Where do all Australia's senior game developers go?

Despite Australia's vibrant creative games culture, studios are struggling to hire expert talent.
Where do all Australia's senior game developers go? Image via Shutterstock.
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Jini Maxwell

Thursday 6 August, 2020
League of Geeks lead producer Lisy Kane tells me that the studio never want any of their employees to leave. It's a joke, of course – but it's also an attitude that is fundamental to the studio’s approach to hiring and retaining staff. The game development studio, which was founded in 2011 with flagship title Armello, is locally renowned for its commitment to staff retention and wellbeing. They offer competitive salaries, flexible working hours, menstrual leave, extensive parental leave, leadership training, and personal development days:
‘we want people to want to work for us forever,’ Kane reiterates, ‘we want to make sure they have career paths here, and to have space to grow.’

After almost a decade, the studio is a cornerstone of the local development scene, and have recently announced a second major project in partnership with American games publisher, Private Division. With this announcement came a bevy of job openings at the company – but despite its great reputation and employment packages, the studio has struggled to fill the senior roles. 

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According to a 2016 IGEA submission to Parliament, over 5000 students enrol in game design courses in Australia per year, and studios advertising for junior roles are often flooded with qualified applications. But this overabundance of talent dwindles with more senior job openings, and studios like League of Geeks, who offer a degree of stability, support and challenge that is rare in the creative industries, have to take recruitment measures that are expensive and time-consuming to fill leadership roles. So where are all of Australia’s senior talent in games?

To IGEA, this scarcity of experience in the local industry is a symptom of Australian games’ ‘incomplete ecosystem.’ With only a handful of larger studios operating in the country, most developers work as contracted freelancers on smaller projects, rather than employees. As developers gain experience, the option to advance their career overseas is simply more realistic than staying in the tiny, scattered local scene. Many countries with larger industries also offer relatively accessible visa programs to talent from Australia and New Zealand. This scarcity of experienced talent also leaves junior and mid-career developers bereft of their experience, mentorship, and support. Local studios, and the industry as a whole, are at something of an impasse: how can the industry grow without its seniors?

THE COST OF HIRING

League of Geeks have undertaken several major steps to source senior talent for their new project, and these steps have come at no small cost. They have hired a studio manager to oversee hiring and take part in active recruitment, as well as partnering with specialist recruiting agency, Gamesmith, based in the US.

The combination of a new hire, recruiter fees, and budgeting for potential visa costs makes for a massive financial commitment, and while the studio has had some success, they are still recruiting for several positions, including the senior game designer, senior network engineer, and lead developer roles. While these are costs that LoG can comfortably weather, few studios have the financial stability to say the same. 
 

Game development can't get a (tax) break

The games industry is currently not eligible for the federal tax offsets offered to the rest of the screen sector. IGEA argue that including games in the federal PDV tax offset, which offers a 30 per cent rebate on all  post-production, digital and visual effects production completed in Australia, would help stabilise the industry immensely. 

For an established studio like League of Geeks, the results would be obvious and immediate; on this point, Kane is clear: ‘A tax offset would mean we could hire more staff. It’s not hard to run that math on that one – it would allow us to hire more, and it would contribute to the sustainability of the studio.'

Read More: Parliamentary Inquiry recommends federal offset for game development 

Kane explains that the biggest cost a studio faces is (‘or should be, if you’re doing things right!’) their staff. Beyond salaries (a non-negotiable cost for LoG, who pride themselves on offering competitive salaries) and leave, a studio that aims to retain and support its staff needs to provide training and professional development. 

This is particularly important for experienced developers. Given that the Australian industry is so small, they can’t count on peer mentorship and local opportunities to refine their expertise. Kane considers this a significant barrier to hiring senior talent: ‘after a point, it’s really hard to keep learning, and to advance your career, if there’s no one else around you in that same pool, or working on a similar level. You have to rely on international opportunities like GDC to get the chance to learn from other people.’

VISA troubles

Talent visas are difficult to procure – especially if your government doesn’t recognise that the jobs that you’re advertising exist at all. Game development has not been formally  recognised as a category of employment within Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations (ANZSCO) codes. In order to qualify for skilled migration to Australia, a migrant or employer must nominate an occupation from the Skilled Occupations List – an impossible task, if the List fails to recognise game development as work. Developers applying for an employment visa have had to apply through the Multimedia Specialists and Web Developers; while this covers some roles, there are many roles common to games that this category doesn’t account for at all. This creates an impossible, and financially punishing, situation for local studios: ‘How do you hire someone whose position description does not even exist in the eyes of two governments?’

Kane describes the arduous process of applying for talent visas as a sometimes prohibitive cost to hiring: ‘they’re very restrictive, and very expensive. While we can make considerations for that in our budget [for hiring on the new project], it’s a huge cost. On top of that, it’s very slow, and very stressful.’

