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Australia in video games: Five of the best

With Borderlands: The-Pre Sequel and Civilization: Beyond Earth representing Australia’s humour and geography, we look at five other games that also do our sunburnt land proud.

Australia might not have as many top-shelf developers and publishers as it used to, but that doesn’t mean the Lucky Country doesn’t get its fair share of representation in video games.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel turned took the spirit of Crocodile Dundee and injected it into Pandora’s moon, while the latest iteration of the classic turn-based franchise Civilization: Beyond Earth uses Australia for one of the playable factions.

Australia has been a regular feature in video games over the last few decades, whether it be as a developer, location, inspiration or even as a joke. Here’s some other games with a heavy dose of down under.

Powerslide

(Ratbag Entertainment, PC, 1998)
Powerslide

Thanks to last year’s census, we know most Australian game developers are based in Melbourne, with a significantly smaller amount based in Sydney and Brisbane. There were a lot more developers based in Queensland over a decade ago, when the Queensland government’s support for the industry and Creative Assembly, the makers of the Total War series, were still going strong.

One place that has never been a traditional hot bed of development is Adelaide, yet that’s exactly where Ratbag Games based themselves. Over 12 years, the studio released a string of surprisingly high-quality racing games.

Powerslide was Ratbag’s first release and it’s the one the Adelaide studio will always be remembered for, combining a superb level of graphics for 1998 with inventive levels, a punishing level of difficulty and a smooth 60 frames per second, a rarity for the time.

Unfortunately, the game required a 3D accelerator card to run, which created so many internal issues that GT Interactive, Powerslide’s publisher, only printed 7000 copies. Greg Siegele, the former CEO of Ratbag, told PC World that the small run was because of GT’s vice-president of marketing, an executive who voted against greenlighting Powerslide.

“She was already developing a racing title called TransAm Racing with a start-up studio spun out from a company that recreated car accidents for legal disputes. They were good at physics, but that was it,” Siegele revealed.

“This same executive was also pissed that Powerslide would only run on machines with 3D graphics cards, and said they would never publish another game that was 3D only. Yeah, close the patent office, too, while you’re at it.”

Ratbag managed to survive long enough to publish Dirt Track Racing, but the troubles of writing an engine from scratch for the PlayStation 2 eventually saw Sony cut Ratbag loose. The company was bought out by Midway, before being shut down entirely less than a fortnight before Christmas in 2005.

The Hobbit

(Beam Software, multiple platforms, 1982)

In terms of international success, Australia’s benchmark was set all the way back in 1982 when Beam Software – a company that became better known for KKND (which we’ll cover later) in the mid-90s – managed to sell a staggering 100,000 copies of The Hobbit in its first two years of release.

The Hobbit was an illustrated text adventure game that was released on a staggering range of platforms, including the Macintosh, PC, Apple II, Dragon 32, Commodore 64, BBC, Oric Atmos, Amstrad CPC and the MSX (a machine that never saw release in most of the West but was popular in Japan, Brazil and the former Soviet Union).

The Hobbit also introduced a text-based physics system while being set in real-time, as opposed to the permanent stasis that text adventures often occupy.

It’s suggested that The Hobbit may have even sold as many as 500,000 copies, reaching a level of success matched only by the original Zork, another classic text adventure from the 1980s. It’s not an unreasonable proposition, considering Beam’s efforts was one of the first video games to be based off literature.

Having the Tolkien pedigree is one thing, but introducing independent non-player characters that could roam in-game wherever they pleased was a masterstroke. The variety and inconsistency of how the NPCs behaved from game-to-game made The Hobbit one of the first notable proponents of emergent gameplay.

Crash Bandicoot

(Naughty Dog, PlayStation, 1996)
Crash Bandicoot
Naughty Dog might not be based in Australia – and they’ve certainly moved onto bigger and better things since Crash Bandicoot’s release in 1996, with the Uncharted series and The Last of Us – but the fact that Crash Bandicoot and his adventures take place on a series of islands south-east of Australia makes the PS1 platformer perhaps the most well-known game in history to use Australia as a location.

