samurai punk, and melbourne’s independent games industry

Oct 22, 2020

Author: Sam Everaardt

On a typical day, you would find Swinburne alumnus Winston Tang hard at work in the Samurai Punk office down at The Arcade in Southbank. He would be at his standing desk, programming for an upcoming, secret project. Surrounding him, a litany of potted succulents and leafy ferns, with shelves showcasing plush toys, shirts, pins, and banners from previous titles such as Screencheat, The American Dream, Feather and, their upcoming title JUSTICE SUCKS: RECHARGED.

Today, in the presence of Victoria’s COVID-19 lockdown, he is working from home, seated at his desk adorned with figurines and memorabilia of his favourite games.

“I’ve always loved games and enjoyed creative pursuits,” Winston tells me. “Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid were formative games in my life which proved to me games can be more than just ‘toys’.”

“Making games in IT class during high school was my first experience building games, and I continued to experiment with the creation tools in the LittleBigPlanet series.”

LittleBigPlanet is a first-party title from Sony, a platformer wherein users can create and share levels they make with others, designing anything from gauntlets to narratives.

“One of the levels was an interactive story about a character’s last day alive and the choices you’d make on that day. It was played by thousands of people, and I saw a variety of comments from players about how it helped them appreciate their lives more.”

“That sense of gratitude towards the players and knowledge that I improved their lives, even a little bit, was what sparked my passion for being a game creator.”

During his final year at Swinburne studying Games and Interactivity, Winston worked alongside Nicholas McDonnell participating in game jams—particularly the Global Game Jam—events wherein amateur and aspiring game developers are given prompts to work with, which they must use to produce playable prototypes within a limited period of time.

Together, they worked on several small prototypes such as FROWNTOWN, Connections and Bear Attack, all sharing a humble quirkiness which soon became the fervent mantra and style for their ongoing design choices.

But it was only after their collaborative success in designing Samurai XX, a game in which you play a blind samurai using only sound to find his enemies, that they started to see the true potential of their cooperation, deciding to found the studio name Samurai Punk.

Pursuing their momentum from the game jam experience, the two began work on their first major project Hazumino, a side-scrolling ‘infinite runner’ game mixed with puzzle block elements familiar to Tetris that Winston originally began as a university assignment.

Once completed, it would go on to be released to the Apple iOS and Android application stores for mobile devices in early 2014, eventually netting them a pittance of fortune, but a resounding wave of accomplishment.

Riding high, the two looked onward to the following year’s Global Game Jam, picking up Ellie Whitfort along the way, who had graduated from RMIT. The prompt that year had been “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are”, laying forth the foundations of their most commercially successful game to date.

Screencheat is an up-to-four-player first-person competitive experience, where each player is completely invisible within an arena, yet all have the ability to see through the eyes of one another in other quadrants of the screen. The idea rode off of the cultural heritage of gamers since the days of Goldeneye 007 on the Nintendo 64, where friends would sit in front of a CRT television and cheat by looking at the other ends of the screen to see where there friends currently were.

“We were lucky enough to be picked up by publisher Surprise Attack—now Fellow Traveller—that gave us the confidence our game was special.”

And it was. Screencheat went on to win several accolades, including the indie showcase award at PAX AUS 2014, the technical excellence award at AGDA 2015, and Famitsu’s—Japan’s biggest video game magazine—gold award in 2016.

“During the early development of Screencheat”, Winston explains, “I worked full-time as a web developer at Deloitte for nine months, working on the game only in my spare time. The company was partially self-funded, and we also had some support from Film Victoria.”

“They were helpful for us when we started up, but also when we wanted to scale up the studio and elevate our ambition. They are a precious resource for young Victorian studios.”

Film Victoria is a State Government agency which provides strategic leadership, assistance, and grants to serious creatives. As of 2020, it offers up to $150,000 in video game production investment, with a newer initiative grant offering up to $30,000 to assist with marketing and business expenses for a video games release.

“There’s still a lack of federal support which is disappointing. We look enviously at our friends in Canada at how much support they get and how much their industry has grown because of it. Overall, here, conditions have made it harder for small studios to survive.”

“We’ve seen many studios rise and fall.”

Games development in Australia has been considerably ignored by the federal government, with the last well-known event having been in 2014 when then-treasurer Joe Hockey cut $845 million in industry assistance programs, $10 million of which belonged to the entirety of the Australian Interactive Games Fund. Though merely a fraction of the overall budget cut, the fund was significant to what was a rather infantile-yet-promising industry at the time.

According to the Interactive Games & Entertainment Association in an industry snapshot of 2018-2019, Australian games development studios generated $143.5 million dollars, with thirty-nine percent of full-time developers being based in Melbourne.

Regardless of their success, developers state that the current challenges remain – lack of government funding, difficulties in attracting early stage development funding and expansion investments, and the continued struggle to secure international publisher deals.

During the 2008 global financial crisis, major publishing studios withdrew from Australia due to costs and risks, leaving aspiring developers with only the option to outsource themselves or to instead focus on their own personal game development.

“However,” said Winston, “there are now more major studios in Melbourne than when we first started, which is a great option for people looking for a more stable career in games development. I figured I’d be working for a major studio, but I think indie development is where my heart belongs.”

Because in an industry still growing, and one that begs for such creativity, money isn’t what aspiring developers should think it’s all about.