Recently, IGEA’s advocacy resulted in vital change:

‘As a direct result of IGEA's input, the ANZSCO codes have been expanded to include a range of roles common in the video games industry. For example, going forward, 261211 Multimedia Specialist will cover a range of game-related roles, such as (Senior) Rendering Engineer or (Senior) Graphics Engineer. Other examples are 232413 Multimedia Designer accommodating Level Designer or 232412 Illustrator covering Environment Artist.’

The inclusion of game development roles on the Skilled Occupations list will make the process of hiring overseas senior talent much simpler and more reliable. It has the secondary effect of creating more accurate statistical recognition for game development. IGEA told Screenhub that these changes would also help them advocate for the sector. 
 
While the current pandemic is currently affecting international migration, with visa priority given to essential workers, IGEA told Screenhub that these changes are now in full effect. 

THE FUTURE 

IGEA believe that a key step in stabilising the local development scene is attracting international corporations to set up local studios. Larger studios can not only create a wider array of jobs, but many larger studios internationally work closely with undergraduate and graduate programmes to ensure that graduates are job-ready:  'We think providing employees with more choice of employment and the ability to upskill across industry will benefit the entire industry'

I ask Kane her thoughts on the idea of large companies working out of Australia; on one hand, she's very supportive: 'there would be huge incentive to work on big IP, in a studio like Naughty Dog or similar, which would attract some major talent. It would result in a really big pool of talent to grab from when we were hiring – and for someone like me, I could learn from senior producers that I've never, never seen or worked with before.'

However, she's concerned about repeating the industry's mistakes of the past; after the Global Financial Crisis, a number of Triple-A studios folded or withdrew business from Australia. As a result, the local games industry experienced a mass exodus as senior talent moved overseas; it's a brain drain the industry is still recovering from. Historically, Triple-A studios have not always provided stability for their workers, despite the opportunities they come with. 

Ultimately, she feels that an increase in large studios would be beneficial to LoG's hiring pool: 'of course it would mean more competition for senior roles, but our policy has always been to work with people who want to work with us.'

It would be remiss to the elide the fact that the games industry, across the world and across decades, has also been rife with allegations of abuse, harassment, and gender and racial discrimination. Many marginalised developers leave the industry completely, with women game developers leaving the industry at twice the rate of their male counterparts, often to be replaced by men. As a result, roles at the higher levels are rarely representative of the diversity of the workforce, or the games audience. This loss is complex and wide-reaching, crossing international borders, and permeating the smallest collectives and largest companies. It's not just an economic barrier or border that means we lose developers; it's the industry itself. 

What's Next? 

Senior talent are hampered from working in Australia for reasons that are cultural, economic, bureaucratic, and financial. These factors are slowly changing; South Australia has embraced a PDV offset for game development, and a Parliamentary Committee into Trade and Investment recently recommended that the federal government extend the federal PDV offset to games, based on IGEA's Inquiry submission.

There is no question of the local industry's remarkable cultural and economic production: from local hits like Untitled Goose Game, Crossy Road, and Fruit Ninja, to Australian work on international blockbusters like LA Noire, Bioshock, all the way back to 80s Commodore 64 classic Way of the Exploding Fist, Australia's mark on the international games industry is indelible. Despite a global pandemic (through which the industry has largely remained stable), these are promising signs for the local industry on a level of policy, which has rarely seen acknowledgement, let alone support, on a federal level. 

The issues of industry are more complicated. Initiatives like the start-up Kane co-founded, Girl Geek Academy, and mentoring organisation The Working Lunch are doing their part to create a future for the industry that would see diverse developers retained, and in leadership positions, but it's hard going. This is especially true while the local industry is unstable, and few devs are permanent employees.

For League of Geeks the supportive culture and commitment to retaining staff has been an invaluable asset for the studio during their recruitment process. Despite the pitfalls of recruitment, the team have been successful in attracting diverse senior talent who would be less likely to gravitate to a less inclusive studio. Kane tells me that diversity in senior teams is self-perpetuating: 'What we've seen time and time again is that  that if you have people on the senior team that look like the world, it makes it easier to hire more people who look like that too.'

About the author

Jini Maxwell is a writer, and creative producer based in Narrm (Melbourne), who specialises in the local games industry and new media. They have contributed critical writing to Screen Education, The Saturday Paper, ACCA online, Melbourne Knowledge Week's Stories platform, and the Melbourne Recital Centre's soundescapes, as well as curating the Digital Intimacies exhibition in 2019. They currently work as a creative producer for Freeplay Independent Games Festival. In 2018, they were one of three Emerging Critics in Residence at the Melbourne Recital Centre.