Melbourne-based Nick Pearce is a gamer and a keen modder. In 2015 he took the fantasy blockbuster Skyrim and modified it into a time-travel murder mystery. When the mod hit 4 million downloads he knew he had a hit on his hands.
With help from VicScreen, Pearce quit his job, founded his studio – Modern Storyteller – and rebuilt the game from scratch.
‘The Forgotten City’ is now a global phenomenon. In 2022, the game was a nominated for ‘Game of the Year’ at the BAFTA awards. Meanwhile, Pearce’s studio shows how Australian indie startups can create narrative games that gain critical acclaim worldwide.
The Forgotten City sprang from a role-playing game about dragons and zombies. The radical mod that Pearce began in 2015 morphed the game into a time-travel murder mystery.
But the 4 million hits he gained triggered a problem. How could he possibly create the game using his own IP – especially if that meant giving up his day job as a lawyer.
‘To make a new commercial game, I would need to rebuild my mod from the ground up,’ he says. ‘This was a massive undertaking. But with help from VicScreen, I started a studio and built the game myself.’
‘There is a lot of raw talent in Australia,’ he adds. ‘State funding helps people start their own studios. Today, there are increased opportunities for people like me to come out of the woodwork and get into the industry.’
The rebuild took approximately 4 years. The Forgotten City launched in July 2021 and is now a commercial and critical success.
‘We were nominated for Game of the Year at the UK’s BAFTAs in 2022 and various other awards at The Game Awards, DICE, and The Golden Joysticks,’ says Pearce. ‘Also, we won best international game at the French industry Pegases awards. And we’ve picked up an Australian Game Developers Award (AGDA) for excellence in narrative.’
This is a major achievement for a team of 3 that completed 90% of the game in-house. According to Pearce, these awards show that young Australian studios are ‘punching above their weight’ on the world stage.
‘Today, there are writers, artists and programmers in Australia who are at the top of their game – but who have never been absorbed into triple A studios because the opportunities haven’t been there. That’s why startup studios are doing well.’
Small studios are also becoming adept at signing with major studios. In 2020, Modern Storyteller teamed up with France-based Dear Villagers to launch the Forgotten City.
‘I went to the Games Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco in 2019,’ says Pearce. ‘I had a vertical slice of the game to present. That was enough to get me talking to 9 different publishers.’
Pearce says that one-on-one rapport is incredibly important for Australian studios looking for a publisher. And that gives Australian entrepreneurs the upper hand.
‘There is genuine overseas interest in small Australian games studios,’ he says. ‘This includes interest from investors.’
Why is Australia proving so hot in the small studio space? Pearce says collaboration is key. Small studios help each other. That’s creating a great developer ecosystem.
‘When I reflect on my own experience, I reckon that game development in Australia is a community of unsung heroes,’ he says. ‘Back in 2017, I had a mod that was successful but non-marketable. Then I had a few beers with local developers at League of Geeks. They explained how the games industry works.’
Pearce says that these contacts gave him ‘incredible’ mentoring advice over the next 4 years. They helped him commercialise the game.
‘I think the spirit of helpfulness is part of our games culture,’ he says. ‘People want to collaborate and help you succeed. In Australia, game development is an incredibly supportive industry.
‘There’s one other factor behind the success of Australia’s digital games industry: a healthy work-life balance. This makes us super-productive.
‘My programmer – Alex – did the work of an entire team of programmers for almost 5 years. How? Balance. He knocks off work at 5.00 pm every day and volunteers as a surf life-saver in his spare time.’
International investors are buying into the Australian games industry. The Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade) is committed to helping international investors find opportunities.