“It’s true that the business is ‘more than just games’,” Winston continued.

“Making money as your goal ends up being counterintuitive. For us it has led to over-scoping, over-reliance on documentation and floundering our creative momentum.”

“Focus on making an interesting game first, and the money will follow… sometimes. But if money is the reason you’re making a game, you’ll most likely fail or lose your soul to it.”

“When you’re indie, you get to control the scope, which is empowering and exciting, but also a great responsibility. Hard times will come, it’s inevitable. The business is harsh, and it’ll beat you down, so build resilience and a growth mindset. We try to learn from our failings, so project post-mortems are a great way to reflect and go over the harsh lessons learned.”

“The early stages of Samurai Punk were very sloppy and carried a ‘tinkering in garbage’ feeling for a long time, but in 2016 we started to evolve into a proper studio, bringing on employees and starting to grow as a business as well as game creators.”

Originally a team of three, Samurai Punk have since grown to a whopping ten members, allowing them to focus on larger projects. And they’re not alone in their growth, either. There were 1,275 full-time employees in Australian game development in 2019, a growth of almost 350 since the year prior.

Team Cherry, a small studio based in Adelaide, developed Hollow Knight, a platformer action game which garnered incredible global success and is set for much-anticipated sequel in 2021. Armello, a turn-based strategy game by League of Geeks, continues to be updated five years after its release for their dedicated fans. Then there’s Necrobarista, a successful interactive visual novel released only in July by Melbourne-based Route 59.

We also have Fruit Ninja, by Halfbrick Studios, the second-most downloaded mobile game of all time, reaching over a billion downloads and earning tens of millions in profit, striking continued success with their follow-up title Jetpack Joyride. Then there’s Crossy Road, by Hipster Whale, which earned $10 million in just its first ninety days of release in late 2014—throwing a laugh and a snort to the federal culling of the exact same amount taken out of the national games fund.

If there’s anything Australians love to do, it’s to punch well above their weight.

“We’re still a small studio,” said Winston. “So, we’re in this weird limbo where we aren’t on the verge of extinction, but we also aren’t thriving either. I’m just grateful we’re still around and get to make cool stuff—and the longer we stay at it and grow, the more confident I am that we’ll have our true breakout hit.”

“Our way forward is a fan-first strategy, with the aim to make the best games to delight our players and to give them a caring and fun community to be a part of.”

But for those still wet behind the ears, even the promising success of studios from the same feather still can’t remedy the fears all amateur creatives share.

“Don’t do the solo thing when you’re starting out, it’s too easy to get lost in your own mind that way. Find people you jive with and create with them. Conflict is okay, it tends to produce a game fast.” Winston explains.

“Shigeru Miyamoto is known to have said a delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is bad forever. However, what’s even worse is the game that never releases. You’ll learn the most from going through the process of shipping a game, from beginning to end.”

“Games are easy to start, but incredibly hard to finish. There are so many games being released these days it’s better to quietly ship your first game and have it not succeeded, and learn from that experience. Fail fast, learn fast.”

“A good game is not enough—you need a catchy idea. A hook, some kind of gimmick that differentiates you from the flooded market. You’re competing for peoples’ attention, and your competition is all of Steam, Netflix, Nintendo’s eShop, PSN, Xbox Live, etc.”

“Don’t spend years on your dream game right out the gate when it could be swept away by all these accumulating factors.”

This rests in the soul of Samurai Punk’s ethos, from not only their quirky development ideas, but also branding. Comparatively unique to other independent studios, Samurai Punk has explored merchandising—from shirts, to pins, to plush toys, to skateboard decks to even their very own novelty beer.

“We have a cool sounding company name and logo, which created a strong sense of brand right from the get-go. We love being creative and trying new things, so we’re quick to explore opportunities and to push the brand.” Winston says.

“However, it is incredibly difficult juggling so many different ventures at once. These days we’re trying to refocus our efforts onto things we are good at and enjoy, so that we can produce the best quality work and maintain the creative spark.”

“I don’t think all studios should necessarily go for our approach of going wide but, specifically, you need to consider things like how fun your game is to watch, what community it is that you build and engage with, and the different ways players can enjoy your product even when they’ve finished playing the game.”

It rests without a doubt that games development remains one of the most tumultuous environments for a creative, demanding a multi-faceted knack attention for business, strategy, design, and socialisation—a daunting expectation from a fresh graduate.

“Surviving over six years being able to create unique, original products has been my crowning achievement,” Winston tells me. “I’m incredibly proud how we make games that break rules and conventions, and I’m delighted by knowing that people enjoy what we’ve made.”

“The path of an independent games developer isn’t easy. Ask yourself if you’re willing to go through hell to achieve your goal, so that you’ll be ready if hell comes for you. Be clear about why you want to pursue this path, and then channel it as your motivation. Find the right people, keep shipping games, fail—it’s okay to fail, failure is a teacher. Your first game will probably suck, but you’ll get better every time you ship one.”

“Be grateful of every achievement, big or small—of every person who plays your game. But hey, we’re all going to die, so in your brief existence, make your contributions to the world mean something to somebody.”

“Games might not save the world, but they can make people happy. So, if you just do a bit of that, and make sure you have some fun along the way, know you are doing well.”

Header image by Frederick Tedong, courtesy of Unsplash