Crash Bandicoot was so loved for its time, thanks to its advanced graphics and personality, that it became a cult classic. You can still buy the Crash games on the PlayStation Network, although the game hasn’t aged well and the camera makes it supremely challenging to play in 2014 (as opposed to a game like Metal Gear Solid, which holds up remarkably well even today).

Crash Bandicoot was targeted as a mascot for the PlayStation, giving it a rival to Sonic on the SEGA Saturn or Mario on the Nintendo 64. It’s hard to say whether Crash really won out in that regard – both Sonic and Mario still attract a large following today, although Sonic’s brand has been damaged substantially with a history of woeful releases in the last decade, the Sonic & All-Stars Racing series aside.

Commercially, at least, Naughty Dog hit gold, with the mutated bandicoot selling 6.82 million copies, making it the 12th-best selling PlayStation game in history, and laying the groundwork for Crash Bandicoot: Warped, which would go on to sell 7.12 million copies of its own.

Bioshock/Bioshock 2/Bioshock Infinite

(2K Australia, multiple platforms, 2008/2010/2013)
Bioshock Infinite
We recently offered you our take on Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, and it would be remiss to write about some of Australia’s greatest gaming hits without acknowledging the contribution of 2K Australia to one of the most beloved franchises of the last few years: the Bioshock series.

Driven by the ideas of Ken Levine, Bioshock took players to the underwater terminus of Rapture, an Atlantis-like utopia driven into desolation by the discovery of ADAM and the genetic, superhuman-esque mutations that resulted.

2K Australia shared the main development responsibilities for Bioshock with 2K Boston, which resulted in one of the most critically acclaimed games in the last ten years. The steampunk theme and the underwater setting, coupled with the moral quandary of saving or killing Little Sisters for additional ADAM plasmids, was a smashing commercial success, with over 4 million copies sold by March 2010.

Bioshock Infinite continued the series’ reputation for pairing a gripping setting with intriguing characters and moral debacles, which proved as big a hit with gamers as it did critics. Infinite was the first game in the United Kingdom to top the sales charts for three weeks running and its publisher, Take-Two Interactive, announced over 6 million copies had been sold as of May this year.

The success of the Bioshock series has firmed the reputation of the Canberra-based studio as a team capable of playing on the big stage. Unfortunately, with the lack of government support in other states and territories and the passage of time, 2K Australia are now the only AAA studio left in the country.

Nevertheless, they still have a proven ability to craft world-class video games and any developer would be proud of their track record.

L.A. Noire

(Team Bondi, multiple platforms, 2011)
L.A. Noire
The closure of Team Bondi is one of the more upsetting stories in Australia’s gaming history, with the company being liquidated after failing to secure a follow-up project after the release of their open-world detective adventure L.A. Noire. 33 staffers were owed just over $1 million when the company folded, with Depth Analysis, a separate company founded to create the revolutionary motion-capture technology used in the game, owed just over $145,000.

It’s a shame for what was, for the time, one of the most expensive and highest profile games ever made in Australia. The BBC estimated L.A. Noire’s budget at approximately $50 million, with over 400 actors filmed and their faces mapped and rendered into 3D models to create facial animations some reviewers found freakishly realistic.

The game wasn’t flawless, with some performance issues particularly on consoles, but it was well received by critics and even more loved by fans. Take-Two’s stock rose 7.75 per cent when L.A. Noire launched and the game shipped almost 5 million copies by February in 2012.

Unfortunately, the controversy after the game’s release, including the leaking of internal emails showing an almost toxic relationship between Team Bondi management and Rockstar Games, L.A. Noire’s publisher, and staff being asked to work 12 hours a day and up to seven days a week in some cases, damaged Team Bondi’s reputation and capacity to secure another project.

The game’s seven-year development time was also an issue, with a source telling GamesIndustry that the project would have failed without the continued financial support of Rockstar.

Team Bondi was brought back to life after Kennedy Miller Mitchell purchased the company and began work on Whore of the Orient, a game that has already had a small measure of trouble after Screens NSW injected $200,000 into the project last year. Footage of the game was leaked last August, although nothing has been heard of the action-adventure since then.

About the author

Alex Walker is a freelance journalist writing for ABC Technology & Games, and games.on.net. You can follow him on Twitter @thedippaeffect.

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