New Zealand’s game creators are competing for talent with a lavishly subsidised film sector, but they’re still finding ways to thrive, says Simon Dasan of Wellington powerhouse A44.
There’s an uncanny parallel between New Zealand’s gaming industry and Ashen – the action role-playing game which is one of its most accomplished and celebrated productions. Ashen’s fantasy world and its people are lush and textured, both “startlingly familiar and original”, as industry bible IGN described it. Every detail is lovingly rendered – save one: all characters lack a face.
It’s an absence initially jarring, but soon forgotten. You concentrate on body language, on the voice acting, on your surroundings. For its creators A44 – a Wellington-based independent founded less than five years ago – it is New Zealand’s treasured No 8 wire mentality in action, creativity borne of necessity. Making expressive faces took more developers than they had, so they simply did away with them, letting gaming’s worldwide fanbase decide whether it added or detracted from the product.
The reviews were near-unanimous: it received raves, scoring 8.5 from IGN, 9 from Gamespot and currently sits at 82% on Metacritic, which weighs all key publications to create a consensus average. Microsoft caught on early, making Ashen an Xbox exclusive, and its trailer ran prominently at E3, the pre-eminent games expo.
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This is where the facelessness analogy comes in. While film has Peter Jackson as its heavyweight champion, successfully advocating for the controversial ‘Hobbit law’ and ever-expanding subsidies, New Zealand gaming is yet to find its own. This is despite having a number of hugely successful exports, from West Auckland’s Grinding Gears (creators of the smash Path of Exile), to the juggernaut that is Rocketwerkz – a Dunedin-founded startup that just signed on for Auckland’s most extraordinary piece of commercial real estate, the penthouse of the new PWC building, the country’s tallest office tower.
The industry is on pace for $1bn in revenue by 2025, powered in no small part by the rollout of ultra-fast broadband over the past decade. Its growth neatly tracks that of broadband penetration, and given how taxing gaming is on internet infrastructure, it’s impossible to imagine the industry having grown as fast without it.
A New Zealand pop culture product, flying from its founders’ minds to the world, reads like a politician’s fever dream. Yet it lacks a prominent and powerful public face – neither A44 nor the gaming industry more broadly receives the kind support from the government other creative sectors rely on. Its most direct competitor for talent, the film industry, gets hundreds of millions of dollars through Screen Production Grants. As RocketWerkz’ Dean Hall put it in an opinion piece for The Spinoff recently, “the current government is keen to talk up gaming while at the same time subsidising other industries that we compete with for staff”. This despite game production containing all the attributes our business and political leaders scream out for: low carbon, export-oriented, creative sector and research and development-heavy. For all that seems stacked against it, New Zealand’s gaming industry remains bullish and growing apace.
It’s time to confess something: I know this not because I have any special knowledge or skill at gaming, but because I have had a very specific proximity to both the sector’s growth, and the rocket ride of Ashen and A44. Its creative director is Simon Dasan, a young, handsome and muscular Wellingtonian who also happens to be my cousin. This summer we had a beer in the sun and talked about the promise and difficulties of the industry, his path into it, and what lies ahead for A44.
Duncan Greive: When you were growing up, what were the first games you played and how did you respond to them?
Simon Dasan: I think the first console that we had in the house was a Sega Master System. I remember playing Alex Kidd, Sonic and all that.
Were you one of those kids who just became obsessed immediately, or did it take a while?
I think it hit at that peak age for me where it stuck like glue. I’ve never really stopped gaming from that point.
As I was growing up, I got more and more into the more competitive side. I’d play a lot with friends, and started getting into online games a lot more, whether that be in MMOs (massive multiplayer online games), or I was a big fan of Counter-Strike, Quake III, Unreal Tournament – all those old school arena shooters. Me and my mates would just go real hard at that stuff and we got reasonably good.
What’s reasonably good? How do you grade yourself?
I don’t quite know how to quantify that. I could go into Counter-Strike servers and clean out a server pretty well.
What’s cleaning out a server?
That’s getting number one kill:death ratio almost every time. You know, for a casual guy, I was okay. A lot of my friends started getting into some top New Zealand clans. I never really went there. They were properly good. They would get kicked off servers pretty quick for hacking – even though they weren’t.
What was your path to becoming a developer?
The thought of being a game developer legitimately never crossed my mind until I went and studied animation.
I left Tawa College at the end of sixth form. Had no idea what the hell I wanted to do. I didn’t really want to do uni. I liked computers and thought maybe I could be a network engineer, so I enrolled in that course at polytech. Within two weeks my mate messaged that he’d enrolled in a game dev course. So I left and enrolled in that.
I did that course and it was more overall game dev, it didn’t focus on any particular discipline. At the end of that course, I did another which focused on animation. Then I spent – I can’t remember how long it was now – a year or more before I finally landed a job. I was just going hard. Trying to get better.
What would’ve been your dream job at that time?
At that time? Just working in games anywhere, it didn’t matter. Being from New Zealand, we didn’t have the luxury of choice back then. Sidhe, or PikPok as they’re now known, was easily the biggest and they were in Wellington. I was fortunate enough to semi-know a couple of them and through that I got in touch with their lead animator. I was sending him stuff, so I found out pretty quickly when there was an opening there and managed to land a job. I was psyched.
