"This is an industry they're already passionate about -- all we need to do is give them the confidence to walk out of here saying 'I can do this.'"