Steve Heller, originally of Traralgon, is a producer and designer, currently working in the video games industry with Surprise Attack Games, a major independent video game publishing label.
Steve has achieved several personal milestones whilst working in the industry, most recently the game “Orwell” was nominated for the prestigious IGF Narrative Excellence Award, and was also a nominee for The Game Awards – Games For Impact 2016.
While continuing his role as a producer and designer, Steve over the last twelve months has been exploring different ways that video game enthusiasts can turn their passion into a source of income, working with streaming services such as Beam. While one would think that would leave Steve with little time, he is admirably also developing a mentorship program for indigenous and rural youth, to help usher in the next generation of video game creators.
We were lucky enough to be able to interrupt Steve’s busy schedule and ask him some questions prior to his upcoming February talk at The VRI in Traralgon:
What made you decide to join the games industry initially?
Video games have always been a constant in my life, something that inspired and ignited a passion for an industry that was still finding itself and pushing a new medium. Originally, I just wanted to write about video games, which is how I became the editor of Australia’s largest independent community outlet at the time (MMGN), and then I fell into the world of freelance journalism for Game Informer, The Escapist and others. After writing about games for a long time, I decided I wanted to try my hand at creating them, which is how I ended up being a producer at Surprise Attack Games.
Are there any games or game designers have you found inspiring over the years?
There are so many games and designers, it’s impossible to name them all. Tim Schafer has been a huge influence, teaching me that it’s okay to be absurd and witty when writing dialogue. Ken Levine was another huge inspiration, particularly with the release of the first BioShock game. The way it tackled issues of race, poverty, elitism and politics still holds up years after the release. Indie developers such as Dennaton Games (Hotline Miami), Team Meat (Super Meat Boy), Minor Key Games (Eldritch, Slayer Shock) and Campo Santo (Firewatch) are huge inspirations that always push me to explore how I work in the industry.
Is there a project that you have been involved with that you are most proud of?
Orwell was a hugely personal game for me, a game that had an important message to share. It looks at the importance of online security, and the idea of online privacy versus the security of a nation. It explores how people make snap judgements based on limited information about each other, particularly using social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Writing on that game with Osomotic Studios was an absolute pleasure, and by far the highlight of my professional life.
Do you have a preferred platform to make video games for, ie. Mobile Phones, Playstation/Xbox or PC?
PC is my favourite platform, mainly because I’m predominantly a PC gamer. The amount of access that gamers have now through Steam, Humble Bundle, GOG and Itch.io means that our games can get into the hands of people in multiple ways.
Given the sheer amount of video games now released annually, how hard is it now to come up with an original design idea or visual style?
It’s not so much coming up with an original idea, I would argue that there are more original, exciting ideas in games than ever before. Right now, the hard part is getting exposure on digital platforms. Thousands of indie games are released every week, so getting exposure and into the public consciousness is more important than ever to get sales.
Do digital game downloading services such as Steam, Apple’s App Store or Xbox Live make things easier or more difficult for smaller studios to find success?
Digital store fronts are absolutely imperative to the growth and sustainment of smaller studios. Without these online stores, Steam in particular, it was almost impossible for small studios to have proper access to release their games. The indie development scene is 100% based on digital distribution, and without it, would not be a commercially viable career.
In that case, how do smaller studios approach competing with the giant US publishers and the massive advertising budgets they have for big heavyweight releases such as a Grand Theft Auto or a Call of Duty title?
Gamers are invested in their big budget game series, just like people are invested in their popular shows like Game of Thrones or Westworld. Yet there is a huge contingency of gamers who are sick of playing what is essentially small iterations on last year’s big release. When a game pushes a new idea, or has an eye-catching art style, or has a killer trailer and is only asking $10 instead of the $99 that Call of Duty demands, it’s a much easier sell and fills out the rest of the year with fun and interesting ideas for gamers to explore. As a small studio, you need to find what is special about your game. Why would I want to play it over the other hundred games I saw this week? Make sure you tell me exactly why I want to play it and, more often than not, I will choose your game over the others.
So how does someone with an idea for a video game eventually turn that into a marketable product?
Get a team together and make it. Most indie studios start part-time, just for fun in their spare time. There’s no guarantee that you will make a financially viable product, so it’s important to have non-monetary goals associated with your project too. Work out what you want to make, the skills you need to make it, assemble the team and have fun. If you create a game that is fun to play, that teaches you a new skill, and helps you get ready for the next project, then it’s been a success. In terms of the marketability – once again, find the hook of your game, what makes it special, and focus on that. Take that mechanic, art style, story or whatever it is, and make it unforgettable. That is how you make a game that sticks.
What advice would you have for any aspiring Gippslanders interested in joining the games industry?
Find others who share your passion. Gippsland has coders, artists, marketers and writers. Combine forces and make something great. Share your findings with others who are also making projects. Don’t treat it as a huge competition – the industry here is successful but quite small. It’s good to create a sense of community and help each other succeed.
Is there anything you feel the government could do to improve conditions for games development or small independent studios in Australia currently?
The Victorian Government already invests a lot of money via grants to indie development, that is why Melbourne is one of the biggest locations in the world for games. It would be great to see other states follow their lead, and to offer similar amounts of funding into an industry that has the potential to really bring a lot of cash into our country. On a personal level, I would love to see programs set up for indigenous Australians to enter the industry, and to create mentorships for rural areas (much like Gippsland). That’s why I am starting these on my own account for those who are interested.
Steve Heller will be holding an information session at The VRI, Traralgon on Friday, February the 17th. If you are interested in becoming more involved in the games industry, interested in learning more about how Steve found his path to being a successful game designer, just wondering what it’s like in the Australian games industry or gathering ideas and meeting local contacts for your own future career, don’t miss this session! The VRI, 18-20 Queens Parade, Traralgon. Friday 17th February, 1.00pm – $5.00 entry.