I stayed at PikPok for nearly six years. I was there for the console to mobile transition. Project timeframes are a lot shorter on mobile. I started as an absolute junior and worked through to be a senior animator by the time I left.
What do you think of mobile gaming?
You can look at my phone – I have no mobile games installed at all. That doesn’t mean I hate them, they definitely have their place. They’re just not really my cup of tea. But as a game developer, I actually quite enjoyed working on mobile games. It’s very rapid, a lot of the time you work on more than one game at any given time.
So you went to Canada. Why?
I really wanted to make triple-A games. Triple-A is big-budget, super high-end console exclusive type games. I basically felt like I had to cross it off my list. I was fortunate enough to land a job pretty quickly at EA. I got to work on the Battlefield games. I did that, I loved my time there but I pretty quickly realised, along with my partner Shannon, that we like New Zealand more than we like working on those kinds of games. The draw back home was pretty strong.
What did you learn from working at one of the biggest operations in the world?
It was really crazy. To this day I still don’t really know how those things actually make it out the door. At its peak, I think we had five countries and seven development studios working on one game.
Did you have a job when you returned home?
No. Didn’t have one when I moved to Canada either. I’ve been pretty gung ho like that. I feel like you’ve got to be in the place. That’s how most of the opportunities work. You’re the one who’s there and can start.
Around the time that we actually left to go to Canada was when I was talking with Derek Bradley and Leighton Milne, who were the founders of A44. I’d worked with them at Sidhe and PikPok. I heard about Ashen, and I saw it and I thought it looked really, really cool. I started helping them out a little bit here and there. They had just saved up money and just decided to go do it.
When you saw Ashen, even back in the day, you could see it – you could see the magic was there. I helped them out, did some animation for them. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting anything, I just thought they were doing their own thing. Then they said ‘Oh, we’re speaking with Microsoft, do you want to come on board?’
How did that feel?
Even with Microsoft getting involved, Ashen was still very much an indie project. It was a decent risk, but there was just no way I could turn that down. Not that opportunity, regardless of whether or not it felt triple A or not.
When did it really start to take off?
When I was working in Canada on Battlefield, just working on a game that was shown at E3, it was basically bucket list material for me. I didn’t think anything from New Zealand could do that.
But the first thing I did at A44 was animate most of our 2015 E3 trailer, which is absolutely wild. From there we started to gain interest from publishers, and late 2016 we signed a publishing deal with Annapurna Interactive that was the next big thing for Ashen. Then we released it in December of 2018.
How did people respond?
It was really strange for me. I was one of the people who was fortunate enough to get to travel over to E3 and other expos, and you start to get the big press companies come around and be genuinely excited to see Ashen. I think you tend to be very isolated in New Zealand. It’s very hard to reach the other side of the world in a lot of ways. You get a different sense of connection when you’re actually talking to people and they’re interested in what you’re doing.
What was key to creating a game as ambitious as Ashen from such a small crew, so far from anywhere?
One of the big ones is the fact that we actually have pretty damn good internet in New Zealand by global standards. Games stress a lot of things, it’s very taxing on internet and general computer horsepower. But some of the other major ones are engines going free, like the Unreal engine becoming free – I don’t really know if Ashen and a myriad of other games would have happened if that wasn’t the case.
Describe a gaming engine to a lay person.
An engine is almost like the structure of a house. You can’t glue four walls together and have a house. There’s got to be foundations and that’s essentially what an engine is. For any team making their own engine – just forget about it. It has been done and continues to be done, but it is a huge undertaking.
How would you characterise the current state of the New Zealand gaming industry and how well supported do you feel it is?
The games industry in New Zealand is booming. There are so many mini studios around now and they’re all making really, really cool stuff. Everyone seems to have a slightly different flavour on what it is that they’re doing, which is really cool to see.
I don’t really think there’s any stopping it. It’s just going to get bigger and bigger. I think it makes a lot of sense for New Zealand and that I think New Zealanders by and large think outside the box, are very creative and have a lot of ingenuity, think around problems. It makes sense as well just in terms of the way you can just upload your game to a store front and then it’s available around the globe.
The distribution platforms already exist.
Exactly. Even if you were to look at it like environmentally as well – you basically hit a button and it’s available globally. I think New Zealand game dev is really going from strength-to-strength. You’re seeing it across the board, new studios constantly popping up, the education in games is just getting better and better and as it is seen as a viable career – this is going to feed into itself.
You’re currently working on an unnamed, shrouded-in-secrecy follow up. What’s different about it this time around and what is the ultimate ambition A44?
At the end of the day at A44, we just want to make games we want to play and that’s what everything is based around. Ashen started because games like Ashen weren’t being made in New Zealand, so we decided to make it. I think the next title we’re looking to just build on what we started with Ashen.
The kind of games that we make are so big and so complex that just making one game in that genre is not enough. There’s so much to learn, so many new areas to delve into. It’s a hugely exciting time, because the next game is massive and it’s terrifying – but it should be. We really want to create super high-quality triple-A titles, and I think we can.
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