There is an entire marketing industry trying to convince the world to buy Aussie sheep. But our latest international success story is a bit more digital – not to mention Aldrich – than flesh.
Cult of the Lamb, a video game about indoctrinating cute animals into their dark cult and then sacrificing them to a greater power, topped the sales charts upon release (Temporarily reversing the latest Spider-Man game on PC) and sold more than a million units in a week, According to its publisher.
“It’s been so crazy!” says Julian Wilton, the game’s Melbourne- and UK-based developer, one of the three core members of Giant Monster. Wilton first met fellow founders Jay Armstrong and James Pearman a decade ago at a forum dedicated to Internet-based Flash games.
“We’ve been blown away since we started this project,” he says. “We’ll be like … what’s going on? Is that number real?”
Although less popular for big developers like Sony, Rockstar or Ubisoft, Australia is home to some of the world’s most successful indie game studios, with international hits from smaller teams in the last few years. In Melbourne, in particular, the game-developer scene is thriving, thanks to a combination of state government funding, tax incentives and a generally more creator-friendly environment. According to a 2021 survey by the Independent Games and Entertainment Association, over 44% of studios are based in Victoria, along with over 57% of the workforce.
“There is such a creative energy, there are so many beautiful studios,” says Wilton. “I think that community of developers who are on the same level as you is a big motivation; you can talk shop, compare contacts, they can help you, you can help them. It’s very much a community.”
Like many Australian game developers, Massive Monster credits their state’s investment in the industry for helping them achieve international success, with the team receiving $40k in funding from VicScreen and Creative Victoria to get the demo to the point where they could pitch it to their publisher. , Devolver Digital.
“Australia is a really small segment of the market,” says Wilton, “so it’s really useful for Australian developers to have a publisher”.
“Given the relative population size, I think targeting the international market is inevitable,” says Tim Dawson, one of the Brisbane-based developers behind last year’s hit Unpacking.
“One of the great things about digital releases is that we can sell our games all over the world, so it would be remiss not to take advantage of that.”
It’s hard to pin down why Australian sports are getting bigger internationally, Wilton says, although he attributes it to “weird ideas” born from some of the smaller team sizes.
“I hope we can keep the indie spirit strong,” he says, “because that’s where it is [Australia] Thrives … I think that’s where we can compete.
“By having these small teams, you really have to come up with these ideas that are very important, that resonate with people. Where you have a really big team, the ideas can be diluted or standardized.
Dawson agreed. “Because we share a culture with North America and Britain [and] Yet there are also outsiders, Australian and NZ devs who are in a good position to come up with concepts in new and off-kilter ways that can be an effective way to punch through the noise,” he says.
Successful ideas so far include the goose-simulating slapstick of the untitled Goose Game, the meditative Zen of sorting through objects and the revolving house in Dawson’s Unpacking, and the brutal, challenging exploration of the dead and empty world of insects in Hollow Knight—to say nothing. A cult of sheep with a strange, cute but terrifying mix of community management and vengeful crusades.
Dr Marcus Carter, director of the University of Sydney’s Games and Play Lab, believes the success of Australian games internationally is the result of a “strong base of talent and creativity”.
“It’s clear that Australian sports is envisioning a much broader audience of players and with a much broader concept of what sport can look like,” he says. “Who would have thought that moving house could be so much fun?”
Recent announcements on sports funding have focused on federal-level tax offsets for multinational companies that spend large sums of money, but Carter and his colleague, Dr Mark Johnson of the University of Sydney, think many successful sports are now coming “from the small”. Scale, bottom-up products with roots in “the quality of Australia’s sports-development education”.
“As much as the Australian games sector is doing well, it’s doing so on the backs of indies and creatives rather than big investment or state support,” says Johnson, “but the hope is always that the former can lead to the latter. Proving the sector’s viability.”
“Financial support and government interest is important, but the other aspects – cultural rather than financial – all take time to develop and develop. It’s an Australian game-making culture that really needs to start coming into its own.”
Dawson is cautiously optimistic about the potential for further government investment in the sector.
“I think states that invest effectively in video-game development are taking advantage, and other states are taking notice,” he says. “It seems like there are a lot of conversations going on.”
“The scrapping of federal Screen Australia funding when the previous government came to power was a shock, but with its recent return, I’m optimistic for the future of Aussie indie games.”
Carter agrees with this assessment. “I think these recent successes show that the Australian games-development industry is worth investing in,” he says, “and that the investment by state and federal governments is worthwhile.”
Despite the success of his own game, Wilton has one major regret.
“I’m sad, I’m upset,” he laughs. “I can’t believe we sent the koala without the skin!” he says, referring to the dropbear-themed cosmetic option for the game’s super adorable animal followers.
“We have to patch it up,” he says. “It’s definitely on the list.”